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Khmer Rouge nurses reflect

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A woman who was forced to work as a nurse under Khmer Rouge rule – despite having worked only in a rice field before – believes the order came because soldiers knew she had pretended to be a nurse as a little girl.

Pha Lina/Phnom Penh Post
Ham Thy, 50, who was assigned to work as a nurse for the Khmer Rouge in Pursat province, speaks to the Post yesterday at the ECCC.

Speaking to the Post after watching Case 002 proceedings yesterday, Ham Thy, now 50, from Pursat province’s Veal Veng district, said that during her time in hospitals from 1975 to 1979, many patients died because of shortages of Western medicine and blood.

Compounding these problems, hospitals were riddled with inexperienced and under-qualified medical staff who were being trained as they worked and did not have the skills and medical knowledge to save sick patients, she said.

After years of working in rice fields, Ham Thy was ordered to become a nurse when the Khmer Rouge swept to power, and was soon learning how to administer injections to seriously ill patients at Kampong Preah hospital.

In all, she had less than one year of training. “I never thought I would be asked to work as a nurse, but I think maybe they [Khmer Rouge soldiers] had seen that I liked playing a nurse when I was a child, because I always took a toy syringe to inject a banana tree, which I used as my patient,” she said. “I was trained in the general disease section, and most of the patients had malaria, dengue fever, tuberculosis and swollen stomachs.”

Hospitals relied on locally produced medicine made from leaves and tree roots, but sometimes mixed coconut water with Western medicine, Ham Thy said.

“Some patients recovered when they swallowed our medicines because their disease was not serious. I think we can just say that they were the lucky ones,” she said.

A tearful Ham Thy, who lost her left leg after stepping on a landmine in 1988, said she had wanted to help every patient she had seen, but did not have the knowledge and skills to do so.

“We didn’t want them to die, but we did not have good medicine or enough blood,” she said.

Yin Yeoun, 56, from Kampot province’s Chhuk district, was also a nurse during the Khmer Rouge period.

She was given just a few weeks of training and assigned to work in what is now the Cambodian-Russian Friendship Hospital in Phnom Penh in 1978.

“I did not understand any of the training because I could not read,” she said. “I forced myself to inject patients, because if I did not do this, I would be killed or tortured because all the patients were Khmer Rouge soldiers. Luckily, all patients that I gave medicine and injections to survived.

“I wanted to work as a nurse, but I could not read the name of the medicine because most of the medicine was brought from China to treat Khmer Rouge soldiers,” she said, adding that civilians were given only traditional medicine.

She worked as a nurse for five months before her hospital chief agreed to let her deliver food to patients instead.

“I still feel scared about what happened [during the Khmer Rouge era], but I hope the court will find justice for victims.”

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