They put balm under their noses and started filming.
“When you went into the rooms, there were lots of worms, and you had to walk on them,” Vietnamese cameraman Ho Van Tay, 76, told a press conference in Phnom Penh on Monday. “We saw women’s corpses shackled at the legs to iron posts. That shows the brutality of Pol Pot’s regime.”
With journalist Dinh Phong, Ho Van Tay had been sent by Ho Chi Minh City Television to document the war against the Khmer Rouge. Accompanied by a three-man patrol from the Vietnam People’s Army, 4th Division, 7th Brigade, they became the first journalists to see the Khmer Rouge death camp at Tuol Sleng, abandoned in the middle of operations on Jan 6, 1979.
“Film at the time was very rare,” said Ho Van Tay. “We only had 16 millimeter black-and-white. It was really difficult to use and we had to do so sparingly.”
Dinh Phong, 71, said the sounds of children were immediately apparent.
“We heard the cry of a baby, and at the left hand side, there was a kitchen and a small garden. When we went there, under a pile of clothing and rubbish, we found five children,” said Dinh Phong, who retired five years ago as vice-president of HCMC TV. “They were naked and had mosquito bites all over their bodies. And because of hunger, a small child died.”
The men were joined at Monday’s press conference by Norng Chanphal, whom they had discovered as an 8-year-old abandoned at Tuol Sleng, too weak to stand. There was a burst of camera flashes as he wept when asked by a reporter how many days he had held out in the emptied death camp before giving up hope of seeing his mother alive again.
“I did not know why they beat and kicked my mother like that,” he said of his family’s 1978 internment at Tuol Sleng. “I saw her once looking at us by the window, and since then, we had never seen her looking by that window again.”
Ho Van Tay and Dinh Phong both said they had no intention of testifying at the Khmer Rouge tribunal, as the footage they shot was evidence enough. They did not directly answer a reporter’s question concerning the views of the Communist Party of Vietnam on the possibility that they could be summoned as witnesses. Prosecutors in January asked the court’s Trial Chamber to admit their recordings into evidence.
On a visit on Sunday, Tuol Sleng seemed much the same, said Dinh Phong.
“Everything except the kitchen was still the same,” he said. “I still had the same feeling of shock as I had 30 years ago.”
(Additional reporting by Douglas Gillison and Phorn Bopha)