Frontline World

Cambodia - Pol Pot's Shadow, October, 2002

Synopsis of "Pol Pot's Shadow"

In Search of Justice

Historical Analysis: The U.S. and Cambodia

The Rapper, the Dancer, and the Storyteller

Learn more about Cambodia

Genocide, War Crimes, Politics




Diary Entry3
PREY TA TAUCH - The Killer Next Door

Samrith Phum


The Killer Next Door

Samrith Phum lives in a small, thatch-roofed house with one of her sons and her daughter-in-law, just behind the village market. She is a calm, middle-aged woman with a round face and sad eyes. She seems to be amused by our request for an interview, but maybe she is just laughing at my bad Khmer pronunciation.

It is the dry season -- the hardest time for rural Cambodians. Like everyone else, Samrith must eke out an existence for her family until the rain returns and rice farming can begin again. At the moment, she and her daughter-in-law are making cakes with the few ingredients they have on hand: palm sugar, rice flour, coconut and water. Chickens peck away at the coconut husks on the ground. The cakes, which she sells in the market, bring in two or three dollars a day -- which will have to support the whole family.

Samrith Phum in her yard
We watch her son slowly navigating through his chores, feeding the family's two cows, pulling water from the well. His right leg is missing at the thigh, lost to a land mine when he was 13 years old. Now he cannot find work. Another of her three sons, Samrith tells us, lost his arm in a car accident. She sets out a plate of cakes for us to try and looks around her home. "I realize that I must have done something wrong in my previous life," she says matter-of-factly, without self-pity. "That's why, this time, I have a bad karma."

One night, in 1977, soldiers came to Samrith's home here and took her husband away. She thought he was just going to a meeting -- the Khmer Rouge would often wake people up and force them to sit through long indoctrination sessions. But Samrith's husband never came home. She was only 20 years old and had three young children, one a newborn. She bundled up her infant and went to talk to the Khmer Rouge village chief, a man named Choch. "I asked him, 'Brother, do you know where my husband is?'" But the village chief told her to mind her own business and not to worry about others. He told her to go back to work. "I didn't ask him any more after that. I was so hopeless. I knew my husband was dead. Choch told me, 'I don't want to warn you or anything, but be careful.'"

Samrith Phum wipes her eyes
Samrith never saw her husband again. She later heard that he had been executed, accused of being a CIA spy. The nightmare did not end there. A short while later, Choch appeared at her door with an oxcart and said he would take her to see her husband, which she knew was a lie. Instead, as she had guessed, Choch drove to the prison and locked her up with her baby. She was kept there a year, close to starvation, separated from her two older boys, wondering when death would come. She was released only when the Khmer Rouge were driven from power by the Vietnamese, which was also when the extent of the killing at the prison was unearthed.

Today, Samrith still lives just down the street from Choch. It is an all-too-common horror in Cambodia. Survivors of the genocide are forced to live side by side with their former tormentors. No one has ever been brought to trial for the atrocities here. The killers live freely, slipping quietly back into society, walking among their former victims. Watching Samrith's face as she describes what it's like to see Choch in the market these days, I wonder if, in a sense, the Khmer Rouge regime isn't still committing crimes -- more subtle, psychological, hard-to-see crimes -- against the Cambodian people.

I ask Samrith if she would be willing to testify if there were a war crimes trial. She shakes her head. "I don't want to testify. It's scary, risky," she says. "Because as I said before, there's no peace in this country. If I show up at the trial and say something, what might happen? Maybe one day a guy comes and shoots me dead. It's useless."

Choch smiles
I want to find Choch. Samrith reluctantly gives us directions to the cluster of villages where he lives, farther off the main road, in a place called the Commune of the Dead Elephant. She wishes us well as we climb into our car.

A passing car is a rare event out here, much less a passing car with Caucasian passengers, and swarms of children run into the road to watch us go by.

We have only a short distance to go, but a maze of narrow paths, barely wide enough for our vehicle, crisscrosses the forest, and we take several wrong turns.

Choch, by the standards of his village, is well off. Neighbors point out his house to us, which is larger than most of the others. There is a workshop adjacent too, where, we're told, he makes noodles to sell. Dogs snarl behind nearby fences as we approach. We wonder what our reception will be.

We spot Choch sitting under the shade of his home. He's frail and bony, dressed only in baggy shorts. He's surprisingly welcoming, flashing a nearly toothless grin, and doesn't seem surprised at the sudden intrusion of a couple of strangers.

Choch in his home
He starts answering our questions calmly, but quickly gets worked up and frustrated. He says he had no choice in joining the Khmer Rouge -- he was appointed village chief because of his lack of education. He strenuously denies Samrith's accusations.

"If I was a bad person, I wouldn't stay here, and the locals would not be friendly to me," Choch says. "They accuse me of killing people in Sang district and arresting family members and children, but that is not true at all."

He says that he's never even been to the former prison, let alone worked there. He says he's been accused of theft and killing over and over by various victims for years. Now, he's just trying to run a respectable noodle business.

"I think that lady was trying to accuse me of doing bad things. But it's not true. Over 40 members of my family died during the Khmer Rouge regime. If you don't believe me, you can prosecute me."


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