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The Remaining Right Side of the Buddha
Part 5: Choeung Ek - The Killing Fields

Saturday - May 22, 1993

The next day was Saturday. I picked up a motorbike early so I could zip around and get some errands done before meeting Theary. I had met Theary a couple of days before at the UN Human Rights office. She had just been hired by the Human Rights division.

Theary was born in 1968 in Phnom Penh. As a seven year old, at the end of the war, she was forced along with all the other residents of Phnom Penh to abandon her home and head for the countryside. Amid naive cheers, the victorious Khmer Rouge had entered the capitol - within twenty-four hours they had evacuated the city. Cambodia plunged into 3-1/2 years of hell. Theary recalled the brutal walk; the family's possessions on their backs. Her face went sour as she described the hordes of swollen, maggot infested bodies she saw along the way.

Phnom Penh became a ghost town. Institutions throughout the country were dismantled; schools, hospitals, banks, families. The country's currency was burned and books were destroyed. According to the new leaders it was the Year Zero.

Cambodia's misery didn't end with the removal of the Khmer Rouge from power by the Vietnamese led invasion three and a half years later. The Cambodians themselves had mixed feelings about the invasion. When Nayan Chanda, a reporter for the Far Eastern Economic Review, spoke with Cambodian survivors many felt that "if the Vietnamese hadn't come, we'd all be dead." But at the same time they were fearful that Vietnam - a traditional enemy - might now annex Cambodia. This fear was shared by Thailand for which Cambodia had for centuries served as a buffer between themselves and Vietnam. Led by the US, the international community shunned the new government accusing the invaders of impinging on a sovereign nation. The US government seemed to want to punish the Vietnamese leaders for having won the war with the Americans.

At that time, the Carter administration was in the process of normalizing relations with China, a country that had developed some serious differences with Vietnam. In September 1978, Richard Holbrooke, the U.S. assistant secretary of state for East Asia and the Pacific, came close to normalizing relations with Vietnam through secret talks with the Vietnamese foreign minister, Nguyen Co Thach. At that time, Holbrooke and his boss, secretary of state Cyrus Vance, were in disagreement with President Carter's national security advisor, Zbignew Brzezinski who preferred to side with China in the Sino-Vietnamese dispute in order to strengthen ties with Beijing. Brzezinski triumphed and it took until 1995 for diplomatic relations to be formed between Washington and Hanoi.

A by-product of the U.S. siding with China in the Sino-Vietnamese dispute was that even after the Khmer Rouge were forced from power, its representatives continued to occupy Cambodia's seat at the United Nations. The US defended and promoted their right to do so as part of its new alliance with China - the principal supporter of the Khmer Rouge. Brzezinski later said, "I encouraged the Chinese to support Pol Pot."

During the years of Khmer Rouge rule, Theary's father was killed and her mother became crippled. All of her many siblings except for one sister died. Twice she came close to death herself - she remembered being bloated from starvation and begging for any scrap of food she could get. After the Vietnamese invasion, she again managed an escape in a close brush with death. Crossing the Tonlé Sap on her way back to Phnom Penh, she fell off the boat and, not knowing how to swim, plunged into the darkness below.

After the Vietnamese invasion she spent time at two refugee camps over the border in Thailand. The following year, with the excuse that her mother needed medical care, the surviving family members (mother and two daughters) were able to flee to Australia.

For the first time since then, Theary had now returned to Cambodia. She'd been in the country for one month when I met her and was planning to stay indefinitely. She wanted to help the country achieve peace and respect for human rights. She also wanted to come to terms with her own past.

I zipped around the streets of Phnom Penh changing money, visiting the central market and booking a ticket to Bangkok for May 28th, the last day of polling. I met Theary at the UNHCR office and we rode out to Choeung Ek - about 15km outside of Phnom Penh.

Choeung Ek is known these days as the Killing Fields for it is there that the Khmer Rouge created a mass burial site for victims of Phnom Penh's infamous Tuol Sleng prison.

There was a monument on the site filled with skulls and other bones arranged by gender and age. About 17,000 men, women, children and infants were brutally executed at the extermination camp of Choeung Ek. They were bludgeoned to death to avoid using precious bullets. Due to its proximity to Phnom Penh, Choeung Ek is the most well known of the "killing fields" but it is by no means the most extreme example of the brutality of the Khmer Rouge. Nayan Chanda, a journalist with the Far Eastern Economic Review, visited one of the killing grounds in the eastern province of Kompong Cham in 1980 - shortly after the Vietnamese invasion pushed the Khmer Rouge back into the forests. An estimated fifty thousand people had been massacred at this site. Chanda describes how, "under the mango trees, the skulls and bones of the old and young lay in an obscene carpet of death." Continuing, he states that in the Eastern Zone the number of killed in response to an uprising in May of 1978 was probably over one hundred thousand. "In order to clear it [the region] of suspects, nearly a third of the population were removed from the east to the malarial areas of western Cambodia, where half of them would later die of starvation and disease, if they had not been executed." {Brother Enemy: The War After the War by Nayan Chanda p.254}

We wandered around the open pits that had been the mass graves of Choeung Ek and Theary spoke of her lost childhood. This was her first visit to the memorial site. As we stood before the monument gazing into the empty eye-sockets of the skulls before us, she speculated that "that could be my father; that, my uncle."

I had heard rumors about a large fleet of helicopters having arrived at Pochentong Airport in anticipation of the elections and thought it might be interesting to have a look. We rode back towards Phnom Penh and then out to the airport which lies just outside of the city.

For some reason, the entrance to the airport parking lot was blocked and a soldier stood by on guard. He didn't notice us, however, as we slipped past and approached the single story building that houses the ticket counters, immigration offices and two waiting rooms for passengers.

There was some commotion outside the building at the far end so, not wanting to be thrown out, we headed in the opposite direction. Rounding the building, we found ourselves on the tarmac. It was practically deserted and the fleet of helicopters - if they had ever been there at all - had since departed.

So now we headed for the commotion and learned that Prince Sihanouk was about to arrive from Beijing. His arrival in the country was no minor event - the Cambodian people still considered him a kind-of god-king referring to him as "Samdech Euv" (Father-King). The international community believed him to be the only hope for a peaceful, unified Cambodia.

Theary recognized a government official whom she had met through an uncle. She pointed him out with disdain. She had a strong dislike for anyone in the Cambodian government and didn't understand why I wanted to stay and watch Sihanouk's arrival. To her these officials were all corrupt and evil and she didn't want to be in the same place as them. I spoke of the momentousness of the occasion but she didn't buy it. Anyway, we stayed.

Journalists, diplomats and party officials swarmed all over the place and ran onto the tarmac to greet Sihanouk's jet as it touched down. Charles Twining, the American representative arrived late - so did the potted plants and red carpet. I learned later that the plane had arrived ahead of schedule catching many off-guard.

Prince Ranariddh arrived to greet his father and Theary recognized a number of other high-ranking Funcinpec officials. Sihanouk and his wife Monique slid into the back of a black Mercedes limousine. As the car passed us, Cambodians in the crowd bent their knees and backs in order to lower their heads below Sihanouk's head. They also pressed the palms of their hands together in the traditional form of respect. Sihanouk waved from behind the tinted glass of the limo. They headed out onto the street accompanied by an extensive convoy of officials and well-wishers and disappeared towards the palace.

On this, the day before polling was to begin, the New York Times ran an article by Philip Shenon. "The fear of a Khmer Rouge attack is most palpable in the northwestern province of Siem Reap, half of which is already under the control of the rebels," Shenon wrote. He continued that "United Nations officials believe that Siem Reap, home of the fabled ruins of the ancient Cambodian capital, Angkor, is the province most likely to be attacked by the Khmer Rouge this weekend."

"It's quiet, too quiet," Maj. Patrick Delort, a French policeman who was the deputy provincial commander of the UN civilian police was quoted as saying. "We're waiting for an attack." The major said that the Khmer Rouge forces in Siem Reap had ample ammunition and that there was almost nothing that the UN could do to forestall an attack. "Whenever and wherever they want to attack, they can," he said. An American stationed in the province as a UN military observer acknowledged that polling stations were vulnerable to terrorist attacks although he said he remained optimistic about the elections. "Our job is to maximize the number of voters and minimize the number of lives lost," he said, and described recent reports of widespread Khmer Rouge violence in the province as exaggerated. But Major Delort, expressing the view he shared with several UN officials, believed that an attack could come at any moment and that there was nothing to be done to prevent it. "It's enough for them to shell anywhere and voters will be too afraid to make the walk to vote," he said.

The Times article also reported that more than 100 Cambodians from the province had taken refuge around Angkor Wat, the "12th-century hand-carved mountain of stone that is Cambodia's national symbol." The refugees fled to the temple grounds after their homes were attacked and burned by the Khmer Rouge.

The New York Times was unavailable to me in Phnom Penh. In any case, I had no intention of venturing to the northwest or anywhere else outside of Phnom Penh. Travellers who had just recently left the Capitol Guest House had brought back tales of danger from Siem Reap. One had been shot while riding a motorbike and others had been forced at gun-point to disembark from a train in the middle of nowhere leaving all their possessions behind.

Twelve days prior to my arrival in the country, on May 3, Khmer Rouge guerrillas had attacked Siem Reap and destroyed a fuel and ammunition dump used by United Nations peacekeeping troops. Armed with mortars and shoulder-launched rockets, they held the city's airport for more than two hours before being driven off by better-armed Government soldiers.

Unable to flee the city, dozens of foreign tourists who had traveled to the region to see the ancient Angkor temples took shelter with Bangladeshi and French peacekeeping troops in UN encampments near the city center.

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