Former Tuol Sleng Prison Guards Fight the Demons of a Past Life

lvea village, Kompong Chhnang province – When the Khmer Rouge fled Phnom Penh, Sam Sat was one of the few who walked out of Tuol Sleng prison alive. The secret to his survival still escapes him.

“I didn’t think I would survive, because other people who didn’t make any mistakes were killed,” he said.

But Sam Sat does not like to talk about his time there. In fact, he kept it secret for decades. Sam Sat was never a prisoner at Tuol Sleng, a former high school where an estimated 16,000 men, women and children were kept and tortured before being executed or dying from the brutal conditions.

He was a guard.

And if some neighbors in Sam Sat’s Lvea village now know Sam Sat’s past, it’s because they share it.

In the green rice paddies and scorched mud of this village, Sam Sat is just one of three former Khmer Rouge soldiers who worked for the infamous prison.

Just a kilometer or two east on the yellow- and gray-clay road lives Seng Phalla, 40, who as a boy served the Khmer Rouge’s “Rice Battalion,” growing livestock and rice for the organization and their prisoners in Tuol Sleng.

About equal distance from Sam Sat’s home, to the southwest, is the home of Yath Tha, who dug “canals” for Duch and who today is so deranged from rice wine and nightmares he can’t hold a conversation for more than a few minutes.

Kompong Chhnang was a major pipeline for Tuol Sleng laborers. Those who survived are still slowly coming home. Today, there are “dozens” of former herders, guards, interrogators and executioners there, Documentation Center of Cambodia Director Youk Chhang said. Only Kandal and Kompong Thom provinces have comparable numbers.

To find these workers and put together the scope and narrative of Cambodia’s genocide, researchers count on word-of-mouth ac­counts, hoping the former laborers will en­courage one another to come forward with their stories. The approach has been working, up to a point.

“The numbers are increasing every time we go up there,” Youk Chhang said.

In many ways, Seng Phalla, Sam Sat and Yath Tha are living testimony to Cambodia’s aborted justice. Here in a quiet village in the countryside live three men who were on the ground-floor of a slaughter that nearly pushed Cambodia into oblivion. If they are not candidates for prosecution, they are witnesses for it, genocide researchers say.

But, even if they were willing to testify, to whom would they speak?

In spite of the volumes of documents and research, there are still gaps in the story of the Democratic Kampuchea regime. How did the Khmer Rouge decide on their purges? Who carried them out? What was the command structure at the lower end? How much freedom did individual soldiers or cadre have? How many people even died?

If the three men in Lvea village know the answers to these questions, they won’t—or can’t—say. It’s still too dangerous.

“I was married for years before I told my wife. I have never dared say I was a prison guard. I kept it for a long time, because I was worried about people taking revenge,” Sam Sat said.

Sam Sat, whose secret only got out among Lvea villagers a few years ago when a researcher from the Documentation Center tracked him down, shifted in his seat and tugged the red-checkered sarong he had wrapped around his mid-section. There was something else on his mind.

“What will happen when this story comes out?” he asked. “Will I have to testify?”

Although he denies being part of the slaughter or knowing much about it—“I was just a little man,” he said—Sam Sat’s body jerked as he spoke about what he did see.

“I saw people who were killed. I…saw dozens of bodies in holes,” he said. “I always wondered why people disappeared.”

Sam Sat started his Tuol Sleng career along with Seng Phalla, shortly after the Khmer Rouge captured Phnom Penh.

The organization had more faith in its boy soldiers from Kandal, Kompong Thom and Kompong Chhnang provinces because they had been “liberated” for a longer period of time.

If nothing else, the people there knew not to ask questions.

“They didn’t say anything. They just sent me to the Democratic Kampuchea center,” Seng Phalla said.

It was the boys’ first trip to their capital. Once in Phnom Penh, the Khmer Rouge separated Sam Sat and Seng Phalla.

“When I got to Tuol Sleng, they divided up the work. They asked me to look after the animals,” Seng Phalla said.

Seng Phalla had been in the Khmer Rouge for two years already and he had an idea of what they had in mind for the country.

“I knew the Khmer Rouge were killers in 1975, when they killed my uncle. He had been a monk for a while and they thought he was an intellectual. So they killed him,” Seng Phalla said, smiling through yellow teeth stained with tobacco.

By comparison, Seng Phalla said, his life under the regime was easy. The days were long and the labor hard, but as a farmer, he was well used to it. And the leaders did not bother so much with the young boys at the farm.

“When you got older, it was dangerous. I was small, so it was not a big problem,” Seng Phalla said.

That was not the case for workers inside the prison, Sam Sat said. By the end of his time at Tuol Sleng, he had seen so much pain and death he was numb.

“I had no feelings—not for the country, not for my parents, not for my family. It was all over,” he said. “But I worked because I couldn’t escape.”

A prison guard’s day at Tuol Sleng began at 6 am, Sam Sat said. Dinner and the first break came at 6 pm. At 7 pm, the day resumed and did not end until 11 pm. They rotated posts, from the outside gate, prowling the grounds, and watching the prisoners.

The rules were simple: Don’t let anyone escape, keep prisoners from killing themselves and never—ever—talk with prisoners.

Every guard knew what would happen if they were caught breaking the rules.

“I talked with some of my friends who were prisoners. But we did not talk too much because we all went through the training and we knew what his fate would be,” Sam Sat said. “One time, my friend just said, ‘Please don’t end up like me.’”

In his Tuol Sleng biography, Sam Sat, who used the revolutionary name “Tum Sat,” gave his masters a more pleasant version of the training.

“Due to the organization’s education, I have learned about the suffering brought by all kinds of enemy invaders upon all our poor people,” he wrote in the biography.

Not even the small Tuol Sleng farm was free from the homicidal whims of the organization, Seng Phalla said. A friend named “Nort,” with whom he worked for years, was not up to the job.

“They said they were going to send him to Kompong Chhnang to build a Chinese airport. I never saw him again,” Seng Phalla said.

A workers’ training was thorough, rigid and led by a man who still haunts them—and their country.

“I thought Duch was a fierce man,” Seng Phalla said. “I didn’t even look at him when he passed.”

Sam Sat has different memories of the former prison director.

“I saw him every day. I thought he was normal and gentle like everyone else. But I think in the regime he had orders, and he followed them,” Sam Sat said.

The mere idea of Duch was enough to bring Yath Tha into a few moments of clarity. Stirred from a deep sleep, Yath Tha rocked back and forth, mumbling to himself—until asked who his boss was.

“My boss was Duch. I was in S-21,” he said, reeking of rice wine, beer and sweat.

As Yath Tha shifted, a neighbor leaned over to whisper, “His mind is completely gone.”

Neither Seng Phalla nor Sam Sat say they want to testify, if it ever comes to that. But they appear to be an exception, Documentation Center Deputy Director Sorya Sim said.

“Most of them want to be a witness—if a trial ever happens,” Sorya Sim said.

Khmer Rouge foot soldiers want to be witnesses because they want to start their lives again, Youk Chhang said. Many former soldiers remain estranged from their homes because they have not been able to atone for their pasts.

“They’re still afraid to come home because there’s no national consensus. There’s no mechanism for them to being socially integrated,” Youk Chhang said.

That’s where a tribunal would come in.

“National reconciliation cannot be sustained without justice,” Youk Chhang said.

The question is how long the issue can wait. The Khmer Rouge leadership are getting old. So are their victims. The government has already extended the terms of pre-trial detention for Ta Mok and Duch twice.

For Seng Phalla, that’s probably all just as well. The Khmer Rouge era may have been different for different people, but all Cambodians lived through it and that’s enough.

“It was a very cruel three years,” he said. “Nobody expected to live.”

For Sam Sat, the tribunal would be a waste of time.

“I saw all the killing and torture, so no one can tell me about genocide,” he said. “I know it. I saw it with my own eyes.”


Related Stories

Latest News

The Weekly DispatchA new weekly newsletter from The Cambodia Daily delivering news, analysis and opinion to your inbox. Published every Friday at 11:30am. Sign up today.