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Victims Seek Answers


Trial Nears for Khmer Rouge Leaders, 30 Years After Reign of Terror That Still Haunts Cambodia

By Annie Linskey

Baltimore Sun
February 4, 2008

The fears and profound losses still grip Chum Mei even now, three decades after the brutal Khmer Rouge regime terrorized him and millions of other Cambodians. One of only 10 people known to have survived Toul Sleng prison, where 14,000 died, Chum recalls how the Khmer Rouge arrived in this city in April 1975. Intent on abolishing religion and education, private property and money, the Communist militants ordered everyone to march into the countryside. Chum's infant son died for lack of medical attention on the trek. Later, the Khmer Rouge would shoot and kill his wife and another son - they were among 1.7 million who died during four years. The fate of his two daughters remains a mystery.Today, at 79, Chum still lives in Phnom Penh but won't say where exactly, worried that what's left of the Khmer Rouge might yet come looking for him. Such is the perceived power held by the group's surviving leaders, now elderly themselves and finally about to stand trial. Khmer Rouge leader Pol Pot died in 1998, but five former leaders of the regime are about to face an international tribunal that has been years in the planning by Cambodian officials and the United Nations. The most senior living leader, 82-year-old Nuon Chea, makes his first appearance in court today. Each defendant could be sentenced to life in prison. Like many of the victims, Chum has tried unsuccessfully to forget the atrocities. It is answers, not revenge, he seeks from the trials. "I just want the leaders to stand up and tell the truth," he said. "If they stand up and tell the truth, they can go free."But as Cambodia begins a national dialogue about the Khmer Rouge, the truth is hard to find.

The regime did not simply disappear when it was swept from power by the Vietnamese army in 1979. Pol Pot and his men retreated to the jungle and fought unsuccessfully to regain power over the next 20 years.Slowly, through defections and amnesty deals, the Cambodian government co-opted remaining Khmer Rouge forces, bringing many into the police and army. The arrangement encouraged an end to the conflict, but gave victims grounds for continued distrust of Cambodian authorities.Over the years, most of the country chose an uneasy peace over eye-for-an-eye retribution. Talking about the crimes became taboo, and schools barely deal with the topic. Many Cambodians know only of their family experiences, with little understanding of the breadth of the atrocities or who was responsible."There is a lot of confusion, but we need to go through this murky, dark period before we are given clarity," said Theary C. Seng, the director of a human rights organization here and a victim of the Khmer Rouge. "We are in the midst of a conversation. That is part of the process."

Pailin, a small, dusty province near the Thai border that is home to four of the five now-imprisoned Khmer Rouge leaders, is filled with people who know the truth. The Cambodian government granted the Khmer Rouge administrative control over the town and surrounding land as part of an amnesty deal in 1996, and hundreds of former members still live here."These people who live here know a lot, but they will not talk," said Kong Duong, an information minister who was once the voice of Khmer Rouge radio. Most, he says, are afraid that public comments could help prosecutors build their case. Though the court is limited in its jurisdiction to the most senior regime leaders, second- and third-tier leaders say they worry that the court's reach could expand.Former Khmer Rouge leaders gather for breakfast every morning at the Hans Meas hotel, slurping noodle soup and lingering over iced coffee. They are eager to talk about the secret American bombing campaign in Cambodia in the early 1970s. The daily terror of those bombs caused thousands of rural peasants to support the Khmer Rouge, and faulty bombs from that time still kill and maim Cambodians today. But, when asked about the years between 1975 and 1979, most quickly leave the table. Those who do talk about the past are guarded.

Thong Thon was a videographer for the Khmer Rouge, traveling the country making propaganda films. He is now a deputy governor in Ota Vao, a hamlet near Pailin. At his home, a traditional Khmer house on stilts, he squatted on a bamboo daybed in the shade and painted a rosy picture of Pol Pot's reign. During a time when hundreds of thousands of Cambodians were starving to death, he insists that the people were well fed. He saw no one who was unhappy, and no forced labor, he says. He admits that he did not look for the truth. "If I was assigned to go to the left, I went to the left," he said. "If I refused, I would be punished severely." He was part of the Khmer Rouge's second group of videographers - Pol Pot executed the first group, he says. "They were foreign-trained, so they were not trusted," he said.

The leaders who are still alive do not deny the deaths, but neither do they accept responsibility, often blaming foreign influences. Over a plate of steamed rice and roasted beef at one of Pailin's outdoor eateries, Lath Lina, a former Khmer Rouge guerrilla, explained his view of history - a perspective shared by many. "The Khmer Rouge soldiers were uneducated," the 41-year-old Lina said. 'That made it very easy for outside people - the CIA and the KGB - to influence what happened." Later, he leaned close and in a conspiratorial voice said: "The Chinese know a lot." The words are not supported by facts, but they demonstrate the delicate ground that the Khmer Rouge and their underlings occupy as the trials begin.

Cambodians' expectations of the tribunal vary. Some say they hope for financial reparations. (One man in Mondulkiri asked if the court could return the pair of elephants that the Khmer Rouge took from him.) Others want the court to reach further and indict others from the regime. And some want foreign leaders who supplied the Khmer Rouge with guns to be held accountable. According to an unscientific survey commissioned by the Documentation Center of Cambodia in 2002, 73 percent of the respondents said they wanted to learn the facts about the Khmer Rouge.

Chum Mei was working in Phnom Penh as a mechanic when the Khmer Rouge ordered the city to evacuate in 1975. Tears streak his face as he describes the forced march and the death of his infant son, who was suffering from diarrhea. The regime targeted intellectuals - killing off the educated class that they believed had corrupted society. Chum is not well educated and ended up back in the capital, recruited by soldiers to repair the sewing machines used to make uniforms. In 1978, soldiers told him that he would be sent to Vietnam to repair sewing machines there. Instead, they took him to prison.

Toul Sleng was once a high school, and the compound includes four buildings where prisoners, including Chum, were tortured. During a visit to the former prison, now preserved as a genocide museum, he described the 12 days of torture he endured there, pointing to various rooms. In one, men administered electric shocks to his temples. He shows scars where a toenail was yanked out by an interrogator. "The only question they asked was, 'Do you have any relationships with the CIA and KGB?'" he said. Succumbing to pain, Chum finally told the Khmer Rouge the lie they wanted to hear - that he was a spy. "I put blame on other people," he said. "I didn't mean it. I just wanted the torture to stop." He managed to slip away from his captors about the time the Vietnamese were liberating Phnom Penh. By then, his two daughters had disappeared - one taken into Pol Pot's army. He briefly reunited with his wife and son after his escape, but as the family tried to find safety in the chaos of the crumbling regime, they were discovered by a group of roving Khmer Rouge soldiers. Chum heard the shots that killed his wife and son. The regime was toppled before the Khmer Rouge could kill him.

Others claim to forget the horrors, but they are just trying to survive and move on, says Hisham Mousour, a human rights advocate who has recently organized hundreds of forums for victims around the country. "If you lose a family member, it is not human to forget," he said. "But if you talk to a victim for an hour, he will start to cry. "The victims may seem to forget, but they have not forgotten."

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