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.
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.'"
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."
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.
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.
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.
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
BATTAMBANG: The Judge
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