Seated under a wooden house in a remote part of Takeo province’s Bati district, a grey-haired man in a blue and grey shirt takes a cigarette from his pack and lights it.
Exhaling a cloud of white smoke, the thin man, named Prak Khan, begins to speak.
“I never told my bitter background to anybody in my village, even my wife,” he says. “They only know me as a banana seller.”
What his neighbours don’t know is that from 1976 to 1979, Prak Khan, 60, was an interrogator at the infamous S-21 detention centre.
Records from the Documentation Centre of Cambodia (DC-CAM) confirm that Prak Khan interrogated 51 prisoners, rewriting two of their confessions.
Some were high-level members of the Khmer Rouge purged from party ranks. Some were culled from the military, both Pol Pot’s and Lon Nol’s. Some were secretaries of districts and regions, and the rest were simply people accused of espionage by an increasingly paranoid Khmer Rouge leadership.
“My wife just found out when the ECCC invited me to testify on Case 001, so from now on, I have to speak out to let the young generation know about their history,” he says, his sadness plainly visible.
Prak Khan was born into a farming family in Takeo province, the oldest son out of five brothers and sisters. He worked on the farm feeding animals until 1971, when he joined the Khmer Rouge.
“Angkar [the Khmer Rouge’s shadowy leadership] said that if a man from the village did not serve as soldier for two or three years, women would not marry that man,” he says. “So, all the men joined Angkar.”
Prak Kahn was 17 years old, lured in, like many others, by the promise that he was fighting for his king and country.
“I was fighting bravely to protect the nation, but I never knew who my leader really was,” he says. “I only knew that I was fighting to get the country back for King Norodom Sihanouk. I only found out the names Khieu Samphan, Nuon Chea and Ieng Sary when the Khmer Rouge controlled Phnom Penh.”
Prak Khan started working in Tuol Sleng in 1976, first as a guard, then as an interrogator when his superiors discovered he had an eighth-grade education.
He was one of 30 in his interrogator group; he received no training.
“Duch only allowed me to go along with the older interrogator and see what he did, and I followed him for a long time,” he says. “Then Duch let me start my job: one person questioning one person in a quiet place, trying to make the prisoner confess everything.”
With the prisoners’ confessions already in hand, Prak Khan says he didn’t ask specific questions. If the prisoners did not begin to confess, he would start to threaten them, then beat them with whip.
If the prisoner still didn’t confess, the torture escalated.
“For the prisoners who did not confess, we would put a plastic covering over their head and face, and stab a pin under their fingernail, so that they’d answer all the questions,” he explains.
The techniques, says Prak Khan, were up the interrogators.
“We used our own methods for getting answers, but for all the prisoners we tortured, we did not kill them, because we were afraid that we would lose their answers,” he says. “If the prisoner died, we were punished.”
Interrogations for one prisoner took two or three months, and were done in secret at all hours of the day and night, in a building separate from the main holding cells.
All the prisoners’ confessions were taken to Duch and Mam Nai, another interrogator, says Prak Khan, lighting another cigarette. Sometimes they were given back, along with orders to re-interrogate the prisoner because their answers were unsatisfactory.
“When I heard Duch was sentenced to spend his whole life in prison, it was justice, because victims’ families can accept that,” he sats. “If it wasn’t a whole life sentence, it would not be justice, because he ordered the killings of a lot of people in his regime.”
However, Prak Khan endorses Duch’s accusations against Nuon Chea.
“I know that what Duch said at the ECCC about Nuon Chea is true, because I saw Nuon Chea three or four times,” he says, calling Nuon Chea’s rebuttal a lie.
Nuon Chea, currently on trial before the ECCC, has vehemently denied he is responsible for the reign of terror that caused the deaths of a quarter of the population.
“He doesn’t want to be responsible for what he has done.”
After the Khmer Rouge fell in 1979, Prak Khan fled to Omlaing in Kampong Speu, not Thailand, as some records suggest.
He returned to his home province a year later, married, and raised four sons and one daughter.
Of the 30 interrogators from S-21, he is the only one left.
Prak Khan says a sense of responsibility for his own actions compelled him to cooperate fully with the ECCC when they asked for his testimony.
“I was a low-level officer, so I said what I knew from my job. There is nothing to be afraid of,” he says. “But if all the Khmer Rouge leaders try to keep silent, the young generation will not know anything about their history in the country.”
To contact the reporter on this story: May Titthara at [email protected]