Bou Meng last saw his young wife in 1976 as several brutal interrogators forced the terrified woman to meticulously pose for her mug shot at Tuol Sleng prison-a Phnom Penh high school the Khmer Rouge converted into the charnel house of the communist revolution.
Each of the estimated 14,000 prisoners who passed through the school’s barbed wire walls were photographed, tortured then photographed again after the grotesque violence at the interrogation center the Khmer Rouge code-named S-21.
Many prisoners died from the brutality and their ragged, violated corpses were also photographed on the prison grounds.
But most confessed to the trumped-up charges leveled by the communist regime and were eventually trucked to the outskirts of Phnom Penh, where revolutionary justice was delivered by young men with farming hoes.
Bou Meng, 61, survived Tuol Sleng, and last week, after almost 20 years, he walked through the gates of the prison-now a genocide museum catering to a steady flow of foreign tourists.
Bou Meng’s reappearance surprised researchers who thought he had passed away. Of the handful of Tuol Sleng survivors, he is one of only three left alive. As many as 14 men are thought to have survived their imprisonment, but almost all have since died.
Bou Meng has emerged from a life of quiet struggle as a painter in Svay Rieng province to set the record straight on how he survived Tuol Sleng and the atrocities he witnessed, and to volunteer as a prosecution witness in a future Khmer Rouge tribunal.
He also went in search of his wife’s photograph among the hundreds of black-and-white mug shots plastered to the prison’s walls-the men, women and child prisoners whose agonized fear was captured for all time by Khmer Rouge cameras.
“When I first arrived in Tuol Sleng, my wife and I were taken to a table and they asked us a few questions. Some guards stood behind us. Later, they asked my wife [Neary] and I to put our hands behind our backs and we were handcuffed and blindfolded,” Bou Meng said.
“I thought it was a school. I thought I was in the wrong place. I had a bad taste in my mouth and my wife was crying,” he said. “She cried and told them she was an orphan. She pleaded with them, but they didn’t listen.”
It was the last time he saw Neary and the start of two weeks of shackles and starvation-the time needed to break even the strongest prisoner’s will before interrogation, Bou Meng said.
After the torture began and lasted for seven days, Bou Meng was left with only a handful of teeth—the rest were smashed out—permanent hearing loss from blows to his head and scars on his back from bamboo truncheons that are still visible today.
“One interrogator asked when did I join the [US Central Intelligence Agency]. They kept forcing me to answer but I refused to answer,” he said.
The interrogators started the session by pointing to a pile of bamboo poles and asked Bou Meng to pick the one he would like to be beaten with.
So physically demanding was the torture that the six or so Khmer Rouge guards took turns to ask the questions and administer the punishment in a tag-team of violence.
On the last day, the guards wrote out Bou Meng’s confession and forced him to sign it.
He was now marked for death. But his talent as an artist and the sadistic vanity of the regime was to keep him alive when a week later the Khmer Rouge asked for painters among the prisoners to step forward.
Bou Meng said he jumped at the request, animating last week’s interview by showing how he shot his hand in the air more than two decades ago.
“They gave me a photograph of Pol Pot and asked if I could paint it like the photograph…. They told me if it was not like the photograph they would kill me,” he said. “Every hair on Pol Pot’s head I drew very carefully.”
Bou Meng worked on the painting for three or four months, a time when he was to hear and see the many atrocities carried out at the high school-the prisoners’ screams, crying for help, the dead bodies, covered with sheets but tied to polls by their wrists and ankles the way pigs are brought to market.
And the elderly man who slept close to Bou Meng whose punishment for not rising to his feet quickly enough was death, when a teenage Khmer Rouge guard who stomped on the old man’s chest until he stopped breathing.
As he recounts the story, Bou Meng presses his forehead with the palm of his hand as if the physical action alone will stop the memories flooding back. He also doodles on a sheet of paper with a pencil; his picture depicts the cells in the prison and a match-stick-man character, bound at the feet with a rope being lowered into a giant pot of water.
Ironically, like Bou Meng, most of those sent to Tuol Sleng were Khmer Rouge members.
Bou Meng heeded the call to join the Sihanoukist resistance after the Lon Nol military coup in 1970. The movement-which he says was not overtly Khmer Rouge at the time-put him to work painting banners and picture of revolutionary heroes Karl Marx, Lenin, Stalin and Mao Tse-tung.
But the Khmer Rouge gradually unveiled its true self and its control over those who thought they were fighting for Cambodia’s revered Sihanouk.
After the fall of Phnom Penh in 1975, Bou Meng was sent to Russei Keo Technical School in Phnom Penh to draw plans of machinery.
His two children were kept behind at a village outside Phnom Penh by the Khmer Rouge. He has not seen them since.
Things started to turn bad in 1976 as the regime cracked under the paranoia of too many “internal enemies,” Bou Meng said—truck loads of bodies began to pass by the school.
“I was scared because I did not know and was waiting for the time they would come for me,” Bou Meng said.
His skill as a painter kept him alive until the Khmer Rouge were ousted in 1979 by the Vietnamese army and a force of former Khmer Rouge members who returned take their country back.
Until last week, researchers at the Documentation Center of Cambodia-the country’s leading repository on information related to the Khmer Rouge-believed that Phnom Penh-based artist Vann Nath and Chum Mey were the only two remaining survivors.
Bou Meng said he discovered the error earlier this month when he came across a 2001 issue of the DC-CAM magazine “Searching for the Truth” that carried a picture of a group of seven Tuol Sleng survivors with an article claiming he had passed away.
“I feel very sad when I saw the museum again. I am worried that my voice will not be heard at the [Khmer Rouge] tribunal. I am the real survivor. I can tell the truth about what happened,” he said.
Whether Bou Meng will fulfill his wish to testify in a Khmer Rouge trial will depend on the coming months of negotiations between the Cambodian government and the UN.
Negotiations to hold the trial have moved at a glacial pace for the last five years, while many observers fear that the handful of surviving Khmer Rouge leaders will either pass away or be too elderly and infirm to stand trial if a court is ever convened.
Bou Meng spent last week painting pictures of his Tuol Sleng memories at the DC-CAM offices under the guidance of Director Youk Chhang.
He also went in search of one particular memory when he visited Tuol Sleng-the photograph taken of his wife on the first day they entered the prison and the last day they were together.
But he couldn’t find the photograph. It was probably removed as part of renovations to the museum, he said.
“I still want to take revenge. My revenge is big, especially for my wife and my children. For myself, my revenge is just 90 percent, for my wife and children it is 100 percent,” he said.
“But, my revenge will be peaceful and through the court.”