Coping with rapidly-changing regimes and ideologies has been a matter of survival
for Cambodians over the past 30 years. For Samrith Phom, like many other Cambodians,
those regimes each extracted a heavy toll. But, as Chea Sotheacheath discovers,
Phom is finding peace and reconciliation just as bewildering as conflict and suffering.
Phom (left) has survived 30 years of war and five governments
Samrith Phom gestures to a pile of human bones, and says, "I wonder how it was
so easy for Khieu Samphan and Noun Chea to say the words 'sorry, sorry' for the deaths
of these people. Is that all?"
Here, at Sang, on the Kandal-Takeo provincial border - at the site of one of the
Khmer Rouge regime's former prisons - the bones of hundreds of people lie in silent,
broken and almost forgotten testimony to Pol Pot's victims.
Few people come here: the occasional genocide researcher, the odd television crew,
and people like Phom. She believes - but cannot be sure - that the bones of her husband,
killed at Sang prison during the Pol Pot times, lie here.
As she talks, a roaming dog crawls closer, grabs a human arm bone and lumbers off
with it for a gnaw. Phom looks the other way. Here, the bones of Pol Pot's victims
get no special treatment or, it seems, even respect.
"Why did Mr Hun Sen so easily agree with them [Khieu Samphan and Noun Chea]?"
For her, Cambodia's new-found 'peace and reconciliation' provokes the same kind of
confusion and uncertainty which has plagued her all her adult life.
Samrith Phom is a typical Cambodian, if there is such a thing. Aged 48, she first
fled her home at age 19. She has endured the hardships and abuses of successive Cambodian
regimes: she remembers the rapes and cruelties of the US-backed soldiers of Lon Nol,
the atrocities of Pol Pot, the hardships of the People's Republic of Kampuchea.
Now, as she makes a living selling homemade cakes at a Kandal market, she believes
this current government is better than those of the past; people can do business
and have the freedom to travel. But politicians still fight each other, and she has
learned not to trust any of them. To her, the word politics means ''lying''.
As for ''justice'', she is unsure. Genocide investigators have interviewed her as
a possible witness for an international trial of former KR leaders, but she doesn't
really know what a trial is.
She doesn't want to travel abroad to testify at any international tribunal, she doesn't
think she really needs to; if anyone wants to know what the KR did, she can just
bring them here to Sang, to see the skulls and bones.
Our boat is long; their boat is short - we cannot turn as fast they can, is a Khmer
saying which compares the political flexibility of Cambodian leaders with that of
their citizens. Successive Cambodian regimes have demanded swift and often vicious
changes to society, with ordinary people struggling to keep pace.
Phom understands the saying well. Her tumultuous ride through the regimes of modern
Cambodian history began in the Lon Nol times, when she was still a teenager.
She and her husband abandoned their homeland of Boeng Kya village, in Kandal Stung
district of Kandal province, responding to the King's call to the jungle in 1970
after Lon Nol's government toppled the monarchy.
Aged 19, Phom and her husband Doung Sa-Moeun had to chose between following the US-backed
Lon Nol regime, or the Viet Cong-supported Khmer Rouge.
They loved the King and they hated Lon Nol and the Thieu (South Vietnam) regime,
whose soldiers raped woman and children, ''fished'' for cows with their helicopters,
destroyed humble fields with their tanks and arrested local villagers suspected of
Viet Cong affiliations.
"We ran to join the Khmer Rouge in the jungle because we believed that the Khmer
Rouge were kind and peaceful,'' Phom recounts. ''If we stayed in the village we would
have been mistreated by the Lon Nol soldiers everyday."
To begin with, Phom found peace in a KR jungle community in Phum Kampem, Baset district
of Kompong Speu, the first ''liberated zone'' in the rebels' Southwest Zone. Around
1973, the community was divided into cooperatives, in line with Maoist philosophy,
and private property was banned.
Phom, like many others, was happy to give up her worldly goods and rely on the support
of ''good friends in poverty''. Many in Phum Kampem were satisfied to sacrifice their
lives, and their husbands, sons and daughters, to join the KR soldiers and support
their King against United States aerial bombings and Lon Nol's ground attacks.
In April 1975, the KR seized control of the whole country. Phom and her husband were
happy to return to their home village in Kandal. They were ''old people'' - trusted
and supposedly ideologically purer because they were veterans of the ''liberated
zones''. Her husband was appointed as village chief, overseeing both ''old people''
and the ''new people''.
But the KR's political philosophy was strict, the search for 'enemies' of the revolution
was endless, and Phom and her husband began to wonder where their King was?
''We sacrificed everything for 'Angkar' [the KR ''organization''], we wore a ton
of Americans bombs on our heads, for Samdech Euv [the King]. But when Phnom Penh
was captured, we never saw Samdech Euv.''
Phom had been willing to make sacrifices for the KR and the King, but the 'disappearance'
of her husband was a penalty she never expected or understood.
"I was in pain. They killed my husband. And then, they took me and my baby to
More then 20 years on, Phom still doesn't know what happened to her husband. All
she knows is he was called for 'reeducation' and never returned. She firmly believes
he was detained at Sang prison, where she herself was later kept, and later killed.
Some time after her husband disappeared, local officials came to collect her to go
and see her husband, or so she was told. She went with the officials on an ox-cart,
taking her baby boy with her.
She now believes that she was being taken to an area east of the prison, where executions
were carried out. But as the cows pulling the ox-cart passed the prison, they trudged
inside the compound, rather than continue off to the east as they were directed.
The guards couldn't be bothered forcing the cows back; they let Phom and her baby
stay at the prison - their lives were saved by two stubborn cows.
Phom is unsure how long she stayed at the prison, but thinks it was for more than
a year. The food was meager, the inmates slept on bare earth, and the discipline
was strict. She never saw anyone killed but at night trucks used to come to take
people away. They did not return.
The Vietnamese invasion of late 1978 saw the prison guards run away. The inmates
debated whether to follow them; they had been fed horror stories about how the Vietnamese
would kill them all.
"I had no idea of where I should go. If I followed the Khmer Rouge I would be
killed because I am a prisoner of the Khmer Rouge. If I went to the Vietnamese side,
I thought I would also be killed," she recounts.
Eventually, she decided to flee - toward the approaching Vietnamese forces.
Several months after the Vietnamese invasion, Phom returned with her son, who had
survived prison along with her, to their home village to face life under the new
To her Vietnamese-supported village chief, she was an ''old person'' - a Khmer Rouge
veteran who was not to be trusted. She missed out on food rations given to the villagers,
and was forced to scavenge for food. Once, caught collecting rice stalks dropped
by other villagers during harvest time, she was called before the village chief and
reprimanded as a thief.
The Maoist-style communism of the KR was replaced by the Leninist-style communism
of the Vietnamese. The population was still divided into cooperatives and labor groups,
but families were allowed to live together.
To be strong, respected and have enough food, you had to be part of the system. Soldiers
were respected, so Phom thought it was a good idea to have one in the family, and
she was still angry at the KR for killing her husband - so she sent her son off to
join the army.
Her son fought against the anti-Vietnamese resistance guerrillas around Samlot, an
old bastion of the KR. When he returned, he had lost one of his legs to a landmine.
Having lost a husband to one regime, and her son's leg to another, Phom has many
questions in her mind - questions that she has no answers to. ''I have no words to
say,'' she says.
As for justice, she is unsure of how it can be achieved. Late last year, some people
- from the genocide-researching Documentation Center of Cambodia - came to see her.
The Documentation Center hopes that she could be a witness at a KR international
tribunal, but she says she is not sure about that.
She wonders why there should be a trial now, so many years later. Recalling that
she joined the KR at the call of the King, she wonders who is guilty and who is not.
She wants to know if the countries who supported the KR, or those who supported other
factions which brought war to Cambodia, will be on trial too.
She says she will not go overseas to attend a trial, but she is happy to take people
to the former site of Sang prison to see the bones there. As for herself, she says:
''I think it is difficult for me to point out the men who killed people because I
never saw them kill people with my own eyes.''
Today, some of the former guards at Sang still live in her village; she sees them
pass by on their motos.
''Soon after Pol Pot lost, I was so angry. I tried to find out who killed my husband
but I have never found out.''
But now she says that she doesn't hate or blame anyone. She implies that to ask too
many questions about the former guards who still live in her area is to invite conflict,
and Cambodians have had enough conflict.
Today, she prefers to believe only in Buddhism. ''I don't believe the politicians
any more. I believe only the Buddha.'' She regularly visits her pagoda to pray that
her next life will be better than her current one. And she is a strong believer in
the Puth Tumneay, a collection of ancient Buddhist fables that predict the future.
For instance, she explains, the Puth Tumneay speak of black crows (the KR, she believes)
who drop figs (propaganda) which look attractive but are really rotten inside. People
find and eat the figs, but it is only later that they learn that the food is bad
"You see!, the Puth Tumneay is really correct. The political situation in Cambodia
has followed the Puth Tumneay. So who we should blame?," asks Phom.