More than 100 ethnic Cham villagers sit around the grounds of a local pagoda, chatting languidly, the women dressed in colourful patterned blouses and headscarves. They have already prayed once today, and will do so four more times before the day is over.
The simple freedoms they are enjoying – the ability to speak the Cham language, wear traditional clothing and practice their Sunni Muslim faith – are not taken for granted by these mostly middle-aged and elderly people. Targeted for their ethnicity and religion under the Khmer Rouge, many lost their entire families in coordinated killings.
They have gathered for a village forum organised by the Documentation Center of Cambodia (DC-Cam), to inform them that charges related to genocide against the Cham are expected to finally be heard at the Khmer Rouge Tribunal when Case 002/02 gets under way in the next few months.
“Before the Khmer Rouge came, we used to study with Khmer people. There was no conflict. We could speak Cham and follow Cham culture and religion. But after the Khmer Rouge came, everything was forbidden,” says Hak Sary, a gregarious 57-year-old, who lost 30 members of her extended family and her mother, under Democratic Kampuchea.
“If we still tried to follow our religion, they would kill us.… We had to cut our hair and we couldn’t wear our headscarves.… They forced me to eat pork at gunpoint. I vomited afterwards because I felt so disgusted.
“But I knew Allah would not punish us, because he would understand that we were forced.”
The Cham ethnic group are descendants of the kingdom of Champa, which ruled over parts of central and southern Vietnam from the 7th to 19th centuries. About 350,000 Muslims remain in Cambodia today, according to DC-Cam, most of whom are Chams.
This area, the Svay Khleang village and commune of Kampong Cham’s Kroch Chmar district, a picturesque spot on the banks of the Mekong, was a vibrant centre of Cham life before the communists decided to break up the community in 1975, according to Ysa Osman’s The Cham Rebellion: Survivors’ Stories from the Villages.
In that year, villagers here got wind of a plan to arrest a group of people who had held a dawn prayer at the local mosque to celebrate the end of the Ramadan fasting month. Wielding swords, they rose up in rebellion, killing a Khmer Rouge cadre.
A brutal assault by the Khmer Rouge followed. Hundreds were killed and the villagers were forcibly evacuated to a number of different locations. Most would never see home again.
More than 6,200 people lived here in 1970s, Osman writes, when the communists first took hold of the area, which then held a prestigious Islamic school, a village mosque and a beautiful three-tiered minaret that, though dilapidated, still stands today.
But by the time the Vietnamese invaded in 1979, only 600 Cham, mostly women and children, were still alive to return to Svay Khleang, finding buried Korans and human remains around their homes.
Court prosecutors have officially asked the Trial Chamber to include the “1975 dispersal or ‘break-up’ of the Cham population” in the next trial, as this forced movement “is essential” in proving a policy to persecute the Chams existed, they say.
Historians including David Chandler, however, have said they do not believe conclusive evidence exists proving that genocide was committed against the Cham.
But according to Dale Lysak, a senior assistant prosecutor at the tribunal who travelled to Svay Khleang to brief villagers, the Chams were clearly targeted as an ethnic and religious group by the Khmer Rouge.
“The stories of the mass execution of the Cham are some of the most horrific stories of the period, because it was done a little differently than a lot of other executions.
“The way the execution happened, is that at some point, it was determined it was time to get rid of the Cham people.”
To Lysak, the fact that Chams were gathered and brought en masse to killing sites, without political interrogations, “tells you they were being targeted purely because [they] were Cham … they [Khmer Rouge] didn’t decide who were the good Cham and who were the bad Cham. If you were Cham, you were killed.”
The number of Cham who died under the Khmer Rouge is unclear. Historian Ben Kiernan estimates that 87,000 Cham perished, while Osman has concluded that between 400,000 and 500,000 Cham died.
Like many Cambodians, the Cham in Svay Khleang feel that the court has taken too long to convict senior Khmer Rouge leaders. But those who have been following proceedings are grateful that crimes committed against their communities will soon be given a public hearing, even if many of those who suffered haven’t lived to see it.
“I am very happy that the court will start finding out what happened to the Cham people.… It is a little too late for us, but I’m still positive it is good and will find justice for the Cham when the court finishes the case,” Man Auseit, 49, said.
In 1978, as the Khmer Rouge conducted its bloody purge of the Eastern Zone, Auseit, then a teenager, huddled at a pagoda for two nights with thousands of other Chams who had also been ordered to gather there, waiting for what he knew was certain death.
But an idea born out of desperation saved him.
“I was so lucky. I was saved because I pretended to be a Khmer. I said I was a Khmer who lived with my uncle.”
When that “uncle”, a friend of his late father, was summoned by the cadres to prove Auseit’s story, he lied and corroborated the story. “He said I was his nephew.… He saved my life.”
According to Lysak, having genocide against the Cham heard at the court would fulfil an important part of its mandate, namely not excluding any victims’ groups. “Having some Cham witnesses coming to court and telling their stories of what happened to [their] people, would be a very key and historic part of the trial.”
But despite the prosecutor’s efforts to reassure villagers that the court is being pushed to work as quickly as possible, some feel they have waited long enough. “Why is the trial taking so long to reach a verdict?” Man Sleh, a frail and weathered man of 67 who filed as a Cham civil party for both Case 001 and 002, asked at the forum.
After his question was answered, a few minutes later, he was back up again.
“But we have so much evidence.… We have all the documents. Why does it still take so long? I am old and I am going to die soon. And I am very worried that I might not see justice.”