On the Tonle Bassac river lies the island where the Khmer Rouge kept the wives of its murdered male victims. Will Jackson reports.
After the Khmer Rouge came to Koh Khsach Tunlea, Sam Chang’s husband Eang Heang fled the island. As a lawyer, he was marked for death by a regime that wanted to wipe out all traces of the previous society.
But despite warnings that the cadres were watching his home, he couldn’t resist coming back to see his newborn son, only 27 days old. That was when they took him.
The soldiers came in the night. Chang pleaded with them to let her go with her husband but they refused. She was never told where they took him and she never saw him again.
Before 1975, Koh Khsach Tunlea – a lush and fertile island in the Bassac river about 20km south of Phnom Penh in the Sa’ang district of Kandal province – was home to a farming community that lived in small villages, grew vegetables and rice and caught fish.
That was until Angkar – the faceless government that ran Democratic Kampuchea like one enormous penitentiary – evicted almost all the families and established an internment camp there for women whose husbands had been executed for being “traitors”.
Hundreds, possibly thousands, of grieving women from the surrounding district were rounded up with their children and ferried to the island.
They lived up to 10 women to a house, with their children if they were aged less than 10 years. The older children were sent to work camps for adolescents off the island.
The women’s experiences varied but all were forced to work long hours with little food. Some planted and harvested rice and vegetables – both on the island and on the mainland – or worked in the huge communal kitchen and dining halls. Others were wet nurses for other widows’ babies.
All the widows were utterly socially isolated – too afraid of Angkar to complain and too tired and weak from work and hunger to talk. Cruelly, despite their shared experiences, they were unable to seek consolation and comfort with each other.
Koh Khsach Tunlea soon became known as Koh Memeay – the Island of Widows.
A handful of families of “base people” – those from a poor farming background without education who the extremist communist regime viewed as being uncorrupted – were allowed to remain but were partitioned off from the rest of the island.
Chang stayed too – against her will – but was forced to move to the other side of the island with her sick mother.
Her home became a “prison without walls”.
Now 72 years old and still living on the island, Chang is a kindly looking woman who dresses neatly and has a welcoming smile.
However, as she spoke this week of her experiences between 1975 and 1979 – the grief of losing her husband compounded by constant hunger, long hours of hard labour and a fear of constant surveillance – she became withdrawn and quiet. Even nearly 40 years later, the memories were still painful.
She said that because of her murdered husband’s position and education, she received among the harshest treatments of anyone on the island.
She and the younger four of her six children lived on a diet of bobor (rice gruel) and banana stems, occasionally a little corn. Sometimes, especially in the first few months after the widow’s arrival, there was no rice at all.
Chang worked from 7am until 9pm in the vegetable and rice fields with an hour midday break for lunch.
And she watched everything she said in constant fear that Khmer Rouge cadres or informers were skulking around her home listening.
“At night they would spy on the families to see if they were doing or saying anything wrong,” she said.
Without any medical facilities on the island, those who fell ill from sickness or malnutrition were left to die.
She said she never saw the Khmer Rouge kill or torture anyone on the island but instead many widows were taken away, one at a time, and presumably executed elsewhere.
“It was a difficult place to live,” she said.
She added: “I didn’t have feelings. I didn’t think. I just tried to survive.
“I lived without hope.”
Hol Ly, now 69 years-old, was also forced to stay on the island after her husband was murdered.
She was told her husband, a former Lon Nol soldier, was going to be “re-educated” but instead he was taken to the nearby island of Koh Kor which was home to an infamous torture and execution centre.
“When they told me he had been arrested I lost hope of ever seeing him again,” she said.
“I was very upset and always crying.
“Then the Khmer Rouge came and they abused me for crying so I had to stop.”
She said the most difficult aspects of being on the island at the time were the lack of food and the hard work.
“I worked in the kitchen husking rice many hours a day,” she said.
“The leader said women can do what men can do. Women are not weak.”
She said none of the widows attempted to escape.
“We were frightened that the Khmer Rouge would kill our families,” she said.
Youk Chhang, executive director of the Documentation Centre of Cambodia (DC-Cam), said the Khmer Rouge was fearful of rebellion and the widows were probably sent to the island because it was isolated from the rest of the society.
“If you look at prison mass graves in Kandal, you will see that many killings took place – leaving behind many widows,” he said.
“That is why they keep them at Koh Khsach Chunlea . . . to make sure they have no way to raise arms against them,” he added, using an alternative form of the island’s name.
“The Khmer Rouge fears their own shadow.”
Kalyanee Mam, director and producer of the documentary A River Changes Course, completed a research project on Koh Khsach Tonlea about 15 years ago during which she interviewed several widows sent to the island.
“I remember being particularly shocked that women who had recently given birth were forced to serve as communal wet nurses for other women,” she said.
“I was also horrified that possibly to appease the jealousies of the ‘base’ women that widows were forced to remarry.”
It’s hard to know how many widows were sent to the island in total. Some of the widows say there were as many as several thousand.
However, Youk said there was probably only a “couple hundred”.
He said the estimates were probably higher because survivors often “emphasise the suffering they have been through”.
It’s also difficult to say how many women were raped and murdered on Koh Khsach Tunlea.
Theresa de Langis, a researcher and writer on women’s human rights in conflict and post-conflict areas who is compiling an oral history of female Khmer Rouge survivors, said the situation on the island put the widows at high risk of sexual violence.
“They were deemed enemies; they were sexually ‘available’ as widows – thus, some forced to marry disabled KR soldiers; they were in a panoptic prison situation under the absolute power of the KR officials with no recourse; and they were isolated from the rest of the population,” she said.
Youk said in the late 1990s, while he was investigating reports of sexual assaults by the Khmer Rouge, he interviewed some women who had been raped after being imprisoned on Koh Khsach Tunlea.
He added: “Prison guards had no social life and the island is very isolated.”
In 2012, a woman named Mom Sam Oeurn, who had been sent to Koh Khsach Tunlea in 1977 after her husband was executed, told the Khmer Rouge Tribunal that she had seen at least one woman brutally murdered.
“On one evening, a woman stole a kind of fruit, then she was executed by being hit with a pole and plunged into a pit,” Sam Oeurn said. “And I thought to myself my day would come soon as well, my turn would come soon.”
Craig Etcheson, author of After the Killing Fields: Lessons from the Cambodian Genocide and former chief investigator for the Khmer Rouge Tribunal’s office of co-prosecutors, visited Koh Khsach Tunlea nearly 20 years ago while working on DC-Cam’s mass grave mapping project.
He said in an email that they discovered a large pit which the local people said was a long-ago excavated mass grave.
“If it was full of bodies, it certainly would have been at least hundreds, and perhaps a few thousand,” he said.
However, the locals could not explain what happened to all the remains and Etcheson said evidence of a mass grave did not necessarily point to mass executions.
Etcheson continued that detention centres such as the one on Koh Khsach Tunlea could be found across Democratic Kampuchea.
According to a list compiled by DC-Cam, the Khmer Rouge set up at least 196 prisons for “enemies”.
Etcheson said places like the Island of Widows were established for two reasons.
“First, if one individual was identified as an ‘enemy’, it was often assumed that the others in that individual’s nuclear (and sometimes extended) family were also enemies, in a type of guilt by association,” he said.
“Second, the Khmer Rouge were concerned about the possibility of survivors from an enemy’s family taking revenge, a contingency which could be mitigated via the expediency of imprisoning and/or executing everyone in the family.”
Conditions at these prisons tended to be worse than those experienced by the population at large, including smaller food rations, more severe work demands, and much harsher discipline, he said.
However, he said the prisoners were divided into categories with some treated better than others.
Category one prisoners were identified as enemies and were quickly executed or worked to death, category two prisoners were constantly being assessed to be put into category one while category three prisoners were not viewed as a threat and could even be released in some instances.
“Category three prisoners might also endure slightly better rations and somewhat less harsh labour demands than the other two categories,” he said.
It does appear that not everyone on the island experienced the same level of hardship.
Em Kan, who was a farmer in Sa’ang district in the village of Prek Samrong before the Democratic Kampuchea era and returned there to live after the Khmer Rouge, recalled being ferried over to Koh Khsach Tunlea in 1977 with a huge crowd of other widows from around the district.
After sleeping on the open ground for three nights, she and her children were housed in a large building on stilts with a handful of other women and their children.
Having already lost a young daughter to illness and her husband, eldest son, uncle and most of her neighbours to the Khmer Rouge, she feared the worst and assumed that she would eventually be killed herself.
However, life on the island turned out to be much easier than before.
Her family was given enough food and while the work was hard and long, from early in the morning until 5pm, it was bearable.
“I didn’t have such a terrible life there,” she said.
“I had already been living under a strict rule so I knew not to complain or I would be taken away and killed.”
She said she saw older people get sick and die but no one died from hunger and she claimed the only widows taken away for execution were “Vietnamese or Chinese”.
She believed that everyone on the island got equal treatment but the work was easier for people who were already experienced farmers.
“All the rich people had already been killed,” she said.
Her son Em Poul, who was about 12 years old at the time, said in an interview this week that Koh Khsach Tunlea was “paradise” in comparison to the work camp for children where he was before.
Poul, who pretended to be mentally ill so he could stay with his mother, would spend his days picking up cow dung for fertiliser or helping the communal kitchen’s cook chase down chickens.
“I remember during the big flood in 1978 we caught a lot of fish from our house and went by boat to the kitchen,” he said.
He added: “The people living there were lucky.”
The widows were finally allowed to leave Koh Khsach Tunlea after the Vietnamese invaded Democratic Kampuchea in 1979.
Kan said she was harvesting rice one day when she noticed smoke and loud noises coming from Phnom Penh. Over the next few days, both widows with their children and cadres started disappearing until on the third day there was no one to prepare the communal meal.
Only one elderly Khmer Rouge cadre was left. After telling her to prepare the meal, he was gone too and Kan decided to head back to her home village.
Chang and Ly found out that the Khmer Rouge had been defeated when their neighbours started to return to the island.
While life remained difficult for the next few years – they were still poor widows trying to support their children – they and their families were relatively happy.
“We were happy to have our children back even if there was no food,” Chang said.
About 1,400 families – husbands, wives and children – now live on
Koh Khsach Tunlea in eight villages.
All of Chang’s six children survived the Khmer Rouge and between them have given her 16 grandchildren.
One of those grandchildren is Thon Thavry, 24, a guide with bicycle tour company Toursanak Adventures which offers trips and home stays to Koh Khsach Tunlea.
She said her life growing up on the island was relatively idyllic with plenty to eat and days filled with simple work and time spent with family.
“When I was young, we had a peaceful way of living,” she said.
“Even though we didn’t have running water or electricity, people were just working and surviving and being happy.”
And even though the island was becoming more modern – with electricity and running water – and some traditions were fading, things were still a lot better than they when their home was known as the Island of Widows.
While the memories still hurt, the physical reminders of the Khmer Rouge on Koh Khsach Tunlea are all but gone. Chang’s family now grow ginger, onion, bananas, mangos, jackfruit and cabbage to sell – much like they did before the Khmer Rouge takeover.
“The weather is good and the soil is fertile,” she said.
“It’s a good place to live.”
Additional reporting by Vandy Muong and Sok Lak.
THE REMAINS OF A ‘SECURITY OFFICE’
The island of Koh Kor – about 10km upriver from Koh Khsach Tunlea – was home to a notorious Khmer Rouge “security office” which was used as a prison, torture and execution center.
A survey by the Documentation Center of Cambodia estimated that thousands of people were buried in mass graves there.
The widows at Koh Ksach Tunlea reported seeing bodies floating down the river from Koh Kor during floods.
Khmer rouge scholar Henri Locard, the author of Pol Pot’s Little Red Book: The Sayings of Angkar, visited the island about 20 years ago.
“There was a wooden memorial with decrepit human bones and clear traces of vast and deep pits . . . but no traces of the prison itself, although many witnesses could be found locally,” he said.
He said prisoners were searched as soon as they arrived at the island and all their precious possession hidden in kromas and sampots (Khmer sarongs) were snatched.
After the Khmer Rouge, the island became a “rehabilitation and re-education” centre for Phnom Penh prostitutes, mentally ill, homeless and other social outcasts.
The facility was closed in 2008 after reports that dozens of men, women and children held at the centre were being beaten or starved drew the attention of the UN and local NGOs.