Kambol (Phnom Penh, Cambodia). 24/08/2009: Day 63 in Duch’s trial at the ECCC © John Vink/ Magnum
By Stéphanie Gée
Due to progress in the trial and the withdrawal by some civil parties of their request to testify before the Chamber, only Monday August 24th was devoted to the testimony of the last civil parties who requested it. At this pace, hearings may be over by the end of September and the office of the co-Prosecutors and the defence would then enjoy a period – still undetermined to this day – to prepare their arguments and pleas. Mrs Chum Neou was finally able to share her full testimony, which was fragmented as it was spread over last Thursday and this Monday and interrupted three times. A former Khmer Rouge who was “betrayed” by the Angkar, she reported her aunt had never forgiven her for being one of them. As for Mrs Chhin Navy, she said she had made peace with her sister who denounced her husband to the militia. However, that act of forgiveness seemed to have been a half-hearted one…
A story told for the first time in 32 years
Mrs Chum Neou was now in her sixties and had joined the revolutionary ranks voluntarily in 1971. She resumed her story where she had stopped on Thursday and talked about the death of a son aged barely a few months, whom she was unable to care for adequately. She was there for him, for her husband, disappeared at S-21, and for herself, since she was detained at S-24 (Prey Sar). “It is the first time today in 32 years that I can talk about these things. Every time I remember these events, I cannot help crying,” the civil party said. Reviving these scattered memories overwhelmed her with emotion and maybe prevented her from being very “consistent,” she admitted. Everything came back to her in a disorderly fashion.
Her meeting with Duch
She recounted in detail her life at Prey Sar, which re-education centre nature she found out on the site. Despite the hardships, she continued, she did not cry at the time to “prove” she had been re-educated properly. And indeed, to her utmost surprise, she survived, she said. In the forest, near Omleang, still under Khmer Rouge surveillance, in early January 1979, Mrs Chum Neou reported she met Duch, whose house she had been summoned to for attempting to escape. “He took his gun out of its holster and pointed the muzzle at my forehead. I was certain that the safety mechanism was on and I was determined to fight to get rid of that gun. I was not scared. […] He asked me how many days I had stayed there. I replied I had been there since 1977. He seemed surprise and asked me how come I had managed to stay there that long but I said I didn’t know why. He then told me it was great that I had stayed that long and was still in good shape.” However, she assured judge Lavergne that Duch did not accompany the gesture with threats. She added it was not the first time she saw him as she said she surprised him twice in 1978, when he had come to “inspect work in the rice fields” at S-24. She returned to her village in 1980 to find the distressing news that all her relatives had died.
Kambol (Phnom Penh, Cambodia). 24/08/2009: Chum Neou, civil party who lost her husband and new-born baby, on a screen in the press room on Day 63 in Duch’s trial at the ECCC © John Vink/ Magnum
Joining as civil party to break away from the Khmer Rouge
François Roux, Duch’s international lawyer – back after two weeks away at the international tribunal for Lebanon –, returned to Mrs Chum Neou’s involvement in the Khmer Rouge movement. The decision had been made “because I was very angry that we suffered from the capitalists and the American imperialists” and “I wanted to free the country of those people.” As the leader of the girls in her commune, she quickly became in charge of bringing ammunitions and supplies to the troops on the frontline. “Did you feel that you served the Angkar, but the Angkar betrayed you?”, the lawyer asked her. “That is correct.”
“During that period, you lost not only your husband, but also other relatives. When you returned to your village, did people still consider you as a Khmer Rouge? And still today, do people see you as a former Khmer Rouge?” The civil party took a breath: “It is not that I cannot answer this question. But I am feeling pain now. My aunt was in such a rage when I met her again. She said it was because of me that her husband was dead. That was a great suffering for me. The accused has apologised repeatedly. But I obviously cannot accept it. I bowed before my aunt to ask her forgiveness for the death of her husband and he was a blood relative of mine. She did not accept. […] A word of apology by the accused before this Chamber is not enough! I bowed and I presented my apologies to my aunt and she rejected them. When I had a chance, I applied to join as civil party so I could speak in the name of my relatives who were victims and prove that I am not a Khmer Rouge member, that I am loyal to the Nation and I felt betrayed by that group!”
The accused did not question the fact that Mrs Chum Neou spent time at S-24 and her husband found death at S-21. However, he specified that if he did go to Prey Sar, he “never let people see [him].” He then denied he could have pointed a gun to her forehead: “I did not behave like that.”
The incomprehension remains
Mrs Chhin Navy, 70 years old, took the stand. This “April 17th,” according to Khmer Rouge lexicon, lost her husband, a former deputy president of civil aviation at Pochentong, at S-21 and said she since lived “in despair,” with the same questions haunting her. “Why my husband? Why my aunt? Why my mother-in-law? Why my sister? Why did a total of eight people in our families die, drowned in the river or taken by truck to be killed at the foot of the mountain? […] I am extremely grateful to this court that is seeking to give us justice. […] I hope human beings will never be as cruel as Pol Pot and his henchmen were.”
A tragedy impossible to forget
She was very agitated and her story was entangled, but her lawyer did not come to her rescue. After one hour, president Nil Nonn invited her to focus on the period when her husband was detained at S-21.
When she discovered her husband’s photograph at Tuol Sleng in 1980, she could no longer control her crying. Her colleagues then advised her try and forget what happened, focus on her children’s education and think about the future. “But in my mind, I kept imagining very vividly the torture and sufferings inflicted upon my husband.”
Betrayal by a sister made blind by indoctrination
If her older sister betrayed them by accusing Chhin Navy’s husband of being a CIA spy, which resulted in his arrest, it was because she was “indoctrinated” by the communist, the civil party explained, claiming she was no longer angry with that sister. “She denounced my husband and I blamed her for that. But maybe she wanted to be Pol Pot’s wife. That’s why she denounced my husband to the militia.” “Once, I asked her what communism was after all these experiences and sufferings. Now, I know what communism is: it is competition, massacres, people being transferred to Tuol Sleng, betrayal, relatives being denounced and ending up executed…”
“You reap what you sow”
Mrs Chhun Navy found peace in Buddhism and believed in the work of justice. “You get what you plant. You reap what you sow. […] I pity Duch. Maybe people will feel hurt…” She added in the same breath: “But he deserves what is happening to him. My sister also deserves what is happening to her for denouncing my husband to the militia. How could I receive reparation for the suffering I was inflicted? […] Nothing can repair the acts perpetrated under that regime and that my husband suffered,” the widower said, speaking a little chaotically and always holding a handkerchief close to her lips.
A victim who used to be close to Duch
The last civil party to be heard, Mr Touch Monin, a teacher, came to honour the memory of a close cousin, an engineer who returned from USSR and disappeared at S-21 in 1977. He strayed in his statement, recounting his own trajectory under the Khmer Rouge. François Roux intervened to request that the civil party return to the object of his testimony, the fate met by his cousin. It was then discovered that the latter was a friend of Duch, who even accompanied him to the airport when he left for Russia. The accused himself confirmed it, but did not say more on this case…
Kambol (Phnom Penh, Cambodia). 24/08/2009: Villagers going to the hearing on Day 63 in Duch’s trial at the ECCC © John Vink/ Magnum