Thursday, September 13, 2007

S-21 insiders speak

I've long been interested in the work of the folks at DC-Cam (The Documentation Center of Cambodia) in uncovering the real truth of what the Khmer Rouge regime did in Cambodia in the late 70s. One of the S-21 insiders (either guards or survivors) from whom they are able to extract valuable testimony has now re-appeared and should be able to shed more light into what took place in the regime's torture headquarters at Tuol Sleng.

Photographers claim foreigners killed in Pol Pot's prison - by DPA

Although 79 foreigners and hundreds more Vietnamese prisoners of war are known to have died in Pol Pot's secret prison, the real toll is even grimmer, two former photographers from S-21 claimed this week. From his present provincial home south of the capital, former photographer Nim Im, charged with documenting in pictures the thousands of prisoners who were tortured or killed at S-21 or Toul Sleng, remembered a New Zealander, a Cuban, a Swiss, their Thai boat driver and more who he says may have simply disappeared from the records. "There were a lot. I particularly remember the Cuban. It was 1977. He had a camera and they seized it. He was young. He had a beard. They took him from the sea," Im says. "Mostly I remember he looked sad. Just sad, not screaming ... he was killed and burned."

Also known as Nim Kimsreang, Im, 55, was believed by many, including Documentation Center of Cambodia (DC Cam) director Youk Chhang, to be dead. Instead, he was serving a jail sentence for beating a neighbour to death in 1997 and has just been released. DC Cam's painstaking records show one New Zealand victim in 1978, as well as US, Australians, Lao, French, Thais, a Javanese and Indians. However, no Cubans or Swiss nationals are recorded, though historians admit some records are missing or incomplete. Im's claims and his recollections of life at the former high school converted into one of the most notorious prisons in the world by the Khmer Rouge during its 1975-79 Democratic Kampuchea rule sheds new light on life in the capital under the insular regime.They may also give some families closure who have wondered what happened to their disappeared for three decades.

Nim Im's former colleague Nhem En corroborated Im's claims that more foreigners disappeared, apparently without trace, inside S-21. "I believe not all the documents were left. I remember the group of foreigners in 1977. They were seized off the coast with a detailed map and cameras. There was a Thai with them too," Em says. At his home in an interview this week, Im cooly detailed how the documentation at S-21 became more sophisticated and the consequences of passing through its gates more dire as the regime progressed. "In 1977 we didn't hang plaques around most of their necks. We just photographed them. Later, we documented them much more carefully. In 1977, many, many of them were sent to jail in Prey Sar if Duch decided they had no mistake. Later, more came, and more had mistakes," Im says. Duch, alias Kang Kech Iev, was the commandant of S-21. He has been formally charged with crimes against humanity by the 56-million-dollar joint UN-Cambodia Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia which has been set up to try a handful of surviving leaders and is expected to face court next year.

Historian and author of Voices from S-21, David Chandler, has estimated around 14,000 people were processed at the prison. Only a handful of survivors remain.But Im remembers his revolution differently to the thousands who died after entering S-21 and the million or so more who were starved or worked to death around the country. He lived beside one of Phnom Penh's main markets, Psar Thmei, and a stroll from a bakery which provided fresh pastries and rolls for the elite. He went to work by bicycle or motorbike. "Most days you would only see one car," he remembers. After work, he would take dinner and go home to his apartment. Up to 2 million Cambodians died during the Democratic Kampuchea regime of starvation, disease, overwork, torture or execution. Im, who served in a provincial village militia before becoming a photographer and whose Phnom Penh base was ironically titled the International Photo Shop, claims he saw none of the crimes against humanity. The ultra-Maoist Khmer Rouge virtually emptied the cities and sent millions to the fields in an attempt to turn the country into an agrarian utopia. Im says he doesn't have any opinion on the regime now. He remembers Duch as a man who, like himself, followed orders and did what he was told. From whom he says he doesn't know. But he does recall the strange foreigners at S-21. He says he still remembers them, even if the documents that prove they were once there have disappeared. "A lot of people disappeared," he shrugs.
© 2007 dpa - Deutsche Presse-Agentur


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