Tuol Sleng survivor Chum Mey
Only seven men sur-vived the Khmer Rouge's notorious genocide prison known as S-21,
or Tuol Sleng, and five have since died. Chum Mey, one of the two remaining
survivors, spoke to Post
reporters Lon Nara and Vann Chan Simen.
Tell us about your background.
I was born in 1933 in Loveah commune, Prey Veng province and am the sixth of eight
siblings. At work people call me Chum Mey, but in my home town they call me Chum
Manh. I married my first wife in 1968 and we had three children.
My parents died when I was still young. I had little education and eventually my
aunt sent me to pagoda to be a monk. One year later I quit the monkhood, aged about
20 and came to Phnom Penh to find work. A boatman shipping firewood from Kampong
Cham to Phnom Penh port offered me a job, but eventually I left and went home with
I then returned to Phnom Penh and learned how to repair machines. After two years
I went home again and took a job at Prey Veng's public works and transport office
in road and bridge construction. I was transferred to Rattanakiri province where
I worked until 1970. In that year the KR captured Rattanakiri, Mondulkiri and Kratie
and I flew back to Phnom Penh.
From 1970 to 1973 I repaired machines at the Ministry of Public Works and Transport
(MPWT). In the morning I worked at the ministry, in the evening I worked at my two
auto-shops in Phnom Penh. In 1974, I worked at Chhbar Morn, which is in Kampong Speu,
with a Royal Family member called Chan Rainsy. He asked me to return to Phnom Penh
two weeks before April 17, 1975 because there was an upsurge in fighting.
What happened to your family before the fall of Phnom Penh?
Two weeks after returning from Kampong Speu, my family settled in a house in Tuol
Kork. The shelling of Phnom Penh intensified near Pochentong airport, kilometer number
6 (Russei Keo) and Takhmau. Because the KR fired many rockets into Tuol Kork, my
family moved to the Psah Depot market where we stayed for two days with relatives.
Then Pol Pot [troops] entered the city.
At about 6:30 pm on April 17, the KR asked us to leave home. My family was headed
[south] on the road to Kampong Som, but changed direction near Pochentong Airport
because we were worried that there would not be enough fresh water.
The journey was not easy, because there were lots of people and noises. We arrived
in Kob Sroeu at 1 am and rested one night, leaving at six the next morning. We continued
our journey step by step to Prek Phnou (Russei Keo) and reached there at night.
There was no light, nor water for cooking rice. That night I went to the river
to fetch water and stood on dead bodies. Civilians and soldiers lay dead in mixed
groups along the bank. I could not see them as it was dark, but they smelled terrible.
At sunrise I saw the bodies lying nearby. We ignored the smell and ate our rice.
Then we walked from Prek Phnou to Prek Kdam ferry [along Route 5], where I saw dried
bones and flesh [flattened by cars] scattered along the route. On the left side of
the road I saw swollen bodies. They looked like dog carcasses, about 20 or 30 floating
in the fish-farms.
One week later we arrived at Prek Kdam ferry and crossed to the other side. My wife
and one of my daughters caught a fever, and while I looked for medicines my relatives
left us behind. The next evening we reached a junction [Road 6A] called Cheung Chhnouk.
The road to the left led to Batteay district but the KR stopped us from going on.
My family was allowed to stay in a small house. We ran out rice, so the KR gave
only one can of rice for the four of us. One day while I was catching crabs in the
rice fields, the KR stopped their rice trucks at the junction and asked for people
with machinery skills. I was given a form, which I gave to the man in charge, but
he would not let me work until I gave him new pants and a shirt.
It was a rainy day. I returned with my family to Prek Kdam and showed the paper to
the KR there. My family was one of seven selected by the Angkar (the organization).
All the men were sent back to Russei Keo to repair broken ships, but our wives and
children remained at Prek Kdam. Our job was to repair ships' engines used to transport
KR troops to Rattanakiri and Stung Treng.
I was allowed to visit my family once a week. Later the KR let my wife and children
live nearby at Chrang Chamre [in Russei Keo]. After several months work in Russei
Keo, I was transferred to O'Russei market in Phnom Penh where 1,000 women and 50
men worked. My job until 1978 was to repair loudspeakers, tape players, sewing machines,
cars, typewriters and so on.
We worked from 7 am to 11 am and 1 pm to 5 pm. My workmates and I had no rice to
eat, just watery porridge. My wife and children were sent to Prek Phnou where I visited
them once a week, but later joined me at O'Russei. However, we had to live separately.
One of my daughters was sent to live at one of the children's camps in Phnom Penh.
Did you meet any KR leaders?
I once saw Nuon Chea and Khieu Samphan. The KR sent me to a [meeting] where Nuon
Chea gave a speech in 1977 to strengthen the stance and spirit of the people. The
meeting was at Borei Keila dome [nowadays TV5's boxing ring]. About 100 people attended.
I knew it was Nuon Chea because other people told me; you see, we were allowed to
speak with each other at that time. [Nuon Chea] also talked about farming, and said
Prince Sihanouk was a nobody. He said the KR kept him in one place and would not
allow him to do anything.
One morning in 1978 Khieu Samphan came to visit a kitchen we were building. He came
with four or five others, but I recognized only him. He did not talk about anything
other than cooking and asked us to keep the kitchen tidy.
When were you arrested and sent to S-21?
In 1978 - I don't remember the exact date - the KR said they wanted
to turn the market into a state garment factory. They said they would send me to
repair cars used for fighting the Vietnamese. I did not know I was to be sent to
Tuol Sleng prison.
At about 8 am a car arrived and picked us up. The KR told me I did not need to
bring my tools, saying they would bring them later. I climbed in with three others
and we were driven to Tuol Sleng prison.
As soon as we stepped out of the car, KR cadres hidden in a wooden house opposite
arrested us. I thought they were joking with us. We were handcuffed and I was blindfolded
with my krama. Then they took us into the house.
I knew I would be killed so I asked the soldiers: "Before I die, please send
word to my family that I will not survive". One soldier kicked me from behind.
I fell over and he pulled me up by my hair and slammed me into the prison gate, saying:
"You, mother f*****. You still want us to send word to your family? You are
I was taken to a room. They asked me about my birthplace and my hometown. Then they
measured my height and took my photograph. That was about 9 am. I had to take off
my clothes and was left with just short pants.
I was escorted to a small room where they put shackles on my ankles and removed the
handcuffs and the blindfold. I saw an ammunition box for defecating in and a five
liter bottle for urinating in. Prisoners could not speak to each other; a guard was
constantly on patrol.
That afternoon they took me to room number 4 where they beat me as they interrogated
me. I always denied their questions about the CIA and KGB. They asked me when I joined
the CIA and KGB and who introduced me to them. I answered I did not know what the
CIA or KGB was.
After beating me for five or six days, they pulled out my toenails. A few days later
they put electric shocks through my ears. I passed out. When I came round again they
started typing on the typewriter, pointing to the blood-stained floor [as a threat]
if I refused to confess. They beat my back and when I tried to protect myself with
my left hand, my little finger broke.
For 12 days and 12 nights they interrogated me and tortured me each day from 7-11
am, then from 1-5 pm, and 7-10 pm. They always beat me when they asked questions.
Two of the men who beat me were the contemptible Seng and the contemptible Tith.
They kept asking about the CIA and the KGB, and beat me until my tears dried up.
I thought I would not survive, so to bluff them I admitted to having joined the KGB
and the CIA. I was in such pain and could not stand it any longer. I just bluffed
them so they would reduce the beatings. If I had not done so, the only alternative
After the interrogation was over I was sent to another room with about 30 inmates.
We were all in shackles, in line like smoked fish on a skewer. During the day they
removed our shackles and allowed us to work. At night they put the shackles on again.
We slept like that until the Vietnamese troops came.
One day a guard asked if I knew how to repair sewing machines. I said yes.
"Tomorrow you go and repair sewing machines. Don't run or I'll shoot you dead,"
I worked alone near the kitchen repairing typewriters. I also taught some of the
KR to repair sewing machines.
I saw Ing Pich [a survivor], who used to be an engineer at the Ministry of Public
Works and Transport. We smiled when we saw each other, since speaking was banned.
Sometimes we shared our food secretly.
Did you meet Duch?
Inside S-21 did you see any torture or dead bodies?
No, I did not see it. I just heard people screaming things like: "Mother,
please help me!" Twice a week around midnight I watched as between three and
five trucks came inside the prison. Prisoners were escorted handcuffed and in lines
to the trucks and driven away.
What day did you leave S-21 and how many left with you?
Three days before we left I heard bombing from Chhbar Ampoe market. I thought
then that something would happen. While I was teaching two KR women to repair machines,
the sound of the shelling grew louder. The KR mobilized their troops.
I do not remember the day we left Tuol Sleng. All the prisoners including Vann Nath,
[Ing] Pich and [Ruoy Nea] Khong were in a room together. We were taken south past
the Chinese embassy and to Boeung Tumpun.
We walked that night and eventually reached Chamkar Dong. We could smell the decomposing
bodies. We rested briefly when we arrived at Prey Sar prison, where by coincidence
I met my wife and 2-month-old son. She had been in Prey Sar prison, which is where
my son was born.
The next morning we ran into Vietnamese trucks along Route 4. There was fighting
and the Vietnamese cut off the road. Some prisoners, including Nath and Pich went
back, but my family and I and another man, Eng, crossed Route 4 with the KR. The
Vietnamese chased and shot at us.
Later that evening we arrived at Srah Khuol pagoda near Amlang, Kampong Speu,
and rested there with about 200 KR soldiers.
A militia guarded us and gave us rice to eat. They asked us to stay until morning
to see the Angkar for food. We slept together on a bed.
Around midnight three KR soldiers with AK-47s came in and asked a guard: "Where
are the three people to be killed?"
"They are lying on the bed," he replied.
"Wake them up then," said one.
"Comrade, please wake up," the guard said.
They took my wife and my son away, then Eng. I followed. We walked a few kilometers
and then I heard the sound of shooting very near. My wife screamed: "Baby, they
are shooting me. Please run away." Then I heard them shooting at Eng and he
screamed out: "Mey, run away. They are shooting me."
Eng's killer then turned back for me and shot off a magazine of bullets. I managed
to escape by hiding behind a hill. When they came around the hill to look for me,
I crawled along a rice field dike and ran until dawn.
I ran for three days and three nights. I did not know where I was going. I lost my
way and had nothing to eat or drink. I felt very scared. During the day I would run,
and at night I hid in the forest. Three days later I was back in Bek Chan [along
How many family members did you lose to the KR?
I lost two siblings, seven nieces and my nephew. I do not know whether they starved
to death or were killed. My two daughters went missing - to this day I don't know
if they are dead or alive. My wife and son were shot dead.
How did you survive?
The KR wrote "leave" in my file, which meant they kept me because I
knew how to repair sewing machines. But they still planned to kill me one day.
And why do you think the KR killed so many people?
It is difficult to say. We are not politicians.
What was your first work after leaving S-21?
I still worked as a machine repairer. I went back to my job at the MPWT until
I retired in 1992. I now work for a private construction company.
How often do you visit Tuol Sleng?
I rarely visit Tuol Sleng because I am too busy working. I work from Monday to
Sunday, from 6 am to 6 pm. I have to make money and feed my wife and six young children
who still go to school.
Some people want to close Tuol Sleng, but I would like to keep it as a testament
for the next generation and for the victims' families as a place they can go and
pay their respects. [It should be] preserved like Hiroshima and the camps in Germany.
If Tuol Sleng is demolished, hope will fade away.
How often did you meet the other six survivors?
I had not met other survivors since 1980 when we had one hour [back at Tuol Sleng]
with a German film crew. After they took the photograph we went home again to carry
on with our lives. We had no rice to eat and no money.
I only met Vann Nath last year. He said it took him seven months to trace me. He
called me recently to tell me Thanchan was dead. Before we had three [survivors].
Now there are only two.
Some people consider January 7 as Victory Day over Genocide, others say it represents
a Vietnamese invasion. What is your opinion?
In prison I raised my hands and prayed [for life]. I would not forget to give
thanks my whole life for the honorable men who saved me from prison. I felt reborn.
These days I cannot forget Hun Sen, Heng Samrin and Chea Sim.
Have you visited Tuol Sleng with your family?
They all know about my time in Tuol Sleng. My children have visited there on their
What do you think about the other KR leaders?
Pol Pot, the murderous killer, is already dead. It is useless to talk about him.
Ieng Sary defected to the government and was amnestied by the King. Ta Mok and Duch
might face trial because they were stubborn with the government.
I felt dismayed with what Nuon Chea and Khieu Samphan said. They said the people
died by war in the KR time. Why are they not responsible for the things they did?
Nuon Chea must have known about the killings because he was president of the KR Assembly.
Would you like to see a trial?
I hope it will happen and I am waiting for it. Everyday, my soul is wandering
and sometimes I think the KR still remain. If a trial is held, my feelings about
that time would improve.
I still do not know who was wrong and who was right. I don't know why the KR killed
people, or why they wanted to eliminate their own Khmer race. I don't know why Khmer
people killed each other.
As a victim of S-21, I want to know why the UN recognized the KR at the United Nations
and why it wants a trial now? A trial would give relief to the families of the victims.
Many people have told me their loved ones were killed in S-21, and they also want
to see the trial. Without a trial, their souls will keep wandering.