Youk Chhang is one of the country’s foremost scholars on the Khmer Rouge regime. But when his deaf sister was diagnosed with terminal cancer and the pair spent more time together, he finally learned her story. Here, he reflects on their different lives as genocide survivors.
As a witness to the horrors of Democratic Kampuchea (DK) – commonly known as Khmer Rouge – and as a researcher who has worked for many years studying and documenting the stories of individuals who suffered and died under the Khmer Rouge regime, I felt like I understood most aspects of Khmer Rouge history.
Of course I learn some-thing about humanity in every single story, and there is never a moment that I am not awed by the incredible spirit of Cambodian people. But there are times when I come across stories that make me question everything I know.
In 1959, Keo Kolthida Ekkasakh was born deaf. She was the youngest of five sisters in my family and as a deaf child she was ostracised by most people. Lacking the ability to communicate with all but those trained in sign language, she learned to depend on herself and the few people who had the patience and love to know her. My mother had always paid special attention to her, and because she was only two years apart from I, we were like best friends. But when the Khmer Rouge came to power we were separated, and I didn’t see her again until after 1979.
While we re-connected after the fall of the Khmer Rouge regime, both of us had already forgotten much of our sign language, and over the years our ability to communicate decreased significantly. It is no surprise that over the years, she found alternative ways to express herself. After the Khmer Rouge regime, she taught herself how to draw and paint, and she turned to the canvas as her microphone to the world.
Recently she was diagnosed with terminal cancer, and we have been spending a great deal of time together, visiting our home town in Tuol Kork and discussing the death and disappearance of loved ones. At one point our conversations drifted to her experiences during the Khmer Rouge regime.
During the Khmer Rouge regime she worked on a cooperative planting potatoes and clearing forest under Ta Mok’s Division (one of the military commanders during the DK regime). Like all victims, she learned to survive by sheer instinct. On the verge of starvation, she resorted to eating roots, leaves and insects in the field. One day, however, she was caught. Angkar (the DK’s concept of the supreme organisation) owned everything – the crops, the dirt and even the insects. The Khmer Rouge saw her eating some roots and promptly arrested her. They bound her hands behind her back and out of sheer luck her captors decided to simply scold her and let her go.
We talked for hours about her experience. When the Khmer Rouge came to power in 1975, she remembered that I was alone at home and she told me how she often wondered what ever happened to me during the Khmer Rouge period. She recounted the tragic deaths of one of our sister’s children, Tan Keoketana, who was born in 1975, the loss of our father, and the disappearance of other family members. As I came to learn more about her story, I felt a mixture of emotions. I felt so honoured to be one of the few people to have ever learned her story, and yet I felt so incredibly sad and guilty.
As a deaf person, no one bothered to ask her about her experience during the Khmer Rouge period. Over thirty four years after the fall of the Khmer Rouge regime and I did not even know the true story of my sister’s experience under the Khmer Rouge.
As I communicated with her about what she endured during the Khmer Rouge regime, it made me wonder how different her experience was as a deaf person and the indescribable spirit and resourcefulness she must have had to survive the Khmer Rouge period.
I also wondered how many other people with mental or physical disabilities have had to suffer alone. How many other life stories are forgotten, overlooked or are simply never told?
The unavoidable tragedy of all mass atrocities is the loss of history, but having studied the history of Democratic Kampuchea for so many years, I realised that my sister’s story was a testimony to just how much our effort in obtaining justice really falls short. My sister did not even know there was an international tribunal dedicated to bringing justice to Cambodia.
Her story made me re-evaluate what I thought I knew about Khmer Rouge history, and I believe the story of her life is a challenge to our current efforts at finding justice in Cambodia. In Cambodia you cannot have a conversation about justice, democracy or human rights without a discussion on history. To have a conversation about the former inevitably requires an interpretation of the latter and vice versa.
Keo Kolthida Ekkasakh’s story may be only a small piece of Khmer Rouge history (and a personal one for me), but like others who do not have the capacity to speak, her story challenges us to really evaluate our definition of justice and whether we are really doing all that we can for those without a voice.
Youk Chhang is Director of the Documentation Centre of Cambodia - a prominent non-governmental organisation in Phnom Penh dedicating to the study and prevention of genocide and related crimes and preserving the memory of the Cambodian genocide survivors.