A woman claiming to be the only surviving female of the Tuol Sleng torture center was brought forward by a development organization Friday, claiming in an interview with VOA Khmer she remembered hearing the name of the torture chief, Duch, from other victims.
The woman, Chim Math, was reportedly discovered after members of a group being led through the Tuol Sleng prison in Phnom Penh recognized a photograph that looked like their neighbor.
The Center for Social Development, which led the tour and found the woman, claims she is the last surviving female from the torture center, where 16,000 Cambodians were executed and later dropped in the "killing fields" of Choeung Ek outside the capital.
Chim Math's story has not been independently confirmed, but if true, it paints a gruesome picture of victims placed in the torture center, which was led by Duch, the only member of the Khmer Rogue to so far be indicted by special tribunal courts.
Duch, who has been in prison since 1999, is now facing charges of crimes against humanity in the special tribunal courts. He was questioned and detained by tribunal investigators Tuesday.
In a face-to-face interview with VOA Khmer, Chim Math said she was rounded up with two other women and 21 men from a work unit in October 1977.
"I was arrested after men searched my backpack and found a photograph of my father, a military colonel, pictured receiving a decoration from [then prince Norodom] Sihanouk," she said. "I stayed two weeks at Tuol Sleng prison. I had nothing to eat for two days. On the third day they gave me porridge with water lilies.''
Her hands bound behind her, Chim Mith was tortured as interrogators asked her about her affiliations with the US CIA or the Russian KGB, intelligence agencies that were greatly feared by an increasingly paranoid regime.
"They put us all in separate rooms; then they put blindfolds on us, to interview us, and tied up girls with rope to their backs, and handcuffed the boys," Chim Math said. "For torture, I met a lot of atrocities, but talking about it makes us suffer more."
Her interrogators hit her ankles with sticks in order to exact a confession from her, she said.
"If you hit me until I die, I have nothing to confess because I didn't do anything bad," she recalled telling her captors.
Conditions were miserable, she said.
"For going to the bathroom they loosened the ties a little and let us a go a little after dark," she said. "I heard screaming from all the rooms, asking for mother and father to help and asking not to give us soapy water or fish sauce to drink. I heard the sounds of hitting. And when the prisoners died, they carred them away on a metal sheet. I saw their feet hanging and I was very, very scared. I thought I would surely die."
Chim Math said she was eventually taken to Prey Sar prison, in Phnom Penh, where her two female "comrades" were killed. She did not elaborate on how they died.
It was in Prey Sar that she first heard the name Duch associated with the head of the torture center she had just survived, she said. "At Prey Sar, I heard that Duch was the chief of Tuol Sleng," she said. In the torture center, "I didn't pay any attention, because while they tortured us and questioned us, we didn't look at them in the face. We were scared to look at them. We just listened to their voices."
Chim Math was not sure how she survived and she did not say when or how she left the prison, but after she left, she kept her experiences locked away.
"I never talked about it, not even to my husband or my children," she said. "If I talk about my past, I suffer. I remember the suffering."
The Center for Social Development, having found her, gave her counseling, and she decided to come forward to talk about her experiences, especially as a tribunal prepares to investigate at least four other leaders of the Khmer Rouge.
"CSD is confident that Chim Math's case will be thoroughly investigated by the police and judicial authorities at the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia," the Center said, referring to the tribunal by its official name. "CSD is prepared to assist the ECCC in this process as best it can and is committed to ensuring that that Chim Math is afforded the full measure of protection available to her under the law."
Chim Math is now prepared to do her part in bringing leaders of the regime to justice, the Center said.
"I was a victim," Chim Math told VOA Khmer. "We should contribute to the trial. For me, and what happened to me, the suffering, when I don't think about it, it is OK. But, when I do think about it, I see everything. I want them to be killed, or put them for life in prison."