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Revisiting a childhood nightmare

Bunhom Chhorn today works for Development Alternatives, Inc
Bunhom Chhorn today works for Development Alternatives, Inc. Photo Supplied

Revisiting a childhood nightmare

In Battambang province’s Mong Russey district was the bloodiest Khmer Rouge prison the world has never heard of. It leaves barely a trace on the historical record, even though 30,000 prisoners are estimated to have perished there during the brutal 1978 purges. Its official name is not even known, though the former prisoners recall its radio call sign used by the guards: Camp 32.

One of the few survivors is Bunhom Chhorn, a Cambodian-Australian video producer now in his early 40s, who revisited the site for the first time in 2011 during research for his soon-to-be released documentary, Camp 32.
All evidence of the location’s horrific history had vanished, with rice crops standing where corpses were once piled.

Battambang city
Battambang city. Photo Supplied

A pond and tamarind tree rekindled memories from Chhorn’s boyhood, and on subsequent visits, accompanied by fellow survivors, recollections began flooding back. A bridge from which guards threw prisoners to their deaths. A spot where he had been beaten.

In 1983, Chhorn and his mother emigrated to Australia, where they were able to build new lives. After completing school, Chhorn launched a career in broadcast journalism with Australia’s SBS One television channel and eventually became a producer. Before beginning work this year with the US-based NGO Development Alternatives Incorporated, he worked in Phnom Penh for the BBC.  

But despite his career success, he was still nagged by questions about what happened to him in his early childhood at Camp 32. His mother had also blanked out her memory of that time, he said.

“If you’re hungry for every day of your life, you try not to remember where you are,” he said.

Although Chhorn has spent his adult life trying to reconstruct what happened, his personal project did not begin in earnest until a chance encounter with Melbourne-based videographer Tim Purdie, 40, in 2010. Purdie was looking for help with sound on an unrelated project. Speaking over the phone from Melbourne last week, Purdie recalled their first meeting in 2010, which served as the genesis for Camp 32.

“What was to be a 30-minute conversation turned into a three-hour chat over several coffees as he told me about Camp 32 and how it hadn’t been documented,” said Purdie, adding that the two quickly became close friends.

Determined to find the site of Camp 32 and track down other survivors, the pair came to Cambodia in 2011 for a five-week expedition along with Andrew Blogg, co-director and producer, and Gaye Miller, co-producer and researcher.

Chhorn estimates that at least 30,000 perished at Camp 32
Chhorn estimates that at least 30,000 perished at Camp 32. Photo Supplied

Chhorn’s own memories from Camp 32 are few, but those he has are horrific. Born in 1972 or 1973 in Battambang city to a poor family, he spent the first three years of the Pol Pot regime in the relative safety of a youth group that worked tilling paddies near the city. The children were overworked and underfed, recalled Chhorn, but he does not recall witnessing death.

But sometime in the middle of 1978, Chhorn and thousands of others were taken by truck to Mong Russey, where they disembarked and were marched for about a week through the forest to the remote prison. The camp’s brutal nature, he said, was made evident on their first night.

“When we first arrived, they killed some people who had broken the rules . . . to demonstrate to us what would happen if we didn’t follow the instructions,” he said, adding that executions became a daily occurrence. The preferred killing implements were hoes and axes.

Camp 32 failed to achieve the notoriety of S-21 or Choeung Ek in the public conscience, locals in the area still recall the stories of mass murder. San Va Sak, a 46-year-old Battambang guide who helped arranged logistics for the film’s production, said that he had heard rumours about the camp as a boy in the 1980s.

“The children were always meeting with each other . . . and they shared their stories, what they went through during the Khmer Rouge time. And I heard many children and some adults talking about the Camp 32,” he said.

Scenes depicting Chhorn’s past were animated in Australia
Scenes depicting Chhorn’s past were animated in Australia. Photo Supplied

“The villages in the countryside, they were more safe than the people who were sent to the Camp 32. [It was] just jungle, so they could imagine what happened to people who lived in the jungle.”

Chhorn spent between four and six months at the camp, he estimates, until the Vietnamese army liberated it sometime in early 1979. He was reunited with his mother, who had also been at the camp but in a separate wing, and they eventually tracked down six of his siblings before fleeing to the Thai refugee camps. Another sister was discovered years later alive in Battambang, but his father and three other siblings had died.

When he returned to Cambodia in 2011 to shoot Camp 32, the team went to work searching local archives for any record of the labour camp. None existed save for two forced confessions from S-21 prisoners, who both mentioned in their statements that they had been held at the site. Survivors also came forward as the team exhausted their list of local contacts, but they were all either unable or unwilling to help locate the site.

A breakthrough finally came from Miller, who was able to identify a man who had served as a Khmer Rouge cook at Camp 32.

“I wasn’t sure if he worked at Camp 32 or one of the other numerous camps. He was just one of the leads that we followed up,” said Miller, reflecting on the luck of finding him.

The cook was able to pinpoint the location of the site for the documentary team. He also revealed a grim reason for why records of the camp are so scarce: whenever a new contingent of Khmer Rouge guards arrived at the prison, they received orders to kill their predecessors in a continual cycle of purges.

The shoot wrapped up after five weeks, but post-production took three years as the team balanced their professional lives with Camp 32. The final cut, which runs 73 minute, includes about a dozen interviews with Chhorn’s family members and survivors of the camp. Scenes from the camp itself and Chhorn’s subsequent escape from Cambodia are recreated in a series of animations by Cambodian-Australian graphic designer Phirum De Montero, while Phnom Penh-based folk rock band Krom provides the soundtrack.

Chhorn’s memories from the time may be few, but he said his return to Camp 32 served as a useful confrontation with a painful past that haunts him to this day.

Bunhom Chhorn recognised the site of the Khmer Rouge camp where he was kept.
Bunhom Chhorn recognised the site of the Khmer Rouge camp where he was kept. Photo Supplied

He said: “You can never hide from [Camp 32] – all you need is a small thing to trigger [the memories], and you don’t know what those things are. It could be something you could smell, it could be something you haven’t heard in a long time, or it could be children walking on the street, and you remember, whoa, I’ve seen that from somewhere.” 

The project, Chhorn said, has helped him deal with his past.

“It has made me feel by far better. I do not have so many nightmares anymore.”

Despite this, Chhorn said he had found neither true peace nor closure from his work on the documentary, which premieres next month at a private screening in Battambang for the film crew and survivors of the camp.

“Europeans always call it closure, but if you have someone who was killed at that time, there’s no such thing as closure, because every time you close your eyes it’s there.”

Additional reporting by Poppy McPherson

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