Meach Rem could hardly breathe. The horror of her four children’s fate was beyond doubt.
After seeing their faces in photographs at Tuol Sleng, the Khmer Rouge-era torture center in Phnom Penh that only 14 people are believed to have survived, the 65-year-old woman from Kandal province was overcome Saturday morning.
For Meach Rem, who stood weeping outside the prison, “it was too emotional,” Youk Chhang, director of the Documentation Center of Cambodia, said later that day. He and others from the organization held Meach Rem as she suffered an apparent panic attack, fanning her in the morning heat.
Of all those DC Cam had invited this weekend on the first of a series of monthly field trips to the prison, the Choeung Ek killing fields and the chambers of the planned Khmer Rouge tribunal, Meach Rem was the only one to find family among the photos.
She refused to go home, Youk Chhang said, and continued with the tour instead.
Four-hundred and eighty people from across Cambodia, including Buddhist nuns, Cham Muslims, students and researchers—some of whom could be called on to testify at the trialsÑspent two days revisiting the scenes of Khmer Rouge atrocities and asking questions about the body established to bring victims justice.
“If I know the date, and if I have the money, I will come to the hearing even if I am not invited to testify,” said Sen Kob, a 60-year-old Muslim rice farmer who had traveled three days from Kroch Chhmar district in Kompong Cham province to take part in the field trip.
“I feel deep sorrow that my siblings and other Islamic people were killed during the Khmer Rouge,” he said.
His siblings’ families were killed as well. “Peace be upon you,” he said in Arabic, before parting.
“Foreigners cannot understand the profound suffering under the Khmer Rouge,” Funcinpec lawmaker Monh Sophan said to the group later that morning at the National Institute of Education.
“Those who have only heard about it have different feelings and…don’t understand the way Cambodians do.” Muslims are Cambodians, too, he told the gathering. “Religion is the only difference.”
After a brief description of the court’s procedures, Monh Sophan, who has been involved in the preparations for the tribunal, warned that the UN could withhold support for it if it felt the proceedings did not meet international standards.
“So it depends on you all who have lived through the genocide of the Khmer Rouge. Please testify accurately so the UN has no pretext to withdraw. I place my hope and trust in your testimony,” he said.
The first question from the audience rang out. “Why are we waiting until 2007 to start the trial?” asked Sum Rithy, 52, who said he had waited 27 years for justice.
“If you continue to delay, the Khmer Rouge leaders and witnesses will die one by one,” he said, to the obvious satisfaction of the audience.
Who will guarantee safety for witnesses, he demanded to know. And why had death toll estimates been revised downward? “I want to find out who is Angkar. Who is behind it?” he said, referring to the Khmer Rouge name for its faceless organization. “I heard this tribunal will be a farce…just to cover the situation,” he said.
Cambodia had long lacked money and human resources, replied Monh Sophan, adding that earlier death tolls had been revised after investigation by DC Cam.
“The UN will spend $56 million,” he said. “Now is still too early to say whether it will be a farce. They haven’t started yet. We have to wait and see. I don’t believe it will be a farce.”
Standing that afternoon by a pile of smashed human bones at the Choeung Ek killing fields, Sum Rithy said he had not previously told his story to a reporter.
Of those evacuated from Cambodian towns and cities after the Khmer Rouge victory, he said he was the only man to survive at a Khmer Rouge prison in Siem Reap province, which held prisoners from three other provinces.
His jailers falsely accused him of having been a Lon Nol soldier and a US spy, he said. He was bound and showered with boiling rice gruel that left splotches of molten skin on his arm and hands. “Please…tell the whole world that no place should ever repeat this,” Sum Rithy said.
Nuns surrounded the bones and led a prayer as one nun poured water over them. “They chant for the souls of those who died,” said 68-year-old nun Lor Lan.
In the chamber where the trials are to be held in Kandal Province’s Ang Snuol district, Sean Visoth, the tribunal’s director of administration, told participants on Sunday that the court’s structure assured fairness by requiring international jurists to approve its verdicts.
“We cannot walk through the door,” he said. “We need the UN-appointed judges to turn the key.”
“Three million died,” Chum Mey, 75, a survivor of Tuol Sleng, told the audience. “I do not believe that only two million or 1.5 million died.” Would Pol Pot be tried posthumously, he asked.
Sean Visoth doubted this, though the trial should bring relief to every Cambodian, he said. When asked, he refused to say whether former Khmer Rouge Foreign Minister Ieng Sary could be tried despite his royal pardon in 1996. “The individual, let me call him Mr A, was pardoned…but the decision whether or not to charge him is for the panel of judges,” Sean Visoth said.
© 2006 – 2013, All rights reserved.