Phnom Srok district, Banteay Meanchey province – Ask villagers who live around the Trapaing Thmar dam how many died while building it, and almost all of them give the same answer: “Ch’ran nas.” Very many.
Trapaing Thmar was built between 1977 and 1978, the largest irrigation project of the Khmer Rouge regime, which was obsessed with irrigation projects. Its canals and ditches stretch for nearly 20 km away from its central reservoir, cutting through rice fields that are still green, though the dry season has long since reduced most paddies to scraggle.
But the area has paid a steep price for its year-round lushness. Somewhere between 5,000 and 10,000 people died here while working on the dam, which was built in just eight months and is nine meters deep at some points, according to Youk Chhang, the director of the Documentation Center of Cambodia.
The dam was investigated as a crime scene in the Khmer Rouge tribunal’s second case, and in their initial 2007 allegations court prosecutors said thousands here were subjected to forced labor and unlawful killings.
Around here, Im Chem, a former cadre who helped supervise construction of the dam, and whom many have pegged as one of the five new suspects being investigated by the tribunal, is invariably known as Yeay Chem – Grandma Chem.
As a district chief here for a key period in the late 1970s, Ms Chem oversaw the building of the dam, supervised by top regime leaders including former head of state Khieu Samphan. She has candidly admitted that people worked hard at the construction site, and that all able-bodied villagers were expected to participate.
But where some see a crime scene, Ms Chem sees a thriving development project.
In an interview last week, Ms Chem repeatedly asserted that she was only doing her job by mobilizing villagers to build a dam that brought clear economic benefits to the area.
“The dam helped prevent the floods, and the fish came along the dam, so now villagers can go fishing along the dam to support their living when previously they went very far to fish,” she said.
“To me, I didn’t do anything wrong, and I didn’t do anything related to politics,” she said of her time as a Khmer Rouge cadre.
She refused to discuss the number of people who were killed or died at the dam, or even the number of people who worked there.
But villagers say the figure was substantial. And while they remember Im Chem mostly as a distant authority figure, some still remember her for alleged instances of cruelty and sorcery that protected her from harm.
“Yes, I know Grandma Chem,” said Tuy Buon, 69, who has lived here since he was born. “Most people hated her, because when they went to apply for rice and rice bran, she made it very hard to apply,” he said of her role during the regime.
Squatting by the Trapaing Thmar reservoir, Mr Buon said that although he was sent by the Khmer Rouge to work as a cabinetmaker in a neighboring province during the most intense period of construction, two of his sons died working on the project.
“They got diarrhea because of the lack of food to eat, lack of rice, and got thinner and thinner and passed away,” he said. “Sometimes when people worked on the dam, it was very hot and it made them half-blind and they took them to be killed.”
When Mr Buon returned to the area in late 1978, the dam was almost finished but the regime was on its last legs, and the Vietnamese invasion just around the corner. He remembers seeing “the big guys in building the dam” – most of the high-ranking cadres involved with the project- taken away to be executed.
Mr Buon seemed a bit bored talking about the history of the dam. He was more interested in the day of fishing he was about to embark on.
“I have no idea whether Im Chem is still alive, but now people are just pleased to have the dam and grow short-season rice and fish,” he said before biking off to his day’s work.
Indeed, residents of the villages surrounding the reservoir are unabashedly glad the dam is there. They pump in water to grow two separate crops of rice per year, a task made easier after a recent overhaul of the area’s canals and bridges. Children loll around the reservoir in inner tubes, and teenagers cluster by the banks, kissing and troublemaking. Mothers do their laundry there. On a recent day just before Khmer New Year, groups of young men colonized stretches of the concrete structure for frenzied dance parties.
The area is also home to a rare enclave of endangered sarus cranes, who survived in the wetlands here largely because of the dam’s construction and subsequent abandonment to the elements. Ten years ago, a roughly 100,000-hectare conservation area around the reservoir was declared a crane preserve by the government.
“Since I was young there have been cranes here,” said one villager. “We’re not supposed to hunt them, but sometimes I bag one. It tastes like chicken, delicious.”
There is a peculiar dissonance in reaping so many benefits from a project built by the Khmer Rouge. But the regime’s aim in building the dam was rice and rice alone.
“There has never been a modern regime that placed more emphasis and resources on developing irrigation than Democratic Kampuchea from 1975-1979,” Jeffrey Himel wrote in a DC-Cam article published in 2007.
Due to the unrealistically massive rice-production targets set by the regime’s brutal leaders – which had to be met without the aid of chemical fertilizers or modern agricultural technology – waterworks would be crucial to the regime’s success or failure.
An inventory of Cambodian irrigation projects taken in the mid-’90s found that 79 percent were built between 1975 and 1979. Almost every single one was at least altered by the Khmer Rouge. But without much technology or even competent engineering, and relying almost entirely on slave labor, the irrigation projects were more often than not disastrous.
In his book “The Pol Pot Regime,” Ben Kiernan quotes a 1978 peasant ditty from neighboring Siem Reap province: “Before, we cultivated the fields with the heavens and the stars, and ate rice./ Now, we cultivate the fields with dams and canals, and eat gruel.”
Starvation is a constant theme among residents who remember building the dam “with only human-being strength,” as one man put it. They still talk of the gruel they ate, the rice bran they scrambled for.
Chum Yeav, 69, is a one-eyed grandfather who says he was forced to work on the dam by Angka, “the organization,” as the Khmer Rouge upper echelon was known. Naked to the waist, his lower half wrapped in a pink krama, he held up a small rice bowl and a spoon and shook them.
“We got one of these bowls full of rice gruel every day,” he said. “That’s it. But if you squeezed all the water out it would be only about one spoon of rice.”
They worked a punishing schedule, going to bed at 10 or 11 pm and waking up at 4 am to start work again. There were no Sundays.
“There were thousands who died,” he said. “Some people fainted. Nobody dared to complain about how much we worked.”
“It was hotter than flames!” his friend, Pouk Kim, 65, broke in. “If male and female teenagers talked to each other, they’d take them and kill them, smash their heads with the backs of shovels.”
The two men remember Ms Chem clearly, but they were terrified to even look up from their work when she passed through the dam construction site. Neither had ever seen her face. When a reporter showed them a photograph of the broad-smiling former cadre, they stared for several minutes without speaking.
“She has very good teeth,” one of them finally said.
Ms Chem has disputed accounts of starvation at the dam under her leadership. When she arrived in the district people were indeed hungry, she admitted to an interviewer in 2007, with excrement that “looked like that of white herons.” But after her reforms, residents “ate fully until they got diarrhea.” When the regime fell and she fled to the mountains, she claims over 4,000 villagers fled with her.
In the past Ms Chem has been vocally opposed to more prosecutions at the Khmer Rouge tribunal, and even more vocal about her fears of being arrested. But last week, she said she was now convinced that she could and would not be prosecuted: “Now it’s clear, no one will summon me now that a couple of generations have passed, although I was very worried.”
Maybe she’s right. Ms Chem still has a reputation here for invincibility.
“She was very strong, and no one could shoot her, no one could fire at her because she was so strong in magic,” recounted Long Oung, who was a teenage cow herder during the regime.
Mr Oung estimates that 40 percent of those working on the dam died, especially the “new people” evacuated from Phnom Penh and other cities. But his brother, a country boy, was also one of those who were killed by overwork.
“My brother died at 15 from lack of food,” he said. “If someone complained about lack of food, they’d take them away and accuse them of capitalism. He was afraid to say any words, to complain about the hard work, so he worked until he died.”
And yet, he said, “It’s good, it’s really good that they pushed people to build it, because now we can have water to do all sorts of things.”
Mr Oung paused for a moment. “But it’s bad for the people who built the dam. They pushed them to work hard and they died. So, two things.”