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 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.
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 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 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 firstname.lastname@example.org.