As Vietnamese troops and their Cambodian allies were approaching Phnom Penh in January 1979, Norng Chanphal, 8 at the time, was watching Khmer Rouge soldiers running from one building to the next at the S-21 detention center, rounding up prisoners and pushing them blindfolded into awaiting trucks. He and three younger siblings were supposed to go, too.
“Little boys, run onto the trucks. We need to go,” he recalled soldiers saying shortly before they drove away through the main gates of the notorious prison. Instead, Norng Chanphal directed his siblings to hide with him in a huge pile of prisoners’ discarded clothing.
“We hid like animal babies. We were so frightened,” he said in an interview at his Boeng Tumpun commune home Thursday. “That night I heard lots of shelling and slept without food.”
The next morning, two soldiers—one Cambodian, one Vietnamese—found the children in the pile of clothes.
“Are you the son of Pol Pot?” the Cambodian soldier asked, AK-47 rifle at the ready.
“No, I am not,” Norng Chanphal responded.
“Who are you?” the soldier asked.
“I am the son of a prisoner.”
The soldiers prepared rice and killed a duck to feed the children. Norng Chanphal and his brother Norng Chanly, 5, ate their fill. Their sister, Norng Rumduol, 3, and an unnamed 1-year-old boy couldn’t eat because they were near death. The Vietnamese soldier named the boy Makara—Khmer for January, the month in which he was freed.
Later that day, about two dozen soldiers stormed the prison complex, shooting door locks in an attempt to find more survivors, Norng Chanphal recalled. The gunfire scared the children, who returned to their pile of clothing. They were soon brought to a hospital and all survived.
Norng Chanphal and his siblings are likely the children shown liberated from S-21 in Vietnamese archival films that surfaced in December, unearthed by the Documentary Center of Cambodia, said the center’s director, Youk Chhang.
Prosecutors at the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia have asked that the films, which show a glimpse of Tuol Sleng on Jan 10, 1979, be accepted as evidence in the upcoming trial of former S-21 chairman Kaing Guek Eav, also known as Duch.
“We interviewed him before showing him the video, and what he said is very much correct. The story is like in the film,” Youk Chhang said. “There is nothing suspect.”
Norng Chanphal had never contacted researchers of the Democratic Kampuchea era or ECCC officials, he said. On Feb 4, he showed up at the tribunal’s Victims Unit office near the Independence Monument to file a civil party application. He was two days too late.
“I feel very, very regretful for missing the deadline,” he said. “I just learned about the date of the Duch hearing. It was too late for me for case file one,” he said, referring to Duch’s case.
The internal rules of the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia stipulate that civil party applications must be filed at least 10 working days before the initial hearing, which in Duch’s case is on Tuesday. Trial Chamber President Nil Nonn confirmed in a Jan 19 order that the deadline was Feb 2.
Keat Bophal, chief of the court’s Victims Unit, confirmed that her office had received an application from Norng Chanphal on Feb 4 and had not been able to file it.
“He came after the deadline so he cannot complain as a civil party,” she said Thursday. He can still be a civil party in the next case or be a simple complainant in this one by filing a Victim Information Form, she added.
“He can complain to support the prosecution only,” she said. “I also regret that he came late.”
Civil party lawyers have complained the internal rules are too restrictive for victims’ rights and that the national Criminal Procedures Code should be applied instead. The code allows victims to come forward as civil parties up until the prosecution makes its final remarks.
“I would suggest the Trial Chamber to amend the deadline in this specific case because this is a survivor,” said Silke Studzinsky, a civil party lawyer.
But to Youk Chhang, there’s a lot more to Norng Chanphal’s resurfacing.
“To be a civil party, a complainant or a witness is not important,” he said. “What is more important is history. What we know is more important.”
Norng Chanphal recalled that on a day in November or December 1978, two Jeeps full of young black-clad soldiers arrived at the Streng Trayoeung cooperative in Kompong Speu province and ordered his mother Mom Yov into the car. She had been “invited for further education in Phnom Penh” to join her husband Norng Chin, who had been arrested three months earlier. She took her four youngest children, while five others, who were in a work camp, escaped their fate.
With two other female prisoners and a baby, the family was taken to the Phnom Penh train station, where they stayed for three days. Upon arrival at S-21, they went through the sordid ritual of picture-taking and were locked in a room on the top floor. There, he heard his mother tell the two women, “Just answer to what they’ll ask.”
The next day, adults and children were separated. The women stayed in the room while the children were taken to the dirt yard.
“My mother was trying to keep her baby. She held my hand tightly and said ‘Look after your younger brother and sister,’” Norng Chanphal recalled.
“I saw her standing by the window for about 20 minutes and looking at us on the ground,” he said. “She looked very sorrowful. Since then I have never seen her again. I just heard the screams of pain from the tortured prisoners.”
Norng Chanphal is now a bulldozer operator living in Phnom Penh’s Meanchey district. His brother Norng Chanly is a truck driver in Kandal province. Of the five elder siblings, one is still missing. He also lost track of the two youngest, who were adopted after being sent to a different orphanage, on Monivong Boulevard. He and Norng Chanly were placed in an orphanage near S-21.
“At the orphanage, when I missed my parents, I usually walked to the prison. But I never saw them.”
(Additional reporting by Isabelle Roughol)