Reviewed by Michelle Vachon
Some of the people, whose stories are told by relatives in the book “Stilled Lives,” had joined the Khmer Rouge in the 1950s or 1960s to combat the one-party regime of the time. Others signed up in the 1970s in response to then-Prince Noro-dom Sihanouk’s radio appeal to wage war against the Lon Nol government, which had ousted him in March 1970. A few had simply obeyed their village chiefs or followed friends when the Khmer Rouge recruited in the countryside.
But years of loyalty or services meant nothing once the Khmer Rouge came to power. The system, which could turn a faithful member into an enemy without reason, would eventually kill them. Their spouses and children, if not their relatives, would die also.
The picture emerging from “Stilled Lives” is of a regime led in absurdity, moving its own people as if they were pawns and never hesitating to end their lives.
The 127-page book, which was published by the Documentation Center of Cambodia, recounts the stories of 51 Khmer Rouge workers, soldiers or cadres through interviews with members of their families who were usually also Khmer Rouge supporters.
They came from four provin-ces—Kompong Cham, Kandal, Kompong Thom and Takeo—which were controlled by the Khmer Rouge long before 1975.
Among the 35 men and 16 women profiled, 42 were killed during the Pol Pot era—most of them executed—two disappeared with their fates unknown, one died recently and six are still alive.
The over-sized, hard-cover book, printed on glossy paper, contains portraits of those 51 people and their families taken in the 1970s. Most of them appear in their teens or 20s, some holding ma-chine guns as if they were props rather than weapons.
A smiling Chan Leang appears in a 1975 photo when she was 6-months pregnant and a sewing-unit member. She joined the Khmer Rouge in 1970 along with four of her siblings, said her sister Chan Sok Kim.
In 1976, the Khmer Rouge sent Chan Leang’s husband Prum Nhem, who handled China-Cam-bodia trade, to China for a month. He was arrested a few days after his return, and killed with Chan Leang and their four children.
Two of Chan Sok Kim’s brothers had died in battle against Lon Nol forces in the early 1970s. And yet, she learned that her parents had been accused of supporting the Lon Nol regime and killed by the Khmer Rouge in 1977.
“I have so much regret that the Khmer Rouge cheated me,” said Chan Sok Kim, who joined the movement in 1974. “I expected that I would liberate the country and bring it to prosperity, but instead they killed my parents and most of my siblings.”
As Wynne Cougill and co-authors Pivoine Pang, Chhayran Ra and Sopheak Sim mention in the book’s introduction, living conditions varied according to people’s roles. The base people, or non-military combatants as the Khmer Rouge called them, were often switched from one job to the next as the needs arose, factory workers one day and barbers or medics the next, and eventually sent back to the fields. “Severe deprivation, disease, hard labor and food shortages were the lot of this group, which the Khmer Rouge claimed to revere,” the authors state.
The combatants also would be moved around. Bit Boeun, who had joined at 21 in 1971, first handled a rocket launcher in her all-women unit at the front.
After the Khmer Rouge took over the country in 1975, she was assigned to cleaning and maintenance at the old stadium. Later on, Bit Boeun was transferred to a sewing unit.
“If someone made a mistake or broke something, even a needle, they were accused and sent to the rice fields,” she said.
After the boss of Bun Thong, her husband, was arrested, he also was taken away. The Khmer Rouge had married them one month earlier, and Bit Boeun was now pregnant. “They gave me an injection and made me jump up and down to make me lose my baby. I nearly died.”
Bit Boeun was then sent to work in rice fields in Kompong Chhnang province, and only the arrival of the Vietnamese forces prevented her from being killed, she said.
People in high positions had luxuries such as watches or motorcycles, lived in apartments, and had food and medical care, unlike the rest of the country.
But this did not protect them from execution.
Ban Sarin had joined the Khmer Rouge in 1962 when he was a 14-year-old student in Kompong Cham; and his brother. Ban Saroeun had followed his example a year later.
They respectively were security chief of the North Zone and deputy of Region 505 when Ban Sarin was taken to the Tuol Sleng torture chambers in 1976, and Ban Saroeun in 1977. Their wives and children died, with the exception of Ban Sarin’s daughter.
Ros Sithat talks of Khmer Rouge leader Ke Pauk who built her a house where he would sleep in 1973 as a “handsome, sweet face,” man.
Ke Pauk was married to a woman whose husband, a five-star general, he had tortured, Ros Sithat said. She recalls him laughing when she asked him whether it was a sin to take another man’s wife.
Even though she heard that Ke Pauk had arrested her own husband—Nhem Noeun who was a district chief in Siem Reap province—she remembers Ke Pauk as a person “full of kindness” who had guards give her food when she was imprisoned.
For many, hardship did not stop with the end of the regime in 1979.
Khvan Sichan, who made vaccine during the Pol Pot regime, was separated from her 3-year-old daughter Lun while fleeing the advancing Vietnamese forces. After nine years of searching for her in Kompong Cham province, she finally found her working in a village for the local women’s association. The association members charged her today’s equivalent of $370 plus $125 per member for taking her daughter back. Lun lived with her mother for seven years, and died of epilepsy at 19, said Khvan Sichan.
Photos from the book are on exhibit at the Tuol Sleng Geno-cide Museum.