Chum Mey, survivor of Tuol Sleng

Written by on February 24, 2009 in Photo Posts, Photos and Stories in Progress with 7 Comments

Chum Mey is one of four (known) living survivors of Tuol Sleng, the infamous prison where the Khmer Rouge tortured and killed more than 17,000 people. He was kept alive because of his skill at fixing machinery. Every day he thought of his wife. She was pregnant when they took him away. He found hope in the thought that his wife and child were still alive somewhere.

Now he sometimes returns to Tuol Sleng. He stands in his former cell and tells visitors — tourists with cameras who grow hushed when they realize who is talking — about the torments he endured. He describes the pain of having electrified wires touched to his eardrums. He points to the floor where he lay shackled in a way that immobilized both legs. Talking was punished. If he wanted to shift his weight, or roll in another direction, he had to call out to the guard for permission.

Tuol Sleng was above all a place of torture. Prisoners were beaten, raped, had their fingernails and toenails were removed, given electric shocks to the eardrums and genitals, and worse. One of the devices developed by the Khmer Rouge involved simulated drowning. They had numerous techniques for doing this. This type of torture was called waterboarding, and (to our shame) it became an officially sanctioned “harsh interrogation” method used by Americans during the Bush administration.

In 1979 the Khmer Rouge retreated from the invading Vietnamese army. The guards evacuated Tuol Sleng. They killed most of the remaining prisoners but took Chum Mey with them. As they fled across the country he had a surprise meeting with his wife and son. They walked together as a family for two days. On the third day, the family was ordered to walk away across a field. Then the soldiers opened fire with machine guns. Chum Mey’s wife was killed first and then his son, but somehow he escaped.

I have read two autobiographies of Khmer Rouge survivors (When Broken Glass Floats and First They Killed My Father). I know that many Cambodians above the age of forty have stories of terrible suffering that are equally horrific. So many who were fortunate to survive are burdened with nearly unbearable memories. From 1975-1979, twenty percent of the population died of murder, starvation, and disease. Almost every family in Cambodia lost multiple members. Today most of the killers, including murderers of hundreds and thousands of people, are alive and mingled in with everyone else. To this date nobody has ever been held accountable, probably because many people in power have something to hide.

Now Chum Mey is in Phnom Penh to testify at the trial of Khang Khek leu (a.k.a., Duch), the director of Tuol Sleng prison. Duch is the first leader of the Khmer Rouge ever to go on trial. A handful of others are awaiting trial if old age doesn’t take them first. Here is an article with more of Chum Mey’s story.

About the Author

About the Author: Andy Gray is a writer and photographer living in Phnom Penh, Cambodia and working with Alongsiders International. You can find him puttering around the streets of Phnom Penh on his Suzuki Viva 125, running stoplights and driving on the wrong side of the road or on the sidewalks like a local. If you see him in a coffee shop, he'll be the one typing and deleting the same line over and over again. .


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  • I’m curious as to whether any of the people you interacted with in Cambodia cared at all about the current prosecution (finally) of Kaing Guek Eav?

    Do you think such a trial ultimately accomplishes anything or helps anyone? I’d love to hear your thoughts on this.

  • Andy

    When the subject has come up with Cambodians who I know, they want to see the trial completed. Maybe it’s not justice, but they want an acknowledgment of what really happened.

    In the article that I linked, Chum Mey is quoted saying, “I want to stay alive to give evidence,” he said. “Because I survived the Khmer Rouge, and if I die before the trial, what was the point of surviving?”

    I think it’s always better to see the truth, however painful, rather than to bury it. The pain in Cambodia is very great, but you almost never hear of it directly.

  • The after-effects of what happened in Cambodia are much like what happened in Rwanda. I read a very compelling book called “We Wish to Inform You that Tomorrow We Will Be Killed with Our Families.” Most of the murderers were allowed to slip back into the general population.

  • fritz gibbs

    As an amateur recent (1960+) military and Asian historian, I have read much about Cambodia and all of the horrors of the Khmer Rouge years. I am still amazed that I, as a 12 year old boy, while building forts and watching The Bionic Man on TV, such atrocities could have been happening across the world. I know that age 12 doesn’t make one aware of the world’s problems, nor should it, but in the 20th century, the Khmer Rouge were the modern day barbarians without the “proper” manners. May Duch, Ieng, and the entire cadre the government has managed to arrest burn in a hell more sinister than the one they showed their enemies, though this will doubtfully happen. Let the families of those who lost memebers and loved ones spends time with these folks and show them the true meaning of vengence, Buddhism put on hold!

  • I am writing a report on this topic. The cambodian genocide was brutal. Over 2 million people were murdered in cold blood. I hope whoever was involved with this, burns in hell!!

  • Terry Wong

    The Chinese government directing Pol Pot against humanity. China really brutal!

  • It’s true the Chinese government shared some of the blame. They supplied weapons, and the Khmer Rouge paid in rice. The rice payments were perhaps as bad as the incoming weapons, because so many were starving to death while this went on.

    I don’t know all the history, but I’d say it’s an overstatement to say, “Directed by the Chinese,” unless you can back that up. Maybe you can.

    Also, fair blame needs to go to the USA for dropping more bombs on the countryside of Cambodia than were dropped in all of World War II. They (we) dropped the bombs illegally (Cambodia was not at war with us, most killed were innocent farmers, and congress had forbidden it). That bombing campaign went a long way to undermine the elected government of Cambodia so that it fell easily to Pol Pot, who had the support of the countryside.

    Finally, after the Vietnamese had driven the Khmer Rouge out of Cambodia, the US joined the Chinese in BACKING THE LEGITIMACY of the Khmer Rouge government in exile. The reason was because Vietnam was supported by Russia (and had handed the US a bitter defeat), and so backing the Khmer Rouge was a move in a political game. Personally, I think Vietnam saved Cambodia.