As one of 29 international journalists invited to observe the People’s Revolutionary Tribunal in 1979, West German Alexander Goeb’s first experience in Cambodia was watching victims vividly describe the horrors they had experienced under the Khmer Rouge regime.
Mr Goeb, the only West German reporter to cover the tribunal that tried two Khmer Rouge leaders in absentia, returned to Cambodia for the seventh time last week.
At the trial, victims testified against the Khmer Rouge at a packed Chaktomuk Conference Hall, while Phnom Penh remained empty with only about 1,000 residents, he recalled in an interview yesterday.
“It was just six days of stories circling around of Cambodians killing Cambodians from different parts of society,” he said through an interpreter. “When people talked about what happened, others collapsed into tears. They just couldn’t stand those memories.”
The streets remained littered with bodies and skulls, he said. “The atmosphere was tense.”
Mr Goeb, who worked for the German People’s Press, won a trip to Vietnam for a historical feature written on the Nazi era, and while there was invited by a Vietnamese state representatives to see the Cambodian trial.
A house was prepared for journalists because almost all the buildings were in rubble and press conferences took place at Hotel Le Royal, then named the Hotel Samaki, he said. “At the time, the hotel was rundown, with monkeys and geckos.”
The tribunal found the “Pol Pot-Ieng Sary clique” guilty and sentenced them to death.
As the accused were not present, the trial could be seen as unfair, Mr Goeb said. “But as international observers saw, what victims told in court was the truth…. The truth was reported, which is not always the case in front of courts.”
Vietnam wanted the stories heard to justify their invasion, he noted.
At the trial, shocking statistics of victims from each of Phnom Penh’s districts were given—in one district that had 2,000 residents, only 200 survived, he said.
“One part of the trial also highlighted how the Khmer Rouge tried to exterminate culture by killing artists and performers,” he said, noting that findings about atrocities, such as victims thrown to crocodiles in Siem Reap province, came up.
In the Federal Republic of Germany, politics complicated documentation of what happened under the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, he said. West Germany, as an ally of the US, supported Pol Pot to retain a seat at the UN General Assembly, he added. “It was a political hot iron.”
Before observing the tribunal in 1979, Mr Goeb said he knew little about the Khmer Rouge regime. But since then, he repeatedly came back to Cambodia for research and wrote a book, titled in German “Cambodia: Traveling in a Traumatized Country.”
During this visit, he is staging “The Cambodia Disaster,” an exhibit of educational panels on the Khmer Rouge, including works by artist Vann Nath and photographer Heng Sinith, at Phnom Penh’s Meta House.
“My experience was so strong when I first came that I decided to always come back and report.”