Tuol Sleng Torture Caused Lifetime of Pain

In a world turned upside down, where the truth did not matter and death was inevitable, Eam Chan was saved by his hands, by his ability to fashion a lump of clay into the likeness of Pol Pot.

Among the condemned, he was one of the handful whose lives were spared, one of seven known prisoners to walk out of the infamous Khmer Rouge torture center in Phnom Penh, S-21. More than 16,000 other men, women and children had nothing to offer in exchange for their lives, and their stays at S-21, later known as Tuol Sleng, ended in execution.

Eam Chan survived the torture and the imprisonment at the former high school, but he never escaped it. Family and friends say speaking of his experiences made him physically ill. And in the end, they say, 21 years after the fall of the Khmer Rouge, the torture finally killed him.

Eam Chan died Feb 13, at the age of 60. For years he suffered from high blood pressure and a stomach ailment caused by the torture. Vann Nath, whose paintings document Khmer Rouge atrocities, is now believed to be the last living survivor of S-21.

Though Eam Chan lived for more than 20 years just down the road from Tuol Sleng, within sight of the buildings, he was never comfortable recounting his experiences, reliving the imprisonment.

“The man was easily frightened,” said a friend who works as a guide at Tuol Sleng. “I remember an interview with Spanish TV. They asked him four or five questions. The first few he explained well, but then it was like he went mad, he could not answer anymore. The question was about A, and he would answer about B.”

Several times re­cently, foreigners visited Eam Chan, who lived a quiet life as a sculpture teacher, and asked him to be a witness in the Khmer Rouge trial. “I don’t want to be a witness because of my family’s security,” he told his wife, Pol Davan, “but if it is unavoidable, I will be a witness.”

If there is a trial of former Khmer Rouge leaders, the most damning evidence about S-21 likely would come not from survivors, but from the meticulous prison documents and from the S-21’s former chief, Duch. The born-again Christian says he will testify against his one-time comrades, which could bloody the hands of many people in the Khmer Rouge hierarchy.

Nevertheless, the few who survived their time in the prison have played an important role in Cambodia in the past 20 years, said Peter Maguire, a war crimes researcher with an upcoming book on the Nuremberg trial of Nazi leaders. “The S-21 survivors were symbolic figures of the worst excesses of the Pol Pot era, living witnesses,” he said.

Before the Khmer Rouge came to power, Eam Chan was living in Siem Reap with a wife and three children, working as a sculptor for Angkor Conservation. He was moved to Phnom Penh by the Khmer Rouge to oversee a metal workshop, but during the regime’s purges, he was sent to Prey Sa prison, a forced-labor camp outside Phnom Penh.

“He missed his children and wife in Siem Reap, so he escaped,” said Chet Chan, a long-time friend who was with Eam Chan when he died.

Eam Chan and another prisoner made their way as far as Rokakong commune in Kandal province when they were caught on Feb 16, 1978, according to Eam Chan’s file at Tuol Sleng. He was jailed for two days in Kandal province, not far from Phnom Penh, and then sent to S-21.

In the prison, Eam Chan told his wife, he was tortured three or four times a day. His captors forced him to swallow large amounts of fish sauce then stood on his stomach until he vomited. His family believes this led to a lasting stomach ailment that plagued him throughout his life.

“They asked him ‘Why did you join the [US Central Intelligence Agency] and who led you to join? If you don’t tell us, we will torture you until you’re dead,” Chet Chan said. “But he still denied he was involved with the CIA.”

Denying accusations did not improve a prisoner’s chances. Nearly every prisoner was executed whether they confessed or not.  But the seven people known to have survived had skills that could be used at the prison. One man was handy with machines, another with electricity. Vann Nath painted pictures for his captors. Eam Chan, too, had something to offer.

“He said he was a sculptor, and they asked him to make a sculpture,” Pol Davan said. He did, and his captors were satisfied. “That’s why the Khmer Rouge let him live,” he said.

In the museum today are three busts of Pol Pot and the casts Eam Chan used to make them.

He and the other craftsmen lived out the rest of the Khmer Rouge occupation in a special area of S-21. “They were still prisoners,” Maguire said. “It wasn’t like they lived a privileged existence.”

After the Vietnamese invasion, Eam Chan was going to return to his wife and children in Siem Reap, but he was told she had married another man, Chet Chan said.

He briefly became a soldier, along with the other Tuol Sleng survivors. He met Pol Davan when he was living by the Ministry of Defense. She was sifting through piles of rubbish on the streets for scraps of metal to sell and Eam Chan, annoyed at the commotion, called out to her: “Why  are you doing this? It’s very noisy.”

When he went outside, he saw that he knew Pol Davan through her father. “He asked me to be his friend and later we were engaged,” she said.

Eam Chan was soon transferred by the Ministry of Defense to Tuol Sleng, to serve as a guide, telling his story to visitors. He moved into a house within sight of Tuol Sleng, where he lived until his death. In addition to his busts of Pol Pot—one of which has been defaced with a black X across the face—Eam Chan later painted two pictures on display at Tuol Sleng, showing Khmer Rouge soldiers killing babies, museum staff say.

In 1982, Eam Chan was sent to the Ministry of Culture to teach sculpture and later left the ministry to teach on his own. While fellow survivor Vann Nath gained international recognition for painting depicting Khmer Rouge atrocities, Eam Chan faded from the public eye, surfacing only occasionally to give rare interviews.

“He never talked to other people about the torture in Tuol Sleng,” Chet Chan said, “because it made him suffer greatly.”

Though haunted by his torture, Eam Chan until his death would occasionally walk down the road to Tuol Sleng, to sit and chat with his friends who work at the museum preserving the grisly legacy of the Khmer Rouge.




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