KAMPOT - Phouk Onn, 25, was under the broken-down logging truck when the Khmer Rouge
came to kidnap him.
"They said 'Get out.' They cocked their guns and told me to step back. They
called to their friends to collect rubbish [leaves and branches] to burn the truck
"There were three of us with the truck. There were about 10 Khmer Rouge, some
old men and some youngsters.
"Where we were caught by the Khmer Rouge was far from the sawmill. I heard them
talking on the radio, they were talking about already having burnt the sawmill.
"They had to wait for the trucks from the sawmill, carrying the people they
had already kidnapped. They let those trucks pass, then they started burning my truck
and the logs on it."
It was June 15. The latest Kampot hostage crisis - a familiar story over recent years
- had begun. Onn, who was to later emerge as the sole survivor of a massacre akin
to the worst excesses of the Pol Pot era, had no idea of what would happen.
"I was just a newcomer," he says, as he recounts his story matter-of-factly
over a few cigarettes. "I didn't know the forest".
He had just come to Kampot from his home in Kompong Cham after getting word there
was money to be made working for the loggers. He worked a couple of days; it was
on his fourth trip, hauling out the spoils from deep within the forest to a small
jungle sawmill, that the vehicle broke down and the trouble began.
"We were taken on the other trucks about 3km from where my truck was burnt.
They told us to get off the trucks. They put fire to the trucks, some tractors and
Here they joined other hostages - about 70 in total, he believes, though there are
differing accounts of the number - including logging workers and others such as vine
and firewood collectors. One was Luy Meng, owner of the lumber trucks and Onn's boss.
"After they burnt the other trucks and tractors, they made us carry four motorcycles
across a stream and told us we would be free after helping them," says Onn.
"When we did this, they told us to stay here. 'You can go back tomorrow,' they
said. We spent the night in the jungle."
"The next day they released some people, about 10, I think. Some fruit and vine
"The rest of us were made to walk. We spent three days and nights walking up
into the mountains. Where we had crossed the stream, there were more than 10 Khmer
Rouge. But in the jungle here, there were more than 30.
"They treated us badly. They did not give us enough rice to cook and there was
nothing to go with the rice except salt. We had rice and salt twice a day.
"They never said what they wanted us for, until we arrived at the temporary
camp. On the third day, we arrived at that place, and they told us we each had to
dig 500 holes - small holes - with five to six bamboo spikes to be planted in each
"We never started digging the holes but the next day they forced us to sharpen
"There were six groups [of hostages]. My group included the owner, Luy Meng.
Some people were selected to go to the province to see Luy Meng's brother and ask
for rice [for ransom]. I don't know if they came back.
"We spent three days making spikes. There were many spikes. We worked day and
night. We were told to finish the task, and afterward we would be free to go home.
I just tried my best," says Onn, who reckons he sharpened thousands of small
bamboo stakes, used by the KR for booby-traps.
"They let us sleep at night, but we were driven by our belief that we would
be freed as soon as we finished the task. But we didn't know how many spikes they
wanted from us.
"On [the third] day, they said they were sorry to see us eating rice and salt
everyday. They told us that they would let us go and find corn.
"No, they didn't. They made my group [of 15 hostages] carry the spikes, rice
pots and rice and walked us further into the jungle. After we crossed a stream, we
made a turn left toward a small lake where we met the Khmer Rouge chief and 20 other
Onn's account of the chief - middle-aged, balding, in civilian clothes and with a
cane - matches police descriptions of feared KR general Nuon Paet, though that cannot
be independently confirmed.
"I didn't know the name of the chief," says Onn. "He was sitting in
a hammock, in a sarong and a shirt. They made us sit on the ground in front of him.
He started asking who was the boss of the loggers? Mr Luy Meng identified himself.
"The Khmer Rouge chief asked people where they were from. Some said Siem Reap,
Battambang, Takeo, Kompong Cham...
"The chief said 'As you come from far provinces, it will be difficult for your
families to come to pay a ransom to release you, so we must go ahead and finish our
"When he was talking, he was standing up. After saying this, he stepped back
to sit on his hammock. Then his subordinates came up and said 'Don't move, or we
will shoot you.'
"They made us sit on the ground with our legs forward and our hands behind our
backs, and they tied us.
"Yes, all of us realized they were going to kill us. The owner of the sawmill
begged for mercy, he begged them to untie us and let us go.
"Then the Khmer Rouge chief told his subordinates to un-cock their guns and
said 'If you kill our brothers here, I will kill you too'. He tried to show he was
"But then they all stepped forward to snatch our watches, bracelets, anything
of value we had.
"Then they started to walk us about a half kilometer, but the commander tried
to show he was generous again and warned his men not to kill us.
"His men said 'No, we won't kill them. They're all Khmer, they're our brothers...
"No-one believed them because our minds were set that we were going to meet
death like this, tied up like chickens. Our hands were tied behind our backs, with
a rope connecting us all."
After a short walk, "they told us to lie face-up, which we did. Then they said
no, not face-up, but face-down, so we turned over.
"We all cried. They warned us not to run away, or they would shoot. After that,
we could see nothing. All I knew was I could hear some steps on dry branches of trees..."
The 15 were lying in a row. First in the line was Luy Meng, then a truck driver,
and then Onn.
"They went down the line one-by-one. The first person to be chopped was Luy
Meng. I don't know how many blows fell on him, but there were many. He was still
making noises, so they hit him more. His blood splashed over on to me.
"The driver was next. He died almost immediately, with just one or two blows.
For me, I lost consciousness as soon as the first blow hit me."
The time was around midday, he believes. When he woke up, it was night.
"It wasn't a dream - I realized I was still alive. The 14 bodies were lying
around me. I saw no-one else.
"My hands were still tied but after the killing they had removed the rope [between
"The first thing I felt was fear again. Fear of being caught by the Khmer Rouge
again, of being killed again.
"I started to crawl over to the owner [Luy Meng] and I tried to wake him up.
Then I went to the other people and tried to wake them. But nobody woke up."
After unsuccessfully trying to rouse the dead, who included several of his cousins,
he staggered over to a tree and rubbed his binds against it.
His arms were scraped raw, but eventually he wore through the rope tying his hands.
He examined himself and found he had a single wound, a deep gash to his neck.
"I wrapped my shirt around my neck. I had only a pair of trousers on. I was
bitten by all kinds of insects and had sores all over my body.
"I walked for three days and nights. When I was walking during the first two
days, I didn't know where was east and where was west. Once the sun rose, it seemed
to be right over my head.
"On the third day I walked up a mountain. From there, I saw palm trees, so I
realized there must be some villages around there.
"I slept in the foothills and in the late afternoon I saw an ox-cart being driven
by an old man going into the forest to get bamboo. He told me 'Don't tell anyone
what happened, there are many Khmer Rouge around here'," and continued on his
Later, "I saw another ox-cart. I cried out to the driver. I had to shout a lot,
he barely heard me because my voice was so weak.
"He asked me what had happened. I lied and said I was cutting trees, and the
ax fell on me accidentally. I was scared I would be killed again."
Given a shirt by the man, and a ride into his village, "I pretended to be normal."
The ox-cart driver knew something was amiss - he hid Onn in his house, telling him
not to go out because the Khmer Rouge often visited the village - for the night.
The man later raised 5,000 riel for Onn, and sent him off on a moto-trailer.
Eventually, Onn made his way back to his brother's house in Kampot town, where relatives
say he arrived "looking like a ghost".
He went to hospital, where doctors were amazed he survived. They explained that the
ax or machete had fallen at a slightly horizontal angle. Had it been completely vertical,
"my head would have fallen off."
Today, Onn looks surprisingly well, his wound covered by a small bandage, but is
still in pain and cannot sit in one position for too long. At his brother's house,
he calmly tells his story with little emotion but a trace of nervousness.
Still afraid that "they" might come after him, he wants to quit Kampot
but doesn't have the money to return to Kompong Cham. In the meantime, lots of people
have come and asked him questions; most just ask why he survived. He doesn't know