Photographer Journeys to Provinces To Find Former Khmer Rouge Members Alive, Thinking About Past

sa’ang district, Kandal province – It’s late in the afternoon and the children are restless in Meas Pengkry’s village. He asks that we go somewhere else before we start to talk about the life he used to lead.

It wouldn’t help if the children hear what he has to say. They might repeat it to their parents. Then the whole village would know that Meas Pengkry was talking to strangers about the past.

The past is something people do not talk about here in this muddy village squeezed between brilliant green rice paddies and the cocoa brown water of the Mekong. The past was when some of the people here were teen-agers easily led astray by men who spoke of grand sounding plans.

Meas Pengkry steps to the rear of a wooden boat and with a long pole coaxes the craft from shore. The boat spins once in the current and is pulled downstream. Soon there’s only water, the boat and ricefields.

No children.

“Are you going to ask me about my whole life?” he asks.

He had a normal childhood be­fore he joined the Khmer Rouge, he says. He got married and had children after he left the regime. He’s not only the thing he was when he was 18: A driver who carted truckloads of his countrymen, blindfolded, to the Tuol Sleng torture center.

Nearby freelance photographer Heng Sinith snaps photographs of Meas Pengkry as he speaks. It was his mission to find Meas Pengkry on this late September day and now he captures him on film.

“We can speak about all your whole life, before and during and after,” Heng Sinith says.

It’s a gentle interplay and not the sort of thing one might expect for a meeting between Heng Sinith, who lost two older brothers to the Khmer Rouge, and a former Khmer Rouge prison guard.

Meas Pengkry, sitting on the shady bank of a narrow river, spills out the story of his life. Heng Sinith’s camera clicks and whirs. Off in the distance, farmers move through their sun drenched paddies in silence.

For several months this year, Heng Sinith has held private meetings, like this one, with more than a dozen people who used to work for the Khmer Rouge. These are not the people who, like everyone at that time, were forced to work for the regime. They were a part of it, though in that part that was so large and anonymous they were never recognized as individuals.

Drivers, guards, nurses, these were the foot soldiers of the Khmer Rouge regime. Estimates say that more than one million people died during that time from executions, starvation, illness and overwork. The top leaders were responsible for the policies that made those deaths possible, but someone had to carry out the killings. Maybe some of the murderers were among the people Heng Sinith photographed this year as part of his Khmer Rouge project, maybe not. He never pressed them for an an­swer.

“Some of the people are really poor,” Heng Sinith said, speaking recently about the people he met while looking for the Khmer Rouge. “We must follow the Khmer culture that says they are poor because of something bad. Maybe they killed someone before and so they are living low now. Maybe they will be punished by the Gods.”

The photographs Heng Sinith took over the summer are now on display at Tuol Sleng. Ten of the 13 people Heng Sinith photographed for the exhibit once worked at the Tuol Sleng.

Some 14,000 men, women and children were tortured at the former high school and consigned to death, often on trumped up charges of crimes committed against the Khmer Rouge regime.

The exhibit, which opened Tues­day, pairs the recent photographs of former Khmer Rouge with photos taken when they were young re­bels. All of the photos taken this year portray the Khmer Rouge as normal people going about their daily lives, praying, working in their fields, holding children. Heng Sinith said that was his goal.

“I want to show how they live their lives now as compared to the past,” he said.

Some 141 Khmer Rouge soldiers, guards, interrogators and wardens worked at the prison. The Docu­mentation Center of Cambodia, which is gathering evidence of Khmer Rouge atrocities, has traced 80 percent of the names of the Khmer Rouge personnel, but many have died already, said Youk Chhang, the center’s director.

One worker, still alive, is 48-year-old Him Huy, the former head of an interrogation unit at Tuol Sleng, who said his superiors would have killed him if he refused their orders to torture the prisoners.

“I did not feel good about watching people die one after another,” he said in an annotation accompanying his picture.

Him Huy, who now lives about 60 km south of Phnom Penh, said if he’s summoned to a trial, “I wouldn’t hesitate to provide testimony about what I did in the prison and the reason I did them.”

Only a handful of prisoners survived the experience. Most were taken from the prison after torture and put to death on the outskirts of the capital, where their bodies were dumped into mass graves.

The exhibit, which runs until December, is part of an ongoing project to document the lives of former junior Khmer Rouge, Youk Chhang said. The objective is to give “both sides of the stories”—from the victims and their torturers.

Many former low-ranking guerrillas are living in anger “because they feel it’s unfair that they are, as small fish, being prejudged while their leaders are walking free,” Youk Chhang said. “They live in guilt because the villagers call them ‘a-Pot’ (despicable Pol Pot) and know they belonged to an evil group.”

Youk Chhang said he personally chose Heng Sinith for the project.

“I think Sinith has innocent eyes. And that’s the only eye that can capture the truth. I have followed his works for many years. His eye has no hate, no revenge, no anger.”

“We have identified so many of [the former Khmer Rouge] that live in anger, live with suspicious neighbors. They are not fully accepted by their neighbors.”

As researchers from the Docu­mentation Center fanned out throughout the country over the past two and half years to find former Khmer Rouge still alive today, they were surprised to find that many of them wanted to talk about the past, as long as they felt secure about who they are talking to.

“They have no other way to express their story,” said Youk Chhang. “They want to communicate somehow, but they are rejected because they belong to a group that committed crimes against people in general.

“So we think that we should give them a voice. To listen to them. So this is only an introduction to a group of people who are living among us, next to us, every day.”

The exhibit may travel after it is taken down in December, Youk Chhang said. There’s also talk of a book based on Heng Sinith’s photographs and interviews conducted by documentation center staff.

On the day that Heng Sinith met Meas Pengkry, he also found Nhep Ho, a muscular 52-year-old with an easy smile. He worked as a guard on the north floor of Tuol Sleng.

“We were not allowed to hold a gun or talk to any prisoners,” he said. “I never committed a crime or took an order to kill anyone.

“The prisoners who were taken from the custody rooms never re­turned. My group leader, Mr Leng, spoke to a prisoner during an interrogation. He was taken away.”

Meas Pengkry, the driver who talked to Heng Sinith far from his village, says he never spoke to the prisoners on his truck. He left them at a house near Tuol Sleng.

“I did not know where I could have gone if I ran away,” he says, summing up his Khmer Rouge years as ones of forced servitude. A picture from those days shows a uniformed Meas Pengkry giving the camera a lost stare.

“I had no choice to serve them. I lived under the state and will answer for what I did. I won’t deny it if the state wants me for a trial. So far in my life, I have married and have children. I feel pity for the friends who were killed without seeing their parents.”

(Additional reporting by Ker Munthit of The Associated Press)

 

 

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