DEATH UNDER THE KHMER ROUGE
The Khmer Rouge presided over the world's worst mass killing in terms of a percentage of a nation's population. An estimated 1.7 million people (about a forth of Cambodia's 7 million people at that time) died from execution, overwork, starvation and disease when the Khmer Rouge was in power from 1975 to 1979. The 1.7 million figure was derived by the Cambodian Genocide Program at Yale University by examining mass graves and patterns of death and disease in regions affected the Khmer Rouge.
Estimates of the number of people who perished under the Khmer Rouge vary tremendously. A figure of three million deaths between 1975 and 1979 was given by the Vietnamese-sponsored Phnom Penh regime, the PRK. Father Ponchaud suggested 2.3 million. Amnesty International estimated 1.4 million dead; the United States Department of State, 1.2 million. Khieu Samphan and Pol Pot, who could be expected to give underestimations, cited figures of 1 million and 800,000, respectively. In 1962 the year of the last census taken before Cambodia was engulfed by war, the population of the country was cited at 5.7 million. Ten years later, in 1972, the population was estimated to have reached 7.1 million. Using Pol Pot's rather modest figure of 800,000 deaths, about 11 percent of the population would have died from unnatural causes between 1975 and 1978. By contrast, Amnesty International's figure would yield a death rate of almost 20 percent of the population; Father Ponchaud's, of approximately 32 percent. The revolution was easily, in proportion to the size of the country's population, the bloodiest in modern Asian history. [Source: Library of Congress, December 1987]
Most of the Khmer Rouge's victims died from disease and starvation. So many died that the Khmer Rouge couldn’t keep up with disposing of all the bodies. An East German journalist who visited Phnom Penh in 1979 at the end of Khmer Rouge rule told National Geographic the city had many corpses lying around, the stench was awful and helicopters flew overhead spraying disinfectants. In 1980 a Soviet diplomat said he couldn't walk in the side streets, the smell was so awful. Maybe a 100,000 people lived in Phnom Penh at that time.
Survivors saw their family members die off one by one. In many cases fathers were executed at the beginning of the Khmer Rouge occupation and siblings died in the months and years that followed from starvation, disease and overwork. It is difficult to find a Cambodian who doesn't have a friend or relative who was killed somehow by the Khmer Rouge. Many people lost their entire families.
As is evident from the accounts of refugees, the greatest causes of death were hunger, disease, and exposure. Many city people could not survive the rigors of life in the countryside, the forced marches, and the hard physical labor. People died from the bites of venomous snakes, drowned in flooded areas during the rainy season, and were killed by wild beasts in jungle areas. Many fell victim to malaria. Others died in the fighting between Vietnam and Cambodia in 1978 and in 1979. Nonetheless, executions accounted for hundreds of thousands of victims and perhaps for as many as 1 million. Western journalists have been shown "killing fields" containing as many as 16,000 bodies. [Source: Library of Congress, December 1987]
According to Yale University’s Genocide Program there were 309 mass grave sites, with around 19,000 grave pits. There were dozens of prison camps. Information about the horrors committed by the Khmer Rouge is now available on the Internet through the U.S.-government and Yale University-funded Cambodia Genocide Program (CGP). The information includes photographs of victims and their final confessions, maps of mass graves and prisons, biographies of Khmer Rouge leaders and documents from the trial in which Pol Pot and his right-hand man Ieng Sary were tried in absentia. Cambodian Genocide Program website: http://www.yale.edu/cgp
During the entire Democratic Kampuchea period from 1975 to 1978, cadres exercised the power of life and death, especially over "new people," for whom threats of being struck with a pickax or an ax handle and of being "put in a plastic bag" were a part of everyday life. In order to save ammunition, firearms were rarely used. People were murdered for not working hard, for complaining about living conditions, for collecting or stealing food for their own use, for wearing jewelry, for having sexual relations, for grieving over the loss of relatives or friends, or for expressing religious sentiments. Sick people were often eliminated. The killings often, if not usually, occurred without any kind of trial, and they continued, uninterrupted, until the 1979 Vietnamese invasion. People who displeased the Angkar, or its local representatives, customarily received a formal warning (kosang) to mend their ways. More than two warnings resulted in being given an "invitation," which meant certain death. In 1977 and 1978 the violence reached a climax as the revolutionaries turned against each other in bloody purges. [Source: Library of Congress, December 1987]
Survivor Som Bunthorn said: “April 17, 1975 was victory day for the Democratic Kampuchea [Khmer Rouge] regime. After taking power, they began ordering regional cadres to search for hidden enemies burrowing inside the party, causing the entire population to live in fear and under constant pressure. Most of those who were accused had the same fate: they were tortured, forced to work extremely hard, and were sometimes killed. The Khmer Rouge can be considered an atrocious regime for killing nearly two million of its own people . [Source: Som Bunthorn, Documentation C Enter of Cambodia Magazine : Searching for the Truth , September , 2008]
According to Lonely Planet: The cleansing reached grotesque heights in the final and bloodiest purge against the powerful and independent Eastern Zone. Generally considered more moderate than other Khmer Rouge factions, the Eastern Zone was ideologically, as well as geographically, closer to Vietnam. The Pol Pot faction consolidated the rest of the country before moving against the east from 1977 onwards. Hundreds of leaders were executed before open rebellion broke out, sparking a civil war in the east. Many Eastern Zone leaders fled to Vietnam, forming the nucleus of the government installed by the Vietnamese in January 1979. The people were defenceless and distrusted – ‘Cambodian bodies with Vietnamese minds’ or ‘duck’s arses with chicken’s heads’ – and were deported to the northwest with new, blue kramas (scarves). Had it not been for the Vietnamese invasion, all would have perished, as the blue krama was a secret party sign indicating an eastern enemy of the revolution. [Source: Lonely Planet +]
“Hundreds of thousands of people were executed by the Khmer Rouge leadership, while hundreds of thousands more died of famine and disease. Meals consisted of little more than watery rice porridge twice a day, meant to sustain men, women and children through a back-breaking day in the fields. Disease stalked the work camps, malaria and dysentery striking down whole families; death was a relief for many from the horrors of life. Some zones were better than others, some leaders fairer than others, but life for the majority was one of unending misery and suffering in this ‘prison without walls’. +
Victims of the Khmer Rouge
Victims of the Khmer Rouge included people who didn't share the group’s ideology; ethnic minorities and foreigners; "parasites" and "intellectuals"; and "impure" people tainted in anyway by Western values, capitalism, professionalism, or religion. Describing the enemies on the "death lists," Teeda Butt Man wrote in Children of Cambodia's Killing Fields : "the intellectuals, the doctors, the lawyers, the monks, the teachers and the civil servants...students...former celebrities, the poets...the rebellious, the kind-hearted, the brave, the clever, the individuals, the people who wore glasses, the literate, the popular, the complainers, the lazy, those with talent, those with trouble getting along with others, those with soft hands."
According to Lonely Planet: In the eyes of Pol Pot, the Khmer Rouge was not a unified movement, but a series of factions that needed to be cleansed. This process had already begun with attacks on Vietnamese-trained Khmer Rouge and Sihanouk’s supporters, but Pol Pot’s initial fury upon seizing power was directed against the former regime. All of the senior government and military figures who had been associated with Lon Nol were executed within days of the takeover. Then the centre shifted its attention to the outer regions, which had been separated into geographic zones. The loyalist Southwestern Zone forces under the control of one-legged general Ta Mok were sent into region after region to purify the population, and thousands perished. [Source: Lonely Planet +]
“As the centre eliminated more and more moderates, Angkar (the organisation) became the only family people needed and those who did not agree were sought out and destroyed. The Khmer Rouge detached the Cambodian people from all they held dear: their families, their food, their fields and their faith. Even the peasants who had supported the revolution could no longer blindly follow such madness. Nobody cared for the Khmer Rouge by 1978, but nobody had an ounce of strength to do anything about it…except the Vietnamese. +
The first to die were people associated with the government: army officers, bureaucrats, teachers. They were mostly killed in the first few weeks after the Khmer Rouge came to power. Next in line were people with an education: doctors, businessmen, artists, dancers, even Buddhist monks, or, in many cases, anybody who advanced beyond the seventh grade in school. People who wore eyeglasses were killed because it was reasoned they could read. If people wrote a confession or diary they were killed because they could write. People who knew English or French didn’t dare utter a word of it out of fear of being deemed an intellectual or a foreign spy and killed.
Doctors were killed because their minds were contaminated; members of the middle class were killed because they might question Khmer Rouge values. Of the 600 doctors that practiced in Cambodia before the Pol Pot era, only 60 were known to be alive and in the country in 1979. Similar numbers were posted for lawyers, librarians and university professors. The Khmer Rouge also targeted minorities. Chinese, Muslim Chams, Vietnamese, and Thais—who were part of families that lived in Cambodia for generations—were killed as part if the effort to make Cambodia "pure."
The survivor Sok Sunday reported: “A few days after the death of my younger sibling, the village chief summoned my father and other new people of about the same age to make biographies. My father told the village chief the truth that he was a former naval captain at Chroy Chanva. Other people also told him exactly about their former occupations. After being questioned, the village chief told them to return to work as usual. Four or five days later, the village chief arrived at night to invite my father, who was collecting rainwater, and other people he called several days earlier to attend a study session. At that time, my mother put some clothes into a white plastic bag for him, but my father told her the clothes were not needed because they called him to kill him. Despite knowing he was called to die, he did not run, because he was afraid they would hurt our family. On that day, he left with nothing, except the clothes he was wearing. After they killed my father, the Khmer Rouge claimed our property; including motorcycles, crockery, and other belongings; to be shared by the cooperative. [Source: from petition was forwarded from the UN’s Cambodian Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, Documentation Center of Cambodia, d.dccam.org/Survivors/38 ]
Executions, Rapes and Mock Executions by the Khmer Rouge
A Court Clerk's Account of an Execution: “ In October 1975, the Angkar chose us to cut bamboo at O Ta Tam, near Phnom Rodaong, for eighteen days. One afternoon we were in a group of thirty wagons carting bamboo to the national highway. We had loaded and were about to turn around when we saw a military truck enter the forest carrying about ten young men and girls. A moment later we heard shots, then the truck came back empty. We were very frightened, and harnessed up to go home. Then we heard moaning and somebody calling for help. One of our group, named Sambath, went over and saw a young man with bullet wounds in both arms and one thigh, and his arms still tied behind his back. Sambath untied him, gave him a little rice, and told him how to get to the road to the west. On the way home Sambath told us, "That young man told me that the people who had been shot hadn't done anything wrong, they had simply gone to look for food in the forest, so they weren't working with their group. That's why they were killed." [Source: Modern History Sourcebook, François Ponchaud, Cambodia: Year Zero, 1978]
The French ethnologist Francios Bizot said that was blindfolded and prepared for execution. He told the Khmer Rouge Tribunal in April 2009, he heard the “triggers of the guns” but the shot he expected to execute him was not fired. “The shot didn’t happen. I was still blindfolded.” To this day he said he is not sure whether the Khmer Rouge failed in its attempt to execute him or he was the victim of a mock execution.
Ellen Nakashima wrote in the Washington Post: “Taing Kim was a newlywed when the Khmer Rouge took power in April 1975. She and her husband were sent to a labor camp. One night, he was taken away. Three nights later, the village chief, a Khmer Rouge member, came for her, she recalled. "Your husband has found a good place to live and wants you to join him," he said. She was taken to a clearing, where she saw several other women. Suddenly, three soldiers grabbed her and tore off her clothes, she recounted. The "animal act" began, she said bitterly. The first soldier raped her, then pushed her to another, who took his turn, then pushed her to the third, who raped her again. [Source: Ellen Nakashima, Washington Post, March 10, 2006 /\]
“What she saw next is seared in her memory. The soldiers began killing the other women they had raped, one by one, with blows to the back of the head, and throwing them into a grave. One woman protested that she was four months pregnant. They killed her, ripped the fetus from her womb and threw both into the grave, she said. Taing Kim escaped from the young soldier guarding her by telling him she had to relieve herself in the bushes. She ran until she found a pond thick with rushes. She waded in and hid there for three nights. As she recounted her story, she raised her left hand, shaking two fingers for emphasis. "Words cannot convey my anger," Taing Kim said. "I wanted to kill the Khmer Rouge after the regime fell. But I decided to leave it to the law." /\
Executions Soon After the Liberation of Phnom Penh
The survivor Aun Long wrote: “Around 7:30 on the morning of 17 April 1975, I was standing at the side of the road on the southeast side of Beoung Keng Kang School in Phnom Penh. I and many others bore faces of happiness intermingled with fear and trepidation. Hundreds of thousands of eyes stared towards the western direction as if waiting for something to happen. The sound of bullets could sometimes be heard firing loudly and sometimes only faintly from the distance. On the street above Mao Tse Tung, I could sometimes hear the sound of bullets fired near and sometimes fired from the distance. Once in a while a shelling fell on the roof of the school which was not very far from where I was. This made my body tremble. A little while later I heard the sound of crowds of people cheering mixed with the sound of bullets. Guarding both sides of the road, the people of Phnom Penh mixed with the Lon Nol soldiers that broke from their armies, wore colored clothing. In each of their hands were white cloths waving in the air welcoming the new Liberation Army that was walking in rows with solid and angry expressions on their faces. All of their people dressed in black, rubber tire shoes, red checkered scarves wrapped around their necks, and some had one pant leg rolled up. Their bodies were covered with dirt and on their heads they wore a Chinese cap. Some wiped their heads with their scarves. On their chests and around their waists were ammunitions and bullets. They pointed their guns up and down prepared to fire at any time. They marched towards the crowds of people that were standing along the road. Their bodies demonstrated they were soldiers who endured incredible pain and sacrifice for their work. I heard them chanting: “Bravo to the revolution! Bravo to the Liberation Army that gained victory over the U.S. imperialists! The war is over!” [Source: Aun Long, Documentation Center of Cambodia, d.dccam.org/Survivors/48 ~ ]
At that time I was only ten years old. I don’t really remember very much. My father and I walked near six men dressed in black with a gun belt wrapped around their waists. In their hands they held a piece of paper or a booklet. They yelled out an announcement into the microphone: Angkar will not punish the people or the people who worked under the Lon Nol regime! Angkar will only punish the traitors!”
“I traveled towards Beoung Keng Kang Market with my father and walked all around the market. At that time, I saw a crowd of people with cyclos, carts, and Peta cars parked outside and inside the market fence. They clogged up the entire street. Many people, old and young, men and women knocked against each other in front of the rice granaries and in the market. At that time, eight or nine liberation soldiers carrying Chinese AK-47s were trying to prevent people from entering the market. Since they could not prevent them and people would not listen, the army dressed in black raised their Chinese AK-47s and shot it in the air above everyone’s heads and ordered them to move back, but still without success. The crowds of people continued to swarm towards the front in search of the rice granary. After they shot the gun in the air, the army of soldiers dressed in black shot their guns at the walls of the rice granary. Afterwards, they also shot their guns at the ground and toward the crowd of people at the front. The sound of guns brought about utter chaos and confusion. There was so much disorder it was like a dam had broke. When the guns had silenced, in front of me, many people were killed and injured. I still remember my father saying, “This is from hunger. In a country that was just at war, prices are rising and the desires of people are trembling because of their stomachs and the screams of hunger.” My father continued and said, “War within our country is still not yet over if the people are still hungry like this.” Afterwards he breathed a long sigh and said, “The misery and suffering of Cambodia is still not yet over.” ~
“At 6:00 in the evening my family finished our dinner. A little later my grandmother told my father, “Soldiers from the Liberation Army told us that our family and everyone living in Beoung Keng Kang must leave the city immediately, because inside the city there are still enemies and the Americans will bomb the city at any time. If any families or person remain stubborn, the soldiers dressed in black will shoot and kill them immediately. They must accept their own responsibilities. ~
“After we talked and discussed the situation, my family agreed that we needed to travel along National Road #1 so that we could return to my father’s native village. Around 8:00 in the evening, because of the immediate orders from the Liberation Army, my family had to travel towards the eastern direction along Preah Norodom Street, past the intersection at the head of the street, and we had to cross the Monivong Bridge. Along the streets of Phnom Penh there were crowds of people who were making their journey. One sight that made me tremble with fear was when I saw many Lon Nol soldiers bloated and scattered along the national road. Some of the soldiers were run over flat by Khmer Rouge tanks while some were bloated and were floating along the Mekong River. Many people had packed enough food for at least three days. But some families had filled their pillowcases and rice sacks with money. When they discovered that the Khmer Rouge had abolished money and no longer allowed it to be spent and they had realized their money had lost all value, they became disappointed and even crazy. ~
Four days later when we did not hear the bombings of the Americans, my father knew that we were cheated and tricked into evacuating and leaving our homes for a period of two weeks. My father said, “I knew they would be like this. I began to forget everything and then everyone encountered an unfortunate destiny. In front of us there is one question: Will we live or will we die?” Ten days later I arrived in my father’s native village and they called us the “new people” or the “17 April people.”
Hundreds Killed, Poisoning and Disappearance of the Chinese New People
One Khmer Rouge survivor told the Documentation Center of Cambodia: “I am a villager currently living in Ta Ream Village, Tbeng Subdistrict, Kampong Svay, Kampong Thom Province. On the Chinese New Year Days, I visited my home village, where I asked my brothers and some neighbors for information in addition to that in my memory about my experience during the time I was tending cattle in the fields. I’d like to inform you that approximately 2 kilometers north of my village is a Buddhist temple in ruins. This temple is known as Wat Sra Nge, and is located in Sra Nge Village, Tbeng Subdistrict, Kampong Svay, Kampong Thom Province. Based on my talks with villagers of Sra Nge, about 800 to 1000 people were killed at the wat. Most of them were April 17 people from the Eastern Zone and the others were new people. Indeed, the former KR security chief, whose name was comrade Sak, was sentenced to death by the village chief in 1979. However, a member of the security apparatus is still alive and living in Ka Koh Village, Santuk District, while a former Tbeng subdistrict chief, a woman in her fifties, is living with her husband and children. [Source: Documentation Center of Cambodia, d.dccam.org/Survivors/47 ]
The survivor Mardi Seng reported: “In the dining hall, two days later, I noticed that I had not seen some of the Chinese ‘new people ’ . I asked my mother where these people went, but she did not know. The next day, I went back to that hole in the hope that I would catch another frog, b ut the hole was filled. It was no longer a hole or even a simple grave – it was a mount of bodies. It smelled awful; 15 to 20 people rotted in that grave simply because they were Chinese. In the next couple of months, many new people disappeared at night. [Source: www.hmd.org.uk, Holocaust Memorial Day]
Im Chem, a district chief of the Khmer Rouge: “They wanted to poison me, because they could not arrest me. They gave me tablets, while asking me to come to a meeting. Then, they wanted to give me an injection. But I refused and fled to my home. I was thinner than now because of being poisoned” [laughing]. How did you know that there were poisons or injections? “When I joined the meeting, I got a fever. I told them about the fever, and they gave me the suspect tablets. I was required to take three small white tablets three times a day. I heard people whispering under the house while I was sleeping in the house. It was about the previous squabble. They never read my monthly reports. Every time they saw it, they tore it apart.” Who tore them apart? “Those at the provincial level. There was quarrel, but I never forgot my people together with those evacuated from other places who protected me. They protected my life at night, guarding me while I was sleeping.” [Source: Interview with Im Chem, District Chief of Preah Net Preah, Banteay Meanchey Province Interviewed at O-Angre Village, Trapeang Tav Sub-district, Anlong Veng District, Oddar Meanchey Province March 4, 2007, Documentation Center of Cambodia]
Horrors Committed by the Khmer Rouge
Some of the horrors committed under the Khmer Rouge are beyond what is imaginable. Babies were thrown alive into mass graves, dashed against trees, and tossed in the air and skewered with bayonets; children that tried to escape were fed to crocodiles or decapitated with a devise that reassembled a vegetable slicer; men had their livers removed and eaten; pregnant women were disemboweled.
Some husbands and wives were beaten to death with spades for having unauthorized sex. Laborers overheard complaining by informers were dispatched within minutes. Some were tied to poles and speared with sticks. Others were or buried up to their heads and left to die slowly. Some of those who weren't killed had their arms and legs hacked off or their eyeballs plucked out from their sockets.
One Cambodian-American told the New York Times, "I was a boy during the Pol Pot times, and I still remember how they would line up people—10 people, 100 people—and tie their hands and shoot them in the back." After a while so many people were shot with guns that there were shortages of bullets and victims were dispatched by breaking their necks, smashing in their skulls with steel bars and beating them to death with hoes so that valuable bullets could be conserved. Thousands of skulls have been found in the mass graves. Cambodians avoid places with mass graves out of fear of ghosts.
The survivor Sum Rithy reported: “One day, a man who had returned home without informing Angkar was beaten and tied to a running horse. After that day, we never saw him again. Another time, a pregnant woman fell on a dike. The Khmer Rouge militiamen accused her of being lazy. Then they stomped on her abdomen until she died. We (the 17 April people) discussed this and decided that if the Khmer Rouge mistreated innocent people like us again, we would fight for justice to the death. [Source: Sum Rithy, Documentation Center of Cambodia, d.dccam.org/Archives/Protographs/Sum_Rithy ==]
Fear Under the Khmer Rouge
Survivor Mardi Seng said: “When nights fell, fear and terror reigned. Many questions haunted my mind. ‘ What is death? What does it feel like? I am so young, I do not w ant to die. Why do people kill?’ I did not understand the reasons for taking lives. I still do not understa nd. I was afraid of death. I still am. I daydreamed what it would be like to live with my two uncles in France or my other uncle in the U.S., and what would it be like to go to school. Every night I dreamed that Angka r killed me and my family, but I al ways barely escaped because I knew how to fly. The nightmares persist to this day. [Source: www.hmd.org.uk, Holocaust Memorial Day] Two of my mother's sisters were married in the middle of 1977. One aunt moved away to live with her husband in a nearby village. The other couple lived with my grandpare nts in another village. Angka r did not like the new people because the new people had been ‘ corrupted by American imperialism and need to be cleansed. ’ My grandparents' family and their in - laws were the only 'new people' left in their village. But even this might change, I thought. [Source: www.hmd.org.uk, Holocaust Memorial Day #]
“One day in August 1977, the news spread over the village that my grandparents' family and their in - laws would be killed that night. My mother's youngest sister wailed all afternoon, saying goodbye to all the villagers. My g randmother bathed and dressed in her best dress, ready to go. At dusk four men with ropes, guns, and bamboo sticks sat only ten yards from my grandparents' hut, and waited for night fall to take the two families away. The Khmer Rouge did not use guns and bullets to kill passive, innocent people. They tied up their victims, sat them next to the grave, and hit them on the backs of their necks. Most of these victims did not die from the blow but from suffocation because they were buried alive. #
“At about 8 p m , one of the aunts finally became exhausted from her wailing. They sat in silence, like sheep waiting to be slaughtered. In the midst of a moonless night, one could see the glow of hand - rolled cigarettes floating across the rice patties toward the group of men. A man came up and talked to those men. My grandparents and family could not hear the conversation, but the result of the conversation was life - giving. Ten minutes later, the men walked away. The family was overjoyed. My other aunt who lived i n her husband's village was not as lucky, though. She, her husband, and all of the new people in their village were buried alive in two mass graves. #
Food Supplies Dwindle Under the Khmer Rouge
Pol Pot's dream of raising huge quantities of rice never came close to being realized. The slave-labor gangs did shoddy work (irrigation dikes fell apart and farms didn't produce much food). So many men were executed that there weren't enough of them to plow the fields and do other necessary heavy labor chores.
Frightened of the consequences of not meeting the impossible quotas that had been set for them, workers cut back on the amount of grain allotted for consumption. Food stocks were depleted. Grain was not imported or brought in by foreign aid groups because Cambodia was isolated from the world and had nothing to trade. Consequently, a country that once exported rice was reduced to famine.
Hundreds of thousands of people starved to death or collapsed, malnourished and overworked. One woman said, “In 1976 all my family died. My brothers died and my younger sister and my father died; all from overwork and starvation." Her last sister was executed in 1978 for "crying constantly" while working in the rice fields.
Only the strongest and fittest survived. The weak were left, sometimes with only a pot of water, to die alone. Those that survived were often able to do so by gathering wild plants or bamboo from the forest or eating frogs, rats, insects and worms. One survivor told the Phnom Penh Post, "We ate everything, everything on earth we ate." But they had to had to be careful. If they were caught eating these things. They could be executed.
In Children of Cambodia’s Killing Fields , one survivor recalled: “I a saw a forest duck and knew there would be eggs...I jumped into the water after the duck I lost the duck, who was faster than me because I was so weak and skinny. The water was chest high.. I thought maybe there were eggs in there. I found one! It was lying in the middle of a human skull. I picked it up and took the egg out and searched and found three more eggs. One egg was stuck to a mouthful of teeth. I thought the dead person wanted to eat this egg...I tried to find more eggs...Whenever I reached down I would get a handufl of white bones.”
Survivor Sophal Leng Stagg reported: “By the end of 1976, I was convinced I would not reach my next birthday... The Khmer Rouge had again shown me how endless their cruelty was. Up to this time, regardless of the hardships I endured, I always found comfort in the fact I would see my mother at the end of the day. I was taken by force away from my mother and assigned to a far away work group. Now my heart was broken and the will to live was gone. Without my mother I was now unable to communicate and could only look into the darkening skies as if searching in my despair for some sort of comfort. As the stars shone with unusual brilliance, the round full moon seemed to offer a sign of warmth and sympathy. I began talking to it as if it was a loved one who was there to comfort me. The next three years brought with it starvation, sickness and death as my companion. We endured misery which words can never fully describe and a numbness to life itself. I got sicker with each passing day. There was virtually no muscle left on my body at all, just skin and bones. My head was bigger than my trunk even though my body was swollen from starvation. I lost my vision and the use of my legs. I was yellow with hepatitis and was ready to die if it were not for my greatest fear - I would not die without my mother. As I lay motionless I recalled my mother's voice urging me on and not to accept death, for it was this that saved my life. The Khmer Rouge would not kill me. [Source: Sophal Leng Stagg, Hear Me Now: Tragedy in Cambodia, http://www.edwebproject.org/sideshow/stories/ , www.hmd.org.uk
Khmer Rouge Death Camp
Survivor Ranachith Yimsut reported: “One exhausting day of walking later we stopped at a former Buddhist pagoda on the way to some place - they refused to tell where. Our escorts ordered us to stop and wait. We were more or less pleased to have a chance for a breather stop, no matter how short it was. However, the place was not an ideal resting area. We had always known that it was a "processing center." It was also a place where people got punished or even executed for a minor infraction. They called it a "Work Camp," but we all knew it simply as "The Death Camp." We waited and prayed that they won't keep us here permanently. Approximately 20 minutes later, they herded us out again. Twenty minutes may not be long, but it is an eternity when one life or future is at stake. It was a nerve-wracking experience. We knew that we had passed through "gate one" at last. [Source: Ranachith Yimsut, Holocaust Memorial Day and edwebproject.org ^]
“Two days later, we all arrived at a place called Tasource Hill. I had been here several times during my time in the Mobile Brigade - it was another labor camp. There were thousands and thousands of people working, digging for a huge canal project. It was a sad sight to see. I thought I was just skin and bones, but the people I saw there were in worst shape than I was. It was not long after we arrived at Tasource Hill before they put everyone, including small children, to work among other people. It was then that I finally realized our faith had paid off - or so I thought. We were forced to work all day and almost all night for five agonizing days by a new batch of soldiers. Those who brought us over had long since departed. The new guards were cruel and had no mercy. Many died in front of me from heat stroke, sickness, exhaustion and starvation. But most people died from beating they received from the soldiers. And many were quietly taken away in the cover of the night to almost a certain destination: death. All that time I wondered when our turn would come. I wished it would arrive sooner so that we didn't have to suffer like those before us. ^
“People from my group began to drop like flies in the muddy bottom of the canal. Very few even bother to take them to get a proper burial. The dead and near dead were scattered all over as far as my eyes could see. We were all too exhausted and too weak to move. Every now and then a group of people came by to collect the dead bodies. Very few mourned for the dead. Even the relatives showed very little emotion because they knew that the dead would suffer no more. We were all like a bunch of living dead. I thought that it would be much easier if they just came and took us away. When were they going to end our misery? I waited and waited. It never came. ^
“A pointed object poked at me very hard and woke me up from the muddy bottom of the canal. I slowly opened my eyes to look at the teenage soldier who continued to poke me with his seemingly over-sized AK-47 rifle. He was no older than 12, just a few years younger than I was, but much, much fatter. He was yelling angrily for me to get up from the mud. "Go ahead and shoot me!" I said to myself. I was ready to die. It was hopeless. I finally pushed my weak, skinny body up from the mud and wearily walked into a direction where my group was being congregated. It was our time to go, at last. ^
“I began to have mixed feelings about the sudden relocation plan. Normally, we would stay in one place for weeks or even months at a time before they shipped us out again. I had wished for them to take us away and now that the time had come, I was having second thought. Nonetheless, after five long days and nights without substantial food or rest, I was more than ready to go - where I was going was irrelevant. I just wanted to get out of this place even if it meant sudden death. By the look of others, including my family, they were all ready to go as well. After all that they had put us through, especially the last five days, nothing could be worse. Nothing would matter anymore. ^
Orders to Be Killed by the Khmer Rouge
Survivor Yimsut Ranachit reported: “The first group of Mith Tmey to go was my friend Laive and his family. There were other families (those who came with Laive) who were taken away at the same time. Like Laive and his family, they were mostly widows and children whose husbands and fathers had been killed earlier. Now it was their time to go. The night before they took Laive and his family away from Tapang, he came to me with a very sad face. Laive knew in his heart that he might not see me again. He stopped at my hut to hug me goodbye. “I have to go now, they are going to take me away from here tomorrow,” he paused for a moment then casually looked up into the sky. “I don’t know if I will ever see sunrise again after tomorrow, when I’m gone, please say goodbye to Pally [his girlfriend] for me, would you?” [Source: Yimsut Ranachit, Documentation Center of Cambodia, d.dccam.org ~~ ]
“I was still stunned from the news and was speechless. “Stay alive, my friend. Stay alive, you hear me?” Laive continued gloomily. “Hope you will find your family safe and sound. Take good care,” he continued, trying hard not to weep. Laive then turned and just walked away from me. “You be careful out here,” he added while walking away. Laive said something else as he was walking away, but I could not comprehend it. I did not know what to say, so I remained quiet. I was still in a state of shock and denial. “I’m going to miss Laive from now on.” I was talking to myself again. For the first time in three years of being separated from my dear family I was once again missing someone. I cried a little and said nothing as Laive and his family were moved out under the escort of Angkar Leu soldiers. I noticed the same commander who kicked my butt earlier. The same man who took away the commune chief and the mayor a few months earlier. I knew then that Laive and the rest had no chance. ~~
Killing Under the Khmer Rouge
Survivor Yimsut Ranachit reported: “Human life is so cheap under Angkar, I suddenly realized. Traditionally, this is how the Khmer Rouge carried out killings. About a week after the war was over in April 1975, Angkar cadres ordered all servicemen, doctors, lawyers, teachers, and students to go and meet with this new Angkar Leu. The top leader of Angkar at the time was Prince Norodom Sihanouk. Many people followed this direct order. Many were hauled off in hundreds of military trucks. The trucks would take them to meet with Angkar. In actuality, there wasn’t any Angkar or leader that was supposed to greet them at all. It was a trick to kill everyone on the trucks. It was certain death for those who remained on those trucks. With arms bound tightly behind their backs, the victims were butchered and the bodies were simply left in shallow ditches. Not a single bullet was ever wasted. It was Khmer Rouge policy to not waste bullets when they murdered people. They simply used a baseball bat-sized stick and killed by smashing it on the victim’s neck or head until he died. It was a crude and simple method. [Source: Yimsut Ranachit, Documentation Center of Cambodia, d.dccam.org ~~ ]
“This method of killing was well known and I have seen the end result first-hand on many occasions. The “killing fields” were never a pretty sight. Blood stains, scattered bodies, and oftentimes, pieces of tissue, were everywhere. To top it off, the Khmer Rouge left their murder weapon of choice, now just damaged pieces of wood, right on site. The killing fields were as close to hell as it can get. Some of the victims’ faces were still blindfolded. Their arms were always tightly bound; often both arms were broken because of the way the Khmer Rouge tied their victims. Some graves have anywhere from 20 to 500 bodies. All bodies were usually partly buried and partly out in the open. It was a real tragedy to see such a thing. I would never believe such a thing possible in modern times, but it was as real as the Khmer Rouge. ~~
“I was at a mass grave with my friend Laive on the outskirts of Tapang. He said to me with tears in his eyes, “My Dad is among those skeletons.” I asked him, “How do you know that?” He slowly said to me, “When I came to Tapang, Angkar knew that my Dad was a serviceman so they took him to meet with Angkar Leu, along with all these people.” He paused momentarily, “I don’t know who did the actual killing.” Laive’s father and others were killed by Mith Chass people, including the ex-commune chief and ex-mayor, soon after their arrival in Tapang town. But Laive did not know about his father’s death until much later. Laive had always been a very diplomatic person and sometimes a con artist as well. He could get people to do things that are just short of miraculous. After Laive lived in Tapang for a while, he got to know many Mith Chass people, including those who killed his father and others. Soon afterward, Laive managed to get the killers to take him to the killing fields. Just before he was to be taken away, he took me to see this gruesome sight. I was honored to share his grief.
Grandmother Fertilizer and Making Ferilizer from Dead Bodies
Sophearith Chuong of the Documentation Center of Cambodia wrote: During the Khmer Rouge regime, Chhay Rin was an old woman the Khmer Rouge soldiers evacuated to live in a jungle area known as Po Penh, situated in Phnom Srok District, Banteay Mean Chey Province. That remote area was far from the national road, and barely accessible by vehicle. If we walk down the country road leading to the area it will take us at least half a day to get there. She told us about her life in the area during the Khmer Rouge regime. She and her female unit of 40 women were required to make fertilizer out of human bodies and excrements. The Khmer Rouge simply referred to her as “Yeay Chi”, meaning “Grandmother of fertilizer”, because she was appointed Chief of the female unit responsible to produce fertilizers. In spite of the fact that she did not like the kind of nauseous work she was doing and the hard conditions she was in, she managed to endure it, trying to live her life as if she were not able to see and smell. That was because she wanted her family to be safe from persecution or execution by the Khmer Rouge. [Source:Sophearith Chuong, Documentation Center of Cambodia, d.dccam.org/Survivors/14><]
“The first day she was brought there, she was so lonely and pitiful about herself that she dropped her tears while she was begging for God to safeguard her family. Young Khmer Rouge soldiers, some as young as 10, each of them equipped with a gun, came and said to her, “Do not cry, mother! You are brought here not to die but to live. You are not left in Phnom Penh eating stones”. Yeay Chi replied, “My children, there are only bushes. There is nothing but tree leaves to eat, so why did you bring me here?” Suddenly, one of the young, armed soldiers pointed his gun at her and threatened, “Mother, you are vicious and dare to oppose Angkar”. She immediately begged to them in her quick response, “Mother dare not oppose Angkar, my children!”. Fortunately, she was spared her life at that moment due to her sincere and kind pleading. ><
“Chhay Rin continued, recalling that, “After one year living in Po Penh, the whole area was inundated. As the flooding reached the area, the Khmer Rouge evacuated the people to Snuol Village, Poay Char Sub-district, Phnom Srok District, Banteay Mean Chey Province. “Life here is very difficult. We were provided a thin rice gruel, made from five cans of rice and some water flowers for the entire unit. As the days passed, people kept dying, either from disease, starvation, or food poisoning from eating various leaves. The Khmer Rouge took people to Po Penh to be killed”. ><
“She confirmed to us that there was a site in Phnom Srok District, where people were forced to make fertilizer from human bodies and wastes. She told us that she was required to excavate graves and get the bodies to make fertilizer. As far as the making of fertilizer is concerned, she said that her unit was supposed to go out looking for graves and pits, unearth them and get the bodies out. Then, they pealed the flesh and things from the bodies, and took the cleaned bones to burn and make fertilizer out of the ashes. She stated that every day she was required to collected human remains and bones in order to make fertilizer. ><
“Yeay Chi went on explaining about the hard times and all difficulties she encountered, “In the beginning, I could not stand the smell of corpses, but as time passed it would not really matter to me. However, I did not try to remove the flesh from the corpses immediately after I excavated them, because it smelled too bad. No matter how bad the smell was I never had any objections since the Khmer Rouge constantly kept their watching eyes on me. If I did not do it, it would be a problem. Making fertilizer was my routine task, and I did it for over one year. Every time we were out to work, we were always accompanied by a group of four armed Khmer Rouge soldiers. ><
““She further stressed, “During my first time at the task, I saw people die miserably. At one site, among the dead bodies were two to three monks the Khmer Rouge tied up with a rope before they killed them and put them in a pit. I found a lot of people killed and the bodies were piled up in big stacks. Mass executions were carried out in 1977. Evacuees from Southwest [Zone] were all executed. People in the village were also butchered. Bodies were buried in bigger pits than those at Choeung Ek. Anyone found to have some reservations about anything was taken by the Khmer Rouge to be killed”. ><
“She recalled, “If anyone was as active as me and was quick to come when called, he or she would survive. I did anything; sometimes some of the Khmer Rouge cadres called me to perform a traditional coin treatment on them, and I always did it without any objections as long as they would spare my life”. In 1978, large-scale executions were carried out, in which both base and new people alike were killed. There were only a few surviving families. Among members of my female unit responsible for producing fertilizer, only half survived. The survivors had swelling diseases because of malnutrition. My family was the first the Khmer Rouge wanted to take to be killed because they were told by those who were not happy with my family that we were educated and used to work for Americans”. But in fact, Chhay Rin was just an ordinary Christian disciple. ><
“”She felt very miserable to witness many of the people close to her taken to be killed by the Khmer Rouge, usually after being told that, “Angkar needed them to be educated”. A total of 26 people including her children, nephews and nieces, were killed under the Khmer Rouge regime. Her brothers and sisters were taken to be killed near a big tree in Po Penh before her family moved to Poay Snuol Village, Poay Char Sub-district, Phnom Srok District. She expressed sadly, “Every time I think of it, my tears drop. I am so full of sadness.” ><
Surviving a Khmer Rouge Execution
Sophearith Chuong of the Documentation Center of Cambodia wrote: “Thouny is one of Chhay Rin’s daughters. She was also a victim under the regime. She was taken to be killed by the Khmer Rouge soldiers under the order of the collective chief, named Chhin, who was very brutal. He beat her until she lost consciousness in front of the edge of a pit. Luckily, seeing her laying there unconsciousness, they thought she was dead and left her out of the pit. They did not have the time to check to see if she was dead or alive because there were many more to be killed at that time. But she was still alive, and has survived until today. She was left with two scars, one on her the lower, right part of her chin, and the other on her right foot. She showed them to us, while saying, “......These scars always remind me of an unforgettable history, an extremely hurtful one. I can retell the whole story of “One Thousand and One Night”, but there could not be time enough for me to relate the history of the period of three years eight months and twenty days under the Pol Pot regime. The more we think and talk about it, the fresher our memory and the more our tears. It is so much pain that words cannot describe”. [Source: Sophearith Chuong, Documentation Center of Cambodia, d.dccam.org/Survivors/14 ]
The Khmer Rouge took Thouny to be killed on the grounds that she was a KGB agent because she had spoken back to some Khmer Rouge cadre while laboring at a work site. She said indirect words meaning something critical of her superiors by expressing them in general terms. But, she did not do it in a meeting. She said, “If everybody is to work that much, they all will die. Does it work that someone with a very thin rice ration can handle the earth hoeing work for 125 cubic meters?” Immediately after she finished her words, the Khmer Rouge exchanged a threatening question, “How dare you! You want to oppose Angkar? You know Angkar?” She then responded honestly, “I do not know Angkar because I do not know what form it takes; all I see that you are wearing black clothing with a beret on your head and a scarf around your neck. I do not who Angkar is”. Then, the Khmer Rouge reacted by saying, “This is some kind of underground intellectual.” “I do not know the term ‘intellectual,’” she replied. They further asked her, “Is it true that you lived in Phnom Penh previously?” She lied to them saying that, “No, I was not a city resident; I am an simple street vendor and lived at Kien Svay”. Later, they threatened to “smash her”. With such a threat, she replied inquisitively, “How come you want to smash me because Angkar said it would train people to labor to give them employment”. The Khmer Rouge, said “You oppose Angkar”. They just said that, but did not do anything to her at that time. However, at 12pm of the same day, they took her out from the concentration camp to be killed. She was walked away, her face blindfolded, both of her hands tied up behind her back. As she was blindfolded, she could see nothing, thus did not know where she was taken. But, after a while, she felt a blow and lost consciousness.
After regaining consciousness, she attempted to remove the blindfold, and untie the rope on her hands. Then, she decided to run away from the camp for fear that they would take her to be killed once again. She had nothing with her, except a black dress and a scarf. It was from that time that she was away from her parents with a new mobile brigade in another region. She was going to Spean Sreng, in Kralanh District, Siem Reap Province.
She estimated that a majority of the evacuees from cities were executed because hundreds of thousands of people were evacuated there, but there were about ten thousands left and returning to the province. At Kork Romchek, Srah Chik Sub-district, Phnom Srok District, Banteay Mean Chey Province, the Khmer Rouge took people to be killed in the rice fields. At Poay Trach, especially in 1979, near the fall of the regime, the Khmer Rouge killed people indiscriminately and scattered bodies everywhere. During that time, people evacuated from Phnom Penh were taken to be killed immediately. She used to see piles of bodies; and she said she was very scared.
She concluded that, “When the country was liberated in 1979, there was only a small number of people in my collective who survived.” She thought that, “It would have been ideal if the Khmer Rouge had not treated people badly, and instead had provided them with all necessary supplies for living. During that time, if Angkar had not attempted to make such ‘Great Leaps Forwards’ and had given people enough to survive, people would not have died no matter how hard they were worked, except for those taken to be killed.”
Survivors of the Khmer Rouge
It is not unusual to meet someone who lost their mother and father, all six of seven of heir sibling and many of their uncles, aunts, cousins, nephews and nieces. One man said that Khmer Rouge soldiers came to his house in the middle of the night while he slept with his sons, aged 12 and 15. They told him, “OK, you just stay right here. We’re gong to take your kids.” He never saw his sons again.
Survivors of the labor camps worked hard, acted like good peasants and tried to be optimistic, in some cases singing pro-Khmer Rouge songs all day to brighten up the people around them. Those that acted like a village idiot generally made out better than those who showed leadership skills. Some stayed up all night to fend off attacks and made quick escapes when it was their turn to be killed. Perhaps the easiest way to avoid being killed was to be a killer yourself.
Teeda Butt Man wrote, "We survived by becoming liked them. We stole, we cheated, we lied, we hated ourselves and others and we trusted no one." Dith Pran of Killing Fields fame said that he survived by following one simple rule, "If you tell the truth, or argue even a little, they kill you."
One of the handful of survivors of Tuol Sleng said he able survive because he painted halfway descent portraits of Pol Pot. He elater told Newsweek. “If I didn’t know how to paint, I’d just be another skull in the Killing Fields.” A schoolteacher named Kassie Neou said he survived a prison similar to Tuol Sleng by repeatedly telling his guards Aesop Fables, particularly the story of the hare and the tortoise. "I was lucky because I knew those stories by heart," he told the New York Times. "I told the stories all night long, with my ankles in leg irons like everybody else." When it was his time to be interrogated and killed a 13-year-old guard, who was in charge, yelled out, "I need him. Quick! Pull him out." [Source: François Ponchaud, Cambodia: Year Zero, 1978]
A Schoolteacher's Story At the beginning of January 1976, . . . twenty of us were sentenced to death for traveling without permission. We were taken away in a truck with our hands tied behind our backs. One Khmer Rouge sat behind with a gun and two more sat in front with the driver. One of us managed to free himself and secretly untied eleven others. Then one of us tried to kill the Khmer Rouge sitting in the back of the truck, but the guards in front saw him and turned around and started shooting. The twelve who had their hands free jumped down from the truck and dived into the Mongkol Borei River by the side on the road, then disappeared into the forest. The other eight were killed on the spot.
Haunted Souls of the Khmer Rouge Dead
Kosal Phat of the Documentation Center of Cambodia wrote: “At mid-night of July 24, 2000, Patriarch Keo Kosal and two other monks at Ka Koh temple “saw” a shocking phenomenon of hundreds of Khmer Rouge victims walking out of the grave site towards the nearby main temple, the former Khmer Rouge prison. Reverend Kosal believed, by digging accidentally into one of hundreds of mass graves, that he has opened the home of the Khmer Rouge victims whose souls were wandering and were asking him to do something for them. [Source: Kosal Phat, Documentation Center of Cambodia, d.dccam.org/Survivors/16 ^^]
“The Khmer Rouge converted Ka Koh temple into a Security Office 08 and a prison in 1973 and operated this prison up to the fall of the DK [Democratic Kampuchea, the Khmer Rouge] regime in 1979. This prison was in District 56, Region 33, Southwest Zone. Over 5000 people were estimated to have been killed at this prison. Reverend Kosal, whose father was also killed at Ka Koh prison, said, “I saw hundreds of the dead walking, groaning in pain toward the temple... looking like they are seeking their vengeance....” He explained, while looking at some emerging bones in the pit, that “The souls of the dead from diseases are at rest, but the souls of those who were tortured and chopped to death without knowing their mistakes are restless, thus becoming the angry souls wondering around....” It is merely superstitious to many of us, but one of the few survivors from this prison has similarly lived in an annoying puzzle as raised by the Reverend Kosal when referring to the haunting souls. He is always wondering why he was tortured unjustly and thousands of those pitiful and innocent people were cruelly hacked to death. ^^
“Mr. Choch, aged 68, one of the six Base People arrested and sent from the village to Ka Koh prison said, “I was intentionally accused by the village chief of being New People serving the Lon Nol regime. During the first seven-day interrogation at Ka Koh prison, he was severely beaten several times a day.” After his real class status was revealed, I gained trust from the Khmer Rouge security group led by Comrade Puth and his deputy Comrade Sruoy. Choch did whatever he was told to do in the prison up to 1979 for his survival. At present, Choch himself lived life as a handicapped person as a consequence of the Khmer Rouge beating. The worst thing he saw at Ka Koh prison was a large-scale killing in 1978. ^^
“He said, “I saw Comrade Chim, District Chief (of District 56, Region 33, Northwest Zone) rode her red CL-brand motorbike to the prison on the day he saw the mass execution. She asked to see the prisoner lists on a small desk about 20 meters away from the pits, where Comrade Puth, Security Chief, and his deputy were sitting. Then without examining, she kept drawing red lines across names in the list as thick as a book and marked a “x” sign at the end of each name, page after page, and all red. Then she whisked away and Comrade Puth ordered his ten men to begin to bring about 30 people each time and asked their victims’ names before they were blindfolded, their arms tied to the back, and walked to the gravesites. The victims were then made kneel around the pits, bending their head over the pit just waiting for the full-force blows from the Khmer Rouge killers. I saw people in convulsion before death. Not only their parents, but also very young children were killed. I watched the event with my body shaking. The Khmer Rouge security men just kicked the dead bodies into the pits.” ^^
“To anyone like Choch, it is clear that village chiefs made their lists of their perceived Angkar enemies and send them up to Comrade Chim, District chief, who later gave the red marks “x” as “order-to-kill” to Comrade Puth, Security Chief to slay thousands of people. Reverend Keo Kosal said, “He will give a proper religious ceremony for the remains after washing to appease the souls of the victims....” But that does not seem an acceptable answer to Choch and Cambodian people. Choch said, “...I really want to know who else above Comrade Chim were behind the killing.” Had Ta Mok, then Secretary of Southwest Zone, ordered Comrade Chim to kill thousands of people at Ka Koh prison during the DK regime? ^^
Text Sources: Documentation Center of Cambodia, d.dccam.org, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Tourism of Cambodia, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Global Viewpoint (Christian Science Monitor), Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, NBC News, Fox News and various books and other publications.
© 2008 Jeffrey Hays
Last updated May 2014