Cambodian Shadows

PHNOM PENH, Cambodia—At the entrance of Choeung Ek, the most visited of the “killing fields” here, several shiny-eyed children greet tourists and quickly engage them in a counting game in both Khmer (the Cambodian language) and English. They laugh, ask the strangers their names, where they're from. They skip around and say, in unison, "1-2-3-smile!"

PHNOM PENH, Cambodia—At the entrance of Choeung Ek, the most visited of the “killing fields” here, several shiny-eyed children greet tourists and quickly engage them in a counting game in both Khmer (the Cambodian language) and English. They laugh, ask the strangers their names, where they're from. They skip around and say, in unison, "1-2-3-smile!"

Choeung Ek is both a devastating slap of reality and a place where Coca-Cola is sold from kiosks, where children smile for a buck, and guides offer their recollections for a negotiable rate.

A hired guide says that the Khmer Rouge killed his parents and recalls how, as a boy, he watched the first unearthing of these mass graves. He runs his fingers across the toothy edge of the bark on a nearby palm tree and casually explains how it was used to slit throats.

Across the Choeung Ek killing fields are 86 smooth depressions—craters—where some, but not all, of the mass graves have been uncovered. Dozens more can be found in a section where rice now grows. A marker at Grave No. 7 indicates that 166 victims were found buried without heads. They were traitors, the guide says, so their deaths were extra brutal. Grave No. 5 held the naked bodies of more than 100 women and children.

Even more disturbing are tufts of clothing and bones that protrude from the ground. They show how justice is still buried, yet so close to the surface.

Wherever they dug at Choeung Ek, shovels hit corpses—bodies stacked in some premeditated order of slaughter to ensure maximum capacity. Bones lie sorted near the depressions: femurs here, tibias there. On one tree stump sits four teeth. Several yards away is a Chankiri tree, which soldiers slung children against to kill them. Some soldiers laughed as they did it, the guide says. Not laughing could indicate sympathy, making them targets, too.

Centered in the Choeung Ek field is a pagoda-style monument holding nearly 9,000 skulls, most with visible fractures and bullet holes, stacked on shelves more than two stories high. The bottom shelf holds piles of weathered clothing the victims wore. If unbloodied, the shirts and pants were stripped from the cooling corpses by Khmer Rouge soldiers.

Some Cambodians feared bad karma because of the unsettled spirits lingering in these fields. The dead had received no proper burial, no last rites. In 1993, after the monument was built, Buddhist monks prayed for the spirits here, to calm the living and put minds at ease.

Understanding the brutality of this regime is a concept as foreign as the land itself. How, for instance, does a mind absorb nearly 2 million deaths? How does an outsider carry on a normal conversation with a man who spent his teen years as a child soldier for leaders who ordered him to kill and not cry, then fed him the livers and spleens of the slain for dinner?


Killers, victims or both?

Traveling from Cambodia’s capital of Phnom Penh to the mass graves at Choeung Ek, riders bounce along in motorized carts for more than an hour on pitted dirt roads, where life on the sidelines is a colorful mix of the exotic and mundane.

Rural Cambodians subsist in thatch huts—rickety squares propped along hectares of rice paddies, where fertile green fields mask the hand-to-mouth existence that defines their lives. Mothers tend to half-dressed children and scrub clothing in tubs while fathers repair hand-me-down tools. Rice steams in pots, women slice fruit and whole families stare idly at the foreigners passing by.

For a generation, survival has trumped justice in Cambodia, a country about the size of Oklahoma. Poverty and conflict have bred corruption, human rights violations are rampant, and millions of damaged souls remain in limbo.

Everyone in this country was scarred somehow by the reign of Pol Pot, who seized power April 17, 1975, and ruled until January 1979. His Khmer Rouge regime killed an estimated 1.7 million Cambodians—one-fourth of the population. Citizens were killed or starved, children were indoctrinated as soldiers, and hope was banished.

So far, these crimes have gone unpunished. But this spring, as this southeast Asian country marks its 30th year since the Khmer Rouge takeover, the United Nations moved closer to a long-promised international tribunal to prosecute at least some of those responsible.

At a March 28 meeting, the UN urged member nations to fund the tribunal, which is expected to last three years and cost $56.3 million. By day's end, 13 nations, along with Cambodia, pledged all but about $5 million, with Japan donating nearly half of what is needed. The United States contributed nothing, citing "legislative restraints."

When asked, 75 percent of Cambodians said they want to learn the truth about the Khmer Rouge, according to a survey from the Documentation Center of Cambodia, a nonprofit organization that preserves records from the Khmer Rouge to provide documents for the tribunal and for historical purposes. Nine out of 10 Cambodians lost more than one relative during the three years and eight months of Khmer Rouge rule. Three-fourths of Cambodians said they want the tribunal to serve as a role model for the young, to show them justice is possible.

Meanwhile, an estimated 20,000 former Khmer Rouge soldiers and workers live freely among Cambodian society. Some are killers, some are victims, many are both.

"The Khmer Rouge is a shadow," said Chhang Youk, the Documentation Center's director. "When you walk, it's behind you. When you sleep, it's in your dreams."


'You can change this!'

Arn Chorn Pond was about 10 when he was snatched from a street game of soccer by incoming Khmer Rouge soldiers. In a few horrifying days he watched them kill all but one of his sisters. He knew his odds.

Considered ripe for indoctrination, Pond was recruited and housed in a temple where killings took place three times a day. Years later, he estimates the number of deaths he witnessed to be 15,000, give or take.

To avoid being killed himself, Pond played propaganda songs on the flute for the enjoyment of Khmer Rouge leaders. He also learned not to cry.

Years of nightmares and suicidal thoughts followed. Haunted by the perpetrator in him, Pond recalled his own slow-motion swings and how he stood in circles with other children as they spat and laughed at those about to die.

"I'd wake up in the morning and say, 'Arn, what side are you on?'" he says. "And then another voice would say, 'Arn, what are you trying to do, be human?'"

Tears wouldn't come for Pond until he was a grown man, safely removed from Cambodia and living with a foster family in New Hampshire, in a world too comfortable for his private hell.

His foster father, a Lutheran minister, urged him to speak out about his experiences. So he traveled, talked about his life, and formed groups such as "Children of War" and "Cambodian Volunteers for Community Development." He is now cultivating a group called "Master Performers Project," for which he searches for surviving artists from the Pol Pot regime so they may pass along their skills and wisdom to the next generation.

Now, back in Cambodia, thin as a refugee, with street-wise eyes and laugh lines of a man of 42, Pond lives in his home town of Battambang. When he talks, his arms cut the air and his voice rises as he confesses his cursed childhood and lambasts Cambodia's current flaws, its corruption and human trafficking and so on. You can change this! he demands of his audiences. We will try, they reply.

Imperfect Justice

When the Khmer Rouge took over, the new regime moved in with loudspeakers, clearing out the cities and killing all educated Cambodians. Even those who wore glasses were considered intellectuals and hacked to death. The regime abolished currency, schools, jobs and health care.

The overthrow of Pol Pot's regime in 1979 by Vietnamese forces did not bring an end to the chaos, however. For more than a decade, a civil war between the government and the Khmer Rouge resistance kept millions of Cambodians in refugee camps. Then it took nearly six years of wrangling before the United Nations and Cambodia would agree to terms for a tribunal. Now, setting a date depends on raising enough money. According to the U.S. State Department, the United States contributed $70 million to international tribunals last year, making it the world's largest donor. Yet it refuses to contribute to Cambodia's tribunal, largely because some legislators question Cambodia's current leadership.

U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell and U.S. Rep. Henry Hyde, both Republicans, say current Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen must be removed before a tribunal begins. Hun, a former lieutenant for Pol Pot who defected before the Khmer Rouge regime fell, has promised a fair tribunal. But he has also suggested burying the past and has shown sympathy toward some of his accused former comrades, even hosting two of them at his home.

Others, such as Ben Kiernan, who directs Yale University's Genocide Studies Program, believe justice, however imperfect, is long overdue.

Savitri Singh, the senior policy advisor for U.S. Rep. Juanita Millender-McDonald (D-Calif.), says the larger crime would be more delays. "We have a tribunal for Rwanda; we're talking about a tribunal for Iraq; we're talking about one for Darfur—and these are all supported by the U.S.," Singh said. "The U.S. objections are more that the agreement is not good enough, or that the tribunal is going to be corrupt, but any justice is better than no justice at all."

Some critics say the United States resists supporting Cambodia's tribunal because it fears a public airing of its role in support of the Khmer Rouge after the regime was overthrown by the Vietnamese. Despite the atrocities, the Khmer Rouge, with assistance from the U.S., held a seat at the United Nations well into the 1980s.


"Enemies of the People"

Cambodians have set aside few places to remember this terrible era. Many simply want to forget and move on. If discussed, the subject of the Khmer Rouge regime is usually brought up by outsiders, not Cambodians. Even their schoolbooks have been sanitized of Khmer Rouge history.

But down a dirt road in Phnom Penh is an unforgettable place—the Tuol Sleng prison, or S-21, where more than 16,000 Cambodians were interrogated, tortured and killed. Once a high school, the campus became the Khmer Rouge's premier torture headquarters and is now a museum.

Tourists at Tuol Sleng, most of them foreigners, roam the classrooms of the three-story buildings, touching the rusted shackles, tracing the fractured lines on skulls, and studying hundreds of black-and-white photos—some are shots of faces as they entered the prison; others are of corpses bearing signs of torture.

The Khmer Rouge modified these quiet grounds to fit their needs. After several suicides, they strung barbed wire across the top-floor walkways to keep prisoners from jumping. A sign listing rules warns prisoners not to cry while being tortured with electric shocks. Inside, sloppily mortared bricks divide classrooms into pens large enough for a human to lie down while shackled to the floor.

Only seven prisoners were found alive when the Vietnamese arrived. One of them, an artist named Vann Nath, painted stark recollections of what had happened inside: malnourished bodies stacked side-by-side in a large classroom; babies grabbed from screaming mothers; a woman horrified as her fingernails are peeled back and doused with alcohol.

In a French film titled “S-21: The Killing Machine,” Vann confronted Khieu Ches, a former Tuol Sleng guard, as they roamed the former prison grounds. The guard, known as "Poeuv," was barely a teen when he was taught to control prisoners with shackles and threats. Vann prodded Poeuv to take responsibility for harming prisoners. The guard reluctantly admitted that, yes, he did beat prisoners, even killed a few—but he was driven by fear for his own life. Vann gently demanded that he must have known what he did was wrong—that, if he had a sense of humanity, he wouldn't have blindly obeyed.

In the film, for an eerie few minutes, Poeuv reenacts his prison routine. He walks from cell to cell, yelling at phantom prisoners, addressing them by numbers and not names, scolding them for not defecating in their buckets. Time had not dulled his gestures or tone. To him they were still "enemies of the people."


The Battlefield Within

Dr. Sotheara Chhim is a Phnom Penh psychiatrist treating former Khmer Rouge members in Kandal province. He has seen how these former guards and soldiers deal with their past by beating their wives, threatening their neighbors and drinking too much. Violence has become part of their landscape.

In his experience, Chhim said, most former Khmer Rouge members lack social skills. They don't trust others and live in fear. One woman can't use matches because the smell reminds her of the ammunition she once carried for the Khmer Rouge. A former Khmer Rouge captain tortured by his comrades cannot go anywhere alone.

Cambodia also struggles with internal blame. It was their own people, after all, who committed these crimes.

"That is why we're so traumatized. You have the battlefield within yourself," said Youk Chhang, director of the Documentation Center of Cambodia.

"How would I tell you that the man who killed my sister was my neighbor?” Chhang asked. “How can you say that the one who killed your parents was your brother? So people blame the Vietnamese, the Chinese. You know who my mother blames? God. That's the only way she lives in peace."

The world must also find a way live with these crimes against humanity, which is why the United Nations is pushing to fund the international tribunal.

Some have criticized the tribunal, however, because it is only allowed to prosecute crimes committed by Khmer Rouge members from 1975 to 1979, which leaves wrongdoings by other parties immune from prosecution. The tribunal will also include a majority of Cambodian prosecutors and judges, raising concerns about how fair they can be toward those they once feared and perhaps collaborated with.

Chanrithy Him, an Oregon-based author who lost most of her family under the Khmer Rouge, says flawed or not, time has come to prosecute the Khmer Rouge, before it is too late.

"It's going to be a symbolic thing to hold these leaders accountable for what they did," Chanrithy said. "I know that many Cambodians, including my relatives, are afraid to confront it. You can imagine a whole nation of survivors—it's awful. But I think we must do it, because it is the only way to help us heal."