TRAM KAK DISTRICT, Takeo province – In the early 1970s, Soy Sen, the illegitimate son of a local official, lived with his grandmother in a tiny house here. Too poor to attend school past the second grade, he spent his days running free through his family’s small rice field as he tended cattle.
“I enjoyed my life so much,” he recalled in a recent interview.
At the time, the Khmer Rouge was still several years away from wresting control of the country from Lon Nol’s republican government and instituting its own extreme brand of communism nationwide, but it had already “liberated” large swaths of the Cambodian countryside.
One of the first areas to fall to the communist fighters was Tram Kak district, the home base of the brutal Khmer Rouge commander Ta Mok. Communal dining halls and other hardline measures were imposed on the population starting in 1973. That same year, when Sen was 14, he was abruptly taken from his grandmother’s house by Khmer Rouge soldiers and imprisoned in the newly established Kraing Ta Chan security center, where he would remain for over five years. He believes he was targeted because of his father’s position in the Lon Nol regime, despite the fact that he had barely had a relationship with the man.
Located in Kus commune, Kraing Ta Chan was first set up as a meeting and education center by the Khmer Rouge in 1972,but was quickly transformed into a vital “security center,” where perceived enemies of the regime and its ideology were jailed, tortured and executed.
“I just lay there shackled with no food other than a little porridge. I was so skinny you can’t even explain,” Mr. Sen said, lifting his trousers to reveal large scars around his ankles.
After laying in isolation for four months, Mr. Sen, who is one of only a handful of known survivors of the prison, was taken out of solitary confinement and trusted with tending buffalo, burying bodies and making alcoholic palm juice for Ta An, the prison chief.
“I saw people killed every day and I would be responsible for burying the dead prisoners, taking clothes from the bodies, cleaning them, drying them and taking them back to the community to be worn. Ta An trusted me to take care of burying the corpses. They all trusted me, even Ta Mok,” said Mr. Sen.
The prison was split into four sections with about 100 people crammed into each cell, Mr. Sen said. He said it is difficult to estimate how many prisoners would be incarcerated at one given time due to the high level of arrivals, executions and deaths from starvation, but puts the number at 300 to 400, including entire families.
Mr. Sen believes about 20 to 30 people died at the prison every day, including women and children, with prison guards often putting the children’s livers in alcohol to drink after killing them.
The majority of the bodies Mr. Sen was forced to bury and strip on a daily basis belonged to members of the Lon Nol regime. Soon after being assigned his new job, Mr. Sen said he witnessed the murder of his father along with around 100 other people.
“They marched them in a line and my father was at the front. They tied his hands back, blindfolded him, and then hit him over the head with a hoe. I watched it all from the top of a coconut tree,” he said.
Later that day the teenager went to strip the bodies, but managed to secretly smuggle his father’s clothes into his cell.
“I took his white T-shirt and sarong he always wore that he got from Kompong Cham. I used it as a blanket every night.”
After fleeing the prison when the Vietnamese pushed the Khmer Rouge out of the area in late 1978, he returned to his village, while a slow trickle of his Khmer Rouge tormentors began moving back into the area. To his anger, many of the lower ranking cadre at the prison still live close to Mr. Sen.
One prison guard, known as Duch, lives about 2 km from Mr. Sen’s home. Mr. Sen said the prison guard was notorious for raping, killing and mutilating women. Duch denied these claims to a reporter, saying he had only been assigned menial tasks.
Crimes that took place at Kraing Ta Chan will be examined in court during the second phase of the Khmer Rouge tribunal’s Case 002 against senior Khmer Rouge leaders Nuon Chea and Khieu Samphan, which is scheduled to begin later this year.
Andrew Johnston, a researcher who focused on Kraing Ta Chan in his PhD thesis at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London, said that there is clear evidence that prison chiefs had regular contact with the highest-ranking officials about the confessions that were extracted from prisoners upon arrival.
“Confessions from Kraing Ta Chan have been recovered and there is a plethora of data that illustrates that the chief of the prison, initially Ta Chen and after his disposal, Ta An, was in regular contact with the party center,” Mr. Johnston said in an email.
“The prison was instrumental in the perpetuation of the paranoia harbored by the Khmer Rouge and was ultimately part of the centralized murdering machine,” said Mr. Johnston.
Mr. Sen said that despite his distress at living close to his former jailers, he is relieved that he will finally have his day in court.
“I’m so happy they are covering it at the ECCC. My name is at the court and they have filed my evidence. I want the younger generation to understand what happened here,” he said.
(Additional reporting by Kuch Naren)
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Correction: This story has been updated to reflect the fact that chief of Kraing Ta Chan prison is not the same Ta An under investigation in the Khmer Rouge tribunal’s Case 004.