BATTAMBANG PRISON - A guard, stripped to the waist after a volleyball game with inmates,
wanders down two lines of squatting prisoners and barks: "Nor na chea Khmer
krahom [Who's Khmer Rouge]?"
Two young, tattooed men put up their hands. An elderly prisoner gets up slowly, a
bit bewildered, and sompeahs respectfully: "Yes sir." Past a carefully
tended garden and a swept, dirt volleyball court, a half dozen Khmer Rouge chat with
other inmates in the shade of a tree. They look up and nod, grinning.
There are almost 30 Khmer Rouge in Battambang jail, making it probably the single
most common crime there. They are regarded as no different than any other inmate.
Eventually someone finds Hach Kom. He comes running over on command, his head bowed.
"Are you Khmer Rouge?"
"Do you have a brother in Malai?"
To the Post the guard says: "This is the guy you want."
Kom is just a few inches over five foot but as strong as wire rope. His face is smooth
and he would pass for ten or twelve years younger than his 38 years. There's no emotion
either in his eyes, his stance or in his speech.
He has served 20 months of a 20 year sentence for being a Khmer Rouge spy. But Kom's
story is different from any other - because he has a brother at this moment in a
Khmer Rouge jail, accused of being a Government spy.
"If you can't help me," Kom says, "can you please help him...?"
KOM'S real name is Yoeun Hie (the Khmer Rouge insist on aliases, especially for spies,
he says). He was born in Chong Ho Veng village near Pailin in 1958 to poor rice farmers.
He has one older sister and younger brother.
Kom never went to school. In 1968 he was taken to the jungle by his grandfather who
was fighting Prince Sihanouk's Phnom Penh. Kom never knew why he had to fight, other
than it was what his grandfather was doing. He never thought to ask. Besides, he
thought it was fun.
He learnt only "to use a gun, to obey the order to attack, then to escape. When
we attacked Government troops we also fought against the Vietnamese. I knew they
were Vietnamese because of their black teeth."
Kom became an expert at jungle living. He ate berries and bamboo, and sometimes had
no food for a week. He dodged shells and bombs from helicopters and planes. "It
was very hard but it seemed usual to me. It was like that since the beginning of
He fought Lon Nol through his teenage years. He remembers a lot of people left the
towns to come to the jungle, and "more fighting, a lot more fighting. My friend
died and we just threw his body away. I thought at the time if I got killed that's
how I would be treated, but we were so tired we just couldn't carry him."
When Lon Nol was toppled by Pol Pot's Democratic Kampuchea (DK) Kom was sent to Takeo
for a month as a bodyguard to a senior cadre called Mouk. Then, as a battle-hardened
17-year-old soldier of the National Army of Democratic Kampuchea (NADK), he was ordered
to defend the Vietnamese border in Kompong Cham.
"We were always told that the people inside [Cambodia] were very happy, and
they had enough food. We were told not to worry or think about them, and just to
do our work."
Kom's commander was So Pheap, now the breakaway chief of Division 450 in Malai. Kom's
border unit used to catch "many people, maybe 30 every week trying to escape
to Vietnam. They told us things were very bad, but we didn't believe them, and used
to take them back to the village. We didn't believe about people dying".
When the Vietnamese invaded in 1979, Kom, then 21, said: "We didn't fight long.
They came and it was just escape, escape, escape to the Thai border.
"I saw many bones, many piles of bones, when we ran across the country. We saw
[dead] women and babies being loaded onto trucks. The cadre told us the people were
Vietnamese. But I don't know if I believed them."
Reassembled in a Khmer Rouge border camp, he rattles off the names of towns - mainly
in Battambang province - where he fought throughout the 1980s. The time and skirmishes
merge into one; later, Kom tells us he was ordered to marry a woman named Chhoun
Chhoeun in 1983, with whom he has three children. The Khmer Rouge have their own
"social security" for families who have "lost" their patriach
- Kom's wife and children are given 2,000 baht ($80) by Khmer Rouge cadre each month,
About the UNTAC-sponsored elections, Kom said all he was told was "things have
not changed... and that the Vietnamese are still among us."
By now a senior soldier, Kom became a "spy". He traveled in a group of
five guerrillas around Battambang, Banteay Meanchey and Pursat. He never admitted
this to the police when he was eventually arrested, but his group was ordered to
blow up bridges, roads and rail.
"We would pay people to do the job for us," he said. "If we couldn't
get anyone to do it, we would try to do it ourselves." The sabotage teams had
three months at work, then three months off. Kom named a Battambang hotel where these
teams sometimes stayed.
He also tried explaining a bizarre form of DK "rural development". "We
were told only to blow up the old bridges, so the Government would have to build
new ones. This was because the Government was not developing the country fast enough.
That's what we were told."
In October 1994, Kom met his cousin - an RCAF soldier - at Psar Teuk Pnek (Tear market)
in Bavel. "It's a place where the DK and the Government soldiers could try to
do business together," he said. "My cousin said 'Oh, your parents are still
alive and in Phnum Kdal village'."
It had been more than 20 years since Kom had last seen his father, mother, sister
and brother. Kom's cousin introduced him by saying: "This is Mr Kom, your son."
"We embraced. We cried together... all of us crying together. My mother wanted
me to stay but I was afraid. My group [the five-man demolition/spy team] did not
want me to stay in the village." He said good-bye to his parents.
Days later, Kom's brother Yoeun Neth left with a group of 70 villagers to cut bamboo
in the forest. There they were seized by KR forces from Malai, also under Pheap.
Apparently someone from the village had stolen a canoe and outboard motor from a
nearby river. The Khmer Rouge accused the village of trying to sabotage their water
transport. "It's true, and we do know the Government sends its spies with villagers
when they go to collect wood," Kom said.
"But my brother, he was not a spy.
"My brother was put into DK jail 3-20 in Malai. I was on my way back [to Malai]
to help him, but I got arrested," Kom said.
One of Kom's five comrades defected, and told police where to find Kom. They surrounded
his parents-in-law's house, one of five or six "safe" houses where Kom
would stay during his "actions", and caught him with a gun and a Samart
Kom was tried in a room full of police, with no defender, he said. He expected nothing
more. The best defense he could muster was that the gun and radio were someone else's.
He was quickly found guilty and sentenced to 20 years jail. "I was a bit upset,
but [the police] explained politely to me that these were the rules.
"We had always been told we'd be killed if we were captured," he said,
"but that didn't happen. I was surprised. They have human rights in this city
jail, but I was beaten in the country.
"My wife visits me here," he said, describing her trip from the family's
village "Point 32" near Malai, to Poipet via Thailand, and down Sisophon
to Battambang. "She visits my brother in Malai jail too. It's easier to visit
Malai jail. She doesn't have to pay money to get in there."
Kom says he believes "only 40 per cent" that the present negotiations between
the Government, led by General Nhek Bun Chhay, and the KR will result in his freedom.
"My wife says when the KR and the Government agree with each other, they will
release me. I don't know. Can you ask Bun Chhay when you see him?" Kom said.
Later, in Sisophon, Bun Chhay confirmed that the issue of the release of respective
prisoners was being discussed. He was confident that prisoners could begin being
Kom stuffs two packets of 555 cigarettes into his pocket and asks a favor. It's the
only time during the interview that he has volunteered something to say.
"If you can't help me, can you help [my brother]? Can you get these letters
to Malai?" He hands over two airmail envelopes. Permission is asked from the
prison chief, who rips the envelopes open, reads the four letters folded inside and
grunts okay. Kom answers that it's no problem if we want to read them too.
Three of the letters are from Khmer Rouge prisoners to their wives, saying they've
been in prison but they're alive. "Please know that I'm not dead. I just worry
that I've not been able to feed you all for three years. I know that you have already
held a [Buddhist funeral] ceremony for me. This I've heard. Please give me information
if you receive this," wrote Keo Seng to his family "on Kilo number 9."
Kom sompeahs very politely, and thanks us for helping him in getting the letter to
Malai. (The letters were handed to one of Ta Sou's deputies at Bun Chhay's house
in Sisophon. He said the letters will get to Malai within a couple of days).
"I'm Hach Kom from the Group 401. I want to give information to [Kom's uncle,
Malai sub-commander So] Soy about my being missing.
"It's been more than one year since I have been separated from you all during
"Right now I'm missing you all the time. Now I'm in jail but I have never forgotten
all of you.
"I also worry about all of you, about your living conditions. What about all
the families? How are they? If they are all well, I'm very happy, but for me I'm
not well, as you know. I had trouble but however I didn't care.
"Please don't keep me in your minds. Keep thinking that 'The people can die,
but the country cannot die'.
"I don't think I can be freed from this jail for a very long time. But please
help solve one problem for me. It is my brother, Yoeun Neth, and my cousin, Huon
Noeun, who are in jail in Malai. They say they are spies of the government.
"Please tell Soy of Group 401. I hope you and all your friends can help in this