Savina Sirik, 29, started interning at the Documentation Center of Cambodia eight years ago, during her last year of college at the Royal University of Fine Arts in Phnom Penh. After a six-month stint in which Sirik, fresh out of school, interviewed victims of torture, she was hired. She’s worked on films and research projects, went through a program in peace and reconciliation studies, and is considered by the executive director as part of the next generation of DC-CAM, which was founded in 1995. Joe Freeman sat down with her to talk about her work on the Khmer Rouge, the fact that her friends don’t understand her interest in the grisly past, and the time she interviewed Cambodia’s sole convicted war criminal in person.
What first drew you to the Khmer Rouge era?
During university, one or two DC-CAM staff members came and gave a lecture on a new publication, it was the Khmer translation of Anne Frank’s diaries. They introduced this book to us, so I thought, oh, this place is related to genocide, related to the holocaust. I had studied history, from the ancient history until the colonial time, and the Sihanouk regime, but after that we didn’t have anything. DC-CAM was really new to me, I only heard that they worked on the Khmer Rouge regime, and I thought it was my best opportunity to learn more about modern history.
You’ve interviewed victims from all over the country. Is there a person whose experiences have stuck with you?
There’s one story of a daughter of an S-21 [Tuol Sleng prison] victim. Her mother had been struggling to raise her, and the thing that touched me the most was that she said if her father had lived, she wouldn’t have had a difficult life. She would have become a teacher. That was her dream. But she is very good at speaking and describing her story, so we helped her to speak to a group of villagers in a Khmer Rouge stronghold. Later she told me that this helped her a lot, because even though she couldn’t become a teacher in a school, at least she could share her story with the public, so it was like we helped her move closer to being a teacher.
Have you ever learned the conditions your parents lived in and how they survived?
They were evacuated from Phnom Penh in 1975, and sent to my grandparents’ hometown in Kampong Cham province. My father was a teacher. He never did any farming. So when he went to Kampong Cham he knew nothing. But the villagers were kind enough to hide his identity, and to help him cover his mistakes if he made any. So that’s how they survived, especially my father. He grew up in a middle class family, so if they knew his background, his family background, definitely, the Khmer Rouge would have targeted him.
Some 14,000 people were killed at the notorious Tuol Sleng prison, or S-21, in Phnom Penh. What was it like to interview former Khmer Rouge cadres who had worked there?
I was part of the team that interviewed Him Huy. He was the chief of the arrest unit at S-21. I saw his living conditions, and back then he lived in a small house, and I imagined that many of the Khmer Rouge members became very poor. They devoted so much to the Khmer Rouge, and afterwards, they got nothing, no more than being hated by people, by their community.
It sounds like you actually feel bad for him?
I have to admit that I’m not in the shoes of survivors, though I try to understand their feelings. Since I’m in the younger generation, I don’t have that strong feeling against the Khmer Rouge. I’ve heard survivor stories, I feel sympathy for them, if you ask me if I have the same strong feelings as survivors, I don’t. That’s how I keep myself from being traumatized from the stories I hear.
In August, as part of a project to find the identities of westerners killed under the Khmer Rouge, you sat down with the head of S-21, Kaing Guek Eav, alias Duch, who was convicted to life in prison earlier this year. What did you think about him ahead of the meeting?
Before I interviewed him, I tried to understand his position. Maybe he had no choice, or he had to serve, or he had to do all those kinds of tasks. And he maybe feels bad right now, he may feel sorry for what he did at that time. But when I spoke with him, I felt he didn’t have that sympathy for individual victims. I asked him to say something to the victims, and he said he already said that during this public apology statement, and he didn’t have to say that again.
What do your friends say about your job?
One of my former classmates, when I talk to her, she says, why do you work for this organization? Why do you work on something that is already past? She’s my close friend. We studied ancient history together. She loves to study something beautiful about Cambodia, like Angkor Wat, our past civilization, the beautiful part.
To contact the reporter on this story: Joe Freeman at firstname.lastname@example.org