TestimonyAs part of the Love & Loss project (The Day After This Night - Photographic exhibition May 2014), Testimony forms a series of interviews and portraits with a number of individuals who survived the brutal Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia from 1975-79. The work shown is of the only two men still alive who survived the torture chambers at the notorious S-21 Tuol Sleng school. (The story behind each image is below the gallery)
Chum Mey – a personal testimony
At the start of the revolution, the Khmer Rouge captured Phnom Penn (the capital). A school, Tuol Sleng was turned into the most terrifying prison and torture camp (S21). Over 12,000 people were tortured there, and those that didn’t die, would be then taken out to the killing fields. Only 7 men survived, of which now only two are alive.
Chum Mey was a 47 yr old mechanic at the time, and therefore was considered an intellectual and dangerous to the regime. His family were rounded up and he was taken to the prison. He was beaten mercilessly, toe nails pulled out, fingers smashed and he was continually electrocuted.
One of the saddest and most macabre aspects of the Tuol Sleng prison was every prisoner was photographed and their details catalogued. This process required typewriters, which frequently broke. Chum Mey, with his mechanical training was able to fix them and so the only reason he was kept alive was to fix the typewriters.
For over two years he was kept it the most horrific conditions – truly quite unbelievable. All this time, he had no knowledge of his wife and four children.
Then one night, as the KR regime was collapsing, he was moved to another place. Unbelievably, and totally by chance he saw his wife and young son. They were driven out to a remote area, and then the guards started to open fire. His wife’s last words were ‘run they are going to kill us’. She promptly was shot and died, and they killed his three year old son. He escaped into woods and survived.
After he and I had spoken for a while, we went over to the very cell where he had been manacled to a floor. A space maybe 5ft by 2.5 ft – crudely partitioned brick cells, built within the original class rooms. On the balconies, a mesh of barbed wire netting to stop people intentionally jumping to their death, in order to avoid being taken to torture rooms.
As we sat in this cell, I took his picture and he talked further. I asked if any of his family had survived (there were three other children). His eyes filled with emotion; he simply shook his head and said no – no one survived.
It was the most humbling of encounters. Now aged 83, he is the most beautiful and graceful man. Tiny, and yet with an overwhelming aura of calm and greatness.
Between 2 to 3 million innocent victims were murdered.
Chum Mey survived because he could fix a typewriter.
Bou Meng – a personal testimony
Bou Meng is now in his late ’70s. One of only two men still alive who survived the torture chambers of the Khmer Rouge at the notorious S21 Tuol Sleng school.
Before the Khmer Rouge revolution, he was married with a young wife and a son & daughter. He was a painter and film maker, painting the giant posters that adorned cinemas advertising the ‘film now showing’ within.
During the war both his children were killed in the US bombing, and Buo, a committed communist joined the Khmer Rouge as so many did; simply to free their country of outside rule (the French, the US and the Vietnamese) and for his country to be independent. As Phnom Penh fell, he was a war artist. In the place of a gun, he carried artist materials as the Khmer Rouge marched into the city believing he was on the side of right. However in 1976 the Khmer Rouge started to arrest any educated people, artists, mechanics, even those wearing glasses. Year Zero had begun.
Bou Meng was summoned to an imaginary meeting, but immediately his hands were tied behind his back. Arrested, he was taken to S21 Tuol Sleng by his colleagues, where terrified he was thrown into the giant holding rooms awaiting torture. Surrounded by victims, he describes them as like ghosts of people – sunken eyes, desperate, beaten bodies…living monsters. He confesses to the torture being insufferable – no one can not confess, he tells me. So you agree to being a CIA agent in order to stop the pain; but such is the madness, once you have confessed you are tortured further, twice a day, to name the other CIA agents that you know…and so you say anyone’s names, anything or anybody to stop the agony. Death was guaranteed; either at S21 or the Killing Fields, there could be no escape.
Except one night the guards entered and demanded to know if anyone could paint. Bou raised his hand and he was shown a portrait. Could he, they demanded paint like this? He said he could, and they assured him if it was not good enough then they would kill him. However, satisfied with his work he was segregated, and given oil paints where he began to do portraits (from pictures) of Marx, Lenin, Stalin, Ho Chi Minh and unbeknownst to him, Pol Pot. Imprisoned, but no longer tortured he could daily hear the screams and agony of others as he painted portraits all day. Sustained by his faith and a desperate hope that this would end, and that he would one day be reunited with his wife.
Frequently he asked after his wife, only to be assured that ‘Your wife was sent to work in the field’. It was not until after the collapse of the regime that he learned this was their grim cruel joke; his wife had been executed years before and her ‘working’ in the field meant that she was already fertiliser.
Bou survived because he could paint. The american war took his children, and the Khmer Rouge, his own people took his wife, other family and friends. As I sit with him one early evening in his home, surrounded by an adoring and attentive new wife and young family, street children loiter outside his veranda doors. He is a legend. Everyday he visits S21 and tells tourists and locals alike the history of the khmer Rouge regime. No one must forget and there must be justice, he tells me.
The images shown were part of a larger, three year photographic project:
The Day After This Night: Love and Loss in the Orient
Exhibition Review – Please Visit>
To view extracts from the book – Please Visit>
All images & text Copyright Michael C Hughes