Shortly before fleeing to the jungle for four months, the young farmer went with four or five other men to see his brother’s decomposed body, where it lay with two others off a logging road near Snuol in Kratie province.
The 23-year-old on Thursday offered the only first-hand account in a tale of detention and execution in Kratie province, allegedly carried out by soldiers against political dissidents. He spoke in a Phnom Penh human rights office, where he is now in hiding.
Until now, reports on what has been happening around Snuol have come mainly from human rights workers and victims’ family members. Rights organizations are alleging the dead are evidence of a larger purge by soldiers in Snuol, whom they have accused of killing at least five people. The fates of nearly a dozen others who spent time in military custody in May remain unknown.
The young man knows what happened to at least three of the men—they were bound, blindfolded and shot several times each and left rotting behind a fallen log.
But he doesn’t know why it happened.
What the man could confirm was the events that played out in the weeks leading up to his brother’s death, when 31 men from his village were ordered to a military compound outside Snuol and held for almost a month following a meeting at the house of Son Peou, one of the three men found shot dead in the jungle.
The man was confused about why he had been called to the meeting in mid-April. He was told his name had been put on a list of members of the “Khmer Serey,” or Free Khmer, movement, a shadowy anti-government organization.
When asked Thursday if he understood what Khmer Serey is, the man said he knew nothing.
“I do not know anything about this,” he said.
But he heard he would get a lot of money for being on the list.
Rights workers and family members say the men were told they would receive $150 a month and a position with RCAF for “defecting” to the government.
The farmer said a man named Nuon Virak, an alleged representative of Khmer Serey, told them, “the military supported us and hoped we could be integrated with the government.”
The government has routinely denied the existence of Khmer Serey as its organized opponent. Rights workers and some diplomatic officials say the military in Snuol may be using the alleged rebel group as a way to root out potential dissenters.
After the meeting, the man and the others were “invited” to the military compound at the intersection of National Road 7 and a logging-company road to await integration.
They were all also told to buy a gun, he said.
“The soldiers said they wanted every man on the list to have a gun. I didn’t go buy a gun, but I was told by Nuon Virak that he bought one for me. I never saw the gun though,” he said.
At the compound, he said the men were housed in two huts and not allowed to leave. “We were all very frightened. The soldiers didn’t tell us anything,” he said.
Those without weapons were photographed and sent home. A senior Snuol district police official said Sunday he received these 16 men and was told to release them to their families after they promised in writing not to join Khmer Serey again.
“The rest of us did nothing,” the young farmer said Thursday.
Almost 20 days later, the man was released from the compound with the remaining inmates after receiving neither money nor reintegration instructions.
Prior to that, he watched Nuon Virak being taken away with a younger brother-in-law. He also saw his brother and two other men get into a car with two soldiers and leave the compound.
It was the last time he would see his brother alive.
Three days after returning home, the man heard that Nuon Virak’s brother-in-law escaped the pickup truck driving the pair into the jungle, after overhearing a soldier say they would be killed “like monkeys.” The man also heard that his brother was dead.
After seeing his brother’s body, he heard from fellow villagers that commune police officers said those released from the compound would be killed. He said he hid in the jungle, cutting and selling bamboo to support himself.
It wasn’t until this month that the man, found by his brother’s widow, came out of the jungle and told his story. He is now waiting in Phnom Penh for rights workers to “guarantee his safety” back in his village of Khsim.
“I liked my brother very much,” he said. “That is why I’m trying to find justice for him.”