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Ex-medic tells KRT of treating torture victims at S-21

Audience members listen to witness testimony earlier this year at the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia. ECCC
Audience members listen to witness testimony earlier this year at the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia. ECCC

Ex-medic tells KRT of treating torture victims at S-21

A former medic at the infamous S-21 prison yesterday told the Khmer Rouge tribunal that he, like the prisoners he tended, was a victim of the brutal regime.

Makk Sithim, 54, was barely 16 years old when the regime fell, but at a young age was tasked with treating tortured prisoners, keeping them alive for prolonged interrogations at the Tuol Sleng security centre.

Testifying yesterday, Sithim told the court how he dressed prisoners’ open wounds – caused by beatings with tree branches and fingernails being yanked out with pliers – despite scant resources and his mere three months of training.

“I had no alcohol at the time, I had only salt water to apply on the wound,” Sithim said.

Sometimes, he said, he and other medics had to use pieces of cloth and scraps of mosquito nets in lieu of bandages.

Testifying on the psychological state of the prisoners, he said each and every one was downcast, but they would brighten a little when he told them he was simply a medic and was obliged to serve the regime.

“In each room that I went to provide the treatment, they were not happy; they were shackled in a row together,” he said. “They had no hope in their face.”

Sithim said he was warned to take extra care if a prisoner was of “important status”, to ensure they were fit to face another round of harsh interrogations.

“I never used any violence or cruel words towards the prisoners,” he said.

“I considered myself a prisoner as well.”

He said most victims were treated as they lay shackled to the floor in large groups or in individual cells, but sometimes they were brought to him on a stretcher after an interrogation.

Sithim said he left S-21 for an additional nine months of training in Takhmao, where he learned how to compress sweet potato, sugar, vinegar, leaves and tree roots into tablets, on top of his previous training in medicating certain illnesses and administering injections.

The defence, in finishing their questioning of the previous witness, former S-21 interrogator Prak Khan, attempted to tease out the distinction between tverbab (ill-treatment) and tearunkam (torture), as, chamber president Nil Nonn said, the latter is commonly used in Khmer and could encompass a father disciplining his child.

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