Ask him again.
But we’ve already asked him.
Ask him in a different way.
But it doesn’t happen like this in our culture.
What do you mean? There is no cause and effect in Cambodia? I want to know how his treatment under the Khmer Rouge has impacted his life. I’m just not sure I’m asking the right question.
But he said there is no impact.
It’s not true; ask him again.

I was into my third hour interviewing a survivor of the Khmer Rouge regime, and everyone was tired. The survivor, a farmer from a province three hours north of Phnom Penh, had already described the most horrific experience––his pregnant wife's stomach being cut open and the fetus removed by soldiers who planned to dry and consume it, supposedly to gain magical powers.


He spoke in the most matter-of-fact tone, though he was clearly upset, clenching his jaw, twitching in his seat and furiously rubbing tiger balm across his forehead and under his nose. I probably shouldn't have pushed, but he had come seeking help. He wanted to tell his story, and I wanted to give him the opportunity to name what he was feeling and to admit that the horrors inflicted on him and his family under the Khmer Rouge were still impacting him. But he hadn't considered the length or detail of such an interview, or that he would be asked to scrutinize his suffering. I looked at the evidence of his agitation––tiger balm now smeared across every inch of his face––and said that we were done. He was free to leave.


I was in Cambodia working through one of the country's few psychosocial organizations, Transcultural Psychosocial Organization (TPO Cambodia), to record people's testimonies about war. The patients who came to TPO were primarily witnesses chosen to testify in the country's war crimes tribunal, called the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia, or the ECCC. Charges had been brought against a handful of surviving Khmer Rouge leaders, those deemed most responsible for the deaths of nearly 2 million Cambodians in the mid to late 1970s. Across Cambodia, the details of life under the Khmer Rouge regime were emerging through court testimony and in the press. TPO had been asked to counsel witnesses from the start and, each day of the six-month trial, staff members sat inside the courtroom, available for questions and support. The organization found itself bombarded with calls from people suddenly unable to sleep, overcome with anger and aggressive behavior, suffering from severe headaches or crying fits. Everyone wanted to know how to stop the pain.


TPO, overwhelmed and understaffed, agreed for me to work with them last summer as fieldwork for my research on storytelling in postconflict societies. It was one of the few organizations I had found trying testimony therapy, a method used to illicit traumatic memories and allow survivors to begin healing. My job was to interview and photograph official witnesses, as well as those rejected by the court process but who still desperately needed to have their testimonies heard. The goal was to compile historic records, aid emotional healing and encourage other Cambodians to speak.


I recruited a talented photographer friend and colleague, Alan M Thornton, to join me in Phnom Penh to create the survivor portraits, then packed up my then 3-year-old son and headed to Asia.


What I thought would be an experience similar to what I'd done in Iraq years earlier, documenting survivor stories and history, became a much larger journey into the politics of trauma and secondary trauma, and the immense differences in how cultures define, respond to and treat illness.

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Som Vorn was jailed for taking a coconut to feed has family. While he was incarcerated, his wife and child were brutally, ritualistically murdered.Credits: Alan M Thornton
Som Vorn was jailed for taking a coconut to feed has family. While he was incarcerated, his wife and child were brutally, ritualistically murdered.Credits: Alan M Thornton

Cambodia’s Silent War
During the years of 1975-1979, Cambodia suffered one of the most brutal and effective genocidal terrors in the history of mankind. Pol Pot and his Khmer Rouge army killed up to 2 million people through execution, torture, forced labor and starvation. Pot separated families, removed all intellectuals (even those who wore glasses were threatened), documented meticulously the torture of thousands of individuals, and sent hundreds of thousands into work camps in the countryside. The physical onslaught stopped when Vietnam invaded in 1979; but the psychological scars have yet––more than 30 years later––to be reckoned with.


 The Cambodian government calls it a kind of reconciliation that its citizens, majority Buddhist, prefer silence to evoking any "spirit of revenge." Today, former Khmer leaders have found their way back into positions of power without much outcry, and many textbooks devote no more than 10 lines of description to the years of the regime.


Some who have pushed for public displays of remembrance have been accused of trying to provoke violence. Rather than partake in any meaningful process to reconcile the past, the prime minister (himself former Khmer Rouge) once famously stated that victims of the regime should "dig a hole and bury the past."


While survivors may have found a coping mechanism in keeping stories of their experience to themselves (particularly while those who committed atrocities have yet to be prosecuted), succeeding generations are demanding more accountability. Many feel that accurate documentation is one important way to make sure history is known, and to ensure that something like Pol Pot's regime is never repeated.


It was into this setting of silence and repression, beginning to lift under court testimony, that Alan and I walked. Our entrée into Cambodian society was through TPO's director, Dr. Sotheara Chhim. I had first written to Dr. Chhim after reading his expert testimony on trauma for the ECCC during the trial of Kaing Guek Eav, better known as Comrade Duch.


A survivor of the Khmer Rouge and one of the country's first psychiatrists, Dr Chhim was formally trained as a medical doctor, but came upon so many cases of post-Khmer Rouge psychological disturbances that he turned to psychiatry.


"After the regime ended in 1979, Cambodians had lost the structures that would have allowed them to heal from trauma. There was no family, no teachers, no doctors, no monks, no honoring of the dead, no comfort, no closure and no justice. The very institutions that would help Cambodia recover from the immense trauma no longer existed," Chhim told the court.


One of Chhim's methods of treatment included testimony therapy.


Testimony therapy was first developed by Chilean psychologists Elizabeth Lira and Eugenia Weinstein following the Augusto Pinochet regime. Using the pseudonyms Cienfuegos and Monelli, the two initially set out to interview former political prisoners in order to document the oppression. They realized the process of giving testimony seemed to help the survivors of the regime: It restructured an idea of self and provided new perspectives about the past in a person's own voice, replacing the voice of the perpetrator.


In Cambodia, testimony therapy is combined with a public reading and sometimes a purification ritual. TPO's participants were taken to the notorious killing fields, where thousands of people were murdered during the regime. There, a Buddhist monk blessed the testimonies and the survivors. During one session, a man wailed for two hours without pause. He phoned TPO the next day to offer thanks. After 30 years, he said, a painful thorn had been removed from his heart.


For me, working in Cambodia was a chance to see first-hand how testimony therapy worked in postconflict societies, and if such a process could be administered by nontherapeutically trained professionals. Cambodia was a window into how one could face and overcome trauma through testimony, even decades later.
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Sotheara Chhim is a Khmer Rouge survivor who now assists others through testimonial therapy.Credits: Alan M Thornton
Sotheara Chhim is a Khmer Rouge survivor who now assists others through testimonial therapy.Credits: Alan M Thornton

Troubles in Translation
First, I needed a translator. Initially, I thought this would be someone who could translate Khmer words into English––the talent for which was rare enough given the country’s ambivalent embrace of education. I heard stories of parents still too fearful of another intellectual purge to allow their children to attend school. But I quickly realized I required much more than language skills. 


I needed someone who could be a cultural translator around medical issues, world visions and thinking patterns. I had already traveled extensively in Southeast Asia, but I still needed someone to explain to me how Buddhist notions of karma let grievous crimes, particularly against children, continue on a daily basis. Or to tell me that Cambodian interview subjects never wanted to be left alone in hotel rooms because they feared roaming ghosts. Before we even began, I had to learn that the term PTSD doesn't carry weight in Cambodia; rather, it is a country suffering from Baskbat, broken courage.


Post Traumatic Stress Disorder might be the most maligned malady the world over––and the most diagnosed, particularly in war-affected areas. Psychosocial interventions like the one I was conducting with TPO often have been accused of jeopardizing local coping mechanisms, pathologizing and stigmatizing war-torn communities, and conveying a purely Anglo-American therapeutic ethos. Labeling illnesses in Western terms has been called a form of "medical imperialism."


Cambodians perceive trauma as a manifestation of unhappy spirits––not something covered on standard American PTSD questionnaires or in Western medical calculations. Doctors working with TPO learned to ask subjects if they had "been thinking too much", had "wind attacks" or whether they felt "Khmaoch songot"––a term for describing a sudden inability to move or speak, sometimes in tandem with the appearance of dark shapes.


During my time in Iraq, I found Iraqis to be passionate and expressive, sometimes over-the-top melodramatic, but always engaged with their own emotions and with me. In Cambodia, the trauma was like an outside creature, allowed to emerge and sit on a sterile table to be analyzed for the purpose of our interview, but then politely put back again at the end of the day. I wasn't sure how to react to the monotone descriptions of terror and trauma—that people could remember every province, commune, district and village to which they were sent during the regime, but sometimes forgot how many of their children were killed. There was a cyclical nature of telling, starting with the day one was born and winding on for hours through farming practices, or with former Khmer soldiers, military tactics; meandering past the years of trauma, always conveyed matter-of-factly, and around to the present day. Then: Was there a sleeping pill they could have? An antidepressant? And could they go home now, please?


The interviews wore me down, little by little, making me a bit colder every day.


This was secondary trauma, and I was beginning to realize the ways it was manifesting in my psyche. I would become frustrated with the lack of clarity and would push to connect people's disjointed thoughts. I focused maniacally on organizing the testimonies at the expense of hearing the content, letting it settle and feeling the ways that the words played in my body. I didn't like myself at these protective moments, but I was sure that, if I let myself go, it would open a floodgate that could never be shut. I didn't want to be emotionally "out of control" in a country holding itself together through a guise of absolute restraint.


My photographer, Alan, had never encountered such detailed accounts of atrocity—so many, so often and so unthinkable. The impact of it all stayed with him for months after his return. If not for my fearless son Aiden, I'm not sure I would have made it. Returning at the end of the day to a bounding little boy, eager to share his new Khmer words and go riding in his go-cart around the pagodas of Phnom Penh, was like rainfall in the desert: life-giving oxygen.
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Sith Yam’s testimony of survival broke the author’s defenses with its intimacy.Credits: Alan M Thornton
Sith Yam’s testimony of survival broke the author’s defenses with its intimacy.Credits: Alan M Thornton

Awakening
Then small cracks in the pervasive restraint began to appear, and I found real connection. The first opening occurred when a man allowed his anger to flow with such poetic beauty, I was awestruck. He was a taxi driver, the most spontaneous interview we collected––and one of the most powerful. This man described his revenge fantasy with such intensity and detail that I felt hypnotized, moved by his emotion and deep, brutal honesty. His was the only interview I wanted to confirm before publishing, needing to be sure that he understood the danger of his words and to make sure we had been clear of possible countrywide distribution. Yes, he understood and, yes, all he wanted––in fact ever since he lost his family to the Khmer regime––was for his words to be heard. 


Another interview broke my own defenses. It wasn't just the telling––a story of one mother trying to keep her two daughters alive, of touching their legs as they slept to make sure they hadn't died in the night. It was that she reached out and touched me on the leg. It was a simple gesture, but all of her pain, memory and terror was embodied in that touch. She could see it enter my body and she smiled, still holding my leg as my tears began to flow, as if to remind me that I was the one who needed comforting.


Her touch changed me, and changed the way I viewed the project. The previously incoherent dichotomy of restraint and bursting trauma merged into a real sense of a beautiful, strong and resilient people. Those who shared with us were brave beyond comprehension, some of them revealing their experiences for the first time ever. For them, it was the process of speaking that was more important than what they detailed. The act of coming forward and asking for help was like a rocket lifting to the moon: one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.


I redoubled my commitment to the practice of testimony. It wasn't just the transfer of factual and practical knowledge, but the space it provided for the voices of those usually unheard—the poor, the illiterate, the marginalized and those left out of any political or legal process. I wanted "truth" to document Cambodia and other war-torn countries, but I came to accept that not all testimonies need to be "factual."


The oral historian Allessandro Portelli once wrote that "the importance of oral testimony may lie not in its adherence to facts but rather in its divergence from them, where imagination, symbolism, desire break in. Therefore there are no 'false' oral sources…The diversity of oral history consists in the fact that 'untrue' statements are still psychologically 'true' and that these previous 'errors' sometimes reveal more than factually correct accounts."


For me it was an awakening moment, of love and acceptance, of fatigue and accomplishment. Alan and I could worry over logistics and organization later, but we had found the right path. Our work as witnesses to testimony was merely to stay open––and openhearted—enough to hear.

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Survivor Stories

 Dr. Sotheara Chhim   42, Phnom Penh

I always dreamed of being an architect or maybe a civil engineer. The Khmer Rouge changed that. I think less than ten doctors survived. People returned home with illnesses and there was no one in the hospital. My mother said I had to study medicine. At first, I did surgery in the provinces. When I worked, I saw a lot of clients who became psychotic and ran away, and a lot of suicides. We thought maybe it was a curse from black magic. We didn’t understand it…
So I was one of the first to be trained in psychiatry.


Cambodians are still affected by the Khmer Rouge and its legacy. Many think Cambodians are OK and not traumatized because they can smile. But it's not true. The pain is under the surface. The problem doesn't go away. It comes back with a trigger, like during the tribunal…Here, it's a concept called Baskbat, broken courage.


The work of healing is ongoing. There is no time limit to the work on the effects of the genocide. Healing will never be too late and healing can still be achieved.

 Som Vorn   Age and Residence Unknown

In 1978, I was jailed for taking a coconut. Then they checked my background and saw that I was the son of farmers and my parents were good people. Maybe picking just one coconut wasn’t enough to be part of a CIA network. The leader of the prison came to me and said they had been confused and not to be angry.


While I was away, they took my wife and 3-year-old son. She was pregnant, and they cut her stomach open and took the fetus. They believed it gave them magical powers and protection. Then they filled her stomach with grass.


The genocide was possible because, by killing the people mentally, you can kill more than if you kill them physically. It still affects people today because you lost your courage and you didn’t get it back. Today, we still feel defeated.

Chin Meth  53, Kampong Thom

When I first saw fighting, I was asked to dig a trench and get inside. I was so afraid to shoot that gun, I just shot at the sky. At night, when I slept, I saw myself carrying bombs. Now, when I’m sad, I smell the bombs and I imagine that place. And I remember carrying the guns…


After the evacuation, we were asked to collect everything from the houses: clothes, gold, rice, everything…then we had to put them separately. Some things stayed with the leader. We didn't ask where it was. It belongs to Angkar. Then we were ordered to clean the city, the hotels, the streets. It was so quiet. I felt like it was a dead city.


Before my testimony, I always covered my face when I went to the market. I hid until the lawyers encouraged me to speak. Before the Khmer Rouge court, I had anger in my heart. Now, I can come here (to this prison) because I’m happy and my heart is free. During the regime, I worked so hard in these fields planting rice. Now, I come here and I just see my homeland.

Sith Yam  60, Kampot

I would save my own dinner and then, at night, bring it to my children. I would touch them when they slept and rub their legs to make sure they hadn’t died in the night from the watery porridge. One night, I touched my daughter on her leg. It was solid and did not move. I was so scared she had already died. I twisted her leg and she woke up. I was so startled and happy, I started to cry.


Every day, I was praying for someone to help get rid of the regime. I just wanted it over. When the Vietnamese finally came, I walked for a month until I could reach my village. Now, I tell my children you have to fight back and not let the Khmer Rouge return.

Sun Phy  42, Banteay Meanchey Province

I have no memories now. Our only memory was about food. What I knew was that my house was by the river. I think it was in Kratie (Krah-chey). I remember freshwater dolphins in my village, but I haven’t been there yet. I wanted to print out papers and hand them to people all along the river, but I don’t have enough money.


Can you imagine when my children ask where I come from, I cannot say? Can you imagine not having a homeland, no relatives? I believe there might be some of my relatives alive. If I could find my homeland, then maybe I could find them.


I feel so upset with myself. Other children who were sent abroad who can't speak Khmer can find their relatives. I'm Cambodian, I'm here, and I still can't find them.

Yun Bin survived after being left for dead in a mass grave.Credits: Alan M Thornton
Yun Bin survived after being left for dead in a mass grave.Credits: Alan M Thornton

Yun Bin  55, Kampong Chhnang Province

I couldn’t see anything; I just knew there was a pit in front of me. There was a soldier with an ax, and then I fainted. I felt my soul running to tell my parents that I was not being taken to be educated, but to be killed. Four more bodies were dropped on me and I regained consciousness, but my soul was already gone.


I tried to kick the bodies off of me and scratch the string off my hands. It smelled horrible. The warmth of blood and fat was all over my body. I looked up and heard someone yell to kneel, then I heard the breaking sound, like someone breaking a coconut, and then another body was thrown down.


I started to pray to my ancestors, to the Buddha, to anyone. I prayed that, if the bodies could help me get out, I would seek justice for them.

Elaborate revenge fantasies have sustained Ou Seng Thy.Credits: Alan M Thornton
Elaborate revenge fantasies have sustained Ou Seng Thy.Credits: Alan M Thornton

Ou Seng Thy  46, Kampot Province

After the regime ended, I started searching for my father. I met some friends who had survived, and they told me my father had been killed. Pol Pot soldiers took a palm leaf and cut his throat. When my mother heard this, she collapsed. This was 1983, and I was 18 years old. I was so angry, I became a soldier to take revenge. 


I want the Khmer Rouge leaders who are accused, like Duch, to be judged and tortured. His flesh should be cut little piece by little piece until his death. We should do to them whatever they did to us. For example, one youth was arrested and he was tortured; his penis was burned with fire. If they cut our ears, we cut their ears a little; if they hit us, we hit them a little; if they burned us, we burn them a little back. We do that little by little until their death.

Sok Sop Eal  70, Kampong Ke Village

Of all my memories, the most painful is when they stopped me from praying, and they forced me to eat pork and feed the pigs. All jamia Muslim were forced to eat pork. They wanted to hurt us, insult us and cause us pain. They wanted to keep us from praying. All religions, even Buddhism, were forbidden.
When I was a soldier with Lon Nol, the other soldiers told me that Pol Pot was a bad man and without religion. But I didn’t believe them; I regret that now. I can’t believe the Khmer Rouge regime existed without religion.

Sou Sotheary suspects she was raped by multiple soldiers as punshishment for being transexual.Credits: Alan M Thornton
Sou Sotheary suspects she was raped by multiple soldiers as punshishment for being transexual.Credits: Alan M Thornton

Sou Sotheary  70, Phnom Penh

Maybe soldiers knew about my transsexuality because, one day when I was collecting stones on the mountain, seven or eight soldiers came and raped me. I fell unconscious and, when I woke up, I was covered in blood. I crawled back to the house on my hands and knees and told [my lover]. He had been in the house making baskets. He held me and we both cried. That night, we started to discuss how to escape.

 Kang Seth  63, Chhouk District

In 1978, I was ordered to be a soldier to fight in the south against the Vietnamese soldiers. After one week, I ran away. I was caught by another group of Khmer Rouge soldiers and ordered into the Malik mountains to carry big stones. I also cut the forests and carried soil. We had to work so much with so little food. I assumed the Khmer Rouge thought we would die there, so they just made us work. To them, we were already dead.


When I was in prison, I belonged to the “old people,” so I wasn’t treated as badly. The others, they tied their hands behind their backs and pushed them off the roof of the prison. The ones they pushed were mostly kids and old people. I heard their voices. Being back here [at the monastery] reminds me of what happened. I still feel fear when I see it again. I don’t trust people around me—anywhere.

 Phok Khorn  57, Siem Reap Province
 
I didn’t tell anyone about my forced marriage or when they put me in prison. I just wanted to forget and not feel the pain. The villagers knew I was a Pol Pot soldier but they didn’t know my experience.


In the past, when I thought about Tuol Sleng prison I cried. When I first went there, TPO sent someone with me. It reminded me so much of the past. TPO arranged a religious ceremony, and I just cried.


Most of the Pol Pot soldiers wore these tattoos to protect against spirits and from getting hurt in battle. I guess mine didn't work! [Laughs!]


In 2006 when I first told people my background for the tribunal, my family was so surprised. Now, it’s time to find justice.

 

Nam Mon was imprisoned and raped. Her brother was a prison guard.Credits: Alan M Thornton
Nam Mon was imprisoned and raped. Her brother was a prison guard.Credits: Alan M Thornton

Nam Mon  48, Phnom Penh

My brother was a prison guard, and he told me that my father was in the prison. When I went to work to give people medicine, I saw him. He was so skinny because there was no food. He told me not to come to the room because, if they knew that he was my father, they would kill the family. I didn’t say anything. So I stopped going there. I asked one of the guards to give him medicine.

In the early days, after I was put in prison, they thought I was a boy. I had short hair and I looked like a boy. They took me to the bath and made me take off my clothes. I didn’t. But after they discovered I was a woman, they raped me.


Zélie Pollon is a journalist whose big picture project is compiling testimonies of war survivors from around the world. In the meantime, she covers New Mexico for Reuters America domestic news service. Her time in Cambodia was part of her Rotary Peace Fellowship in post-conflict reconstruction at the University of Bradford in the UK.

Alan M Thornton has been an advertising, editorial and fine-art photographer for 16 years. He also teaches university-level photography courses and leads workshops at the Santa Fe Photographic Workshops. His documentary work has been featured with Hewlett-Packard, which earned him the Prestigious Photographer sponsorship, as well awards from The Center For Fine Art Photography and the IPA Merit Awards for his travel and documentary portraits.

A book on the work, “IWitness: Testimonies by Survivors of the Khmer Rouge,” is due to be published in Cambodia by the end of the May. For more information or to support the project, please contact Zelie Pollon at zpollon@gmail.com.