I Shed Tears in Prison







Vannak Huy


Chhim Sam Ol, a 45 year-old farmer living in Ta Cho Village, Sarikakeo Commune, Sva Em District, Kandal Province, was a Khmer Rouge prisoner in the Eastern Zone in 1974 and 1975. Describing the anguish he experienced during his detainment, Chhim Sam Ol said: “I wept when they shackled me. I felt so miserable for this life-changing suffering - sleeping on the ground like animals, fleas all over the body, skin diseases, etc. During the Phchum Ancestor Festival, I could see numerous people carrying offerings to the pagodas through the window. As for me, I cried in custody.” Chhim Sam Ol relates the story of his detention below.


“After the 1970 coup ousting King Sihanouk from his post, I was selected to join a militia unit [Kang Svay Tran] in order to increase village security. One night in the early 1974, the liberation army of the Khmer Rouge assaulted my village, and captured thirty villagers and me for serving the old regime [the Khmer Republic, led by Field Marshal Lon Nol]. At about 10 p.m., a few guerrillas called me, ‘contemptible Ol, come down here!’ Sensing  serious trouble, I decided not to come. So I stayed still in my house. When I did so, they used their bayonets to stab me from beneath my house Then they shot at me three times. Because they roared fiercely and I was afraid I might get hit by some of the bullets, I surrendered, raising my hands and walking slowly down the stairs. As I reached the ground, they immediately took my watch, tied me up and walked me away.


“As they were leading me and the other villagers to the edge of the village, Lon Nol soldiers shelled from the Chroy Changva area with their six-cannoned artillery. The Khmer Rouge then ran away, leaving us behind. Panic stricken, we cut the ropes binding us and ran to hide in pits that had been made by previous bombings. After the bombardment was over, the Khmer Rouge soldiers returned, pointed their guns at us and called us to stand up. They tied us up once again and led us to a river, where they began to strip-search us for money. They said, ‘Any money or belongings must be confiscated. They will be returned to you when you are re-educated.’ After searching, they continued their march along the river. As we were walking, planes from Phnom Penh attacked again. But they strafed at the Khmer Rouge only. A few minutes later, the planes disappeared. The Khmer Rouge then brought us to a reeducation camp in Prek Rey, Lvea Em District. I was detained there for two weeks. When they escorted us, I was not afraid. But when they shackled us, I began to fear, shedding tears.”


At this point in the interview, Sam Ol took a huge breath, looked at his wrists, and continued, “Life in the prison was harsh. The utensils we ate with were the open containers used to feed pigs, and we used crab shells as spoons. During this time, the prison’s security guards called me to write my autobiography three times. A guard banged the table and said, ‘You are all members of the militia unit!’ Because they intimidated me, I told them the truth. Every one of us was questioned. Of the three times I was called to be questioned, I told them a lie that ‘I don’t have any relatives.’ Previous captives told me that if I told them the truth about this, the Khmer Rouge would search for my relatives.

“In addition to questioning us, the Khmer Rouge guards ordered all the prisoners to work at farms, collect firewood, move earth, and carry water to the tanks with our hands and shoulders. The prisoners were forced to work continuously all day long, and were provided insufficient food.”  


During his one year of detainment, Sam Ol was moved to three different reeducation camps. He revealed: “After being detained at Prek Rey prison for two weeks, the Khmer Rouge moved 15 prisoners including me to Snay Pol reeducation camp in Pea Reang District, Prey Veng Province for one day before continuing to Prek Kralanh reeducation camp. Prisoners who were relocated from Prek Rey prison to Snay Pol prison were not shackled. Instead, the Khmer Rouge tied them using only sewing thread. ‘Anybody who causes the threads to detach will be shot immediately!’ Luckily, the guards did not mean what they said, because as we were walking, if someone walked too fast, the person behind him had to remind the person in front: ‘Don’t walk too fast, the thread will be detached.’ Whenever the threads broke, the prisoners spoke in fright, ‘Help! Help connect the threads together.’ The Khmer Rouge soldiers roared with laughter when they heard that.


“When we reached a village consisting of approximately ten families, the villagers came out. They were carrying sticks, knives, axes, and hoes. They gathered around the prisoners saying, ‘Comrades! Exchange chickens with us! These men are imperialists! Take our chickens!’ All of the prisoners were scared stiff of being slaughtered by the villagers. Fortunately, Santebal prohibited them. They led us for three more days until we reached Snay Pul prison. In fact, the distance from Prek Rey to Snay Pul was only a day’s walk. At night, the guards led the prisoners from Snay Pul to Prek Kralanh prison, which was my final prison.”


Sam Ol was detained in Prek Kralanh for almost a year. On 17 April 1975 when the Khmer Rouge occupied Phnom Penh, he was allowed to farm for the new regime, which he called a “prison without walls.”


Sam Ol talked further about his life during his year of captivity in Prek Kralanh: “When I was detained in Prek Rey prison for a week, the chief of the prison told us in a meeting that ‘We’ll move on in order to live with our people.’ I was very glad to hear about living with ordinary people, but in reality they brought us to another prison, Prek Kralanh. At Prek Kralanh the prison chief said that ‘We come here to get conditioned. So, try hard to rebuild yourself from today on.’ I was always wondering, ‘How do I temper and build myself?’ The Khmer Rouge conditioned the prisoners on every aspect of their lives from sleeping to walking to eating: ‘Train and train until the prisoners became skinny and bony.’ The Khmer Rouge turned schools into prisons. There were about 30 prisoners at my prison. Five inmates were kept in a single room. We were provided two meals a day-at 11 a.m. and at 5 p.m. A ladle of porridge was given to each prisoner and a bowl of crab sour-soup for five prisoners in a meal. The soup had half a crab and five slices of giant cactus tree as a vegetable. Each person was allowed only one spoon of soup. We did not have real bowls for our rice or porridge; they were made instead from palm leaves. We had to gulp our thin boiled-rice immediately after the cooks poured it into our leaf bowls; otherwise it would be gone in seconds through leaks. We gulped down the boiled-rice first and drank the soup later. 


“At dawn, the deputy chief of security assigned us to do various jobs. Some were appointed to transplant rice. Others were told to pull rice seedlings or fill water tanks. The chief prohibited all inmates from communicating with villagers. When meeting villagers, a prisoner was not to tell them about his or her miserable life in prison, for this was ‘a secret of Angkar.’ What a prisoner should tell them was that ‘food is plentiful and life in prison is fine.’


“One day in Phchum Ben season, I fetched water from a well at a pagoda. Just when my bucket reached the water, a monk arrived and asked me, ‘Do you have enough food to eat in prison?’ Then I replied frankly that ‘I don’t have anything to eat, except a bowl of boiled-rice.’ With pity, the monk handed me three ansam chruks [a kind of traditional cake with a combination of pork and sticky rice made especially during Phchum Ben season]. ‘Eat carefully, do not let them know,’ he said. To me the cakes were like gold. I thought that ‘this time I would have a chance to eat delicious food.’ I kept one in my pleat, another one folded into my trouser waist, and held the third one in my hand. Just as I was about to eat the one I was holding, a Khmer Rouge guard appeared from nowhere and shouted at me, ‘You’ve stolen them from other people!’ Then the guard hit me four times with his gun butt. I fell flat to the ground close to the well, and then the guard took my cakes away. The villagers preferred to feed the prisoners, but the Khmer Rouge not only took the food away, they blamed the villagers if they wanted to give food to them.


“What I’ve never forgotten was the time when I met my older brother as the guards were leading me and other inmates to transplant rice. When I saw my brother, I asked him, ‘Brother! Where have you come from?’ After my brother had walked past, a Khmer Rouge soldier asked me, ‘Who did you talk to?’ ‘I called my brother,’ I told him. Suddenly, he hit violently three times using the butt of his gun and warned me, ‘Do not do this again! If you want to ask him, ask me first.’ The Khmer Rouge guards working at the prison were mostly teenagers between the ages of 16 to 17, yet the prisoners did not have enough physical strength to revolt. As an example, a strong gust of wind could easily knock me down if I did not walk carefully outside the prison.


“All prisoners had the same fate. The difference was just a matter of time. Some died of swelling caused by lack of food. Other died attempting to escape.”


Sam Ol emphasized the causes of death: “Most prisoners were too weak to work under the sun, because they were provided very little food to eat… They were pale and easily infected by disease, causing the body to swell and fluids to flow out. One night five prisoners attempted to escape through the door. Unfortunately, the chief of the unit knew and informed the security chief. In the morning, the security chief called all prisoners to attend the meeting and asked, ‘Listen! Who made an attempt to escape last night?’ All prisoners replied that they did not know anything. ‘You all conspire to lie to me! You wanted to escape last night!’ said the chief. However, the chief had known everything, since the chief of the unit who had informed him was a former prisoner assigned to keep a lookout on the activities of other prisoners and report on them to the security chief. We did not know where this lookout worked in the daytime, but he returned to sleep inside the cell with other prisoners at night. When the meeting ended, the security chief ordered the guards to tie five prisoners’ hands behind their backs until their elbows almost touched. They were all blindfolded. Then they were led to the north behind the prison, while the remaining prisoners were allowed to go back to their cells. The security chief closed the door and warned, ‘If anyone causes chaos upon hearing gunshots, they will be killed.’ A moment later I heard him counting: ‘One! Two! Three!’ followed by the sound of several gunshots.” Nevertheless, Sam Ol added that he did not hear the cry of the prisoners, but “when I looked to the front, I could recognize some clothes belonging to the prisoners hung on the fence.”


What he saw was three prisoners being executed using the sharp edge of a palm tree branch. It was “carried out before our very eyes three months after I first arrived. A group of Khmer Rouge soldiers brought these prisoners from Prek Rey to Prek Kralanh prison to be slaughtered for attempted escape.” Sam Ol said, “Punishing prisoners for breaking rules was a way to warn others against repeating the same crime.”


He stated: “I’ll never forget the punishment imposed on me by the Khmer Rouge. I wonder how these people, who spoke the same language as us, could kill their own race? During each Phchum season, I’ve always thought about what happened 25 years ago in which ‘I shed tears in prison.’”







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Ten Years of Independently Searching for the Truth: 1997-2007


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