My father, a middle-class farmer, was killed by the Khmer Rouge in 1974, when he refused to give them his buffalo. My mother, forced to marry a Khmer Rouge militiaman after my father’s death, died in childbirth in 1976. My eldest brother disappeared in 1977. I later found out that he’d been killed in a party purge in our area.
When the Khmer Rouge fell in 1979, I — 10 years old at the time — escaped to a refugee camp on the Thai border. I learned English from American missionaries and eventually started working as a location scout and translator for media organizations in Phnom Penh in the 1990s.
Throughout that time I never really understood what had happened under the Khmer Rouge. I read history books — almost all by Westerners — but it still didn’t make sense to me: Why were so many people killed? It could not be just because the Khmer Rouge were “bad people.”
In 1998, through my work as a journalist, I got to know the children of some senior Khmer Rouge cadres. For the next four years, and much to my wife’s annoyance, I spent most weekends visiting the home of the most senior surviving leader, Nuon Chea, aka Brother No. 2.
But he never said anything other than what he had told Western journalists: I was low-ranking. I knew nothing. I am not a killer.
Then one day he said to me, “Sambath, I trust you. You are the person I would like to tell my story to. Ask me what you want to know.” For the next five years, he told me the truth, as he saw it, including all the details of the killing.
Throughout this time, I also took pains to find Khmer Rouge killers who would talk to me. There are thousands of such people in Cambodia, but none had ever confessed, and finding them is like looking for a needle in the sea.
My last group of sources was the plotters, the people who were trying to overthrow Pol Pot and Nuon Chea. Without them, you cannot understand the killing fields. But in this group, too, none of the survivors had ever talked.
My sources are country people. The Khmer Rouge were all country people. They don’t talk to people from the city, let alone foreigners. I am a country person. I think that’s why, in the end, they talk to me. I am one of them.
In 2005, I started to plan a book. But I worried no one would believe me, so I began tape-recording all my interviews. Then I worried that people still might not believe it. So, in 2006, I began videotaping my interviews and meetings.
That same year, I met Rob Lemkin and we decided to make this documentary film about my work and the secrets of the Khmer Rouge.
Some may say no good can come from talking to killers and dwelling on past horror, but I say these people have sacrificed a lot to tell the truth. In daring to confess, they have done good, perhaps the only good thing left that they can do. They and all killers like them must be part of the process of reconciliation if my country is to move forward.
— Thet Sambath, Co-Director/Co-Producer
Ten years ago I made a BBC documentary “The Undeclared War” about a mysterious Malaysian revolutionary named Chin Peng. Chin Peng came to London for the premiere, and in a taxi back to the airport afterward, he told me that in 1975 Chairman Mao had sent him to stay with Pol Pot. He told me the real Pol Pot was very different from the popular image of him. He said Pol Pot was like a deer in the headlights and admitted to him that he was out of his depth after seizing power. Chin Peng thought that was why the “killing fields” had happened.
This image of a genocide caused by chaos and inexperience stayed with me. In 2006 I visited Phnom Penh and met Thet Sambath. I discovered we shared the investigative journalist’s inherent suspicion of common wisdom. I also discovered we were on the same path to the heart of the killing fields, only he was much further along than I was, and for him, finding out what had happened was a deeply personal matter.
My own personal connection to Cambodia is non-existent. But my connection to genocide is not: Many members of my father’s family died at the hands of the Nazis, and a rather remote relative of mine, Raphael Lemkin, even coined the term “genocide.”
I see Sambath as a man trying to make sense of the nightmare of his childhood. When he finally understands the genocide, as he says he does, he achieves inner peace and coherence because he is able to situate his personal loss in the wider sweep of history.
I also see him as a representative of Cambodia’s second generation after the genocide, working to ferret out the truth from the first generation in order to convey the meaning of history to the third generation. In this sense, this story could be from Germany, South Africa, Northern Ireland, Yugoslavia, Rwanda, Iraq or Sudan.
— Rob Lemkin, Co-Director/Co-Producer