Cambodians Remember the Killing Fields

2007-03-16
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April 17, 1975: Young Khmer Rouge guerrilla soldiers enter Phnom Penh. Photo: AFP

Survivors of the Khmer Rouge are haunted by memories of the suffering they endured while the Marxist faction ruled Cambodia from 1975-79, even as international lawyers finally seek to bring their alleged tormentors to justice.

“When I told my children and relatives my story, they all cried,” said one woman, interviewed by RFA’s Khmer service.

Orn Tieng, who now runs a small business at her home in Cambodia’s Kandal province, formerly lived at Wat Thmei, or “New Temple,” in Maung district. Her parents and siblings died there of starvation in late 1975, she said.

“I was the only one who survived in my family [of nine],” Orn said. “It was not because they didn’t have food … there was bran and rice in stock. They didn’t kill us with hoes or axes. They killed us by starving us. Some people were so hungry that they ate human flesh.”

“The corpses were not buried but were thrown into a well behind Wat Thmei,” Orn added.

Weakened by hunger and sickness, Orn Tieng said, she was once left under a tree to die but was found and cared for by a corpse-carrier.

The corpses were not buried, but were thrown into a well behind Wat Thmei.

Pushed into a mass grave

Later, she was suspected by the Khmer Rouge of being a Vietnamese and was interrogated. She was saved only because she spoke with an accent common to the Cambodian side of the border, she said.

“Otherwise, I could have been killed.”

Alice Hor, who now lives in Paris, was the wife of a military officer in the U.S.-backed Lon Nol government in Cambodia before the Khmer Rouge came to power. Under the new regime, she was forced to work as a farmer and then imprisoned, she said, also in an interview.

“I was arrested because I have a light complexion. My appearance doesn’t resemble [that of a] Khmer.”

Hor was held in Section 103 prison in the northern part of Cambodia, where, she said, “I was beaten until I lost consciousness.”

Hor said Khmer Rouge cadres guarding her prison were once attacked and driven out by rival cadres commanded by Khmer Rouge leader Ta Mok.

"Bad leaders"

“Before they fled, they shot many prisoners,” she said. “Villagers came in to look for their imprisoned relatives. My body smelled bad and I had badly infected wounds, and no one approached me because I disgusted them.”

She was imprisoned for a second time in 1977 following a coerced confession from one of her children that “My father was a general.”

“I was tortured and pushed into a mass grave,” she said. “Luckily, I was pulled out into a corn field by some Chinese… At the end of 1977, those Chinese were killed.”

“I still suffer,” Hor told RFA. “I have diseases resulting from the brutal torture from the Khmer Rouge. I get frightened easily, and I suffer from seizures.”

Meanwhile, a committee of foreign and Cambodian judges announced March 16 that they have agreed, following months of disputes over procedure, on rules for a tribunal in Cambodia set up to try former leaders of the Khmer Rouge regime.

Disagreements remain over a Cambodian Bar Association requirement that foreign lawyers pay a fee in order to participate, though, and a start date for the trials has not been announced.

“One thousand or 100 years from today, there will be history books written about this tribunal—the prosecution of bad leaders who led the country into mass killings,” said Sim Sorya, vice president of the Documentation Center of Cambodia, which conducts research into the Khmer Rouge period.

“We want to make this history memorable and not repeat it, so that we can escape destruction in the future,” Sim Sorya said.

Original reporting by Leng Maly and Sok Ry Sum for RFA’s Khmer service. Director: Kem Sos. Written in English by Richard Finney. Edited for the Web by Sarah Jackson-Han.

Original reporting in Khmer

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