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Survivors Sell Books at Prison That Once Held Them

Khmer Rouge survivor Chum Mey, 81, right, talks to reporters as another survivor Bou Meng, 70, left, listens at Choeung Ek stupa, former Khmer Rouge killing field in the outskirt of Phnom Penh, file photo.

Bou Meng and Chhum Mey spend less time at the trial of Khmer Rouge leaders these days, and more time at the torture center they both survived.

The two men sit at the Tuol Sleng musuem, the former prison known the Khmer Rouge as S-21, selling the stories of their lives to tourists.

The men say they are not happy to do so, but they have no choice if they want to earn a living.

Bou Meng, who sells copies of his biography, “A Survivor From Khmer Rouge Prison S-21,” by Huy Vannak, said he earns a few dozen dollars a day. On good days, he might earn a few hundred.

“I sell my book for $10, but some people give me $20 without getting back the change,” he said. “I thank them and kiss their hands to show that it’s their hands that help feed me for my daily survival.”

Bou Meng endured severe torture here under the Khmer Rouge, making it hard to return.

“Whenever I enter this place, I get really tense, but I have to come to earn some money, to feed my family, because I’m inadequately supported by the state,” he said.

Author Huy Vannak, who is now a spokesman for the Khmer Rouge tribunal, said he wrote the book “in hopes of making Mr. Bou Meng’s life meaningful, and to help him in various ways, both financially and mentally.”

Canadian tourist Claude Brale bought the book on a recent visit to the museum after talking with Bou Meng.

“I saw a lot of depth in his face and his eyes, and from there I wanted to read more about his story,” Brale said.

In another corner of the museum grounds, survivor Chum Mey sits selling books about the Khmer Rouge and magazines that tell his story of survival. It’s the only way he can support his family, he said.

The tribunal, which has already tried the former head of Tuol Sleng, Kaing Kek Iev, “has never provided anything to the victims,” Chum Mey said. “There are now only two remaining survivors of the S-21 prison after the passing away of Vann Nath, but there has not been any result for us at all.”

“Why does the court not pity the two remaining survivors who are sitting selling books to feed our stomachs?” Bou Meng said. “Why does it pity only the accused so much? What is the court is! I'm so disappointed.”

Huy Vannak said the court does not distinguish between Chum Mey, Bou Meng and the many other victims of the Khmer Rouge. “We don’t think there should be special treatment for any party,” he said.

Visitors here said that by buying books, they hope they help in some way.

“I hope it buys him some comfort in his life and enables him to have a better quality of life,” said Adam Marris, an Australian. “I hope he gets some satisfaction from being able to tell his story and perhaps make the world a better place.”