Stung Sen district, Kompong Thom province – Pol Pot murdered millions to create a nation of peasants. His younger brother simply was one.
Saloth Nhep, who died on Feb 4 at the age of 84, lived the life his brother dreamed of for Cambodia. While Pol Pot, who was born Saloth Sar, was in turn a student in Paris, a jungle fighter, a prime minister, and a ruthless warlord, his younger brother spent nearly his entire life farming and tending to his buffalo in Prek Sbauv, a tiny village on the banks of the River Sen. He is known here simply as Grandfather Nhep.
“My father was real Khmer,” said his daughter, Nhep Thol, 47, in an interview on Saturday. “He was a farmer who had more than 20 buffalo.”
Ensconced in a hammock and surrounded by the clutter of Cambodian country life—rags, old shoes, sacks of rice—she remembered her father, who was Pol Pot’s last surviving sibling, as a wise and gentle man.
“Very quiet, very polite,” she said. “Never caused problems, complained or hit his children. He liked to advise his children and grandchildren to study hard.”
There were only two things that separated him from any other elderly villager in Prek Sbauv: his name and his face.
Everyone who met Nhep was struck by his resemblance to Pol Pot: the same broad forehead, the same narrow nose, the same pale skin that gave rise to Sar’s name, which means “white.”
The brothers were born just 18 months apart and grew up as best friends, inseparable. Although Saloth Seng, another sibling, was furious with Pol Pot for the death of his son under the Khmer Rouge—”He broke my heart,” he told The New York Times in 1997—Nhep seemed more sorrowful than angry. He once told an interviewer from the Documentation Center of Cambodia that Sar had been “a lovely brother.”
“I will take him back if he is found innocent,” he said then.
“I cannot say my brother was bad or good, but he was good when he was a child,” he told The Cambodia Daily in 2007.
And to a CNN crew, most poignantly, he said of Pol Pot: “We simply loved each other.”
Other than a brief sojourn at a Phnom Penh pagoda as a boy, and a period of dislocation during the Khmer Rouge era, Nhep spent his entire life in this village. When he returned in 1982, he and his children built a house on the site of the old Saloth family home, which had been destroyed in the civil war, and picked up where they had left off: farming.
Still, although he never sought attention, the world managed to beat a path to his door. Hundreds of authors, researchers and curiosity seekers made their way to this tiny house to scrutinize its inhabitants.
“Researchers and journalists always came to ask about Pol Pot and also they wanted to see my father because he looked so much like him,” said Ms Thol, Nhep’s daughter. “He had no real reaction to it but when he was old he felt like he was very tired of always sitting and talking to them for hours.”
“But he just kept talking because he could not bear to ask a guest to get out of his house,” she said, bursting into laughter.
This parade of visitors is over to his family’s obvious relief.
The family is still known around town as “the Pol Pot relatives.” Villagers are adept at giving directions to “the Pol Pot house.” Even when Ms Thol’s sons do well in school, the teacher tells her, “The Pol Pot grandchildren are very clever.”
But they take pains to point out that they have no real connection to Pol Pot. Until Nhep saw his brother’s face on a poster in the late 1970s, he had no clue what had happened to Sar, who had disappeared from his life over 10 years before.
Even after the fall of the Khmer Rouge in 1979, they never made contact with each other. The only stories Saloth Nhep could ever tell his eager visitors about Pol Pot were stories of childhood, memories of how charming and polite his brother Sar was.
“Since 40 years ago, my father never met or knew him,” Ms Thol said. “And I never met him, just heard my father talk.”
“It’s good that Pol Pot is dead,” she added.
Still, when a reporter played an audio clip of an interview with the Khmer Rouge leader shortly before his death, Saloth Nhep’s granddaughters were rapt. Pol Pot’s trembling voice, slow as sap, was exactly like their grandfather’s, they said. They asked if they could make a copy of the tape.
“Keep that voice—it’s your grandfather,” Ms Thol told them.
A grandson was sent to fetch a freshly bound photo album of Nhep’s funeral and cremation, which took place on Feb 6.
The last few pictures in the book show him in his coffin, pale and still beneath a cascade of jasmine flowers. The scene looks eerily like the famous image of Pol Pot lying on his bier in 1998, disseminated so the world could take one last look at the face of evil.
But instead of armed guards, Nhep’s coffin was surrounded by sons and grandsons who shaved their heads in sorrow for his passing.
Instead of being hastily cremated in the remote jungle, Nhep was mourned by hundreds and put to rest on a riverbank in the sleepy village of his birth, near his rice paddies and his buffalo, a peasant to the last.