Tuesday, July 24, 2007

S-21's lone female survivor

Continuing on the Tuol Sleng theme, brought to life by the paintings of Vann Nath, here's a story from today's newswires, that highlights the only known female survivor from the Phnom Penh prison. The numbers of S-21 survivors varies depending on the latest evidence that's uncovered. Some survivors like Vann Nath were there at the end, others had a spell at Tuol Sleng and like Chim Math were then transferred to other prisons.

Lone female survivor of Pol Pot's secret prison breaks silence [DPA]

Possibly the only woman to survive Pol Pot's infamous Toul Sleng S-21 torture centre, Chim Math broke her silence today after nearly 30 years, saying she wants to testify at an impending trial of Cambodia's former Khmer Rouge leaders. The 49-year-old becomes the first woman and among only eight known survivors entered the gates of Khmer Rouge leader Pol Pot's secret prison, where an estimated 14,000 people perished. Previously, only three men were believed to still be alive as the 56-million dollar joint UN-Cambodia trial of a handful of surviving leaders of the Khmer Rouge's brutal Democratic Kampuchea regime looms. Former commandant of S-21, Kang Kech Ieu, alias Duch, is the only person currently in jail awaiting a decision by the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia on indictments. Documentation Center of Cambodia director Youk Chhang confirmed that records had been recovered from Toul Sleng proving Math had been held at the former school that became one of the epicentres of Khmer Rouge atrocities. Chhang said Math had previously denied she had been held at the prison, possibly out of fear. Math says she kept her story secret because it was too difficult to tell. 'I didn't tell anyone all these years. Not even my husband. It was too painful,' Math said as she stared at her picture taken by her captors, among more than one thousand images documenting the victims of the slaughter that took place in S-21 between 1975 and 1979. 'Now the trial is coming, my family has persuaded me to come forward so I can be an eyewitness and help my country.'

Known as Khem Math at the time of her October 10, 1978 arrest, she says she was held in S-21 for two weeks before being transferred to nearby Prey Sar prison, which she escaped from to run to the mountains of Kampong Speu province when Vietnamese-backed troops overthrew the Khmer Rouge on January 7, 1979. Math thinks she may have been spared because she was from Stoeung district in Kampong Thom, prison chief Duch's place of birth. She held a copy of a Khmer Rouge document showing she joined the movement in 1974 as a 16-year-old. Above her picture is a stamp from S-21 in Khmer script. At the bottom corner of the page, a blank space remains next to the column grimly titled 'date of death'. 'This is a real breakthrough,' David Chandler, a historian and author of 'Voices From S-21,' replied in an email Tuesday. Up to 2 million Cambodians are believed to have died during the four-year reign of the Khmer Rouge as the ultra-Maoists attempted to turn the country into an agrarian utopia, bereft of markets, money and social classes. Math says two photos she kept with her of her father dressed in a Lon Nol-era police uniform had led to her arrest during a period when the south-western zone, led by former military commander Ta Mok, began conducting internal purges. 'I can't describe what I saw there. I could look out of my cell through cracks in the wall and see the torture and the bodies being thrown away like rubbish. For two weeks, that was my television. The smell of pig excrement mixed with blood which was S-21 will never leave me.' Court officials say they hope hearings will get underway by early next year. Pol Pot died at his home in 1998 without facing trial. Ta Mok died in hospital of age-related complications last year. Researchers say Math's testimony will shed invaluable light on the conditions inside S-21 for female prisoners, about which little was previously known.

1 comment:

Andy said...

Lone female survivor tortured at S-21.
by Mean Veasna, VOA Khmer
Original report from Phnom Penh

A woman claiming to be the only surviving female of the Tuol Sleng torture center was brought forward by a development organization Friday, claiming in an interview with VOA Khmer she remembered hearing the name of the torture chief, Duch, from other victims.

The woman, Chim Math, was reportedly discovered after members of a group being led through the Tuol Sleng prison in Phnom Penh recognized a photograph that looked like their neighbor.

The Center for Social Development, which led the tour and found the woman, claims she is the last surviving female from the torture center, where 16,000 Cambodians were executed and later dropped in the "killing fields" of Choeung Ek outside the capital.

Chim Math's story has not been independently confirmed, but if true, it paints a gruesome picture of victims placed in the torture center, which was led by Duch, the only member of the Khmer Rogue to so far be indicted by special tribunal courts.

Duch, who has been in prison since 1999, is now facing charges of crimes against humanity in the special tribunal courts. He was questioned and detained by tribunal investigators Tuesday.

In a face-to-face interview with VOA Khmer, Chim Math said she was rounded up with two other women and 21 men from a work unit in October 1977.

"I was arrested after men searched my backpack and found a photograph of my father, a military colonel, pictured receiving a decoration from [then prince Norodom] Sihanouk," she said. "I stayed two weeks at Tuol Sleng prison. I had nothing to eat for two days. On the third day they gave me porridge with water lilies.''

Her hands bound behind her, Chim Math was tortured as interrogators asked her about her affiliations with the US CIA or the Russian KGB, intelligence agencies that were greatly feared by an increasingly paranoid regime.

"They put us all in separate rooms; then they put blindfolds on us, to interview us, and tied up girls with rope to their backs, and handcuffed the boys," Chim Math said. "For torture, I met a lot of atrocities, but talking about it makes us suffer more."

Her interrogators hit her ankles with sticks in order to exact a confession from her, she said.

"If you hit me until I die, I have nothing to confess because I didn't do anything bad," she recalled telling her captors.

Conditions were miserable, she said.

"For going to the bathroom they loosened the ties a little and let us a go a little after dark," she said. "I heard screaming from all the rooms, asking for mother and father to help and asking not to give us soapy water or fish sauce to drink. I heard the sounds of hitting. And when the prisoners died, they carried them away on a metal sheet. I saw their feet hanging and I was very, very scared. I thought I would surely die."

Chim Math said she was eventually taken to Prey Sar prison, in Phnom Penh, where her two female "comrades" were killed. She did not elaborate on how they died.

It was in Prey Sar that she first heard the name Duch associated with the head of the torture center she had just survived, she said. "At Prey Sar, I heard that Duch was the chief of Tuol Sleng," she said. In the torture center, "I didn't pay any attention, because while they tortured us and questioned us, we didn't look at them in the face. We were scared to look at them. We just listened to their voices."

Chim Math was not sure how she survived and she did not say when or how she left the prison, but after she left, she kept her experiences locked away.

"I never talked about it, not even to my husband or my children," she said. "If I talk about my past, I suffer. I remember the suffering."

The Center for Social Development, having found her, gave her counseling, and she decided to come forward to talk about her experiences, especially as a tribunal prepares to investigate at least four other leaders of the Khmer Rouge.

"CSD is confident that Chim Math's case will be thoroughly investigated by the police and judicial authorities at the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia," the Center said, referring to the tribunal by its official name. "CSD is prepared to assist the ECCC in this process as best it can and is committed to ensuring that that Chim Math is afforded the full measure of protection available to her under the law."

Chim Math is now prepared to do her part in bringing leaders of the regime to justice, the Center said.

"I was a victim," Chim Math told VOA Khmer. "We should contribute to the trial. For me, and what happened to me, the suffering, when I don't think about it, it is OK. But, when I do think about it, I see everything. I want them to be killed, or put them for life in prison."