The Guardians of Hell: Cambodia Prepares for Khmer Rouge Tribunal

By Jürgen Kremb

Part 2: "Without Pol Pot, we would have been an American province"

When the French colonial army crossed into Indochina in the middle of the 19th century, Cambodia was under the rule of Thailand and Vietnam. In 1863, the colonial rulers turned it into a protectorate. The French first permitted Cambodia's independence in 1953 under King Sihanouk. But by the end of the 1960s the country became entangled in the Vietnam War. Under the leadership of Pol Pot, left-wing guerrillas emerged -- the Khmer Rouge -- which fought against the government and finally came to power in 1975.

The communists combined their ideology with an extreme xenophobia, says Peycam. The more people they killed, the surer they felt that they would rid themselves of every foreign influence. A murderous nationalism had taken over.

Nhem En, 46, a member of the staff of S-21, lives near Siem Reap, in the border region of Anlong Veng. He took most of the photos now on display at the Genocide Museum. He, too, joined the Khmer Rouge as a child soldier. It was a decision he has never regretted. "The B-52 bombers shattered our country," he says.

He was trained as a photographer in 1976 in China, and then assigned to Tuol Sleng. "I heard the people screaming, but my hair grew on my head." In other words: To survive, worry about yourself first. "Every day they brought in new ones," he says. "We had to take drastic measures." When Pol Pot fled in 1979, pursued by Vietnamese troops, Nhem En followed him and became his private photographer. "He was not a bad man," he says of the dictator. "He always took care of his comrades. Without him, we would have been an American province."

When confronted with questions about the many mass graves and the millions of dead, he offers an alternative version of events. Two-thirds of the victims, he claims, died of malnutrition or illness: "A consequence of the war that was imposed on us."

Nhem En wants to create a museum to Pol Pot. He rummages through old photos in a metal box: "Brother No. 1" in the march through the jungle, Pol Pot surrounded by his commanders, like a nice grandpa. Sometimes Nhem brings a visitor to the grave of the mass murderer, located a five-minute drive from his home; he charges $100. And he also sells photos of the corpse of Pol Pot, who died in 1998 near Anlong Veng.

When asked how he feels about the tribunal, he replies: "If the government wants to put me in front of the court, I will go gladly. I am not afraid." But he does not think it will go that far. Today, he serves in the government of Hun Sen as deputy regional chief. And in Phnom Penh, calm is more important than coming to terms with the past.

The first legal reckoning with communism?

The tribunal will begin its work at the start of this year. The trial is likely to take years, and it must be limited to handling human rights violations committed during the period of the Pol Pot dictatorship between April 17, 1975, and Jan. 6, 1979.

Most Khmer Rouge leaders have already been pardoned; others have reached high positions in Cambodia's current government. The contract between the UN and Hun Sen's Cambodian People's Party determines who can be charged: "Upper ranks of leaders and those who bear the greatest responsibility for the crimes." Pol Pot, "Brother No. 1," bore the greatest responsibility.

In July, Ta Mok, military head of the Khmer Rouge, died at age 80 in the military hospital of Phnom Penh. Nuon Chea, 79, "Brother No. 2," lives in the last retreat for the former communists. Both the former foreign minister, Ieng Sary, and head of state Khieu Samphan also live there in luxurious villas. Only Duch, the feared head of the torture center S-21, is sitting in jail.

Claudia Fenz, 48, is one of 13 international judges and attorneys who will sit on the 30-member court. The Viennese attorney is no longer sure whether the case is more about justice or politics. Cambodian judges can overrule their UN colleagues at all levels of jurisdiction. Then, of course, there is the court's unusually cumbersome name: "Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia for the Prosecution of Crimes Committed during the Period of Democratic Kampuchea."

Even so, expectations are high. At the opening reception for the diplomatic corps, the South Korean ambassador summoned the foreign judges and urged them to take their historical responsibility seriously, "because the trial is the first legal reckoning with communism."

Gregory Stanton, law professor at the University of Mary Washington in Virginia, is skeptical. He's been dealing with the genocide in Cambodia for years. He first came to the country in 1980 as a member of a humanitarian organization, just after the arrival of troops from Hanoi. At the time, there were only 30,000 people still living in Phnom Penh: The capital was like a ghost town.

Stanton saw rice fields overflowing with corpses. He heard stories of how babies were smashed against trees; he heard about mothers asphyxiated with plastic bags.

When Stanton returned to the United States, though, no one was interested in Cambodia. Says Stanton: "It was none other than Vietnam, which had delivered a shameful defeat to the USA, that would liberate Cambodia from the mass murderer Pol Pot, with help from its vassal, Hun Sen."

The Americans instead gave their support to an unusual triumvirate. Prince Sihanouk, the anti-communist Son Sann and Pol Pot's successors all fought the government of Hun Sen from their jungle retreats. Beijing delivered land mines and weapons. And the Thai government permitted the transport of arms through its territory. The CIA's station chief in Bangkok gloated over this international cooperation well into the early 1990s, saying, "I kept the coalition together."

By trying to save the country from Vietnam, the international community prolonged hunger and war in Cambodia. "It must have been hundreds of thousands who died after the Vietnamese invaded," says Stanton. In Cambodia they call this time the "Killing Fields Two."

Only in 1997 did US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright come around to the opinion that the UN should join forces with Hun Sen to set up a human rights tribunal. Stanton, who in the meantime has served as a US diplomat, wrote the memo that persuaded Albright.

"This court will never bring justice," says Youk Chhang, 46. He's a kind of Cambodian Simon Wiesenthal. If he and his documentation center had not sought written documents on the mass murder, and if they hadn't preserved eyewitness testimony about the horrors, the tribunal would not have been established.

Pol Pot's minions murdered many members of Chhang's large extended family. They slit his older sister's belly open -- before her children's eyes -- after she was accused in the work camp of stealing rice. When one of her daughters wouldn't stop crying, an executioner handed over her mother's rice bowl and said, "If you keep this, your mother will one day return to you from heaven."

The child is now grown and has her own children in the United States. When they ask about the meaning of the bowl, she usually says: "Ask your uncle in Cambodia."

To this day, Youk Chhang has not yet managed to tell the story. But he won't keep it from the judges.

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Justice in Cambodia: A Court for the Khmer Rouge


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