Editor’s note: As progress toward a Khmer Rouge tribunal moves forward, the Cambodia Daily today begins a series in which the people who lived through the Khmer Rouge regime share their stories. Subsequent stories will appear in future issues of the Cambodia Daily.
It was unusually hot during the Khmer New Year in 1975. As Khmer Rouge soldiers advanced into Phnom Penh, Ouk Samleng packed a small suitcase.
She didn’t know who the men dressed in black were, but she knew why they were coming. Rumors that General Lon Nol and his cadre of commanders had recently fled Phnom Penh were circulating, and everywhere there were signs of an impending crisis: The US Embassy had pulled out of Phnom Penh, people were hiding possessions, and now men wearing black pajamas and carrying weapons were advancing into the city.
Ouk Samleng quickly packed her case with a few changes of clothes, a little medicine and an English-Khmer dictionary. She was a student, and thought perhaps she would have time to continue her English studies wherever she went.
At dawn the next morning, the Khmer Rouge rounded up Ouk Samleng and her family and forced them to march on foot more than 60 km to Prey Veng province, where she would spend more than three years under the eyes of the Khmer Rouge.
During those years, she would become sick, separated from her family, and at times be on the brink of death. Her story, while perhaps unique in its circumstances, is shared in tone and tenor with the 4 million Cambodians who survived the three years, eight months, and 20 days of the Khmer Rouge regime. She was selected at random to tell her story. Almost 23 years later, Ouk Samleng can easily tell her tale from the safety of the small store she owns on the bustling street 184. The only struggle she now endures is speaking loudly enough to be heard over the constant buzz of moto taxis and shouting street vendors.
Pol Pot, the man largely held responsible for more than one million deaths during the Khmer Rouge years, died in the jungle in 1998, and other leaders have thus far escaped prosecution for the regime’s atrocities. While many believe most of the Khmer Rouge leaders will never be held responsible for their crimes against humanity, Cambodia’s Constitutional Council on Tuesday approved—after only two hours of discussion—a revised Khmer Rouge tribunal draft law. King Norodom Sihanouk signed the law on Friday, opening the way for talks with the UN on how the trial would be conducted.
“The Cambodian people are really the ones who gave the tribunal power,” said Youk Chhang, executive director of the Documentation Center of Cambodia. “The victims have been talking about their cases—they are talking about it with their friends and neighbors, they are sending letters to newspaper editors. They are creating the momentum for the tribunal. This would be the first time in Cambodia where we put one of the leaders on trial. It will have a huge influence on the nation.”
By the beginning of May 1975, Ouk Samleng was settled at a work camp in Prey Veng province. She was separated from her mother, three brothers and one sister. Her father, who had been a civil servant under Lon Nol, was taken by the Khmer Rouge for “re-education,” and was never seen again.
Ouk Samleng worked her first two weeks in Prey Veng under the hot sun, digging an irrigation canal. Because she was raised in Phnom Penh as the daughter of a middle-class civil servant, the field work was especially hard on her. Her hands were more accustomed to holding pencils than to holding shovels, more suited to turning pages of schoolbooks than turning over dirt.
“It was very bad for me because I was a student and I had not done much manual labor. Every day I couldn’t finish the work, but the people who were working in the same village helped me to finish my jobs. They knew I couldn’t work and took pity on me,” she said.
After two weeks, Ouk Samleng was exhausted, overworked, and most of all, thirsty. The Khmer Rouge provided the workers with little drinking water, and after spending all day laboring, she was parched. The thirst was with her always during those two weeks in the field, until it overwhelmed her. Against her better judgment, she drank murky water from a nearby rice field. She knew this would make her ill, but she had to have water. This tiny act eventually affected the next three years of her life as much as the Khmer Rouge soldiers.
The day after she drank the water she suffered sharp pains in her abdomen. They only got worse as the days wore on. She also had diarrhea, but when she saw blood in her stool she knew she needed help: sharp abdominal pains and bloody diarrhea are symptoms of dysentery. The Khmer Rouge soon took her to a local health clinic.
“The medical staff didn’t know how to treat me. They gave me traditional Khmer medicines—tree bark—for my illness and it made me more sick and kept me in the hospital for another two weeks,” Ouk Samleng said.
It’s not surprising the clinic staff was unprepared to treat the sick. The Khmer Rouge’s plan to institute ultra-Maoist agrarian reform throughout the country included the killing of university professors, lawyers and, unfortunately for Ouk Samleng, doctors.
In 1969, Cambodia had 40 hospitals, according to an assessment by the World Health Organization. In addition, there were more than 500 dispensaries, health centers and