Inside Pol Pot's School for Torture

Khmer Rouge Cambodia
How two Americans fell into the murderous hands of Khmer Rouge interrogators. Tim Page/Corbis

A reminiscence by hippie/surfer drug dealers about getting alternately high then busted in the Seventies unearths the plight of a pair of American drug runners, captured by Khmer Rouge troops and tortured in the notorious Tuol Sleng (Hill of the Poison Trees) Prison.

Mike Deeds and Chris Delance had tried to outrun the Khmer Rouge patrol boat, but when the boat began to fire warning shots, the Americans lowered their sails and awaited their fate. The Cambodian boat closed the distance quickly and didn't even bother to pull alongside; they smashed right into the Iwalani's fiberglass bow.

Deeds and Delance were swiftly overwhelmed by aggressive men with AK-47s who spilled onto their deck and wasted no time in subduing and blindfolding them. By the time the Cambodians had towed the Iwalani to port, other soldiers from the 3rd Division had heard over the radio that an American boat had been captured and were waiting at the dock.

Many of these Cambodian sailors had fought against the U.S. Marines on Koh Tang Island during the Mayaguez affair and wondered if these were American spies.

After the Khmer Rouge captured the American merchant ship U.S.S. Mayaguez in 1975, U.S. Marines landed on the remote Cambodian island of Koh Tang and were met by heavy resistance from the battle-hardened Khmer Rouge 3rd Division.

The Cambodian soldiers defending the island shot down three U.S. helicopters, and the fighting raged for three days. In the end, 15 Americans and 13 Khmer Rouge soldiers died.

A week after the final battle, the Khmer Rouge soldiers noticed that each night someone was stealing their leftover rice; they suspected each other until they found "the Mike Force boot [print] of Americans."

That night they set up an ambush and captured U.S. Marines Gary Hall and Danny Marshall. "They looked starved and [had] no spirit for fighting, they looked for life. We brought them to our base, no one spoke English or French," recalled Nek Long. "We only knew that they missed the planes." Nek Long heard over his radio that another patrol boat had captured an American sailboat with two men dressed like civilians aboard it.

After the Mayaguez incident, the Cambodians were on the lookout for American intelligence agents and thought Deeds and Delance "might be spies who were ordered to take photographs for military actions because Americans were preparing for another navy fight. We understood that they were supported by other ships or something else, that the boat could travel on its own."

When the sailboat came into port under tow, Nek Long saw two blindfolded white men. "Among the men I saw that time, there was one tall, big guy and another guy who was neither big nor tall."

Sok Sann, one of the Khmer Rouge soldiers who shot down an American helicopter with a rocket propelled grenade, also noticed the strange boat. "We didn't have such a boat in Cambodia," he said. "The sail had already been pulled down when it was captured. We had never seen this boat before, it was very modern, it was made of neither metal nor wood."

When San and his curious comrades walked over to have a closer look, someone turned on floodlights and ordered the Americans to climb onto the pier. "Because they were blindfolded they couldn't see, so they held their arms and walked them," recalled Sann. The Khmer Rouge sailor thought the two white sailors had accidentally strayed into Cambodian waters and would be released after questioning in Phnom Penh.

"In our mind, we had a lot of doubts, we didn't feel any hatred, as when we saw the Vietnamese," said Sann. "I didn't think the Americans were in such a bad situation as the Vietnamese. If the Vietnamese were captured, they would have been killed once they were brought onto shore."

Deeds and Delance were loaded into a car that drove inland for a few hours before it turned down a hot, dusty road on the outskirts of Phnom Penh and stopped at the reinforced gates of Tuol Svay Pray High School. The Khmer Rouge had renamed the school "S-21" in 1976. Also known as Tuol Sleng Prison, this was the end of the road; of the approximately 20,000 people known to have entered, possibly a dozen survived.

Unlike the majority of Cambodian prisoners, who were photographed and put in mass cells, ankle-cuffed to large steel poles, the Americans were photographed and taken to a house for "special" prisoners just outside the gates.

The head of S-21 was a former academic named Kang Keck Ieu, better known as Brother Duch. The torturers, guards, and prison staff numbered around 1,500 young men and women between the ages of 15 and 19, all from what their intellectual leaders considered "pure" or "clean" peasant backgrounds.

Before they were selected to work at the prison, the future staffers were subjected to months of harsh military training at a camp outside Phnom Penh, where they were ordered to forget about their parents and to think only of the revolution. Their rations consisted of little more than banana stalks, papaya roots, and bugs. Even the slightest infractions were severely punished, and some trainees were even executed.

The climate of fear and distrust at S-21 has few equals in twentieth-century history. One former S-21 cadre recalled the hardening process: "At that time, the Khmer Rouge taught us to hate our parents and not to call them 'Pok' and 'Me' [Mom and Dad] because our parents did not deserve to be 'Pok Me,' only Angkar [the nation] deserved to be children's parents

Although these self-righteous teens served as the praetorian guards of Pol Pot's revolution, in truth their lives were little more secure than those of the prisoners. According to S-21 records, 563 guards and other members of the prison staff were killed between 1976 and 1979.

Disobeying orders at S-21 was a life or death decision. One guard was killed for burning a wasp's nest, another for shouting "The house is on fire" in his sleep. One of the most striking things about S-21 Prison was the all-pervasive culture of paranoia—every ally was also a potential enemy.

The prison workers were divided into three main departments: interrogation, documentation, and security. In addition to being interrogated, many of the prisoners were photographed in some of the most haunting images of the century.

The most feared unit at S-21 Prison were the "catchers," who were responsible for capturing people and bringing them to prison, and then for executing them after interrogation. By 1977, the Khmer Rouge leaders were ordering so many killings that every few weeks truckloads of bound and blindfolded prisoners were driven in trucks to Cheung Ek, 15 kilometers southwest of Phnom Penh.

The "catchers" forced the prisoners to kneel at the edge of a pit and clubbed them in the back of the neck with an iron bar. The shallow mass graves they were buried in came to symbolize Cambodia's Killing Fields.

The interrogators worked in three-man teams composed of a transcriber, an interrogator, and a torturer. Torture came in a variety of forms: beating with fists, feet, sticks, or electric wire; burning with cigarettes; electric shocks; being forced to eat feces; jabbing with needles; ripping out fingernails; suffocation with plastic bags; waterboarding; and being covered with angry centipedes and scorpions.

Different teams specialized in "mild," "hot," or "chewing" interrogations. Many of the questions asked revolved around charges of sedition. Individuals were accused of being agents of "C" or "K," shorthand for the CIA and the KGB. Typically, the victim was asked a battery of questions that had no correct answer.

A manual found at S-21 discouraged torture that ended with death, or what it called "a loss of mastery." The objective was "to do politics," to extract all the information possible before killing the prisoner. The goal of the torture was, according to Brother Duch, to loosen memories: "Beat until he tells everything, beat him to get at the deep things."

Interrogators were carefully instructed how to write down prisoners' torture-induced personal histories. One interrogator's note to Duch recounts a typical session: "In the afternoon and evening of 21.7.77 I pressured him again, using electric cord and shit. On this occasion, he insulted the person who was beating him: 'You people who are beating me will kill me,' he said. He was given 2–3 spoonfuls of shit to eat, and after that he was able to answer questions about the contemptible Hing, Chau, Sac, Va, etc. That night I beat him with electric cord again."

One Khmer Rouge lie detector was especially crude: a plastic bag went over the suspect's head, and if his or her carotid artery throbbed, the person was guilty.

Tuol Sleng's terrifying head interrogator, Mam Nai, alias "Chan," probably questioned the Americans because he was one of the few members of the staff who could speak English. Exceptionally tall for a Cambodian, with thick lips, he had skin and eyes so light that many thought he was an albino. When journalist Nate Thayer saw him in a Khmer Rouge camp decades later, he described Chan as "the most-frightening" man he had ever seen.

In a notebook that was left behind at S-21, Chan wrote, "Apply political pressure and then beat them until [the truth] emerges. Thinking only of torture is like walking on one leg—there must be political pressure [so that we can] walk on two legs."

Throughout December 1978, Mike Deeds and Chris Delance were tortured and forced to write their confessions. Of limited historical worth, the Americans' confessions are more a testament to man's remarkable creativity under extreme duress. Both men wove facts from life with fiction to tell a more convincing story.

Mike Deeds claimed to have been recruited by a CIA agent named Lazeby. After tactical training in Virginia and California and a 16-week course at the CIA's intelligence and operation school in Washington, D.C., he was given his certificate that declared him a CIA "operation officer."

Before he left for Cambodia, the CIA sent him to Long Beach University to keep track of student organizations that opposed the U.S. government. He went on a mission to follow a Colombian drug dealer and revolutionary, and finally to Hawaii, where he infiltrated a radical environmental group. Deeds's stated objective was "to impede effectively the communist influence."

Chris Delance wrote that the CIA recruited him in 1969 to infiltrate radical student organizations and "defend my country from within against communist insurgents." He claimed that he was trained by "Commander Branley" at the nonexistent U.S. Special Services School; his "CIA number," 570 80 5777, was strangely similar to a Social Security number.

According to his confession, after Delance moved to Maui, the CIA instructed him to infiltrate a cult called "The Source" and the Hare Krishna Temple. After that, he was sent to Jamaica and Haiti to pose as a hippie yachter and to learn more about an arms- and drug-smuggling ring.

Delance wrote that his mission in Cambodia was to make contact with Cambodian fishermen, turn them into spies, and sent them to photograph a Khmer Rouge military base.

The American tried to flatter his captors by inflating their international political significance. "The government of Kampuchea is strong and functioning well. The economy is in good shape and the country is prospering. The only way to defeat Cambodia would be a full scale nuclear attack (out of the question)," the prisoner wrote. "This makes any form of bombing out of the question, and on the ground Kampuchea has already demonstrated her superiority to U.S. forces."

Delance claimed that they had been taking photographs for an hour when they saw the Cambodian naval vessel and threw their camera overboard. After a series of warning shots, they were boarded by five or six soldiers who "immediately tied and blindfolded us."

By the first week of January 1979, the Vietnamese army had taken Phnom Penh. The Khmer Rouge leaders and their Chinese advisors were running for the Thai border. Just two days before the Vietnamese army discovered S-21 Prison, Deeds and Delance were burned alive.

"The Westerners, they came in pairs, and at that time Nuon Chea [a.k.a. Brother Number Two, second in command to Pol Pot] said that the long-nosed prisoners should be taken out and I was ordered by him to burn them to ashes and not to leave any remaining behind," Brother Duch told a UN war crimes tribunal in 2011. Ho Van Tay, a Vietnamese combat photographer, followed the smell of rotting corpses all the way to the gate of S-21 and first discovered the hastily abandoned prison.

Excerpted from Thai Stick by Peter Maguire and Mike Ritter. Copyright © 2014 Peter Maguire and Mike Ritter. Used by arrangement with Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

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