Today, the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC), otherwise known as the Khmer Rouge Tribunal (KRT) presented the verdict to two of the highest-ranking surviving Khmer Rouge leaders. Noun Chea, also known as Brother Number 2, and Khieu Samphan, the Head of State for Democratic Kampuchea, were found guilty by the international tribunal for crimes against humanity. They both received a life sentence.
Under their leadership, they were responsible for the deaths of over 1.7 million people who died at their hands by starvation, execution and rampant disease. Hearing this verdict and their crimes is painful for many who wanted see something more.
The judgement today stripped the victims, living and dead, the right to see these leaders suffer as they did. Yet despite the angry emotions I felt today, I also remembered a different kind of Khmer Rouge leader, one who risked his life to save our family.
It was a miraculous and unexpected reunion. My parents and I just arrived in Battambang in February 2004 after a trip to Siem Reap. Battambang was a complicated place. It held many painful memories of loss, but in retrospect it was the best chance for our survival as a family. They started to relive the memories of ‘Oak-a-bao” the camp we lived in deep in the forest. Memories of pain and hardship also conjured up memories of gratitude for miracles.
I heard his name many times growing up but could never have imagined his face. My parents told me stories of his role in our lives during the “bad time” and it always gave me chills. It was hard to believe that such a person existed when humanity was at its worst. That instead of doing what was expected of him, killing indiscriminately, he chose mercy.
His name was Kane and he was a Khmer Rouge leader that saved our family. I wanted to meet him. My parents wanted to see him again. How do you thank someone for saving your family, when it was more convenient, and safer to let them die?
My parents had not seen Kane and his wife since 1978 when they were taken away for “reeducation”. For years they always wondered what happened to them. Reeducation almost always meant execution.
For my parents, those memories revived a strong yearning for a reunion with Kane. It was a rare opportunity to finally thank him for all he did for us. We wanted to find him, but didn’t know where to start. Luckily Cambodia is a small country. My mother called a friend, Thol, who stayed at the same camp and who knew Kane. Thol found his whereabouts. After a few phone calls, a knock was at the door. We all held our breath. Here was the moment of truth.
A Friendship Out of Necessity
When the Khmer Rouge ordered the evacuation of Phnom Penh in 1975, our family walked the long journey from the capital to Takeo, my parent’s home province. We stayed there for a few months before my father asked to be relocated to Battambang. My uncle and his family were already there and my parents thought it would be a better to be closer to them, and perhaps there would be more food. Battambang is famous for it’s oranges, and my father thought that because it was plentiful there, we might be able to survive on them.
We were relocated to Battambang around late October or early November. Like cattle we were herded onto a truck, and packed in like sardines. My mother, in her third trimester with me, made the all day journey standing up.
We arrived at a place deep in the forest called Oak-a-Bao in Battambang. My parents were told to build their own hut near a large tamarind tree. We were split up as a family. My two oldest brothers, Sovanna (13) and Sovannara (12) were moved to the youth camp to work in the fields. My two other brothers, Soleil (8) and Sakeda (11) were taken to Mondul, the children’s camp. When I was born, my 10 year-old sister was allowed to stay and take care of me, while my mom worked in the fields.
The leader of the commune was young man named Kane. Kane was a student in Phnom Penh before the war. As commune leader, Kane needed help managing the community. He knew my father was a teacher and wanted to utilize his education. Of course, my father could not refuse.
My father helped with the daily tasks by keeping rations of supplies for the villagers, fetched water from the well, worked in the kitchen, plowed the fields, and buried the dead for the commune. Kane and his wife knew my mother was formerly a nurse, and occasionally asked her to give injections and dispense medicine to them when they were sick.
Kane and his wife liked my parents. He was especially fond of my father, so much that the other villagers would often get jealous. On several occasions they complained to Kane that it wasn’t fair that my father got to stay inside the commune instead of doing hard labor in the fields. To please the people, Kane sent my father out to plow the fields for a day or two, but he couldn’t manage to have him gone for too long.
It wasn’t an equal friendship. My parents never struck a conversation with them, but only talked to them when spoken to. Their children never played together. My parents knew their place. It was a friendship that was one borne out of necessity for Kane and later gratitude for our family.
How do you thank someone for saving your life, let alone both of your parents? On several occasions Kane and his wife saved our family’s life. The first life his family saved was mine.
Kane’s wife had a son one day before I was born. Because my mother was malnourished, she sometimes did not have enough milk to breastfeed me. His wife fed me her breast milk, which helped me to survive.
The second life Kane saved was my father’s life. One night, my father was so hungry that he woke up in the middle of a rainy night to steal potatoes from the commune’s plot. The next day, the villagers noticed the potatoes were missing and saw unique footprints in the mud. They accused my father of stealing them because they recognized his footprint immediately. His big toe gave it away. The villagers wanted Kane to punish him but he didn’t. Instead, he took my father aside and told him to be more careful next time.
The third life he saved was my mother. In 1976 my brothers Sovanna and Sovannara were out fishing at a lake near the commune. My mother was picking lotus on the other side. Suddenly my mother heard Sovannara’s scream “help they stabbed Sovana!” She quickly ran across the water to rescue her son. A Khmer Rouge soldier’s son stabbed my brother in the stomach because he wouldn’t give him the fishing pole. When she ran over to him, he was lying on the ground in a pool of blood. His stomach was bleeding. The Khmer Rouge soldier’s son ran away.
Sovannara and my mother carried Sovanna to the other side of the lake where she was working. She instructed Sovannara to find my dad. She stayed with him and tried to stop the bleeding. Sovanara ran to the commune, which was far away from the lake. My father and brother finally came to rescue Sovanna. Suddenly Khmer Rouge soldiers walked up to my parents and brothers and took my mother away.
My father and brother carried Sovanna to our hut and laid him down. My father lit a fire under him to stave off an infection. Sovannara stayed with him to make sure he was ok. My father ran quickly to find Kane to help find my mother. He found Kane and begged him to help. Moments later, Kane found my mother tied to a pole under a house. The house was Say, the Khmer Rouge leader whose son stabbed my brother earlier.
They wanted revenge. She was on the brink of execution. Kane asked the other Khmer Rouge leader, “why are you tying Mit Sakhan?” Then they both walked upstairs to the house to talk. We never knew what Kane said to the other Khmer Rouge leader, but whatever it was, they spared my mother’s life. Had he not gotten there in time, my mother wouldn’t have survived. That was the final life he saved in our family.
In 1978 Kane and his family were taken away for reeducation. He was no longer our commune leader. In 1979 a few months before the Vietnamese invaded, my brother was executed for stealing a can of rice for my sick mother. Sometimes I wonder if Kane was our comrade leader then, perhaps he could have saved his life too. But he was fighting for his life and his family's life.
An Incomplete Closure
Today’s verdict was an incomplete closure. It reminded me of the brutality of humanity and the injustice of life. How could two men like Noun Chea, Khieu Samphan, Duch and the other top Khmer leaders like Pol Pot, Ta Mok or Ieng Sary, get away with living a life of solitude in a high security prison, or dying peacefully, while the victims of their crimes endured violent deaths or live with the painful memories of their inhumane policies. That is the injustice of today’s verdict.
Yet, I am also reminded of the kindness of humanity in people like Kane and his wife who chose to show mercy. His wife didn’t have to give me her milk. Kane could have easily let my mother and father die. Yet he chose to risk his life to save theirs. As a Khmer Rouge commune leader I don’t know if Kane was responsible for overseeing the deaths of others. I would like to think he showed others the same mercy he showed our family. But I will never know for sure.
However imperfect and incomplete the justice may be, it is what the victims have to accept in order to put this dark chapter of Cambodia’s history behind us. Let’s face it, no other verdict other than death would have brought any semblance of justice. But even then, it will never bring back our loved ones or give us back our lost time before the war. Wanting that makes us more like them, the darker side of humanity.
What I choose to believe in is the better side of humanity, in people like Kane, who was a different kind of Khmer Rouge cadre. Who risked his life to show mercy and compassion for us, and hopefully countless others under his watch. I choose to believe that perhaps there were many others like him across the country. But I know the sad reality is that there weren’t many people like him.
Since I’ve been in Cambodia I’ve tried to find Kane but with no luck. My mother and I have tried to find him through Thol, but she has not seen him in years. She’s tried to search the community he once lived in, but no luck. My mother suspects he has passed away. I will keep looking for him until I know for sure he is gone. I hope I am given one last opportunity to see him and to thank him again for saving our family.