It’s a routine question you might hear parents asking each other on the street or in the market: How many children do you have? But for Dorothy Slater, who lost her son six years ago after a Khmer Rouge train ambush, the answer isn’t so routine.
“At first, I found myself asking, ‘Do I say two children or do I say three’?” said Slater, the mother of 26-year-old backpacker Mark Slater, who entered Cambodia six years ago today, only to be taken hostage days later and ultimately murdered by Khmer Rouge rebels. “But I still have to say three, but one died. Automatically they think it was from illness, but then I say, ‘No, my son was murdered in Cambodia.’ ”
Amidst the political maelstrom that’s been swirling around Tuesday’s acquittal of Chhouk Rin, a former Khmer Rouge commander charged with leading the train raid, it’s easy to lose sight of what the trial is really about: finding justice and reconciliation for the families and friends whom the victims left behind.
“When the trial came up, friends said, ‘Oh, it’ll bring it all back,” Slater said. “But what I’ve found is that it’s never gone away, it’s only come more to the surface.”
While human rights workers and diplomats already look toward the future, debating the verdict’s significance on a Khmer Rouge tribunal, Slater will return to Britain still thinking about the past.
Slater said that ever since a friend introduced Mark to the larger world around him through travel, his main ambition was to save enough money to keep going. He traveled to South Africa, Israel, and Thailand before planning a year-long trip to India, which resulted in a fatal, unexpected detour to Cambodia.
“When Mark knew he was going to India for a year,” Slater said. “He would say, ‘This is the biggie. This is the big one and we would laugh.
“He just loved backpacking,” she said. “When I would ask, ‘How can you go backpacking?’ He would say, ‘Once you’re backpacking, it’s a totally different life. When you meet people, they’re on their own as well and you feel like you have that one to one.
“And of course he left me at home worried and concerned that he would be mugged,” Slater said. “Like I think any mother would be, but never in my wildest dreams would I think of a situation like an ambush in a train and the hostage situation.”
Mark’s plans to spend a year in India were sidetracked when he came down with dysentery. A fellow backpacking companion later told Slater that he had suggested to Mark that the beaches of Sihanoukville might be just the place to rest and restore his physical health. But Slater didn’t find out that Mark had changed his itinerary and was going to Cambodia until receiving a phone call from him about a week and a half before the train raid.
“I will admit that I was ignorant at the time,” she said. “All I knew was Cambodia, Pol Pot. That’s what came to my mind when I heard Cambodia. All I knew was Khmer Rouge, Pol Pot. So I quickly said to him, ‘Oh Mark, don’t go to that country, it’s dangerous.’ ”
“He said, ‘Mom, I’m fine, the phone’s going to go dead,’ and the phone went dead,” Slater said. That was the last phone conversation she had with Mark.
Two weeks later, Mark and his companions were thrust into the middle of an internationally publicized hostage crisis mired by political wrangling from all sides. Slater was asked to check the writing on her son’s letters to verify his identity as a hostage caught in the middle of the standoff, which was by then in full swing between Cambodian government forces and the notorious Khmer Rouge.
Slater recalled the second letter Mark wrote saying he was ill and receiving penicillin injections, so he wasn’t able to work in the rice fields like the two other hostages.
“He said they were looking after him ‘well-good’,” she said. “And there was something in the letter that you didn’t know if this ‘well-good’ was something else going on. There were other parts of the letter that I don’t remember off-hand word for word, but sometimes when you look through it, you’re thinking, ‘Is he trying to tell you something about this illness that he’s got.’ ”
As the standoff dragged on, Slater watched helplessly as images of her ailing son rolled across the television screen.
“It’s not very nice hearing your son on television pleading for his life,” Slater said, her voice cracking. “First I watched the videos constantly because in some of the videos he was speaking and, and I wanted to hear his voice.”
“I don’t look so much now that time’s gone on,” she said almost with indignation, as she removes her glasses to wipe the tears from her eyes. “But when I do still have the odd time, I like to put them on, but not half as much as I did.”
Slater and the others involved hoped for an end to the standoff after an Aug 30 ransom delivery deadline, but the end didn’t come until the following month.
“I remember saying to Scotland Yard in London that I hope for God’s sake these boys don’t know about this date,” she said. “Mentally, what will it do to them? Then I was informed by the foreign office that they do know because another letter had come from Mark and the boys saying, ‘Please, please, get a ransom and set us free….The time is running out, in fact, for us time has already run out.’ ”
The exact details of how the botched government raid ended the two-month standoff remain nebulous. But what is clear is that the three boys were found dead shortly afterwards, buried in shallow graves nearby.
Slater said she will return to Britain today with a feeling that justice may never be completely rendered. She said she would like to see the embassies pursue justice against Sam Bith, another commander implicated in the raid who remains free, but she will return home nonetheless with the memories of her son.
“Last time I was here, I went to the hostel where Mark stayed,” Slater said. “I took photographs of their bedroom and toilet, you know, their own toilet. Just simple things like that, but to me it was comforting because that was the last place where he was.
“Life has to go on,” she said. “But I still hold this very strongly.”