A Survivor's Story

As Cambodia prepares for an expensive Tribunal that may not accomplish much, a great measure of truth and reconciliation has already been recorded by a remarkable film detailing the brutality and killing of the Khmer Rouge at their secret prison, S-21. It's a tribute to artist and S-21 survivor Vann Nath, who wants the world to know what happened, and never forget.

By Ron Gluckman /Phnom Penh, Cambodia, and Bangkok, Thailand

AS CAMBODIA CONTINUES TO LUMBER towards its long-delayed days of reckoning, three decades after the short but murderous rule of the Khmer Rouge, it is understandable to wonder what, if anything, the upcoming Tribunal might accomplish? And if proceedings, presently in the final stages of planning, will be worth the enormous cost, probably over $60 million?

  Succinct answers are impossible, but insight could be found last week (March 2005) at the showing of an extraordinary film, “S-21: The Khmer Rouge Killing Machine,” during a two-night program at the Foreign Correspondent’s Club of Thailand.

  The documentary by Rithy Panh, a Cambodian filmmaker in France, took two survivors of the S-21 torture center, then walked them through the nightmare of arrest, interrogation and extended torment. Former guards described, in spine-shattering detail, barbaric methods of extracting confessions, then led viewers on a re-enactment of one of the regular mass-execution trips to the Killing Fields outside Phnom Penh.

  S-21 occupied a former high school in the capital, Tuol Sleng. S stood for Sala, or hall, 21 code for a brutal branch of the security police. Even amidst the vile rule of the Khmer Rouge, blamed for the demise of nearly a fourth of the population from 1975-1979, S-21 remains a morbid tribute to the unfathomable ability of humans to inflict suffering on each other.

  At least 14,000 people were dispatched to S-21, preserved now as a genocide museum in the Cambodian capital. We know because of shockingly-exact records and photographs kept with Nazi-like efficiency, exhibited in the museum and well-tapped by the film.

  The exact tally is tough to say, since some files are missing, but could be 17,000 or more. Only seven survivors have been documented, and just three remain alive.

  Two are seen in the film, but much of the documentary centers on Vann Nath, Cambodia’s own Elie Wiesel. Like the famed Nazi victim turned hunter, Mr. Vann survived the killing camp and has devoted his life to a search for justice.

  A painter from Battambang in Cambodia’s northwest, he was seized in January 1978 in one of a regular round of purges. S-21 inmates were tortured with prods, iron bars, crude electrical and water-submersion devices. Names were coerced of alleged fellows in subversion groups. Despite their obvious innocence, and the folly of suggested schemes, even the bravest painfully coughed up colleagues.

  Like most, Mr. Vann was neither involved in politics nor plots, though this was no protection. All sent to S-21 were considered guilty, and all were bound for the Killing Fields. A painter who made banners and movie posters, Mr. Vann survived because of his craft; he churned out busts of Pol Pot. He never met Brother Number One, nor will he realize a life goal, to see the ruthless leader face justice. Pol Pot died in 1998.

  However, Mr. Vann may see justice meted to Kang Keck Ieu, the former teacher who became Comrade Duch, head of the torture center. While no evidence links S-21 to Pol Pot (who claimed in a jungle interview with journalist Nate Thayer that he first heard of its existence via a Voice of America broadcast), Comrade Duch can not shirk blame. S-21 guards detail how Duch traveled to the Killing Fields to oversee executions.

  Duch is among the rarest of Khmer Rouge; in custody and sure to be charged in a three-year Tribunal likely to launch by the end of the year. Jurors plan to target high-ranking former cadres like Nuon Chea, Brother Number Two, or ex-foreign minister Ieng Sary. Both remain free, Mr. Chea in the former Khmer Rouge stronghold of Pailin, while Mr. Sary resides in a three-story villa in an expensive neighborhood of the capital, except when on shopping trips to Thailand.

  Tribunals, designed to speed reconciliation and healing as much as impose justice, have been held to varying results from Bosnia to South Africa. Cambodia has been widely criticized for its lackadaisical support, not surprising since many officials are former Khmer Rouge, including Prime Minister Hun Sen. Yet, you only need to travel the country, hear common accounts of loss, to sense the national yearning for reckoning. Polls repeatedly bear this out.

  Cambodia’s pain seems all the more acute when put in context by another film screened last week. “Cambodia 1965” was the kind of bright, vapid movie made by information ministries of the time. With boisterous music and footage of young, charismatic Prince Norodom Sihanouk, it resembled propaganda favored by the prince’s good friend, Kim Il-Sung of North Korea.

  Still, with gorgeous scenes from the seaside, of people lulling in parks, girls with the puffy Jackie-O-dos of the time, it also revealed a peaceful place in the calm before the storm of the Vietnam War crashed upon Cambodia, ushering in decades of bloodshed.

  Mr. Vann has since returned to his art, often detailing prison scenes in vivid Munch-style murals infused with suffering. “I feel that my work as an artist, and in the film, is one contribution that I can make on behalf of all those who died,” said the white-haired survivor, who was instrumental in the establishment of Cambodia’s Genocide Museum; many of his graphic paintings hang there.

  The artist, who turns 60 in April, and is in ailing health, yearns for a tribunal. “We need to understand,” he said. “Every day, I try to think about why these people did these things. They live freely, some have very good lives.” Rather than punishment, the key, he said, is for perpetrators as well as victims to come to terms with the past, including an owning up to the crimes. “What do they understand? What ethics do they have?”

  The film makes a valiant effort to tackle these questions. In the opening scene, a former guard is berated by his parents for the atrocities. His father insists that they perform a ceremony for the victims, so their souls can finally find peace.

  That has been the announced aim of the much-delayed Tribunal, which can take a tip from this excellent film. Mr. Rithy located former guards, a driver and camp medic, brought them together with survivors, stimulated dialogue and, perhaps, the seeds of reconciliation.

  Unfortunately, the film fails to answer the nagging question, tormenting Mr. Nath and so many Cambodians, Why?

  Tens of millions will be spent in coming years, but that, many fear, is likely to be the outcome of the Tribunal, too.

Ron Gluckman is an American reporter who divides his time between Bangkok and Phnom Penh, but roams around Asia for a number of publications. He wrote this for the Asian Wall Street Journal, which printed a shorter version of this story in March 2005. This is the original piece.

The Tribunal continues to stagger along, with no court cases yet launched two years later.

All pictures by Ron Gluckman.

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