Ex-Airport Site Messenger Tells Tribunal of S-21 Escape

A former messenger for Khmer Rouge air force commander Sou Met told the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia on Tuesday how he managed to escape from Phnom Penh’s Tuol Sleng security center after being sent there from the Kompong Chhnang airport construction site.

Chan Man, who joined the revolution in 1970 and is the first witness to appear in the segment of the second trial in Case 002 focusing on the airport site, said every worker at the site was “asking themselves when their day would come” to be killed. He described being blindfolded and thrown in a truck that took him to Phnom Penh after falling out of favor with a low-ranking official for allegedly attempting to give rice to an unnamed enemy.

After being kicked from a truck outside the gates of the notorious Tuol Sleng security center, also known as S-21, Mr. Man said a guard named Mao—whom he knew from before the Khmer Rouge took power in 1975—helped him to escape almost certain death. Only a handful of prisoners survived their time at the center, where more than 12,000 are thought to have been killed.

“That [guard] took his towel and cleaned blood off my face, he had a piece of paper and he drew a map and gave it to me so I could use as directions when I made an escape,” he said.

Mr. Man said he sneaked from the prison grounds and followed directions to Chroy Changvar bridge, where he was met by a cadre who drove him to Pochentong Airport to meet Sou Met.

“I told Ta Met that…it was said I transported rice for the enemy. After seeing Met, he called in a medic to give me stitches on my wounds,” said Mr. Man, who said he was then transported back to Kompong Chhnang.

Located in Rolea Ba’ier district’s Kraing Leav commune, the construction of the airport was overseen by Center Division 502, which was in charge of the air force and headed by Sou Met. Thousands of Cambodians, with the assistance of Chinese engineers and machinery, provided the requisite hard labor.

The 300-hectare construction site was left unfinished when Khmer Rouge troops fled from a Vietnamese-led advance in 1979.

Mr. Man, who would make trips to what is now Preah Sihanouk province to pick up Chinese cargo and accompany the experts back to the site, said the Chinese were treated very differently to the Cambodians at the site.

“When I was with the Chinese advisers, usually a reception or a banquet was held, weekly and when they went to repair old planes at various provinces the same thing happened,” he said.

“Even on the days the banquet was not held they had an abundance of food to eat and a beer to drink. It was in absolute contrast to the food we foot soldiers ate on site,” he said, adding that workers would regularly commit suicide by throwing themselves under industrial road rollers due to starvation and overwork.

More than three decades after the site was abandoned by the Khmer Rouge, Prime Minister Hun Sen announced in November 2012 the government would build a new international airport there between 2025 and 2030 that would cater to a projected 7 million tourists visiting the country.

Prior to that, the government and a Malaysian company agreed in 1996 to a $3.4-billion project that would turn the airport into the world’s largest cargo hub, but the plan was scrapped after running into financial difficulties.

Youk Chhang, chief executive of the Documentation Center of Cambodia, said he believed development should proceed, but not without consideration of the site’s dark past.

“Crime sites should be preserved while development needs to take its place,” he said via email. “Such initiative will be significantly contributing to the prevention of genocide.”

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