The Honor of Meeting The Artist Who Survived the Killing Fields of Cambodia

In 1975, when Cecile and I first moved to San Jose, CA to start my podiatry practice, the Cambodian genocide orchestrated by the Khmer Rouge (KR) regime led by Pol Pot was underway. It is estimated that between 1.5 to 3 million Cambodians were killed during the vicious four-year campaign. 

Members of my tour group including myself had the rare opportunity and honor to meet Mr. Bou Meng, one of the survivors of the notorious Tuol Sleng prison in Phnom Penh, Cambodia—the site where it all happened.

I had been to the Killing Fields and Genocide Museum about 14 years ago with my son Jason during a one month tour of Southeast Asia. I wanted him to know that there were other genocides that have taken place around the world other than the one of his Jewish heritage. No words can describe the incredible sadness one experiences when you see photos of the merciless torture of Cambodians. Amazingly, with all that Meng went through including the loss of his two children to disease during the Pol Pot years, and the loss of his wife, the 73 year old survivor is a delightful, humble and affectionate man. When he walked into the room to greet us, he took each of our hands into his then clasped his hands and bowed toward us. We each told him our name and where we were from. After the introductions we had a Q & A with our local guide, "Sun" doing the translation.

Bou Meng’s said he owes his life to his ability of being a artist. He was first asked to paint pictures of machine parts for a training program for the Khmer Rouge soldiers. Later, he was asked to paint portraits of Pol Pot. If he failed, he would have been executed. Due to his skill and Pol Pot being happy with how he was portrayed he was rewarded with larger portions of food to eat.

“Every night I looked at the moon,” Bou Meng said. “I heard people crying and sighing around the building. I heard people crying out, ‘Mother, help me! Mother help Me!,” he repeated. They were being loaded into trucks and sent to a killing field.” Every night he thought his time would come, but when midnight passed, he realized he would live another day. “ It was during the 2009 war crimes tribunal that Meng learned his wife, Ma Yeoun (Prisoner 331) was arrested, tortured and killed on August 16, 1977.

The ghost of those who died says Meng, call out to him every night pleading to seek justice on their behalf.