baray district, Kompong Thom province – Everyone knows where he lives. Turn right at the mermaid statue and follow the slow brown water of the Stung Sen stream past the cows with their hay and the quietly clucking chickens, under the shade of the tamarind trees until you reach a simple wooden house, gone grey with age. There you will find an old man with papery skin and a face made famous not by him but by his brother: Pol Pot.
Loth Nhep, 82, has the same broad cheeks, narrow eyes and slightly upturned mouth as his brother, Saloth Sar, who grew up to oversee one of the most virulent communist revolutions in history.
Loth Nhep says some 200 journalists have come to this small village, Prek Sbauv, just outside Kompong Thom provincial town in Balaing commune, to interview him. He is tired of the pilgrimages. “I’ve had enough. Even CNN came,” he said. “You are the last one.”
The fact is, Loth Nhep can’t answer the essential question that has drawn so many to his doorstep: How did his brother become Pol Pot?
He says he only realized, with some shock, that his brother was Pol Pot in 1978, when he saw a photograph of him posted in a communal kitchen.
“I cannot say my brother was bad or good, but he was good when he was a child,” he said in an interview earlier this month. “He was very gentle. He never had any enemies. He liked to study. When I tell people, no one believes me. They say I’m defending him,” he added.
The names of the first suspects at the Khmer Rouge tribunal are expected to become public within weeks, but it is still far from clear what legal justice will mean for ordinary Cambodians, who have managed to live with the burden of history for 30 years.
Perhaps nowhere are the ironies more acute than in Kompong Thom, the birthplace of Pol Pot and the site of one of the largest slave-labor irrigation projects undertaken by the Khmer Rouge. Kompong Thom also has its share of bones. Some 20,000 skulls were found at the Baray Chun Dek pagoda in Balaing, which served as a regional “security center” for the Khmer Rouge, said Hor Koch, 89, the chief monk. People were brought from all over the province-and some from Phnom Penh-to be killed. “No one escaped,” he said.
Today, Pol Pot’s childhood neighbors-many of whom suffered grievously under the Khmer Rouge-live down the street, in apparent peace, from his younger brother. And some of the people who slaved up to 12 hours a day, watching their work brigades shrink as killings culled the ranks, now water their rice from the very canals that nearly cost them their lives.
A weary peace has come to this place, and people seem to regard the ongoing efforts to try the former leaders of the Khmer Rouge with a dispassion. Rice is real. Justice, so far, is not.
Today, the January 1 Dam, built by the Khmer Rouge, provides water to 20,000 hectares of land in Baray and Santuk districts during the rainy season, and to 2,000 hectares during the dry, according to Ou Bunthsophoan, director of the provincial department of agriculture. People, he said, should think about the dam’s utility, not its history.
“It is a good achievement for the country’s development,” he said.
But Documentation Center of Cambodia Director Youk Chhang says it is too early for forgetting. “It’s not a victory,” he said of the Khmer Rouge’s large-scale irrigation efforts. “This has been done over the dead bodies of millions of people,” he said.
Meas San, 58, was one of the thousands who labored under excruciating conditions to build the January 1 Dam. She said six of the 10 people in her work group disappeared within three months. “They were sick. Their bodies were swollen. All of a sudden they disappeared,” she recalled.
Lon Keam, 60, also worked on the dam, while pregnant. She had so little food, she could not feed her baby, and watching him suffer was unbearable. “My breast milk was not enough,” she said. “I wished that my baby would die.”
Trucks came by night to take people away. “We were just like pigs,” she said. “They could kill us at any time.”
Today, the dam enables Meas San to eke two rice harvests a year out of less than 1 hectare of land. Lon Keam uses the water for her rice, too.
But it is a bitter harvest. “Sometimes I look into the water and I feel hatred of the Khmer Rouge,” Meas San said. “They killed my husband, they separated my daughter from me. I was so hungry.”
She remembers a brief respite from the horror, during a visit by Khmer Rouge Brother Number Two Nuon Chea and Head of State Khieu Samphan. For five days, Nuon Chea’s wife worked in the dirt with them, she said. “We called her Touch,” meaning tiny, she said. “She was a small lady, but she was very beautiful. She had white skin.”
During the visit, she said, the killing stopped.
“Whenever soldiers wanted to kill people, Nuon Chea’s wife would come so people didn’t get killed,” she said.
People were even allowed to stop working-an offense usually punishable by death-to watch the delegation of high-ranking Khmer Rouge officials parade around the worksite. “Nuon Chea and Khieu Samphan didn’t blame us at all,” she recalled fondly.
Youk Chhang said he doubted Nuon Chea’s good intentions.
“It’s how they won the hearts. They showed some light. People remember it, but it was so dark behind,” he said, adding: “The dark side of Nuon Chea you wouldn’t see until night falls.”
To this day, Meas San said she believes Pol Pot alone was responsible for the killings.
She said she’d like to participate in the Khmer Rouge tribunal, but she’s too busy.
“It’s an old story,” she said. “Everything’s gone.”
Loth Nhep says he suffered the same as everyone else under the Khmer Rouge. The regime opposed traditional family structures, and he says his was treated no differently. He said he spent the Khmer Rouge years working on a communal farm in Prasat Balang district’s Sala Visay commune.
“He abandoned us when he became the leader,” he said of his brother. “If I had a position in the Khmer Rouge, I would have been killed long ago. People watched my activity. They know I’m just a simple man. People treat me well.”
Ek Un, 70, who lives a few houses down from Loth Nhep, grew up playing with Saloth Sar. She recalls the young Pol Pot as quiet and studious. “He often visited my house,” she said. “He didn’t like to talk very much. He always smiled,” she added.
Ek Un also learned that Saloth Sar was Pol Pot from a photograph.
“He was just a white, skinny guy walking around this village. When I saw the photo, at first I could not recognize him because he had gotten so fat,” she said.
Her husband, a teacher, was killed by the Khmer Rouge, but she says she bears no ill will towards her neighbor Loth Nhep. “He was not involved with the regime,” she said. “There’s no hatred. People trust him. He’s a very loyal man. Very honest.”
She said she wants justice for the death of her husband, but in an offhand sort of way. “My husband was killed so long ago,” she said. “I don’t know how we can reverse it.”
Mour Mai, 75, who lives a few houses down, has deeper scars. “I saw a Khmer Rouge use a knife and cut my husband’s neck three times,” she said. “His head fell off.” Her face is a mask of grief. “I want to sue Pol Pot,” she said.
Meanwhile, Loth Nhep sits in his bare wooden room just down the road, hoping to live out the remainder of his days in peace. Around him are a small television and a fluorescent tube light hooked up to a large battery and little else. He complains of high blood pressure, and his eyes seem to irritate him. He keeps blinking.
“I didn’t see people actually killed in front of my eyes,” he said. “But many people died and [my brother] was the leader, so it’s difficult to say he’s not responsible.”
“The court will decide,” he said. “For me, I have nothing to say.”