Author(s): J. Carey Jackson, MD

Date Authored: February 10, 2015

This video discusses an example of mass torture in Cambodia under Pol Pot.

One thing you notice about this story is that it doesn’t sound like a classic story of torture. There is no incarceration, no beating, no interrogation and so the victim might not endorse the fact that they were tortured if asked “were you ever tortured?” But if you ask “Were you ever threatened with execution, did you ever witness the execution or mock execution of a friend or loved one, did you experience extended periods of intentional deprivation, were you forced to work against your will like a slave?” Then clearly this victim would say yes, even though he may feel his friend was tortured and not identify this own experience as torture. Specificity, and not a gloss using the word torture, can be central to getting the history.

Another feature of torture survivors that I have been struck by after taking dozens of these histories is that often the trauma the victim experiences is not the haunting image that recurs routinely in their nightmares, and not the story that captures for them the horror and heartbreak of the events. It is what they witness of the suffering of others that grieves them the most and proves to be the lasting image hardest to shake. They often forget what they experienced themselves and can repress it and only the looks on the faces of others linger. For this reason, one should not minimize the impact of witnessing the torture of others.

A woman held by the Ethiopian government for three months and beaten and bound tells mostly of watching someone have their face dipped in boiling water or another raped as the events most painful from her experience. The image, the screams, the inability to help these people forms the pains are harder to carry than receiving a blow directly, and it is exactly why including a history of the torture or execution of family and friends is important.

The shared experience of suffering is exactly why this theatrical display is made by the Khmer Rouge in this case. They do not want information from this man or others, they do not want to clarify the rules, they want to display power and control over the population. The very public and outrageous dissection of this poor man was done to illustrate a point about rebellion and disobedience. The phrase “big liver” in Khmer connotes avarice, disregard for social conventions, and rebellion so the vivisection and removal of his liver in front of the group was intended to make the crowd carry this image in mind as a lesson.

Finally, this happened many many years ago when he was a young man, but he has carried this his entire life, tucked away, and it comes back to injure him when he can afford it the least.