Land Mines and Sapphires
The Gem Market
Brother Number Two
We're inching along in the dark outside of Pailin, driving through
the jungle before dawn, on our way to the home of the most senior
living Khmer Rouge leader. Our camera is wrapped in blankets
and hidden below the seat. It seems highly unlikely any of this
is going to work.
We have secured an interview with Nuon Chea, believed to have
been head of the Security Committee during the Khmer Rouge regime.
Nuon Chea is a shadowy figure even in an organization famed
for its secrecy and paranoia. Back in Malai, Suong had described
Nuon Chea to us as "Pol Pot's shadow." He was mostly known simply
as Brother Number Two.
To get by neighbors and the local security, we have to disguise
that we are Western journalists. I wear a long-sleeved shirt
and pants and tuck my blondish hair under a low-brimmed hat.
Our translator dresses Adam in a long blouse and pointy wooden
hat, like some extra in a Khmer B-movie. He tries to reassure
us as we frown skeptically. "Very Khmer," he nods.
Back in America I had spoken with Nate Thayer, one of the most
prominent journalists reporting on Cambodia. Thayer was the
only reporter to interview pol pot in two decades. He was also
the only one to talk to all of the top Khmer Rouge leaders.
"Nuon Chea, in my view, is more guilty of crime against humanity
-- war crimes, torture and mass murder -- than any other single
Cambodian," he explains. "We have far more documentary evidence
against Nuon Chea than we do against Pol Pot."
head of the security apparatus, Thayer told me, Nuon Chea was
in charge of arresting so-called enemies of the party. Documents
have recently been collected that indicate Nuon Chea was intimately
involved in the executions at Tuol Sleng.
As Thayer explained, "For every single person who came through
Tuol Sleng, Nuon Chea was given a copy of the briefing of the
torture and remarked on when it was appropriate to have them
killed. We have overwhelming evidence he was involved at least
in those 14,000 murders personally, that he personally ordered
Nuon Chea now lives next door to another high-ranking Khmer
Rouge leader, Khieu Samphan, the longtime public image of the
regime. As we pull into the compound where Nuon Chea lives,
the first of three security checkpoints is deserted on cue.
It's unclear whether the security is there to keep other people
out or Nuon Chea in.
As we near the clearing, I glance out the car window and suddenly
find myself staring into one of the most recognizable faces
of the Khmer Rouge. It's Khieu Samphan, glaring down from his
balcony just a few feet above me, ducking to get a better look,
trying to figure out who we are and what we're doing near his
doorstep before dawn.
I figure the interview's finished. We pull up to Nuon Chea's
house and wait. It's a simple wooden home, traditional Cambodian
style, on stilts. Whatever Nuon Chea's been doing lately it
doesn't appear that he's cashed in on the gem trade. No alarm
sounded, so we tentatively grab our swathed equipment, slip
off our shoes and walk up the wooden planks into the house.
Brother Number Two greets us warmly. I'm reeling with the strangeness
of being politely introduced as if at a cocktail party, shaking
hands with the man believed to be responsible for the Khmer
Rouge killing machine. When Adam pulls out the black metal tripod
from our camera bag, Nuon Chea loses his composure for a moment,
suddenly staggering back and looking alarmed. He has more reason
than most to fear an assassination attempt. After a moment he
realizes what the sleek metal object is and laughs.
Brother Number Two and his wife live in a modest two-room home.
The main sitting room consists of a wooden table and a few chairs.
The only decoration is a glassed-in puzzle of two animals fighting
and a picture of the Buddha above it. He explains that the bottom
picture symbolizes the struggles of the world and the picture
of the Buddha represents the only way to solve these problems.
It's an odd sentiment for a man who was once a central figure
in a regime that banned religion and forcibly defrocked Buddhist
monks and nuns.
the bedroom, amid the carefully stacked books, is an old black
and white photo of Nuon Chea as a toddler, sitting on a tricycle.
Behind him is his grandfather and the elementary school class
his grandfather taught. It is another jarring portrait: not only
seeing the executioner as a boy, but also remembering that the
Khmer Rouge ruthlessly targeted teachers for death.
At 6:30 in the morning it's already stifling. Nuon Chea sits
calmly and cools himself with a bamboo fan.
It's a small gesture, but strikingly evocative. I had seen archival
footage of the Khmer Rouge's April 1975 takeover of Phnom Penh.
When the Khmer Rouge swept into power, they immediately emptied
the cities and forced everyone into the countryside. After the
evacuation of Phnom Penh, the leaders of the central committee
roamed the empty city they had just conquered, walking through
the silent streets with the arrogance of victors and the delight
of children whose fantasy had just been fulfilled. One figure
lagged behind the rest. Nuon Chea strode slowly and confidently,
surveying his new domain, lazily waving a fan in front of him.
As we talk, Nuon Chea seems more interested in making his American
television debut than in answering our questions. Filtering
everything through a translator makes getting straight answers
even more trying. He puts on a show. He shares his admiration
for George Washington. He jokes that he only became a communist
because the Americans wouldn't have him. The closest he comes
to admitting any responsibility is when he says, "A person's
not always wrong and not always right. Like the leaders -- we
did some wrong, but we also did some right. Just because you're
wrong doesn't mean you're a bad person. If you do anything,
you're going to make mistakes."
Nuon Chea can only talk for a few minutes at a time without
struggling for breath. He goes to lie down and have his wife
take his blood pressure. If the courts are to get any real answers
from this man, it seems that the time must come soon.
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