When S-21 prison guards burst into his cell in the middle of the night and told him he was free to go, Sat Kalkhann’s first thought was not one of relief.
The 26-year-old had been shackled in his cell for more than 20 days following his arrest on April 11, 1976, in Kandal province. He was given very little food in prison and interrogated multiple times a day by Khmer Rouge soldiers who kept insisting he was against their newly installed regime.
“They kept asking me, ‘What did you do before?’ They were concerned I was a soldier. I told them again and again that I just raised cows,” Sat Kalkhann said last week in an interview at the sparse, two-room house he shares with his youngest son in Kandal, a few meters from his former collective.
In prison, Sat Kalkhann had been terrified as he prepared for certain death. So, when guards opened his cell at about midnight in what was likely late April or early May 1976, he was, above all, skeptical.
“I didn’t believe they would actually release us,” he said. “I thought at that time that they would bring me out and kill me. Because they imprisoned me without fault, so they could kill me without any reason.”
S-21, the Khmer Rouge police special branch office that served primarily as a torture and interrogation center from 1975 to 1979, has become widely regarded as the deadliest prison in Democratic Kampuchea.
Among the commonly accepted truths about S-21, which came to be called Tuol Sleng, is that no one was ever released. There are records for as many as 14,000 prisoners who either died while being tortured at S-21, or were carted off to be executed elsewhere.
Sat Kalkhann, however, appears to be an aberration.
The guards took the shackles off his ankles and told him to go meet his family in the prison’s courtyard. He tried to take a step forward and fell over. Three weeks without movement had deprived him of the ability to walk.
He finally made it out to the courtyard and fell into the arms of his mother, father and six siblings, hugging and crying.
Sat Kalkhann said he recognized the courtyard at that time as that of the Lycee Ponhea Yat on Street 113 in Chamkar Mon district’s Boeng Keng Kang commune II, where S-21 had finally come to rest after hopping from location to location for the better part of a year. It was the same building where he had gone to school when he was younger.
In the morning, the guards called a meeting and told Sat Kalkhann’s family that they should forget about the city, about homes and money. They should focus on working hard on the farm. And with that, the entire family was carted back to the camp in Kandal.
It is difficult to say with 100 percent certainty that Sat Kalkhann’s story is true.
A minority of prisoners—about 10 to 15 percent—are known to have been released from nearly every other prison in the Khmer Rouge’s network of about 150 provincial prisons, according to historian Henri Locard, who conducted from 1991 to 2004 an extensive study of the Khmer Rouge prison system.
“Of course, the definition of [S-21] was that you entered and didn’t come out. That was one major difference,” he said in a recent interview at his home in Phnom Penh.
“But that regime was fundamentally chaos. Anything could have happened. There was no logic,” he said.
The Khmer Rouge tribunal’s co-investigating judges supported the view that no one was ever released from S-21 in their Aug 8 indictment of Kaing Guek Eav, alias Duch, who became director of S-21 in March of 1976, just prior to Sat Kalkhann’s arrest. In fact, the indictment states that even prisoners who ended up at S-21 by mistake were executed to ensure secrecy.
But recently publicized documentation showing that 177 prisoners were released from S-21 have introduced some doubt into the longstanding understanding of the prison.
Documentation Center of Cambodia Director Youk Chhang said Sunday that the center has located and interviewed one person out of the 177 who are believed to have been freed.
Sat Kalkhann, however, was not listed among the 177, though it was a Voice of America radio broadcast about the group that prompted him to get in touch with DC-Cam to tell them that he had also been released from S-21.
Sat Kalkhann is number 67 on another list, titled “Foreigners,” which Youk Chhang said was found at S-21 and documents the arrest and execution of 87 foreigners who were detained there.
On the list, which was used in the 1979 tribunal and remains in the DC-Cam archives, Sat Kalkhann is listed as an Arab who worked with cows. His date of arrest is listed as April 11, 1976. His date of execution is left blank—an omission Youk Chhang said supports his claim of having been released from the prison.
Sat Kalkhann said he was born in Phnom Penh to an Arab father, who had originally migrated from Pakistan, and a Laotian mother. When his family was evacuated from Phnom Penh in April 1975, they were brought to a camp in Kandal along with four or five Cham families, who, like them, practiced Islam.
Before soldiers corralled his family onto the truck headed for S-21, Sat Kalkhann said they first told him to go back to where he came from.
“First they told me to go back to my home country, my Arab country,” he said. “Then they called us to go up in the truck. I went up right away. If I did not go, they would kill me. How can you argue with the Khmer Rouge?” he asked.
Locard said that someone of Sat Kalkhann’s stature was more likely to have remained at a district level prison.
“But he was classified as a foreigner…. Foreigners were automatically seen as extremely dangerous, the archenemy. Singling out the enemy was the fundamental task,” Locard said, adding that, in the early stages of the regime, some lower-level detainees did make their way to S-21, many of whom were service technicians working to help the prison run smoothly.
“[Sat Kalkhann’s story] is coherent,” said Locard. “They arrested him because he was a foreigner. Then they realized that he was not really a foreigner. He was one of us…. He had a low job and wasn’t dangerous to the regime.”
Sat Kalkhann said they gave no reason why he was being released, and Youk Chhang said it may have been as simple as the prison being overcrowded at the time.
Youk Chhang prefers to think of it as an empathetic act, one that proves the crimes were committed by people, not monsters.
Ironically, he said, it may have been researchers’ resistance to this view that caused them to overlook the topic of the released S-21 prisoners for so long. If it humanized the perpetrators, he said, they didn’t necessarily want to see it.
There has been some question as to why, if documentation of the released prisoners has been sitting in the DC-Cam archives for decades, it is only coming to light now.
Youk Chhang said he had discussed the topic with numerous historians, researchers and reporters, but no one seemed overly interested.
“Perhaps it came out of the good intention to support the victims,” he said. “The crimes were so overwhelming that you couldn’t see any light in the darkness.”
It may have been harder than it should have been for a researcher to acknowledge something that didn’t go along with his or her thesis or that ran contrary to an idea already accepted as common truth-namely a concept of absolute and uniform evil among the Khmer Rouge.
“You have ideas behind your back and you expect to find what you’re looking for,” said Locard of scholars in general.
“[S]ometimes you find what you’re looking for,” he said, though, above all, “you need to be prepared to be wrong.”
But, experts agree, the lesson here is not that people were fundamentally wrong about S-21.
“Of course, I can no longer say that when you go through the gates of S-21, you never come out alive,” said Locard, but, he added: “It doesn’t change the nature of the institution at all.”
What it does prove is that “S-21 was not yet fully established as S-21” at the time Sat Kalkhann was detained, he said.
This new discovery helps clarify a timeline as to when the atrocities at S-21 started occurring in earnest.
Historian David Chandler, who wrote in his landmark 1999 study of the Tuol Sleng archives “Voices from S-21” that “no one was ever released” and the “facility served primarily as an anteroom to death” said in an e-mail last week that Sat Kalkhann’s story “sounds like reliable information.”
“I doubt very much if much of this occurred after mi[d] 1976, when the prison was working out its modus operandi,” he continued.
It is unlikely, he said, that Duch and others who ran the prison would have released large numbers of prisoners who could say what they saw and heard. But, he added, a few might have been released in mid-1976 when charges against them didn’t stick.
It should be noted that among the 177 prisoners documented as released from S-21, a list of 100 appears to be low-level Khmer Rouge soldiers admitted on Nov 23, 1977, and released three days later on Nov 26, 1977.
Regardless, it seems unlikely that news of some released prisoners will greatly alter the proceedings at the Khmer Rouge tribunal.
International Co-Prosecutor Robert Petit said in an e-mail Monday that he couldn’t comment directly on Sat Kalkhann’s story.
“In any event Duch has admitted supervising the death of thousands of men, women and children at S-21 which sole design and function was the purging of perceived ‘enemies.’ If indeed anyone did escape the fate of those unfortunate thousands then they are very lucky, but it does not change one iota the nature of S-21 nor the responsibility of those who set it up and ran it,” he wrote.
What is for sure, however, is that what we know about the Khmer Rouge remains a dynamic and changing body of scholarship, one that is far from being put to rest.
Youk Chhang said that in the more than 10 years since DC-Cam has been in operation, they have interviewed about 10,000 former Khmer Rouge and between six and 8,000 victims.
“But there are millions out there. There are still people we haven’t met and interviewed, documents we haven’t read and analyzed, mass graves we have yet to discover,” he said.
“There’s always something. It was the whole nation turned upside down.”
If he got another call tomorrow from someone claiming to have been released from the deadliest prison in Cambodia, Youk Chhang said he wouldn’t be surprised.
“I would take his name and his phone number,” he said. “And I would consult the database.”