TCS Daily

Justice for Cambodia's Killing Fields

By Richard S. Williamson - January 3, 2008 12:00 AM

In Cambodia, thirty-two years ago, Pol Pot opened the gates of hell and evil reigned bringing destruction, devastation, death and despair.

The monstrous behavior of the Khmer Rouge claimed untold victims. Estimates of the death toll during Pol Pot's time of terror run as high as 2.5 million; more than 1 of every 4 Cambodians.

In the name of building an agrarian utopia, Pol Pot abolished private property and religion, sought to clear out cities and establish rural collectives. The educated middle class was tortured and executed. Hundreds of thousands died from disease, starvation or exhaustion from forced labor.

On a chilly evening in December, 1977, a group of Khmer Rouge cadres herded Ranachith Yimsut, his family and neighbors to an unknown destination in the countryside. Years later Ranachith added his testimonial to Cambodian survivors stories. He reports, "We were forced to work . . . . The guards were cruel and had no mercy. Many died in front of me from heat stroke, sickness, exhaustion and starvation. But most died from beating(s) they received from the soldiers. And many were quietly taken away in the cover of the night to almost a certain destination, death . . . . People from my group began to drop like flies. 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 mourn 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."

He continues, "A soldier walked toward me. I was the first one to be tied up tightly by the soldiers. I was stunned and quite terrified. I began to resist a little. After a few blows to the head with rifle butts, I let them do as they pleased with me. My head began to bleed from a cut. I was still semi-conscious. I could feel the pain and the blood flowing down my face. They were using me as (an) example of what one would get if they got any kind of resistance. I was numbed from fear. I was beyond horrified when I heard the clobbering begin. At that moment, I noticed a small boy whom I knew well got up and started to call for his mother. And then there was a warm splash on my body. It was the little boy's blood and brain tissues that got scattered from the impact. The rest only let out a short but terrifying sputtered sounds and I could hear the breath stopped cold in its track. Everything seemed to happen in slow motion and it was so unreal. It happened in a matter of seconds, but I can still vividly remember every trifling detail. I closed my eyes. At least 15 blows landed on my skinny body. The one that put me to sleep that night hit me just above my neck on the right side of my head."

When the Khmer Rouge took power, Samnang Shawn Vann was five years old. While just a young boy, he became part of the regimes vast compulsory work force. About those dark days he has written, "I always slept with horror and a terrible nightmare. My health was so bad that I always suffered from all kinds of malaria, diarrhea, malnutrition and more. I sometimes had to eat dirt to stop the hunger. I worked like an animal on hot sunny days in temperatures that reached up to 120 degrees . . . .

"We ate leaves and roots or insects or whatever we could find. I saw many die and bodies float in the river, die in huts, die in palm leaf cottages. I've seen people die with their bodies swollen and rotten. I've seen people die in a pit with sharp bamboo sticks cut through their bodies. I've seen babies, men, women and elderly left behind without any help.

"I've seen rivers full of blood. They killed anyone, anything they can get their hands on; humans, cats, dogs, they killed everything . . . .

"I still haven't forgotten about the past. The past still haunts me. I still have nightmares about it."

People who have suffered the savage siege of thugs carry deep scars. The nightmare they lived does not disappear once the killing stops. Their lives are fragile. Their prospects precarious. Their hopes haunted.

Over time, some find a measure of freedom through forgiveness. But for many closure can only come when justice is done. Their journey from a dark past to a bright future requires a recording of terrible deeds and accountability for those who have committed the worst "crimes against humanity."

In Cambodia, this fall trials have begun against leaders of the Khmer Rouge "killing fields." Justice having been delayed for decades means many have escaped accountability. Pol Pot and many others died years ago. But some of these perpetrators of brutality are still around, and the Cambodian Special Court with international panels of judges has begun its work.

The Cambodian Special Court will gather evidence and testimony of survivors. Their ordeals will be recorded for trial and for history. That acknowledgement of mayhem, murder and misery is important for the victims, many who have felt voiceless.

The Court will adjudicate charges of "crimes against humanity" committed by Khmer Rouge leaders. The guilty verdicts will help bring closure. The helpless will be helped.

The Cambodian Special Court cannot reverse the atrocities. Millions are dead. Countless others suffered deprivation and brutal beatings. Some were put on the rack and tortured.

The Court cannot undue the terror and suffering caused by the Khmer Rouge. However, it can bring a measure of justice. It can end impunity. It can contribute Restorative Justice and help quiet the horrors that howl in every remembrance.

The Cambodian Special Court is not the answer to every injustice suffered. But it is an answer. It can help mend a society still fragile from "the killing fields".


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