A former village chief who was removed from his post by Khmer Rouge became the first witness to testify about the suffering workers endured during the building of the infamous “January 1 dam” in Kampong Thom province at the Khmer Rouge tribunal yesterday.
Shortly after the fall of Phnom Penh on April 17, 1975, Or Ho, now 69, was voted to become the chief of Prey Sra Ngae village, which was 3 kilometres from the January 1 dam – the site of the largest slave labour irrigation project undertaken during the Democratic Kampuchea regime.
Ho supervised one unit consisting of about 100 dam workers, who started working on the site shortly after the dam’s inauguration on January 1, 1977, which Pol Pot attended.
“The work was extremely difficult,” he said. “It was during the hot months and . . . we needed to work harder because there were no rains. We were exposed badly to the sunlight and were not in the best health, but everyone just tried to survive.”
According to Ho, work days lasted for 13 hours and workers were fed gruel twice a day. He added that they had no assistance from any machinery or animals as the dam was built “purely through manpower”.
But despite the harsh working conditions, only about six of the 100 workers in his unit died during his stint as a leader.
“Some members of my unit died from a landslide,” Ho said. “They were working at night and the soil collapsed on them. There was no form of compensation. They simply died.”
Ho, however, was unable to see the dam to its completion as he was sacked from his position by Angkar, a term by which the Khmer Rouge often referred to itself.
“I was removed from that position because Angkar did not have confidence in me,” Ho said.
Ho did not specify the reason for this lack of confidence but later mentioned that he was reprimanded by his commune chief for “colluding with enemies”.
The enemies, according to community leaders at the time, were past Lon Nol soldiers and civil servants sent to live in Kampong Thom after the fall of Phnom Penh.
Leaders like Ho were sent a list, which identified 15 families with Lon Nol ties living in the commune.
“I concealed eight families. But as for the seven families, they were taken to a new village, which I think was a killing site,” Ho said. He added that leaders were also instructed to report anyone who had “truck fever”, which was another name for workers who feigned sickness out of laziness.
“If the work didn’t go [as planned], upper leaders would accuse lower leaders or workers of being enemies,” Ho said. “Those people would be arrested and sent to be detained in the security office and most of them could not return to the dam site.”
Ho continues his testimony today.