When Yam Lash was brutally raped by Khmer Rouge soldiers under a coconut tree in 1977, she was convinced she had little time left to live. Then aged about 40, she had already outlived her husband and three children, whose deaths to this day remain a mystery to her.
Ms. Lash, a woman of slight build, was strangled as she was raped by the men before she was “thrown away” like a piece of trash, she said. But she managed to survive her terrible ordeal and, for the first time, delivered the account of her attack in public to about 400 people at the third Women’s Hearing, held Tuesday in Phnom Penh.
The forum, which is organized by the Cambodian Defenders Project (CDP), gives a voice to women who survived sexualized violence under the Khmer Rouge by giving them the chance to speak out about their experiences.
The event is particularly important as only the crime of forced marriage has been included in the case presently before the Khmer Rouge tribunal.
Tuesday’s forum was unlike the previous two in that it was paneled by six university students. Building a bridge between young and old is critical, according to CDP executive director Sok Sam Oeun, who said it was time to focus on spreading awareness of the more hidden crimes committed during the regime among the younger generation.
“I feel ashamed and embarrassed; it has been in my head since 1977,” said Ms. Lash, who shielded her eyes from the room with a pair of sunglasses. “I almost disappeared.”
But one of the student panelists gently reassured Ms. Lash after she completed her testimony.
“It’s great that you could attend, because it breaks the silence,” he said. “It’s a huge experience that we gain from this; we never heard about it before this time. We are committed to combating gender-based violence and violence regardless of gender. I wish for you to be strong,” he said.
Strength was certainly evident in 65-year-old Mom Vun, who defiantly told the room of being forced into a marriage and then forced repeatedly at gunpoint to have intercourse with her new husband until she became pregnant.
“We are proud you could stand up—we will support you,” another panelist said.
Chea Nom, 76, said lifting the veil of silence under which she had concealed her rape, which occurred just seven months after giving birth to her baby, had helped her to “get rid of the prison without walls.”
“Those who were abused need to record what happened so the next generation can understand,” she said.
Ms. Lash’s cousin, 66-year-old Muslim Los Vanna, was forced to eat pork and was horrified that Khmer Rouge cadre began keeping pigs in her local mosque.
A week after her husband disappeared in 1977, she was woken up by a soldier. Convinced that she too would be taken for execution, she told the audience: “I was shocked, desperate, devastated and trembling—I thought I was going to be killed.”
Instead, she was taken to a desolate site about a kilometer away and pushed up against a tree where a group of men, led by a unit chief, sexually abused her with their hands. Like countless other women sexually violated during the regime, she was ordered to keep the abuse a secret or else risk being killed.
“What would you do if you met your attacker?” asked 23-year-old Khut Ich, a fourth-year law student.
“I am still very angry,” Ms. Vanna said. “I could kill him.”
Mr. Ich said he admired the women’s courage in speaking out about the atrocities they experienced and hoped that he and the other students could somehow be a part of their catharsis.
“Young people are important in helping others to know about this project,” he said in an interview. “My problem, my country, my people…I want the government and Ministry of Education to make people listen,” he said.
Mr. Sam Oeun said this kind of attitude would help CDP achieve the goal of spreading awareness.
“The stories they hear can be used as case studies, so when they become lawmakers or the drafters of laws, they can reference these experiences,” he said.