Walking with Ghosts ~ Surviving Tuol Sleng (S-21) and The Cambodian Killing Fields

Portrait: Mr Chum Mey, survivor of S-21 Tuol Sleng, in front of a picture of a victim

Mr Chum Mey ~ Survivor of S-21

Some events in history are incomprehensible to me.

That some people survive these events, with dignity and hope, is almost more incomprehensible.

While I was in Phnom Penh last month, as part of a photo-tour/workshop with photographers Karl Grobl, Marco Ryan, Gavin Gough and Matt Brandon, I was privileged to meet and speak with Mr Chum Mey, one of only seven prisoners known to have survived the notorious Security Prison 21 (S-21): Tuol Sleng.  

He spoke through an interpreter, but it was his voice and gentle brown eyes that held me transfixed as he talked about his experiences at the prison.

Chum Mey was in his forties, with a pregnant wife and three small children when the Khmer Rouge captured Phnom Penh. After being part of the exodus out of Phnom Penh, he was sent back to the city to repair the sewing machines used to manufacture the black uniforms favoured by the new regime. On 28 October 1978, they sent him to Tuol Sleng where he survived unspeakable and repeated tortures. His survival, when upwards of 17,000 perished, he believes, was because of his skills as a mechanic.

He talked, in his quiet voice, without rancour as he guided us around what is now a museum to the atrocities committed by those under the direct command of Kang Kech Iev, or “Brother Duch”, the head of the security apparatus. “If the dog bites you, you cannot bite it back”, Chum Mey said to us.

Where his anger did show was, not at Duch, but at the International Court – the UN-backed Khmer Rouge Tribunal – which gave Comrade Duch only 35 years for his crimes against humanity.

Join me, with Mr Chum Mey, in a short tour of Cambodia’s living past.



Text: Lest we ForgetEverything can be taken from a man or a woman but one thing: the last of human freedoms to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.

Viktor E. Frankl

How lucky it is that most of us are never so severely tested.


  • Signe Westerberg - August 11, 2011 - 11:36 pm

    What a dreadful time in history, and how important that these stories be told, we live in dangerous times, dangerous because without these brave people sharing their stories and people like you capturing it for future generations they will be all but lost. thank you.ReplyCancel

    • Ursula - August 12, 2011 - 1:43 am

      Thanks, guys. Chum Mey is a very special man – what strength!ReplyCancel

  • Kevin Dowie - August 12, 2011 - 12:48 am

    Thanks Ursula,
    a difficult subject which I think you’ve handled well.ReplyCancel

  • gabe - August 12, 2011 - 1:31 am

    Signe expressed it better than I can. Well doneReplyCancel

  • Peggy Tan - August 12, 2011 - 2:51 am

    Nice shots, nice music… but heart breaking… Hope history will not repeat again and world peace!ReplyCancel

    • Ursula - August 12, 2011 - 3:08 pm

      Hi Peggy! Thanks for visiting. Unfortunately, history does seem to repeat; similar stories, different places. I guess we can only do our little bit… and hope.ReplyCancel

  • Karl Grobl - August 16, 2011 - 1:25 am

    Ursula, you’ve done an excellent job on this multimedia piece about Chum Mey. Bravo! Compelling images and a sound track that fits very nicely. Keep up the great work…I’ll keep following your blog.
    All the best, KarlReplyCancel

    • Ursula - August 16, 2011 - 5:03 am

      Thanks so much Karl! Couldn’t have done it without you.ReplyCancel

  • Jasper Dalgliesh - August 19, 2011 - 11:01 am

    Hi Ursula – great piece, really lovely shots and very compelling. I’m still struggling to find time to go through all my images. Hopefully will be able to soon! Hope all is well. JasperReplyCancel

    • Ursula - August 19, 2011 - 2:16 pm

      Thanks so much for looking in – and for sharing this, Jasper. I KNOW your photos will be amazing, once you have a chance to look at them. I still have SO many I haven’t looked at; what a trip!ReplyCancel

  • Pongpet - August 20, 2011 - 12:35 pm

    With a good camera and Ursula’s hand, how amzingly some history is recorded on the way she travels. Thank you for keep sharing your valuable experiences.ReplyCancel

    • Ursula - August 21, 2011 - 4:45 am

      ขอบคุณมากนะคะ, Pongpet.ReplyCancel

  • Darrell Milbourne - August 24, 2011 - 5:43 am

    Great job Ursula. That time with Chum Mey was a very special and moving experience. Like Jasper I’m also struggling to find the time to review my images but I’m hanging in there. Where is your next trip?ReplyCancel

    • Ursula - August 24, 2011 - 5:55 am

      Hi Darrell! Thanks for visiting the site. I agree, our time with Chum Mey was very special. I hope I have done him some justice!
      I’m off to Sydney and other points Australian on Saturday. 🙂ReplyCancel

  • dietmut - August 27, 2011 - 9:48 am

    Hello Ursula
    Your last picture has me again magically attracted to view your website once again. A difficult theme you have chosen. I was in Cambodia in 2002 and have seen this with my own eyes. Interesting that I could see the history – but it is still horrible what happened at that time. With your movie and the matching music got this topic well managed to the attention. Greetings Dietmut

    When you have time please have a look to my weblogs

    • Ursula - August 27, 2011 - 3:27 pm

      Hi Dietmut,
      I’m glad you looked in. It was a difficult subject to tackle. I have been to Phnom Penh many times, and NOT gone to these places, but this time might be my last opportunity, so I thought I must go. I am SO glad I did: Mr Chom Mey made it special, and that was the angle I started with.
      btw: I LOVE the shallow dof on you flowers. 😀ReplyCancel

  • dietmut - August 28, 2011 - 8:23 am

    you are welkom Ursula
    greetings DietmutReplyCancel

  • […] the genocide perpetrated by Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge between 1975-1979 when two million Cambodians were killed, it is not surprising that less than 4% […]ReplyCancel

  • […] of Cambodia between 1975 and 1979, anyone deemed an “intellectual” was targeted. Over 17,000 Cambodian people were executed in the Killing Fields, and these included most of the country’s writers, artists and musicians. As a consequence, […]ReplyCancel

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