S-21 Inspiration: Tuol Sleng Survivor Chum Mey

Chum Mey signing books at S-21 in CambodiaI spent a week in Phnom Penh this month and devoted a decent chunk of that time to learning more about the history of the genocide committed by the Khmer Rouge. I learned about it in high school, but now I realize that was just a shallow overview. From Tuol Sleng Prison (known as S-21) to the killing fields outside of the city, it is a somber and chilling experience to visit these places. Over 20,000 people were held, tortured, and executed at the two sites. Despite the dark feeling of the visit, I did find some light and inspiration along the way – his name is Chum Mey.

Chum Mey, now 86, is one of the 12 survivors of S-21. He was held at the prison camp for two years, enduring torture and unbearable conditions at what was once a high school. Out of the tens of thousands of prisoners, he was kept alive because he was skilled at repairing machines. Meeting him at the end of my tour at Tuol Sleng was a powerful thing I will never forget.

Tuol Sleng Prison Tour

Cell block at S-21 in Cambodia

The first floor of one of the buildings at the high school where prisoners were shackled.

As the descendant of a Holocaust survivor, I already had a strong emotional response to wandering around the haunting high school. The crude torture tools and blood-stained floors induced the same intense, tragic reflection and amazement I experienced at Yad Vashem in Israel, Dachau in Germany, or the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York.

Chum Mey's cell at S-21 in Cambodia

his is the small brick enclosure where Chum Mey and the other prisoners were shackled to the floor.

Throughout the tour, there are several physical locations tied to Chum Mey. A plaque at one of the torture stations displays his written account of the techniques used. In one of the cell blocks, a sign indicates which little alcove he was shackled and locked up in for years. You can also find him in photographs on the walls.

Though he is called a survivor and his book is titled Survivor, surviving isn’t the reason that he is an inspiration. He didn’t just survive. He lost everything. He witnessed the murder of his wife and newborn son. He was tortured and starved. And yet somehow, Chum Mey came out on the other end fighting. Fighting for the memories of the ones who died. Fighting for justice against those responsible. Fighting to make sure the genocide is not forgotten and is prevented in years to come.

The Legacy of Chum Mey

Chum Mey testifying

Chum Mey testifying at the Khmer Rouge Tribunal. Photo by Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia.

It is difficult to grasp the reality that this brave man returns daily to the same site where he gained so many horrifying memories. The strength and courage he possesses to spread his message and teach people about what happened in Tuol Sleng is amazing. In his own way, he is a leader of the “never forget” campaign in Cambodia that the Jewish community also preaches about the Holocaust.

In addition to his written works, presence at S-21, and educational contributions regarding the genocide, Chum Mey was also a key witness in the courts to prosecute those responsible for what went on at S-21. Mainly, Kang Kek Iew (AKA Comrade Duch), the chief of S-21 prison and security branch leader in the Khmer Rouge movement.

Imagine testifying in an international court, The Khmer Rouge Tribunal, as a key witness against the exact individual responsible for the pain and suffering you endured for years. Chum Mey represented, and still represents, himself, his family, the fellow prisoners he met in S-21, and all of the families of Cambodia who suffered in this period.

Teaching and Inspiring the World

Chum Mey at S-21

Whether he is signing books or eating lunch, Chum Mey’s presence at S-21 leaves an impression on each visitor.

For those who visit Tuol Sleng, Chum Mey’s appearance cements the experience and makes it even more powerful. I can tell you with certainty that if I met a Holocaust survivor at a tour of the same concentration camp they were held in for years, it would make the visit all the more potent. And Chum Mey is more than one survivor to S-21 – he is the only living one. I will always remember my visit to Tuol Sleng and the killing fields in Cambodia and would like to thank Chum Mey for all that he has done to educate the rest of the world on what happened there.

Do you have any similar thoughts or experiences from Cambodia? Please comment and share!

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