If I did not do good things, perhaps there is no today for me
In 1975, the extreme leftist Khmer Rouge seized power in Cambodia. Pol Pot, a former teacher and pedagogue, became the country’s leader. The Khmer Rouge wanted to introduce their own version of communism by way of radical, brutal actions which openly defied all the pre-existing norms.
Schools, hospitals, factories were closed; all banks and the currency were liquidated; religion was delegalized, and so was private property. There was no freedom of choosing one’s spouse. The country was to turn into a village and the society was to live off the land. The residents of cities were forced to move to the countryside, or to concentration camps where they were forced to perform slavish labour and suffered starvation and tortures. Those who owned more than one bowl of rice per day could end up in the so-called “re-education” camps, which meant a certain death.
In order to save on munition, victims were slaughtered using bamboo bats, axes or spades. Enemies of the system were buried in mass graves. Fertile land turned into the ‘Killing Fields,’ the term used in the British film under the same title which premiered in 1984. The ‘Killing Fields’ became a synonym of the Cambodian tragedy, recognized all across the world.
The four-year long experiment in creating an ideal communist society claimed 21% of the entire population, i.e. approximately 1.7 million human beings.
Nut Sen, Huy Sarin, Ngen Ngon, Khon Any, Hang Romny, Duch Keam, Meas Proeung, Aki Ra. They survived the brutal Pol Pot’s regime and they helped others persevere. How?
Nut Seng climbed palm trees and worked at a juice production factory. He would secretly bring the juice to those who were starving. During the purges of 1978, Huy Sarin helped eleven people flee from one province to another. “If I did not do good things, perhaps there is no today for me,” he said in his account.
During the bombing, Ngen Ngen freed the prisoners locked up in a school and a Buddhist temple. They were so exhausted that they needed assistance in jumping over a fence.
Khon Any spared the life of a man he was to kill – on his supervisor’s order – in order to get his tractor.
“I was happy that he escaped. He survived, and I did too.”
Hang Romny was a teenager when she provided aid to a soldier of Pol Pot’s army. He used to hide in a tree during the day, and climb down at nights. She took him to Prey Tor Teng on her bike. There, he was safe.
Duch Keam led 700 people across the border to Vietnam. While crossing the jungle, parents took their children’s lives trying to silence them. His groups often stepped on mines.
Meas Proeung, taking advantage of the trust the Khmer Rouge put in him, intervened on behalf of one of the prisoners.
Aki Ra was a child-soldier. He used to plant mines. Today he is removing them. “I do not wish anyone to witness the death of their friends or children.” He founded a museum and organization of former child-soldiers, widows, mothers, fathers, students and peasants. Cambodian Self-Help Deminig is devoted to keeping the country safe.