Hem Rith guesses she was only 5 years old when she was snatched from her home in Kandal province by the Khmer Rouge to work as a waiter in the Royal Palace, but it was not until her master consoled her one day that she discovered her boss was then-King Norodom Sihanouk.
The 53-year-old’s bones are visible beneath her sun-darkened skin, but despite physical evidence of hardship, she is stoic in remembering the fate the murderous Khmer Rouge regime chose for her in serving Democratic Kampuchea’s figureheads at the Royal Palace during their reign.
“About two weeks after I was taken from Takeo to the Royal Palace, [then-King Norodom Sihanouk] talked to me and asked me where I came from, and he also asked me whether I knew him or not, and I said no,” Hem Rith, sitting in the cafeteria at the Khmer Rouge tribunal, said yesterday.
“He told me that he is the king [Norodom Sihanouk]. I was so surprised and scared, but he said ‘don’t be afraid’.”
Hem Rith said her job was not that difficult comparatively, and counts herself as a lucky survivor – her two elder brothers were tortured to death during the Khmer Rouge’s reign. During her visit to the Khmer Rouge tribunal yesterday, the first day of hearings for 2012, Hem Rith said she barely recognised the Royal Palace’s other famous resident.
“I know and used to talk to [ex-Democratic Kampuchea president] Khieu Samphan when I worked in the Royal Palace,” Hem Rith recalled.
“He shouted at me when I asked him if I could stop working as the cook … but he did not fight or torture me, he changed my role from cooking to serving food to the King.
“Khieu Samphan is very old now. He used to be a handsome man, but I hardly recognise him,” she said.
“Khieu Samphan is a strong and cruel person, but I never saw him kill anyone,” Hem Rith said, adding that she was undecided whether the tribunal would be able to deliver justice for all the people killed by the Khmer Rouge.
“I cannot say whether the court can provide the justice for our people or my older brothers, [but] I keep following with this hearing,” she said.
Last week, the tribunal announced it had hit a milestone of more than 100,000 visitors, including a large percentage of victims and civil parties.