Remnants of the Khmer Rouge
Part I. Genocide as Tourism
Pick a country, and ask a stranger on the street what they know about Cambodia and the answers will hopefully be Angkor Wat. But the most likely answer will range between nothing and Pol Pot or the Khmer Rouge. Angkor Wat, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, has now been nominated to be recognized as one of the seven wonders of the world. And yet, it is the Cambodian civil war that people know about. After Angkor Wat, all of the remaining tourist attractions in Cambodia are related to the civil war: The Cambodian Landmine Museum, Tuol Sleng Prison (S-21), and the Killing Fields.
Cambodian genocide, perpetrated by the Khmer Rouge, during the Pol Pot regime (1975-1979) is one of the most unique and horrific events in world history. By the end of the Khmer Rouge period, nearly a quarter of the country's population had been killed. Modern Cambodians are dealing with the remnants of a war, which they fought against themselves.
New Cambodian Land Mine Museum
Aki Ra risks his life and freedom in the face of political pressure in order to help landmine victims. He dreams of a day when there will be no more mines in Cambodia.
The court says helping injured children is allowed, but you need a license to de-mine in Cambodia.
- It costs $3 to make a mine.
- A child can lay mines.
- It cost $500 to remove a mine from the earth.
- Children step on mines.
- Mines cost children their limbs.
The tiny room was filled with bombs, rockets, bullets, and of course, land mines. "This is one is a Vietnamese mine," said Boreath, holding up the now disarmed weapon of destruction. He was holding it in his left hand, because his right arm was missing, from the shoulder down. Boreath pointed at what looked like a bear trap. "If you step on this one, and no one come to help you, two hours and all blood go from your body, and you die." It was not hard to imagine the cruelty of those massive steel jaws slamming shut on your leg. There were some steel jacks, with spikes approximately three inches long. "They throw these everywhere on the ground. When you step on them, they get stuck in your foot."
Boreath explained nearly every weapon from the display. "This one is American, we call 'Bouncing Betty.' Step on this one and it jumps up and blows your leg off. These are machine gun bullets. These bombs fall from the sky. This one comes from Russia. This mine is a Chinese copy of an American mine." Boreath was an expert on explosives and the remnants of a war he could not remember, but to which he still fell victim.
Fourteen-year-old Boreath is a happy, polite, clean-cut Khmer kid who likes playing sports and spending time with his adopted family. Talking to him for just a few minutes you would realize that he is exceptionally bright and that he speaks excellent English. If he wasn't missing an arm, he could be any child from a privileged Phnom Penh family, who can afford to send their kids to an expensive international school. Looking into his bright, smiling eyes, it is hard to imagine that he is from a poor family, with six children, born in a remote village, where there wasn't even a school.
"My village was near the Thai border," explained Boreath. The five provinces on Cambodia's Thai border are some of the most heavily mined regions in Asia. "Seven years ago, I was playing, digging in the woods, when I hit the mortar bomb."
The fact that Boreath was playing in the woods nearly two decades after the end of the war did not keep him safe. Unexploded bombs and mines can remain active for up to 150 years.
"Near my village there was no public hospital, only a private one and they didn't want to help me because my family has no money. So, we went to the military aid station. I stayed there for one month."
Boreath's story is all too common in Cambodia. The landmines are a tremendous social problem, as people, particularly farmers, are frequently injured by them. But Boreath's story illustrates other issues facing the average Khmer family, namely the lack of money and lack of access to competent medical care.
"My family not have school, not have money, not have anything. Three years ago, Aki Ra came to the Thai border to remove mines. He asked me if I wanted to come to Siem Reap and live with his family. And my family agreed."
Now, Boreath has a roof over his head, three meals per day, a school to go to, plus supplemental English and Japanese lessons taught by volunteers. He also has about twenty new brothers and sisters who live with him, all of whom are landmine victims.
The man who made all of this possible is Aki Ra.
Aki Ra is one of the great heroes of modern Cambodia. Formerly a Khmer Rouge jungle fighter, Aki Ra spent most of his youth putting mines in the ground. He was later forced into the Vietnamese army, and was employed to put mines in the ground, this time, fighting against the Khmer Rouge. Aki Ra eventually had enough of killing, came of out of the jungle, and surrendered. He served with the UN peace keepers, doing de-mining work. Later, he opened the land mine museum, where he displayed unexploded ordinance, so that foreigners could learn the horrors of the Cambodian genocide. He and his wife also opened his home to landmine victims, raising more than twenty of them as his own children. Aki Ra pays for their food, education, and medical care. Through the support of an NGO, called Handicapped International, he is also able to provide his children with prosthetic limbs.
Aki Ra used to have his family living at the Aki Ra Mine Action headquarters, which was at his wooden house and compound near the river. The building where I met Boreath was the new land mine museum, thirty kilometers outside of Siem Reap city. Although they have already had their grand opening, Stuart Cochlin, a volunteer architect, is helping Aki Ra complete the new center.
"The museum is already opened, but we are still finishing the rest of the complex," explained Cochlin. "There will be a school, a clinic, dormitories and a shower block for the kids. There will be a house for Aki Ra and his family, and dormitories for the volunteer teachers."
"The way it stands now, the kids have to walk seven kilometers to primary school," said Cochlin. "The high school is even further away."
Seven kilometers is a long distance for anyone to walk, but particularly difficult for children who are missing a leg. The rainy season must be especially uncomfortable to undertake such a lengthy hike.
"The school is extremely important. Many of the kids get teased at school. So, they lost interest in going. The rules in the new house, however, will be, go to school or find somewhere else to live."
The clinic is also important. On the way to the museum we passed the children's hospital where hundreds of people stood in line, every day, just to see a doctor.
Construction crews were hard at work on the new center, and hope to have it done in a few months. In the meantime, the kids said they are sleeping in hammocks.
A seventeen year old boy, named Chet, told me he had been living with Aki Ra for three years. In spite of having lost a leg, Chet told me, "I can walk well and play football, but I cannot jump. And, my leg hurts often."
Chet was an orphan, living on the streets of Phnom Penh, shining shoes. About five years ago, when he was twelve, a man offered Chet a job, cutting trees in Battambong.
"I was walking between the fields and stepped on a mine."
Once again, there was no hospital. The local people stopped the bleeding by wrapping the wound with a krama, traditional Khmer scarves. After Chet recovered, his employer dropped him back on the streets of Phnom Penh, where he began shining shoes again.
"I didn't have a plastic leg then. I had to use crutches." Said Chet, holding out his hands so I could see the permanent scars the crutches had left.
"I didn't have a house or a family. I slept on the streets. I didn't go to school. Aki Ra saw me when he came to Phnom Penh, and he asked if I wanted to go live at his house." Chety smiled. "Now, I go to school, play kick ball, and work as a guide. I also play music. I love the keyboard. We all learned English at the old museum from the volunteer teachers. And here, we have the other children, same as family."
I asked Chet if he walked the seven kilometers to school every day.
"Yes, I walk. I cannot have a driver."
Another boy was missing a leg told us that although he was eighteen, he was only in the Seventh grade. Going to live with Aki Ra was the only hope any of these children ever had of getting an education, learning English, or in some cases, having a family. When the center is completed, they will be living better than 90% of Khmer kids.
Aki Ra and the Land Mine Relief Fund NGO are doing great things to help these kids. Richard Fitoussi, a war photographer from Canada, is the man most responsible for the existence of the NGO and much of the money which has come in. But once again, the very fact that such an NGO is needed suggests that the local government just doesn't care about the people.
A tourist from England barged into the museum, and tore past all of the displays, without even glancing at them.
"Do you speak English?" she asked me, having given up on the child amputee who was guiding her.
I was a little embarrassed to admit that I did. "Where is the portrait of Princess Diana?" She asked. "Diana did a lot for these people, I came all the way from England to see her portrait. But no one even seems to know her name."
It took me a minute, but then I remembered that Princes Diana had been instrumental in founding the HALO Trust, a de-mining NGO. Sadly, I had to tell the British lady that as far as I knew, there was no portrait of the princess in the museum.
The woman turned, brushed past the bombs and wounded children, hoped back in her tuk-tuk and left.
Perhaps the only thing more shocking than the lack of interest shown be the local government is the lack of interest shown by the developed world.
It appears that the de-mining efforts of the Cambodian government are focused on de-mining the development areas and tourist locations, but the farms, which cover the vast majority of the Khmer landscape, are the lowest priority.
Two years ago, while doing stories in Siem Reap, I stopped in, unannounced, at the old landmine museum, to interview Aki Ra.
Since then, things have obviously changed for Aki Ra. For three weeks prior to coming to Siem Reap, I sent email requesting an interview. "There are three documentary film makers in town right now, all of whom want to do interviews with Aki Ra." A spokesman for the Land Mine Relief Fund told me. They finally agreed to let me have an interview with Aki Ra's second in command, but couldn't guarantee that I would get to see the man himself. As I pulled up to the museum, I saw Aki Ra in green army fatigues, getting into a jeep. I ran over, and asked for the interview.
"I am sorry," he said. "I have no time. I am on my way to detonate some mines."
"Can I come with?" I asked. He looked me up and down, eventually saying, "OK, get in."
In the vehicle were a Khmer driver, a Japanese de-miner, and a Japanese kid who claimed to be a tourist, but behaved like a journalist. Not to promote racial stereotypes, but both of the Japanese had better cameras than me. I, however, had a digital voice recorder. The Japanese did not have a digital voice recorder. Great success!
As the vehicle made its bumpy way to a point out near the airport, Aki Ra explained the operation.
"I now have 150 soldiers working for me, who I trained. We collect unexploded ordnance all month and store it in a safe location."
By a safe location, he meant a pit twenty meters behind the tents where the soldiers slept. But he was right. The location was safe. No one was going to be able to steal those mines.
"Once or twice a month, when we have enough pieces, we carry them to another safe location and detonate them."
"Sometimes we have a hundred, sometimes more."
I am not a mine expert, but the thought of digging up a mine, moving it, storing it, and moving it again, sounded terribly dangerous.
"No, we are careful, to hold them upright when we move them and not jiggle them from side to side."
If he had only told me that at the beginning I would have been glad to help.
Aki Ra explained that the airport location had been heavily mined during fighting between the Khmer Rouge and Vietnamese, in 1985. "Many of the mines are American, taken from the Lon Nol Republican forces or from the Americans in Vietnam."
A group of soldiers were waiting for us at the camp, near the disposal location. The camp was nothing like the well-appointed and organized camps of American GIs. The Cambodian soldiers slept in hammocks. Most were out of uniform, a few were wearing sarongs. Some even had their families with them. Just a few meters away was the pit where the mines and munitions were stowed until they are moved to the detonation site.
The pit held an array of unexploded ordnance, mortars, mines, bombs, claymores, Rocket Propelled Grenades (RPG), and baseball grenade and pineapple grenades.
"The M-79 (a grenade fired from an assault rifle) is the most dangerous." Pronounced Aki Ra.
When I asked a question about mines, Aki Ra was quick to answer.
"We don't use the word mine. The government will get angry, because I don't have a de-mining license."
For years, the government and a number of other organizations had been trying to shut Aki Ra down. The charges against Aki Ra were often non-specific. The most common ones were that he was stockpiling munitions, or that he was de-minig without a license.
Would either of these charges be a good enough reason to take the prosthetic limbs away from the orphans and toss them back on the streets?
Stuart explained that new land mine museum is part of an NGO, called the Land Mine Relief Fund. "This is a real, legal NGO, with transparency and proper licensing and papers. Now that we have the NGO, all of Aki Ra's deming efforts are his private affair, outside of the NGO. We have nothing to do with that."
This separation should protect the children and the museum. As for Aki Ra as an individual, steps are being taken there as well.
"When the disarmed munitions were moved to the new museum, all the pieces were checked, numbered, and tagged by an expert NGO. And now, no one can say anything." Said Stuart.
This should alleviate the issue of stockpiling munitions. But what about the second charge, demining without a license? Aki Ra has applied for a demining license, but has not been approved. Meanwhile, he is often asked to speak at conferences around the globe, as he is recognized as a leading authority on landmines. If the world accepts that he is an expert, why can't the local government and demining NGOs? One theory is that the reason is purely financial.
Five years ago, it was estimated that there were 6 million mines in Cambodia. Aki Ra has been known to take as many as 36 mines out of the Earth in an hour. He is personally credited with having removed tens of thousands of mines. The average cost for an aid organization to remove a mine is $500. Said another way, someone earns $500 for every mine that comes out of the ground. Aki Ra demines for free. Every mine he takes out of the earth is denying $500 income to someone. If there were no Aki Ra, the people who have a monopoly on the demining business could be looking at an income of $3,000,000,000 (6 million mines times $500).
No one has come out and admitted that human suffering is a big business, but NGOs have justified shutting Aki Ra down on the grounds that "he will get someone killed."
Aki Ra has removed tens of thousands of mines from the ground. By doing so, he has saved countless lives. Even if he blew himself up tomorrow, why should the NGOs care? He would stop demining if he were dead.
Professional demining teams normally remove one mine per day. Aki Ra, working alone, with a stick and a knife, makes the big boys, with their expensive equipment look bad. No one wants to look bad.
One final, profit-related motive that people may have for wanting to close Aki Ra down is that he is successful.
"People don't like you when you are successful." Said Stuart.
Cambodian society is prone to the "tall poppy syndrome." In a field of poppies, the tall poppy, the one who stands up or stands out, gets his head cut off.
Aki Ra's landmine museum may be seen as a direct competition to the government-owned war museum in Siem Reap, a collection of rotted-out, rusting, mix-and-match military paraphernalia dating back to the French colonial war. All of the pieces lie exposed to the elements, with little or no information available. Aside from the fact that the war museum is easily the least impressive tourist attraction I have ever seen, apart from the museum of barnyard oddities, another reason to give it a miss is that the money is not going to help orphans or disabled people. The rumor is that a high-ranking general gets the money from the museum. Rumors aside, Aki Ra now has a legitimate NGO, which is helping people. The war museum is only an attraction. When I asked the guide at the war museum if they were associated with an NGO, he was quick to point out, the donation box. "You can put money in there for the Cambodian Red Cross."
Maybe I had judged them too harshly, clearly their humanitarian activities rival even Aki Ra's.
Although the government still does not officially support Aki Ra, he has some support from the army.
"I have fifty men working for me here. Another group works over there. They destroyed mines earlier this morning. I call the two groups Khmer Rouge team and Vietnamese team."
I didn't envy the soldiers working in the hot Cambodian sun. The enlisted men wore uniforms of coarse, horrible cotton, which didn't breath. The rich officers wore uniforms of horrible polyester, which didn't breath.
"The soldiers only earn $30 a month, so I have to buy food for them."
At the detonation site, more than one hundred pieces of explosive ordnance were piled in a hole, about a meter and half deep.
"We don't have det-cord, so I make myself. We use a car battery, plus and minus, and at the other end is a detonator from a Chinese Bouncing Betty mine."
The hole full of explosives was filled in. Then we hiked twenty meters up a hill back to the road. I thought we would crouch behind the vehicles like in a war movie.
"We have to go far away because of the fragments." Said Aki Ra, getting into the vehicle. Thinking of all of those scary explosives I wanted to suggest we go even further away.
The Japanese guys set up their cameras to fire from remote, so they could get a video of the explosion. I, however, couldn't risk my camera. So, I took with me, to our safe place about a kilometer away. Now the Japanese had a lead on me, two to one.
After the explosion, the smell of cordite was overwhelming. "I love the smell of cordite in the morning."
Although the hole had been filled in before the detonation, all of the dirt had been blown out, and the hole was now a smoldering crater, about two meters wide.
Back at Aki Ra's old house, he suddenly produced four mines which he and the Japanese guy would disarm. After removing the detonators, they had to cut off the outer casing. This they did with a hatchet. When I tried to take a photo, Aki Ra warned me, "No photos. This is not legal because I am not wearing a helmet."
I didn't want to tell anyone their business, but if you are hitting a mine with a hatchet, a helmet probably isn't going to save you.
Then they used a nail and a hammer to chip of the bottom plate. They sprayed the housing with a lot of WD-40 spray oil to ensure it slipped off.
Next, they put the mine in a vice and tightened it till their muscles bulged. When they began banging the mine with a hammer, I remembered another appointment, and made my exit.
If you visit the Land Mine Museum you can donate money to the NGO and help keep the children fed and in school. You can also make donations t the Land Mine Relief Fund or contact them by email: firstname.lastname@example.org
The Killing Field in Siem Reap
Just down the road from the Cambodian Landmine Museum is a killing field where an estimated 3,000 - 4,000 people were killed by the Khmer Rouge. A temple was built directly over the mass grave. A monastery rests to the side, where a twenty-two year old monk, named Sina told me, "We say a special prayer for the people every year." In the center of the complex is a tall stupa filled with human skulls and bones. The sheer weight, the mass of 3,000 people is staggering. The thought that so many bones and so many shattered lives rest beneath this otherwise serene location is heartwrenching.
I have lived among the Buddhists, studying and praying with them for years. Although I remain Catholic, I still have a tendency to believe some of their karmic concepts. The people who died here must have been terrified. After years of starvation, torture and hardship, their obedience was rewarded with execution. It almost stands to reason that this place, and maybe every inch of Cambodia, would be teaming with angry spirits.
"Yes, I believe." agreed Sina. "I have never seen them with my eyes, but people here are afraid of the ghosts. The face of the ghosts is never good. When they see the ghost it is not good. Especially when they are sleeping and they think about ghosts."
Tuol Sleng Prison, S-21: The Khmer Rouge Prison Which Fed the Killing Fields
Travel agents in Phnom Penh were able to give me brochures about Disneyland, the City of New York, and the casinos in Las Vegas. They didn't, however, have any information about the American Indian Genocide Museum. Travel agents in other countries might have information about Auschwitz, but October Fest seems to draw the most tourists to Germany.
Many countries have survived wars and genocides. But what if you were from a country, where the second largest tourist attraction was the genocide museum? And what if that museum was located in the original prison, where thousands of your fellow countrymen were slain? Taking it several steps further, what if every person in your country, over the age of twenty-four, was either a victim or a perpetrator of what has often been referred to as the world's only auto-genocide? And, what if victims, torturers, and executioners all lived side-by-side, in the same community? This is Cambodia.
Tuol Sleng Prison, also called S-21, is the name of the Cambodian Genocide Museum, and it is one of the largest tourist attractions, after Angkor Wat. Under the French, the building had housed Public School 21. After the Khmer Rouge outlawed education, the school was converted to a torture and confession center for Khmer Rouge members accused of treason against Angka, the Khmer Rouge political organization. Prisoners were subjected to the most inhumane torture until they finally broke, at which point they would sign erroneous confessions. One of the more common confessions was being a member of the CIA or KGB. The fact that many of the agents were aged 12-15 and had no idea what CIA or KGB were, was of little consequence. The confession was all that mattered. After the confession, the prisoner was executed. The bodies were dumped in mass graves at sites later called The Killing Fields. The Killing Fields are Cambodia's third largest tourist attraction.
During the four years of the Khmer Rouge regime, more than 12,000 Khmers were tortured and executed in the prison. More than 2,000 of them were children.
Only a handful of former inmates of Tuol Sleng prison survived. To date, only two remain alive, to serve as witnesses if the Khmer Rouge Trials ever actually take place. As a side note, only two former Khmer Rouge have ever been imprisoned for their crimes against humanity.
Vann Nath, the painter from Tuol Sleng, is the most famous survivor. His horrific paintings of Khmer Rouge torture remain on display at the prison, and serve as a haunting testament of man's inhumanity to man.
Perhaps one of the most frightening aspects of a visit to S21 is seeing how detailed and how organized the slaughter was. The Khmer Rouge photographed every prisoner, and refused to execute them until after they had signed a confession. Many of these photos remain on display at the museum. The look of fear on the faces of the victims as well as the obvious youth of many, stirs up deep emotions of revulsion and anger. The question "WHY?" reverberates through your mind as you take in the hundreds of portraits of the dead. Even worse is the knowledge that these photos represent a small fraction of the total number of lives which were stamped out in the name of an insane ideology.
My friend, famed combat photographer, Richard Butler, after visiting S-21 for the first time, said "Primo Levi said of Auschwitz: people doing that kind of crime do it so that no one can tell them it was a mess. As if they wanted someone, after the fact, to say that they had done a good job." He added, "Maybe that kind of documentation separated them from what they were doing here, and made it just another corporate work assignment."
"As soon as we read the placard in the front, which tell the basic story of the museum, we began talking about our grandparents and the Second World War," said Heike, a German student, who I met while she was on a visit to the prison with a group of friends.
"But Hitler was different," said Arnt, Heike's classmate. "Hitler hated a defined list of people; Jews first, but also gypsies and gays. With Hitler, you knew if you were on the list or not. But with the Khmer Rouge anyone was a target at any time."
Some Khmers were killed for being capitalists or intellectuals. But many were killed for no discernable reason at all. The vast majority of Khmers were not killed in the more than 140 prisons located around the country. They were murdered in the villages where they lived, and in the rice fields where they worked.
In Europe, many have raised the question of who, apart from the Nazi soldiers or the leaders, bore guilt. But in Cambodia, such deep-piercing questions need not be asked. In Cambodia anyone could have been a Khmer Rouge, and could have killed or been killed. As Richard put it "Every single Khmer either has blood on his hands, saw his family killed, or both."
"When we were in Germany planning this trip, we thought of Angkor Wat," said Heike. "We didn't think of S-21." Heike looked around at the dusty, cold stone buildings, most likely remembering the thousands who were systematically executed there. "We didn't know that humans could behave in such a way."
The Tuol Sleng Museum located in Phnom Penh, is open every day including holidays.
Part II. Interviewing the Survivors
Working together, Richard Butler, who was taking a break from nearly two straight years in combat in Africa and Iraq, we followed up on Khmer Rouge leads around Phnom Penh.
"DCCAM maintains an archive of three kinds of documentation. These are paper, genocide sites, and testimonies," explained Youk Chang, director of DCCAM, (the Documentation Center of Cambodian).
He went on to say that while victim testimonies were relatively easy to come by, to date only one man had confessed to having committed five murders.
"We keep these archives in order to preserve history, and to be used in the KR Tribunals," he told us.
We were sitting at a long conference table in the DCCAM offices, near the Independence Monument in Phnom Penh. Finally, my colleague Richard would get to ask the question he saw as key in the upcoming KR-related court proceedings.
"Will this be a trial or a tribunal?" asked Richard.
The newspapers had been liberally switching back and forth calling it both and neither. The difference that Richard pointed out to me was that a tribunal may not have the right to sentence anyone.
"Whether it is a trial or a tribunal is not for us to decide. That is a legal question which should be directed at the courts," answered Youk Chang.
Youk Chang felt that he would be overstepping his authority or losing his non-partisan position if he made a legal interpretation. "We don't analyze data here. We only record and store data," he went on to say. "Both sides, defense and prosecution, are welcome to use the materials stored in the archive."
"We maintain 600,000 documents, related to 19,521 mass graves, 194 prisons, and 80 memorial sites. Additionally, we have interviewed 30,000 people. We focus on oral history of the KR, and allow this to stand alone. We don't interpret it. We don't do the prosecutors job for them."
The one area of the legal proceedings, which Youk Chang was willing to explain, however, was that the defense would be Khmer, but prosecutors would be a mix of Khmer and foreigners.
According to Youk Chang, DCCAM was supported by donations from the USA, France, Sweden, and a number of other countries. "The king also gave us some funding," he said.
The history of the archives was a fascinating tour through the history of political intrigue which plagues Cambodia's past.
"The KR didn't destroy the Lon Nol archive, and we still have it. The KR used the archives to investigate people from Lon Nol era. They even used the archives to find teachers and students, in school photos, and kill them. The Vietnamese used the documents to find and kill low-level KR."
"And we use documents to prove genocide. KR used the documents to demonstrate the involvement of the KGB, CIA, and Vietnamese, in Cambodia. These questions came up in the interrogations. They would ask you if you were an agent for the CIA, KGB, or Vietnamese. They would torture you until you said yes. Then they would killed you. If all the confessions were true the CIA had a huge number of agents in Cambodia, many of them under the age of fifteen. They were told that if they confessed they would be permitted to live. But then they were killed."
When asked if everyone respected DCCAM's neutrality, he had this to say. "The KR used to threaten us. I used to get death threats all the time, but not in recent times. I think they have just accepted that we aren't going anywhere."
Richard asked if there had been revenge attacks, against former KR.
"Yes, in 1980 to 1983 there were. But mostly low rank-and-file KR were killed."
As someone who had lot family members in during the KR regime, he had this to say: "It would be difficult for me, after twenty eight years, to go and slap a KR, unless he acted very arrogantly. With human rights education, news and internet, people have opened their eyes." He suggested people who expressed regret probably wouldn't be condemned by the average Khmer.
"Bun Chea," the former KR leader who was convicted of the murder of three backpackers in 1994, "did not express any kind of regret. So, people were angry." Explained Youk Chang.
Richard wouldn't let go of the idea of revenge killing. "Every week the papers have stories of entire streets erupting in violence, and slaughtering a single victim accused of having committed a crime, such as theft."
In more than one instance the man was then doused with petrol and lighted on fire. In almost all of these incidents, by the time the police arrived, the man was either dead, or so horribly mutilated that he died soon after. I personally had seen a street erupt in violence three times. And in one incident in front of my house, when I asked why the whole street had attacked the man they said because he looked like some who had stolen something.
I could understand Richard's inability to let this line of questioning go. With this type of violence lurking behind every Khmer smile, how in the world were the KR able to subjugate them, torture them, and kill their loved ones? And how were Khmers, the most polite people in the world, capable of being KR and murdering a quarter of their own population? Then given the violent history of Khmers in the KR time, and given the violence in Cambodia today, how could torturers and victims live side by side?
Youk Chang's answer was both chilling and revealing. "My sister died under the KR. But I know that if I kill Nung Chea I would be guilty."
As amazing as it was that Khmers weren't taking up arms against their former oppressors, it was also amazing that only two KR were in jail. These included Mok, Commander and Chief of the KR, and Duch, who was the commandant of S-21 prison.
Many people expect, or even hope that the upcoming legal proceedings will result in former KR perpetrators being sentenced. But, the tribunals or trials are complicated because in 1994 the government gave amnesty to the KR who came in from the jungle.
"Until that time they were still living in jungle strong holds. Especially in Pailin, where they are still located today." Explained Youk Chang.
The word Cambodians used for KR who turned them in was very revealing. They all say, "KR who defected to the government side were given amnesty." Defected? Isn't that something that happens between hostile governments of two separate countries? Much of Cambodia's military and police were made up of these soldiers who defected. Basically they just changed one uniform for another. I personally knew a high ranking officer who had fought in five different armies, Lon Nol's government, the KR, Khmer Serey, Vietnamese, and later the Cambodian government army.
The story of Duch is inconceivable. In his memoir, Vann Nath describes how, after the Vietnamese invasion, he was serving in the Vietnamese army, and doing some work at the prison, which was now being opened as a tourist attraction. One day, he surveyed the crowd of visitors, and couldn't believe his eyes when he saw Duch, dressed as a farmer, coming into the prison as a tourist. Vann Nath notified the guards, who eventually intervened. By coincidence, on the same day a French film crew were making a film at the prison. Vann Nath insisted that they include Duch in the film. The film is the best part of a visit to the prison. In the film Vann Nath walks Duch through his paintings of people being tortured and executed and asks. "I only painted these from my imagination. But is this how you did it?" At first Duch doesn't want to answer, but Vann Nath gets a bit tough with him, and he finally admits that he tortured and killed people in this manner.
"Duch's whereabouts was completely unknown to us," began Youk Chang, explaining how Duch eventually wound up in the custody of the Cambodian government. "He was on his way to Thailand. But, the spies turned him in. So he was arrested. The others defected to the government, and got amnesty. Duch had broken KR law article one, arrested before enlightenment."
"The purpose of this trial is to bring the central leadership to justice." He concluded.
Duch, who, since the death of Pol Pot, is arguably the mot infamous of the ex-KR administration, is in jail. But there were 194 other prison chiefs who are not.
"The other prisons were worse," said Youk Chang. "There were cases of 10,000 prisoners in a prison with no roof. There was no hygiene at all. They were simply tortured and killed, without any procedure, and with no documentation."
Youk Chang explained that these murders were only known about because of the bodies found in mass graves.
"Only 14 people ever survived Tuol Sleng." Said Youk Chang, in a chilling voice. "Most of the other prisons had no survivors."
Youk Chang explained why the provincial prisons were so much worse than S-21. "Prisoners in provinces were considered to be guilty of being enemies of Angka, the Khmer Rouge organization. In S-21, they were seen as traitors or suspects."
With the potential for a court date in the near future, we asked if there were any execution orders, which bore Duch's signature.
"Most documents were signed by higher authority, ordering an execution." Began Youk Chang. "But Duch signed documents stating that he had carried out the executions."
"I would love to find a document with Pol Pot's signature," joked Richard.
Apparently there were few, if any documents linking Pol Pot directly to any executions. So, the question was, exactly what law had he broken, or what would be the charges leveled against him, posthumously.
"Pol Pot didn't personally kill people. But he made policy which killed people."
One defense argument has been that the policies of the KR were too broad, and easily misinterpreted or abused. It had also been suggested that central leadership, in Phnom Penh, was unaware of the atrocities being committed in the provinces. There was some logic to this argument. Communication in modern Cambodia is difficult enough; given bad roads and lack of technology in the provinces. How much more difficult must it have been in 1975 to communicate with provinces, especially since the KR were officially anti-technology, and many of them were illiterate.
But a counter argument was that the KR effectively controlled every single aspect of the lives of every Khmer, from waking, to working, to sleeping, and even to thinking. Former prisoners have reported that they were beaten for changing position in their sleep, without permission.
If they could control everything, right up to how people slept, then why couldn't they control their soldiers who were committing genocide?
There has been speculation that if the proceedings happened at all, that they would be halted before they reached any type of conclusion.
"They will take place through completion," Youk Chang assured us. "It would be difficult for anyone to oppose the trials."
His next statement summed up the desperation of the plight of Cambodia. "There are a lot of questions of how the trials will affect the government and other organizations. But no one cares about the people."
It was apparent that Richard really liked Youk Chang. We both did. It was amazing, how much he knew, and what facts he had off the top of his head. In fact when we asked him about Vann Nath, the famous painter of Tuol Sleng, he had said "Oh, I will give you his phone number." He began writing on a piece of paper, and we both thought he had the number committed to memory. It turned out he was just writing a post-it note so he would not forget to look up the number after the meeting. But, Youk Chang was so sharp we both believed he had all relevant facts, related to the KR, in his head.
Of all the thousands of writings at DCCAM, there was almost no signage at S-21, the Khmer Rouge prison. And, what signage there was, was written in French. Oddly, there was a government push to paint and refurbish S-21, which most people felt took away from the impact of the place. But, there was no mention of a project to create good signage.
"Rebuilding S-21 is a sin." Richard told the director, who thoroughly agreed.
"Don't bother with the Killing Fields," added the director. "There is no documentation and no information, just walking around in an open field. There are only cattle and beggar children there."
You would think they would be able to keep both of those out of there, I thought.
The meeting went well, and the director told Richard to come any time, and take any photos he wanted.
Vann Nath, the Painter of S-21
The next day, we went to interview Vann Nath, one of only two remaining survivors of the Khmer Rouge prison, S-21. Vann Nath had been subjected to forced labor, like everyone else, during Khmer Rouge time. Almost immediately after gaining control of Phnom Penh in 1975, the KR had forced the city's evacuation. Vann Nath was sent to work in a farming commune, in the countryside.
At one point, Vann Nath was summoned to a meeting with the commune head. Although he was never informed of any charges against him, he was put in a regional jail, where he was tortured. Later, he was taken to S-21, where he was also tortured, and where he was still not informed of charges against him. One day, guards took him from his cell and locked him in a workshop, where he was instructed to paint a portrait of Pol Pot. The first portrait was quite bad, given the circumstances. But the second one pleased his captors enough that they allowed him and a few other artists to remain alive, and to work all day as artists, making busts and paintings of Pol Pot.
After the prison was liberated in 1979, Vann Nath set out to paint portraits of the suffering he had seen at the prison. His horridly moving paintings depict images of torture and murder. One is of a man with his arm clamped inside of a box; one soldier is ripping off his fingernails with pliers while another doused the open wounds with alcohol. Another is of a baby being ripped away from a mother. When KR people were killed in S-21 the whole family was killed. Babies were stomped or smashed. Children were killed, with a blow by a garden hoe, between the seventh and eighth vertebrae. There are written accounts of KR soldiers cutting fetuses out of pregnant women.
All of this, Vann Nath painted. His portraits, to this day, remain one of the most moving tributes to the horrors of men.
I was very excited about meeting Vann Nath, as I had read his book, and found it very moving. At the last minute, just as I was stepping out the door, I remembered to grab a copy of Vann Nath's book, which I had wanted him to sign.
Richard and I met Vann Nath at an abandoned restaurant on the outskirts of Phnom Penh. He led us into the living room of his little house, located behind the restaurant. His living room was full of remembrances of S21. Every prisoner had to be photographed. And these awful portraits are one of the most upsetting aspects of a visit to the prison. Vann Nath had his prison photo hanging in his living room, as well as some of his gorier paintings.
When I read Senator John McCain's book, he said that he had become so famous for the suffering he had endured in the Hanoi Hilton, the infamous prison for US Airman in North Vietnam. One of the first Americans to be captured, he endured captivity longer than almost any other survivor. When his plane crashed, his arms and legs had been horribly damaged, and were never treated during his lengthy imprisonment. So, he was deformed, and limped severely, signaling even the most casual of observers to his suffering. Further attention was called to McCain, because his father had been a very high-ranking naval officer. All of this combined so that when he returned form Vietnam he was a much sought after speaker. And, although he regularly speaks in public, he said that he didn't want to become a professional victim. And so he sought to make a career for himself, in politics, rather than just to live on the lecture circuit, indefinitely retelling his tales of Vietnam.
As much as I respected Vann Nath, the thought crossed my mind that he was a "professional victim." In fact, no sooner had we sat down, than he said. "Could you please make this fast? I have some other journalist coming at eleven." The previous day we couldn't get in to see him at all. He had journalists stacked up like hotcakes.
He told us that, he has two more interviews, both scheduled for ten o'clock, and that he was interviewed almost every day.
I felt a bit like a jealous lover. "Could you do that a little faster? My boyfriend will be home soon."
If he hadn't been the painter of Tuol Sleng prison he would have been just another Khmer who had suffered and then gone on with his life. Was his suffering any worse than the suffering endured by the average Khmer?
To break the ice, I asked him to sign my book. The second he set eyes on the copy I held out to him, he frowned. My heart sank. Like a lightning bolt, I knew what he was about to say, before he said it.
"That is a pirate copy." He said, turning up his nose. He glanced at his watch. If it hadn't been for Richard, this would have been the shortest interview in history.
"I'd like to buy a proper copy of the book." Said Richard with a smile, reaching for his wallet.
Vann Nath warmed a little. But he still hated me.
"I'll go wait in the car." I told Richard under my breath.
"In fact, give us two copies." He added. "One for Antonio."
Vann Nath charged Richard $20 for each of the thin, paperback volumes. Once the forty dollars was in his pockets, Vann Nath was all smiles. "So, what do you want to know?"
This was a good question. I really hadn't prepared anything. What should I ask him? I could ask him about his life and the KR, but that was well documented in his book.
According to the book he hadn't been in Lon Nol's army. But he served in the army under the Vietnamese, and later in the regular Cambodian forces which he retired from. His job in the army was painter.
Richard asked him if he had been approached about participating in the KR trials. Vann Nath's answer was that he was willing to participate, but he didn't know what his role would be. "I guess I will be a witness." He said.
Richard, who had just finished reading the book Voices from S-21, was obsessed with the point that higher-ups all claim that they didn't know what was happening below. So, they weren't responsible. And those lower downs all claimed that they were just following orders from above, so they weren't responsible. When he formulated this point as a question to Vann Nath, his answer was shocking, if appropriate.
"The trials are not the same as in Khmer Rouge time, because in the trials the guilty will have as many rights as the victims."
Wow! Although Vann Nath tried to project a calm, unaccusing, non-bitter exterior, his answer revealed that he was harboring a lot of anger.
He shook his head, and spouted what could have been the party's answer to Richard's question regarding guilt. "The trial will find who is right and who is wrong."
Vann Nath was invited to USA in 2002 to have an art exhibition. While there, he received a certificate form the governor of New York and the mayor of Boston both of which he was very proud of.
Richard was very disturbed by the refurbishing work being done at S-21. He said it was like they were trying to sanitize the place and the memory of what had happened there, before the trial. He asked Vann Nath what he thought.
"I am not involved. So, I have no opinion," answered Vann Nath.
Vann Nath had made his career off of the close association between himself and that place where he was interred for so long. He is, unofficially, the keeper of its memory. How in the world could he not have an opinion? We were frustrated again at the Khmer's inability to make an opinion or take a stance. Later, Richard found a two-week-old copy of the Cambodia Daily Newspaper, where Vann Nath was quoted as saying that the refurbishing work at S-21 "is vandalism."
Any questions about the current government were met with evasive answers. Vann Nath also refused to comment on Prime Minister Hun Sen's alleged connection to the Khmer Rouge regime, or his current connection to Hanoi.
As one of only two remaining witnesses, it would not be hard to imagine that there were people who wanted Vann Nath dead. But, as the world famous painter of Tuol Sleng, Vann Nath was untouchable. I secretly believed that it was only this international press attention which caused the government to dubbed him a hero and a national treasure, instead of taking him out in the woods and killing him, which would have been a much neater end to the Khmer Rouge story.
Why did the army need painters? Why had Vann Nath been given such a good job, with a comfortable retirement? The only answer I could think of was that these were perks, given in exchange for his obedience and amnesia. Even his comment that "The trials will decide who is innocent, and who is guilty" had clearly been spoon fed to him. Having grown up in New York, and formerly run a division of the Israeli bank, I can say that every Jewish person I ever met had an opinion on Hitler's genocide. How was it that Khmers had no opinions?
Historically, the one subject Vann Nath was not shy about was talking about his inhumane treatment at the hands of the Khmer Rouge.
"We were not guilty." He told us. "But the soldiers tortured us every day. They gave us food worse than an animal. Until you thought you could not survive. Then at the end they killed you. You didn't have any defense or any rights. When you got into S-21. And you knew that you would definitely die."
He told us that he painted his pictures after the liberation, to release his mind and to educate the people.
"This was the torture of the Pol Pot Regime." He said. "And I want to spread the message of the suffering of the Cambodian people to the whole world." He went on to say that leaders claimed not to know what was happening. "And now, many of them are very old and senile. So, you can't trust their testimony."
Once he got on a roll, finally espoused an opinion. "How could the leaders not know?" he went on to say. "Duch should be punished by the courts." He said, referring to Duch, who was the commander of S-21, and who is one of only two Khmer Rouge cadre in prison. "He was very brutal. And many of those who died at S-21 were ordered to death by Duch. He should get the same that he gave to others."
As an artist, Vann Nath discussed Duch's appearance. "In all of his pictures, he doesn't look cruel. He is always pictured smiling."
According to his book, Vann Nath had been forced to paint a number of portraits of Pol Pot. So, we asked what he knew of the leader of the regime.
"At the time of the Khmer Rouge, we didn't know the names of many of the leaders. We only knew the name Pol Pot. And when we suffered we concentrated on that name. Later we got information on many leaders. Pol Pot had made himself a god. At the end of his life he died without empathy from others. No one felt sorry for him. It still would have been better if he had been on trial."
As for Vann Nath's daily routine, apart from interviews: He keeps in contact with the other survivor. He told us he paints very little now. We asked why, but he had no answer.
Richard asked if Nath had made serigraphs prints of his works? The answer, of course, was "no." Richard and I both believed that serigraphs and t-shirts would sell on the Internet and at souvenir shops in Phnom Penh.
When our time ran out, and we got back in the car, we rode in silence for a wile. I had come away with a strange feeling.
First off, you feel like an idiot asking someone who was a prisoner of the KR if he suffered. Of course he did. I didn't need him to describe the actual torture because it was in the book. So, I didn't have as many good questions as I could have.
The next point was that any Khmer interview ends in disappointment. Their social mores are completely contrary to the concept of freedom of the press, as is their political history under the Lon Nol, the Vietnamese, and the current government. The news that Khmers are allowed to report on and would be allowed to read is all censored. Then, Buddhist teachings might make Vann Nath feel guilty. The laws of karma say that bad things happen to bad people. By this logic, since The KR happened to him, then he must have done something to warrant such a horrible punishment. Also, you are never supposed to show emotion. And finally, you are never supposed to question reality, make opinions, or draw conclusion. Much of this related back to the Buddhist concept of predestiny, and much of it related back to the Khmers having lived their entire lives under a military dictatorship.
For me, it was easy to tell my Khmer interview subject, "The KR is over. You are allowed to talk, now. You have the protection of the freedom of the press." But I have never been starved, beaten, burned, or electrocuted or watched countless others suffer in the same way.
Richard and I questioned again if the trials would ever happened, and, if they did, if they would match up to our western standards of truth and justice. For example, in Asian culture, and particularly in Khmer, the issue of face is so important. One of the best accounts of the KR period was a book written by Haing Ngor, the man who became famous for playing Dith Pran in the film, "The Killing Fields." In his book, he said, that many westerners have looked at the KR period and made comments to the effect that even if you had believed it in the first year, by year two or three you had to have realized that this program of auto-genocide wasn't working. But, he said that although some people, even high-ranking officials, may have realized that the program was not leading Cambodia to any kind of success, they could say nothing, because those above them would loose face. In any regime, people don't speak out for fear of reprisals. But, in Asia, and particularly in Cambodia, the problem is even more complicated. Once an entity, whether it is a government or a corporation, embarks on a bad course of action, it is in perpetual motion, because there is no way to stop it. Subordinates cannot suggest to management to change plans, because then management would loose face. And, management cannot change, or else they would have to admit that they had been wrong.
An Unknown Survivor of the Khmer Rouge
While S-21 is the most infamous of Khmer Rouge prisons, but the KR maintained more than one hundred other prisons in Cambodia.
We were on our way out to Takeo province, about two hours outside of Phnom Penh, to visit the site of one of the other poisons, Kray Giang Prison, in Kra Ta Gan village. We were hoping to find a physical structure, like S-21. But instead, all we found was a stupa, filled with human skulls. At the base of the stupa, there was a brief inscription, in Khmer, which read "This stupa, was paid for by Gia Sim."
That was it. There was no documentation that a prison had rested on this site, or that thousands had died there, or that the long, scar-like bumps in the Earth were mass graves.
DCCAM had told us about one stupa and one prison. But, we had told Samedth to have the driver take us only to the prison. In fact we thought that Samedth had misunderstood and taken us to the wrong place. Richard was furious, and ready once again to kill Samedth.
We called for the village headman, and met a portly gentleman, in his late fifties or early sixties, who called himself Niat Nung. When we asked if he was headman he said that he was a Buddhist clergyman. But as all of the villagers seemed to respect him, we decided that this was the right man to ask. He told us that the prison had been destroyed by the villagers in 1979. So, Samedth had taken us to the right place. But why was there almost nothing there to document the history?
He told us the prison was built in 1976, although, people were interned there as early as 1974. Most westerners see 1975 as the beginning of the KR regime. But by the time Phnom Penh fell in 1975, Phnom Penh was the last government strong hold. Some outlying regions had already been under KR control for more than one year.
Niat Nung's story was that he had lived in the village before 1975. But then the KR sent him away to another place. When we asked how he knew about the prison, he said that they brought him back. His story didn't make a lot of sense. But often, when interviewing Khmers, there was a lot of double talk and contradiction. I asked if he were a prisoner in the prison. He said "no." So, I asked how he knew so much about the prison. He said that he had been a forced laborer outside the prison, nearby and had seen everything. "You were there for the entire KR time?" I asked doubtfully. "Yes." This made no sense. People were often moved around by the KR. "What work did you do?" I asked. "Bridge builder." He answered. "And what worked did the KR have you do?" "Bridge building." He answered, simply, as if he were repeating himself.
This also mad no sense. Educated people were killed by the KR. Specifically, bridge builders and people who knew how to build dykes and dams were killed. The work of building bridges, dyke and dams was then done by illiterate Khmers, from the countryside. As a result, all of the bridges collapsed, and the dams washed away. My guess was that he was a KR, but didn't want to tell us. For some reason, I just guessed he were a lower level KR.
When I later found out the truth, however, I was staggered.
I asked if he knew anyone who had died in the prison. He answered in the affirmative. His friend Da Wang had died of starvation there. "His body was very skinny because there was no food," said Niat Nung. "There was no treatment. They all suffered from swelling. After they died, they were buried in mass graves all around here." "Did you see your friend die?" I asked. "No, I wasn't allowed in." "So, how did you know?" Again, there was no acceptable answer. The crowd around us kept growing. Now, the whole village had come to tell us their story. "What happened to the guards and the commandant of the prison?" I asked. "They died." "Did they die here?" I asked, hoping to hear of at least one situation where Khmers had risen up and slaughtered an oppressor, rather than robbing and killing each other. "No, they died in another place." Came his disappointing answer. "Did you villagers kill them?" I hadn't completely given up hope. "No, they went away. And, they died," "When did they go away?" "In 1979." "Did the Vietnamese army kill them?" I figured they were driven out by the invading forces. "No, they went away first." "Did any of you go with them?" "No." "So, how do you know they died?" "Yes."
He changed the story about his friend who had been a prisoner. Now, he told us about his other friend, Da Beoch was a prisoner from 1975 to 1976, eventually dying from torture. This was strange, because in S-21 most prisoners were killed almost immediately. They were brought in, photographed, tortured, and made to sign a confession. Then they were killed. The whole process sometimes took less than twenty-four hours. Vann Nath's story is unique. According to Youk Chang at DCCAM, many prisoners spent less than 36 hours in the prison. Why was this guy here for more than a year? The only possible answer was that he had been a KR guard at the prison for a long time, and then was tortured and killed by his own people. And, once again, how did anyone know this, if they all swore they had never set foot in the prison and if the only people who ever had were all killed?
He pointed at a spot on the ground. "Right there, we found thirty bodies. No one knows the total number of killed."
He told us there was one survivor, his name was Da Siang.
A younger man, of 39, kept interrupting our interview, contradicting Niat Nung's story. But, when I turned on this younger guy, and began asking him questions, he kept saying. "I was too young. I don't remember anything."
"If you don't remember anything maybe you should keep your mouth shut." I was thinking. But then, doing some basic math, I realized, he had to be lying.
"You are sure you are 39?" I confirmed.
"Well, then you were ten when the regime started, and fourteen when it ended. Are you telling me you have no memories before the age of fourteen?"
I asked the crowd to tell me about the prison. But now, this guy was answering all the questions. I had the distinct impression he was telling me a pre-established set of answers, and he was answering first, because he didn't want anyone telling me anything different, such as the truth.
"The fence was electrified." Someone said.
"Where did the guards come from?" I asked.
"What happened to them?"
"A soldier from Hanoi became commune leader." Someone said.
"During the regime?" I asked, confused. The KR had declared war on Vietnam in 1976. How could a Vietnamese be the commune leader?
"No, in 1979."
That had nothing to do with anything. Why were they telling me this? "Where did prisoners come from?"
"Prisoners came form everywhere."
"After the Vietnams came, we were permitted to go inside the prison, but there was no one left alive in there."
"But what about the one survivor?" I asked. "He must have been alive."
"Everyone was dead."
The villagers were all shouting out irrelevant and erroneous "facts." The one useful piece of information I was able to gather was that the warden's name was Da Chen. Also, the villagers told me that they had built the first stupa.
Youk Chang told me he believed ten thousand people died in this prison. But, since there were no records kept, no one knows for sure.
The-39-year old who was answering too many questions said that if we wanted to find the survivor he would take us. We didn't want to trust him. But, we had no other option. So, we went to the survivor's house. On the way, we stopped off at a feed store. We told Samedth to follow him inside because we didn't like the set up. Richard said that he had often paid people to arrange interviews. And then they ran some kind of a scam, where they split the cash with someone who pretended to be the guy or they tainted the interview by feeding him answers.
But Samedth was slow thinking and slow acting so we didn't know till a few days later what happened in the feed store.
We got to the survivor's house, but he wasn't there. We waited for an hour. Richard made a lot of photos of the survivor's children. And, we both kept joking how it was such a small village where could the man possibly be.
"What is he, on a business trip?" I asked.
"There doesn't seem to be a lot going on in this town." Said Richard. "How could he be too busy to talk to us?"
Richard was shooting countless photos of a little boy, sleeping in a hammock. I shot some photos of Richard. The scene was so beautiful. Richard's towering form, clad in a combat photographer's equipment vest, pointed his artillery sized camera lens at the sleeping form of the brown little Khmer boy in the hammock. The bamboo house, surrounded by jungle provided a perfect backdrop.
The flash of my camera made Richard laugh, and he immediately fired back at me, a 90 KG journalist in combat fatigues, sitting on a wicker chair, in the middle of the Cambodian nowhere.
They were both great shots.
"You know a story is winding down when the journalists start photographing each other."
Eventually we called it a day and headed back to Phnom Penh.
Richard and I went back to DCCAM and told Youk Chang about feeling threatened when we were in the village.
His reaction comforted us. "Under Khmer Rouge law, you are entitled to police protection while doing a KR story." He said. "All you have to do is call the police in the morning, and they will drive you out to do the story. Also, anyone who refuses to talk to you, if you report them the police, the police are obligated to arrest that person, bring him to the police station, and force him to talk to you."
I definitely had the feeling that in the villages we were in danger. And, back in Phnom Penh, many Khmers and foreign journalists had told me that the police and army in these villages were just KR who had changed their uniforms. And they still operated as they always had. But we were close enough to Phnom Penh that my gut said if I contacted them through official channels they would do as they were told, and protect us. But if they didn't, they could be the ones who would attack us. I later heard that two French cameramen were driven out of the village by the police.
Of course, it may have been a coincidence that they were doing a KR story. They may have been driven out just for being smelly, unwashed Frenchmen. But, it still made us nervous. I was careful to spend extra time bathing. And Richard constantly sent our GPS coordinates back to his office.
When we returned to the survivor's house, we came unannounced. It turned out that he had been in the feed store on the day of our previous visit, and that he had been dissuaded from talking to us, by the 39 year old guy, who we had paid for the interview. We couldn't get a straight answer from the survivor, however, if the 39 year old had worked for the government, the KR, or both.
The survivor told us his name was Da Chien. As much as my heart went out to him, interviewing him was extremely frustrating, as none of his facts made any sense.
He said he was captured in 1972, at age 14, by the commune leader, when he came here to visit relatives. His brother was arrested first, one month earlier.
But I didn't think that Takeo province was already a Khmer Rouge strong hold in that year. Also, I thought the prison didn't open till 1974. He said that he was arrested first, held for more than a year, and then witnessed his father's execution.
According to Da Chien, the prison was built in 1972. But no other information that we had corroborated his story.
On the second telling of the story, Da Chien was 16 when he was a prisoner, in 1974. His father, the president of the district, was taken by Pol Pot in 1975. Supposedly, they chained all of the high-ranking Lon Nol officials together, and walked them from Jium Ba village to the prison, a distance of 56 KM.
"Before they got here, they didn't let the prisoners know where they were going." Said Da Chien. "In the prison, there were a lot of high ranking officials. They were told it was reeducation. But, they killed all the Lon Nol officials, from 1975 - 1978."
"When I saw them put my father in jail, I thought I might be killed any day," said Da Chien.
He was obviously afraid to talk to us, and kept glancing around at the other villagers, who were taking too much interest in our conversation. We had begun the interview at his house, but people started coming around. So, we moved to the stupa. A huge crowd gathered, and Richard eventually got nervous.
"Walk calmly back to the car," he whispered. "Keep talking." We go in the car and continued the interview while driving. Eventually, we stopped under an arbitrary tree to talk.
Da Chien said that one mass grave contained 100 people. "After they filled a grave they started a new one and killed the next group of people." Of his father, he said, "He was taken in 1975, at 9 pm, and killed the next day at 12 noon."
His father was in a mass grave and he recognized the corps from its gold teeth. He said that the prison as liberated by the Vietnamese in 1978 and that there were seven survivors, two of whom are still alive.
The story about the father was believable. But why was this boy taken so early? And, why did he survive for so long?
"They kept me alive because the leader loved me," said Da Chien. "How many times per day?" Asked Richard, skeptically.
"But it doesn't make sense that he loved you enough to countermand orders and keep you alive," I pointed out.
"There were no orders," explained Da Chien. "No one knew I had been arrested."
"Then why were you arrested?"
"Because my father was with Lon Nol, and they arrested all of the families."
"Then there was an order for your arrest?"
"Then people knew you had been arrested. Why weren't you killed?"
"The commander wanted someone who could climb trees and gather coconuts."
"But this is the provinces. Everyone can climb trees and gather coconuts."
"He also had me look after the cattle. And do some farming."
Those weren't really specialized skills out here.
The only way I could think of that he stayed alive was that he hadn't been captured at all. I believed that he had been Khmer Rouge himself.
"You said that the leader spared you because he loved you. Did you know the leader before?"
"Yes, he was the father's best friend."
Mok was the name of the head of the prison. Now, he and Da Chien lived next door to each other.
"Did you see your father when you were in prison?"
"No, he lived in another cell."
"How did you see your father's murder then?"
"I saw from the top of a tree. I was climbing after coconuts, and when I looked down, I saw my father's gold teeth."
"It's a little strange that you were climbing a tree right at that moment." I pointed out.
"Someone told me that my father had been brought in, so I climbed the tree to look for him."
He interrupted himself to tell us about what happened after the Vietnamese arrived.
"They killed five people per day. They turned up a radio very loud, so you couldn't here the screams of people being tortured. On the day the Vietnamese came the KR took all the prisoners to the mountains. They left some in the jail, and they were released by the Vietnamese."
"And they survived?" I asked.
"So, there are more survivors?"
"No, only me. They took me with them, but I ran away after we were in the jungle."
"And why did they take you with them but leave the others?" I asked.
"Because he loved me."
"But why did you run away?"
"Because they were going to kill us all."
"If the leader loved you why would he kill you? And why did he take the others away from the jail to kill them?"
No real answer: just blah, blah, blah.
Interviewing Khmers was always a tedious job. The cultural barriers were immense. Maybe they would lie to keep their country from loosing face. Maybe they would lie to keep themselves from loosing face. Sometimes they probably believed they were telling the truth. To a rural Khmer 1978 was probably just as good as 1979, or 1973 for that matter. They didn't understand westerners' obsession with dates and numbers and times. Even names were forgotten or omitted. And why was the one question one could never ask in Khmer society. That line of questioning was always fruitless. And finally, you were never meant to draw conclusions. It was considered polite to just accept anything anyone else said as truth, even if they contradicted themselves.
According to DCCAM, the prisoners didn't have numbers or photos. This fact was corroborated by Da Chien. He also added. "The prison had 400 prisoners, sometimes more. Some lived a week, some three days."
"Who was the commandant when you got here?"
"But I thought your name was Da Chien?" I protested, loosing my temper. It was ironic that this guy had survived years at the hands of the Khmer Rouge, only to be beaten to death by a journalist, thirty years later.
"No," He said. "My name is Soi Saen."
This was the first I had ever heard of this name.
The name thing aside, I needed to know more about this commandant. According to the Voices From S-21, toward the end of the regime, when paranoia was running high, the life expectancy of anyone in power was about four months. After that, he would be accused, tortured, and killed by the KR. So, Iasked, how this guy was able to hold such a high position for so long?
"He didn't. There were three different commandants while I was prisoner."
"You said that you stayed alive because Da Chien loved you. How did you stay alive with three different leaders?"
"They all loved me."
"Man! A lot of people loved you. What did you do that was so special?"
"I climbed trees and gathered coconuts. And, I tended cattle."
"How did he survive if he lost his post as commandant?"
"He didn't lose it."
"But there were three different commandants."
"How did that work then?"
"I don't know." He went on to say, "Some victims were KR taken from other places. All three commandants survived, and so did I and one more former prisoner."
"Do you know the whereabouts of the other survivor?"
"Yes, he lives four doors away. So does the commandant."
When I asked Richard what he thought about the story, he said that it was amazing that I hadn't killed anyone yet. "With that Sonny Corleone temper of yours, I am surprised that you have survived this long in Cambodia." But on a deeper level he said that he did believe that this guy was the survivor of something. And that the fear the guy was demonstrating was real.
He looked like a scared rabbit, and became very nervous whenever people came close to us.
"What exactly are you scared of?" I asked.
Everyone had warned me that this story was dangerous. But, when I asked why, all they said was "You could get hurt." But by whom? Or what could they do? Went unanswered.
"I am afraid of the commandant." He said.
"What does he do now?"
"He's a farmer."
"And is he politically connected?"
"And how old is he?"
"Does he have weapons?"
"Does he have a following?" I wondered if there was still a KR cult somewhere forming around these old guys.
"So, he is an unarmed 59-year-old farmer, with no power and no followers, but you are afraid of him?"
The man just repeated several times. "I am afraid. I am afraid." We had gotten all that I thought we were going to get from the interview. We paid our witness, and then started to get back in the car. There was a tense moment when the 39-year-old from the previous day showed up at the survivor's house. He almost had our car blocked in the driveway, but our driver saw the trap closing. Quickly, but without raising alarm, he backed out of the narrow drive, and on to the dirt road, where it would have been difficult, and obvious to try and block us in.
The look on the 39 year-old's face was one of both anger and disappointment. If he had blocked us in the driveway he could have waited till his friends arrived. But now that our car was free, there was nothing he could do. He drove off in a puff of red dust.
The fear level in the survivor's eyes shot through the roof. It was as if he believed that the young man would be back later.
As we waved our final goodbyes, he spoke the words that were the truest and most poignant of our lengthy conversation.
"I am the only former prisoner and only the only one who could be a witness against them. If they kill me, the KR trial cannot happen without witnesses."
The next day, we followed up with Youk Chang, at his office at DCCAM. When I mentioned the survivor, he immediately said. "Oh, the one whose father had gold teeth."
His memory was amazing.
Once again, I asked Youk Chang, what, specifically, the survivor and the others were afraid of.
"They were afraid because many of the officials in these areas are former KR, and they still operate together, and stick together. Young guys growing up don't know any better. So, they follow them."
Was my hunch right that the former KR were still building a movement in the bush? It just seemed so unlikely that all hatred died on the day that the cease fire was called in 1997.
The most shocking revelation of the entire story was when Youk Chang told us that the village headman, who we had met on the first day, was actually the former commandant of the prison, the one who had both spared the life of the boy and killed the brother and the father. Now they lived literally four doors away from each other.
I had sat two feet away from him, and had no idea of the evil he had done.