SROK SA'ANG, Cambodia -- As a record keeper at the Khmer Rouge's most dreaded prison, Suos Thy would receive from above a list of prisoners. Each name was followed by the words: "Smash. Smash."
Suos Thy would cross the names off his register and the wardens would lead the inmates out of the S-21 prison to their deaths -- often to be clubbed on the head so as not to waste bullets.
Yesterday, Cambodia marked the 25th anniversary of the Khmer Rouge's fall with new hope that a UN sponsored genocide tribunal will start work this year and bring long awaited justice for the regime's atrocities.
The country's ruling elite commemorated the Vietnamese invasion, which toppled the Khmer Rouge, with a somber ceremony in the capital, Phnom Penh. "The unfortunate Cambodians who both survived and were killed must receive justice," said Chea Sim, president of the ruling Cambodian People's Party.
But a big task will be to figure out who should be held accountable: those who gave orders, or those like Suos Thy who carried them out?
Now a 52-year-old pig farmer in a country struggling with democracy and mired in poverty and corruption, he sees himself as a victim of Khmer Rouge, forced by fear and the need to survive.
"I know I used to serve a regime that killed and was inhumane. But whatever people say about me, so be it. I have survived," he said.
Two former inmates strongly disagree, saying they're stunned to hear their jailers claiming innocence. Thus the stage is set for bitter recriminations if and when the proposed tribunal starts working.
The communist Khmer Rouge's four-year rule, and its ambitions to create an agrarian utopia, turned the country into a vast labor camp racked by starvation and disease. Those who disobeyed were executed. More than 1.5 million Cambodians -- more than a tenth of the population -- died.
The Khmer Rouge was ousted by an invading Vietnamese army on Jan. 7, 1979, but none of its leaders has ever been held accountable in a court. Its leader, Pol Pot, died in 1998 in the jungles, a hunted man. Cambodia's prime minister, Hun Sen, is a Khmer Rouge deserter. Meanwhile, Cambodia has struggled out of the Cold War and embraced democracy. It took five years of negotiations with the UN to set the terms for the tribunal.
Suos Thy sees it as a chance not only to clear his name but also to seek justice for himself and four siblings he says he lost to the Khmer Rouge for reasons unknown.
But he admits to facilitating the killings at the S-21 prison, now the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, in Phnom Penh. He said those he processed for death included former comrades, and he was constantly afraid he would be next.
Huy Vannak, a researcher at a Cambodian center that compiles evidence against the Khmer Rouge, says the final decision will rest with the tribunal, but he believes the surviving jailers of S-21 can be seen as victims.
They were forced at young ages into joining the revolution, later becoming its "absolute tools immersed in ideology," he said.
Up to 16,000 prisoners passed through S-21's gates before being killed at the Choeung Ek mass graves outside the capital, now a grim tourist site of piled-up skulls. Only 14 inmates are known to have survived the prison. Among them are Chum Mey, 72, and Vann Nath, 58. They don't accept their former jailers' arguments.
"If they are victims, I don't know what we are," said Vann Nath.
He said he is "crystal clear" about the role of Suos Thy, who used to "go by the cells to call out prisoners to get on trucks" for a journey to death. Vann Nath was spared because of his skills in painting portraits of Pol Pot.
Chum Mey, a mechanic, recalled not daring to look his jailers, including Suos Thy, in the eye. He survived 12 days of torture -- electric shocks, fingers broken, toenails ripped out -- until he "confessed" to working for the CIA.
He had no clue what the CIA was, but the lie saved him, he said. The day after the Vietnamese freed him, he saw his wife and youngest son shot by a Khmer Rouge soldier in a rice field.
" `Run! run! They are killing me now,' " Chum Mey recalls his wife shouting to him. He managed to escape, he said in a choked voice.