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In her own words - inside S-21 from a woman's perspective

By: Bronwyn Sloan Posted: January-01-2006 in
Bronwyn Sloan

This week a woman came forward claiming to be the first female survivor of Toul Sleng Torture Center ever located. Although Documentation Center of Cambodia director Youk Chhang says doubts remain about Chim Math's story and whether she was actually staff or a prisoner, Math insists she never worked at Toul Sleng and only discovered hell when she was sent there and has questioned whether the doubts might be triggered by feelings that women like her should not have survived. People familiar with Vietnamese documentation of S-21 after 1979 say the Vietnamese would not mistake staff for victims. They jailed some former staff shortly after they finished analyzing documents.

Duch, accused of being the commandant of S-21, is the only man currently in jail awaiting the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC) to make a decision about indictments for an upcoming trial of former leaders. Make up your own minds. This is Math's story, in her own words.

Chim Math says she knew her secret would eventually have to come out as early as 1981. That was the year State of Cambodia government officials came to her village and showed a movie about Toul Sleng Torture Center, and she saw her face amongst the wall of pictures of prisoners who had perished.

People sitting watching recognized her too, but she said nothing. It was too painful. The next year she married. She says she didn't tell her husband either-not because it was shameful, although being a victim almost always is, but just because it had burned memories that were easier to bury than to talk about. He had been a soldier for Heng Samrin and fought a number of bloody battles against the Khmer Rouge. He had his own memories to deal with. They took comfort in knowing that they understood each others' past traumas without speaking. When her daughter visited Toul Sleng in 2003 and recognized her mother's picture, Math knew the truth was getting closer. And when her neighbors toured the museum as part of a group brought by a non-government organization to educate the public about the purpose of the upcoming 56-million dollar joint UN-Cambodia trials of prominent former Khmer Rouge for crimes committed under the Democratic Kampuchea regime, she finally broke her silence and discussed what she should do with her family.

They told her to come forward and tell her story without fear because the people who had betrayed and hurt her once before could not do so again. The times had changed, they said. So last week Chim Math spoke for the first time about two weeks as a prisoner in Pol Pot's secret prison, also known as S-21. She is believed to be the only woman to have survived. Out of an estimated 14,000 prisoners, only three others, all men, remain alive today. Math's official CV from Toul Sleng says she officially joined the Khmer Rouge in 1974 as a 16-year-old. Her village in Kampong Thom was a Khmer Rouge stronghold. She believed in the revolution and worked hard carrying munitions and food to soldiers in the front line. As a member of Mobile Unit 450 she dressed in the peasant black that became synonymous with the foot soldiers of the movement.

By 1978, she had been brought to near the railway station in Phnom Penh to help grow red rice for the Angkar (the name the Khmer Rouge leadership called itself). "I worked hard. We never had enough food. I never complained," she says. But Math had a secret. She had not renounced her past completely. In a small bag she never lost sight of, she kept two pictures of her father, Khem Chim. In one, he is dressed in a Lon Nol police uniform. In the other, he is receiving an award from Prince Norodom Sihanouk. One day, her commanding official gathered the work group together and asked who amongst them had a parent who had served Sihanouk. Math was silent, but she was afraid. And her fears were well founded. For just one second, she must have lost sight of the bag.

"They arrested me in October 1978 in a group of 24 people-21 men and three women. I think I am the only one still alive. The men were blindfolded, the women were not. We were carried in a 10-wheel military truck to somewhere in Toul Kork, and then S-21. We arrived at S-21 at 12 midnight," she remembers. "They said I was KGB and CIA and so I was working with the Vietnamese. I didn't know what these things were. I knew nothing. I worked hard and there was never enough food to eat. I wore dark clothes.

"I was put in one room near the pig cage. In the morning they came to question us one by one. After questioning they asked us to thumb print and sign (a document). I don't know the destiny of the other 23 people. They didn't torture me. They just managed me to answer their questions. They beat me on the feet inside my cell." For Math, beating her feet was not torture, because she says that through the cracks in her cell wall, she could see what was being done to other prisoners, and her fate was favorable in comparison.

"S-21 is a horrible picture for me. I saw them torture people with salt and soap water in their mouths. They carried bodies to throw away like rubbish near my room. I could see through cracks in the wall. For two weeks, that was my television. I have heard the sound of screaming. I was afraid that one day that might be me," she says. "They concentrated on torturing the men. The women they didn't torture so much. There was no sexual abuse. We were just surrounded by these images, so they managed us into giving answers. But I said I didn't know." As a young girl new to the movement, she had seen a soldier now known to the world as Kang Kech Ieu, or Duch. He was from a district in Kampong Thom not far from her own, and was the same generation as her father. When she was brought for interrogation, she says she saw him again.

"Maybe he knew I was from Stoeung district because of my accent. Duch didn't ask me. A fat black man asked me. I have seen Duch. Duch was in the room but he didn't speak. I think they arrested me because of the pictures (of my father). I know Duch asked about me because he asked one of my friends about me," she says. But she doesn't speak of interrogations much. It was the hours in between that were the worst, she says, and the memories are still with her.

"When I first went into the cell, the stench of pig excrement and blood was terrible. There was blood on the walls. They tied me with nylon rope. When we went to the toilet, we were blindfolded. They beat my feet. I saw them force some to eat soy or fish sauce and soap. The food was rice soup with morning glory-pig food," she says. The ordeal lasted two weeks. "One day they came to my cell and they said 'If you are Khem Math, please come to us'. They took a krama and blindfolded me. I was very scared. I soiled myself. I thought I must die then. But the truck went to Prey Sar."

Prey Sar was a Khmer Rouge prison camp not far from the site of the current jail. "Inside the truck they took off the blindfold. There were three women and 18 men in the truck tied with rope. They were all strangers. There were three guards, at the front, middle and back. The male prisoners' faces were caked with mud. I never saw my friends again. I never saw any of the people in that truck again. Prey Sar was controlled by the Nearadey (the Khmer Rouge's south western zone, led by military commander Ta Mok). I don't know who controlled Toul Sleng."

When Vietnamese-backed troops overthrew the Khmer Rouge on January 7, 1979, Math fled Prey Sar into the mountains of Kampong Speu province and rejoined the remnants of the Khmer Rouge. But nearly 30 years later, she says those two weeks still haunt her. "The smell was terrible. Toul Sleng was the smell of pig shit and blood. I don't forget that smell.

I converted to Christianity in 2000. I joined the CPP in 2003. I have already told the Commune and District chiefs I am ready to be an eyewitness (in the trial)," she says. "I was very sad in this life but after I got the good information and the good news about Christ I joined the church. I believe it helped me. Before I was an etchay (garbage and scrap collector). Now I have a good job and a house. I believe Christ can rescue you. Duch is not the perpetrator, but he gave the orders," she says. "Where is Duch now?" But in the middle of her speech about God, an interviewer asks if, in her opinion, Christ can redeem Duch.

Math goes silent. She declines to answer.


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