|The Cambodia Daily WEEKEND, Saturday and Sunday, April 15-16, 2000|
Awakening to the Terror
While the World Knew Nothing of S-21, a Handful of Foreigners Were Trapped in its Misery, Spending Their Last Days in the Secret Torture Prison
By Brian Mockenhaupt
Karl Deeds hadn’t heard from his brother for a year. That wasn’t too unusual. Michael Deeds was a surfer and sailor living in the US state of Hawaii and was often out of contact.
But in November of 1979 the US State Department told the Deeds family that Michael may have been aboard a boat captured late in 1978 by the Khmer Rouge in the Gulf of Thailand.
Karl left to find his brother, going to Singapore, his last known location, in December 1979. There he sat in his hotel room watching a US television news special on Tuol Sleng, the Khmer Rouge torture prison.
What a horrible place, he thought.
Then he heard his brother’s name read from a list of victims.
Thus Deeds learned the fate of his brother, one of a handful of Westerners sent to the infamous S-21 prison where more than 16,000 Cambodians were tortured and later killed.
He was one of the last to die, as well. His confession, a lengthy personal history laced with tales of being a spy for the US Central Intelligence Agency, was dated January 5, 1979. Two days later, the Vietnamese army invaded Phnom Penh and ended the four-year rule of the Khmer Rouge, the ultra-Maoist group blamed for the deaths of up to two million Cambodians.
Twenty-five years after the Khmer Rouge came to power, there is still little known about the final days of Deeds and the other foreigners unlucky enough to get a first-hand look at Cambodia in the late 1970s, then one of the most tightly-locked countries in the world. What is known is they died horrible deaths alongside thousands of Cambodians after confessing to wild stories of espionage.
Michael Scott Deeds was born in Long Beach, in the US state of California, now home to thousands of Cambodian immigrants. He grew up surfing, sailing and hanging out with friends. During the Vietnam War, as California became more crowded and more polluted, he left for Hawaii with a childhood friend, Chris DeLance, looking for an easier life.
A few years later he would be in the Gulf of Thailand with DeLance aboard a 60-foot boat, the Leilani. No one knows what brought them there, but the suspicion is drug smuggling.
“Everyone had heard of these amazing, exotic get-rich-quick schemes,” says Peter Maguire, a war crimes historian who spoke with Karl Deeds about his brother. “One of the major ones was marijuana smuggling from Thailand.”
Many of those involved were surfers and sailors from California and Hawaii. “It was not uncommon,” says Maguire, who grew up surfing in California. “Maybe these guys were trying to get in on the tail end of that.
“They weren’t completely innocent by any measure. But they certainly didn’t deserve their fates.”
Deeds and DeLance and most of the other foreigners taken to S-21 were captured at sea by Khmer Rouge naval patrols. Some may have knowingly been in or near Cambodian waters; others were simply blown off course.
“The primary purpose of these patrols was to intercept Vietnamese navy craft and to interdict fishing by Thai boats in what Cambodia considered its territorial waters,” says Stephen Heder, a Khmer Rouge historian at the School for African and Asian Studies in London. “The Westerners were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time.”
According to prison records, four Americans, two Australians, three Frenchmen, an Englishman, a New Zealander, and several Pakistanis, Thais and Vietnamese were taken to Tuol Sleng. They could hardly have known what awaited them as they were driven into Phnom Penh, down a narrow residential street, and hustled into the grounds of a high school ringed with barbed wire.
Little is known of their stays in S-21, but researchers say they were likely treated much the same as other prisoners: kept in long open rooms, sleeping side-by-side shackled to the floor, or chained inside tiny brick cells.
Vann Nath, one of seven known survivors of Tuol Sleng and the only one still living, remembers the Westerners at the prison. But he doesn’t remember much specifically about them. To Cambodians, he said, they all looked big and hairy. Sometimes he would hear the Americans singing at night from their cells.
Duch, the head of S-21, who now sits in prison awaiting trial, told one interviewer the British prisoner was “polite.”
The prisoners were awakened early in the morning and forced to do exercises with one foot locked to the floor. They were berated by the guards, who were often boys as young as 13. They had little to eat.
It was a monotonous life, punctuated by moments of agony and terror, when they were taken to small rooms for interrogation sessions. The end goal of interrogation was confession, coveted by the Khmer Rouge who were determined to purge Cambodia of imperialist influences and internal troublemakers.
At Tuol Sleng today there are thousands of prisoner files, each with detailed reports by interrogators, outlining the prisoner’s history and supposed offenses against the Angkar, or Organization, the vague and all-powerful entity that directed life in Cambodia for four years.
Among the files at Tuol Sleng are the confessions of the foreigners who spent their last days in the prison. All of the confessions, in some way, aim to prove the prisoners had intended to destroy Cambodia, most often through alignment with Western imperialists.
Australian David Lloyd Scott claimed in his confession to have an uncle in the CIA, to have attended a college that was a front for CIA training and to have been recruited to spy on Cambodia. “The mission was to collect enough information about the sea defenses of Cambodia to allow a special CIA vessel to enter, drop off and pick up agents from Cambodian territory early in January, 1979.”
Scott’s shipmate, Ronald Keith, ended his confession with the day the pair was captured. “David woke me out of a heavy sleep about 10 pm to relieve him on watch,” he wrote. “He was asleep within minutes of me taking over. At 1:30 am, on the second of November, we were captured by a Cambodian patrol vessel.”
The two died by strangulation after being whipped, beaten and shocked, according to prison records.
Extracting confessions at Tuol Sleng was a practiced skill, honed over hundreds of hours of interrogation. According to prison records, prisoners were burned with cigarettes, had fingernails pulled out, were suffocated and forced to drink urine and eat feces.
Eam Chan, who died recently, was one of the few to survive Tuol Sleng. His interrogators stuffed a hose in his mouth and pumped water and fish sauce into his stomach until he vomited. Then the process was repeated, again and again. He survived because his captors learned he was a sculptor and he spent the rest of his imprisonment fashioning busts of Pol Pot. Nearly every other prisoner, the foreigners included, had nothing to offer in exchange for their lives.
But it seems they tried to give the interrogators what they wanted.
“The key country to watch in Southeast Asia is Cambodia, the most successful communist country,” wrote American James Clark, captured in early 1978 with fellow American Lance McNamara.
His confession reads in parts like a textbook on Cold War theory. “The US thought that if Cambodia became strong enough, it would invade or make war on Thailand, and turn it to communism,” he wrote. “After Thailand, it would be easy to make Malaysia communist, and then Singapore would be threatened.... The United States will not let Singapore fall to communism.”
In July of 1969, Clark said in his confession, he was drafted to fight in the Vietnam War but refused and was sentenced to two years in prison. Some of this is likely true, but it is impossible to distinguish Clark’s life history from embellishments for the sake of his captors. Often times, the confessions were written by interrogators and signed by the prisoners.
Clark’s confession states that he made his first contacts with CIA agents while in prison in the US. After his release, he began building a boat, but kept up his CIA relationships.
“Bill and Sydney [of the CIA] asked me if I had ever thought of making money with my boat. The only way I knew of was smuggling marijuana from Mexico. For a while we spoke of smuggling—the danger, the rewards, the adventure,” Clark wrote. “Then [Bill] surprised me by saying he was working for the CIA and used his smuggling as a cover.”
Clark said he asked his friend, Lance McNamara to join him. For the Cambodia mission, they were supposed to photograph boats, islands and radio installations.
On April 18, 1978, the two were apparently in Cambodian waters when they were approached by a Khmer Rouge patrol boat. The boat was armed with a .50-caliber machine gun and a 20-mm cannon.
“When rifle shots came at us I thought it was a pirate,” Clark wrote. “I had been warned that there were pirates using boats from the war, so I thought this was a pirate boat and fired about 15 bullets from my revolver and Lance’s automatic, hoping they might go away.”
The patrol boat fired back with the 20-mm cannon, bullets slamming into Clark’s boat and bringing it to a stop. Clark states his capture ended his work for the CIA—for which he and McNamara were to be paid a total of $1.1 million. “As to Cambodia,” he said, “the CIA will keep bringing its agents of all kinds to spy upon it.”
Clark’s elaborate confession gained him nothing. He, too, was executed after torture.
“The Khmer Rouge leadership realized these Americans in particular were something like hot potatoes, so they took special measures to dispose of their remains secretly—though we now know the secret,” says Craig Etcheson, a genocide researcher.
The bodies, he says, were burned to ashes with tires not far from the prison.
The orders to burn the bodies came from Nuon Chea, second in command of the Khmer Rouge regime under Pol Pot, Heder says. “Nuon Chea explained that Cambodian revolutionaries did not want to get into the business of trading foreigners or their bones for better relations with imperialists.”
Michael Deeds and Lance McNamara were among the last people taken to Tuol Sleng. They were captured Nov 24, just weeks before Vietnam began its invasion.
During interrogation, Deeds gave a detailed outline of his life. He also said he was trained as a spy in the US. “They taught me how to use weapons, how to use the radio to contact them and how to shoot photographs and read maps,” his confession reads.
To his brother Karl, this was not surprising. Much of what Michael said of his life was true; the CIA parts are false, he said. “The longer you talk, the longer you don’t get tortured,” he told Maguire. “You get very creative.”
Karl Deeds died last year of cancer. To the end he was searching for his brother’s remains, 20 years after learning his fate. In the 1980s, Deeds came to Cambodia. With Vann Nath, he went to Tuol Sleng and dug up the shallow graves of those killed and buried at the very end.
He never did find his brother.
But he found a connection with the Cambodians who helped him search. “There was a sense of something shared—family killed,” he said. “I never compared mine to theirs because theirs was a suffering so much greater than anything that I could ever know.”