February 16, 2009 / 10:04 AM / 11 years ago

Vietnam cameramen recall Khmer Rouge torture horror

PHNOM PENH (Reuters) - Vietnamese army cameramen recalled on Monday the horrific scenes as they passed through the barbed wire gates of Pol Pot’s S-21 torture centre in Cambodia’s capital 30 years ago.

“We had to use masks and perfume to bear the stench as we walked into the centre,” said Dinh Phong, a member of an army film crew covering Hanoi’s toppling of the Khmer Rouge regime that was blamed for the deaths of 1.7 million people.

They found five emaciated children, one of whom later died, hiding under piles of prisoners’ clothing in the Phnom Penh school where at least 14,000 people were tortured and killed.

“They were all naked. Their bodies marked by mosquito bites,” Phong, 70, told reporters on the eve of the first trial of Pol Pot’s surviving henchmen by a United Nations-backed tribunal.

The black-and-white footage of the swollen, maggot-infested bodies in S-21, some of them still shackled, was taken a few days after Pol Pot’s fighters were driven out of the capital in January 1979.

The film is expected to figure prominently in the trial of former S-21 chief Kaing Guek Eav, also known as Duch, which formally begins on Tuesday with procedural motions.

The 66-year-old chief Khmer Rouge interrogator faces charges of war crimes, crimes against humanity, torture and homicide.

Ho Van Tay, who led the Vietnamese film crew, said the 16 mm footage showed the axes, spades and electrical wires used to torture and later kill inmates.

“We had to step around swollen, worm-infested corpses with shackles on their ankles,” the 75-year-old said.

They filmed a room where inmates were forced to make sculptures of Pol Pot, who died in 1998. They also found Vietnamese uniforms among the piles of clothing, he said.

“I assumed Pol Pot not only killed Cambodians, he killed Vietnamese,” Dinh Phong said.

The Khmer Rouge and North Vietnamese were allies against the U.S.-backed government in Phnom Penh in the early 1970s. But Pol Pot fell in with China after seizing power in 1975 and waged a border war against Vietnam that led to his downfall.

HANDS OF BLOOD

Van Tay said they would not testify at the trial of Duch, but the appearance of the former Vietnamese soldiers was something of a rarity in Phnom Penh.

Despite international and domestic repugnance at the Khmer Rouge and their disastrous attempt to create an agrarian utopia, a significant minority of Cambodians mourn Jan. 7 as the start of a 10-year occupation by their hated Vietnamese neighbours.

Hanoi has portrayed the invasion as a mercy mission and the occupation as necessary to prevent a resurgence of the Khmer Rouge, whose final surrender came only after Pol Pot’s death.

“Cambodia and Vietnam are friends and neighbours,” said Van Tay, who was joined at the press conference by Norng Chan Phal, the S-21 survivor he found 30 years ago.

The Cambodian was only 6 years old when his mother and three siblings were taken to S-21, accused of being enemies of the Khmer Rouge.

His mother was photographed and thrown into a cell.

“When I visit the prison I’m still shocked when I see the window where I last saw my mother,” said the weeping 39-year-old, who planned to attend Tuesday’s hearing.

“Duch’s hands are full of blood. It’s time for Duch to pay for his actions,” he said.

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