Thursday, July 2, 2009

A survivor and a perpetrator

This week I saw a survivor of Tuol Sleng prison (aka S-21) testify, and met the prison's second-in-command in person.

The survivor was Vann Nath, one of only twelve people who survived S-21, out of the fourteen thousand who were killed there. Since only four are still alive, Vann Nath's testimony drew a big crowd---the Court's viewing gallery was thronged with Westerners and Cambodians.

Vann Nath only survived Tuol Sleng because of his training as a painter---the Khmer Rouge forced him to paint portraits of its top leaders. Except for his miraculous survival, Vann Nath's story was fairly typical. He was forcibly "evacuated" from the city, and deposited in a rural commune. After working for two and a half years in the rice fields near Phnom Penh, he was arrested out of the blue on suspicion of subverting the revolution, most likely because he had a university education. After his arrest, he was tortured briefly at a Buddhist pagoda used as a prison, until he was transferred to Tuol Sleng. He spent a month there before he was pressed into service as a portraitist until the Khmer Rouge fell in 1979.

After he was freed, Vann Nath painted a series of pictures of the atrocities committed at Tuol Sleng, which are now permanently exhibited there. I could only find a few samples online (sorry for the poor image quality).

The paintings were a major part of Vann Nath's testimony. This one shows one prisoner being publicly tortured while an unconscious prisoner is dunked in water to revive him for more abuse. The layout of the prison as shown in the painting is very accurate. The wooden structure---which was originally used as a jungle gym for students---still stands there. The Prosecutors used the painting to show the view that Duch must have had of the tortures committed at Tuol Sleng as he traversed the yard, in order to establish his awareness of and responsibility for the crimes that took place.

I've included this one, of a prisoner being waterboarded, purely out of interest.

As I mentioned, I also met Tuol Sleng's second-in-command, Him Huoy, the officer responsible for arresting all of the prison's victims. He also personally killed a number of inmates by beating their heads in with an iron bar, the method of choice for dispatching victims who survived the interrogations.

These days, however, Huoy lives a quiet life as a farmer, a few hours from Phnom Penh. He doesn't know the city very well, so when he's in town, he tells people to meet him at DC-Cam. He was at the office briefly, so Youk, the head of DC-Cam, introduced him to the interns. It was, to say the least, a surreal moment---Youk just brought him into our office unannounced and said "This is Comrade Huoy. He killed some people during the Khmer Rouge," in very much the same way that you might say "This is Comrade Houy. He'll be working in accounting."

Everyone here is completely comfortable working with perpetrators by now, and indeed it's seen as an important part of the Center's work. But for us interns, it's difficult to know how to react. Many, many Khmer Rouge cadres were trapped in their roles, and lived just as fearfully as other Cambodians. But Huoy was an important enough figure that he barely escaped prosecution; if the Court's agenda were just a shade broader, he could very well be in the dock.

As it is, he's cooperating with the other prosecutions, and appears to be a fairly significant figure in people's understanding of reconciliation. And people have little choice but to reconcile: a lot of former cadres live alongside their victims, growing rice like everyone else.

No comments: