So Kem . . . "They operated on people like they were just cutting up chickens or pigs".
KHMER ROUGE "researchers", under Chinese guidance, performed medical experiments
on tribal villagers and captured enemy soldiers at a Ratanakkiri base known as K16,
says a former worker at that facility.
So Kem, a 55-year-old traditional herbal therapist, said: "The KR were not bothered
by people who died during their experiments. The KR policy at the time was that they
killed people. Rather than kill people straight away, they would use them for Angkar's
Angkar - "the Organization" - was the name by which the shadowy Khmer Rouge
leadership was known.
Kem's story corroborates reports from French ethno-pharmacologist Laurent Pordie
who researched traditional medicines in the Mondulkiri and Ratanakkiri areas in 1997-98.
In 1998 Pordie found traditional healers among the hill tribes who told him of a
KR training school for traditional medicine based in Koniek.
He said they claimed that the KR conducted medical experiments in three categories:
the first was tablets derived from herbs, the second was for injectables and the
third for surgery. Kem said K16 was originally located in Mondulkiri's Koniek District,
but was moved to Ven Say District in Ratanakkiri in 1972 to get away from Vietnamese
Kem said K16 was moved deep into the forests of Ven Say District - an area used by
the early KR leaders when they first fled to the jungle - several days' walk from
the nearest large village, Phum Ban Pong.
"As I know, the people of K16 were Khieu Samphan, Hou Nim, Hou Yuon, Ta Tom,
Ta Ya, Ta Van, and "Lady" Phan, who came to the area to spread the KR ideology
to the hill tribes," said Kem.
"Some of those people [were later] executed during the purges. Some committed
suicide when Pol Pot was promoted to the president of the country," he said.
The hospital at K16, known as P2, was originally used for high-ranking KR cadres.
Kem first visited the facility when he was ordered to carry sick and wounded cadres
there for treatment during the war with the Lon Nol regime.
"At this time everything was done in the open, not in a secret way like when
they started to produce the medicines," said Kem.
Kem, who now lives in Phnom Penh's Chamkarmon District, grew up in Takeo Province.
There he learned from his grandfather the use of traditional herbs for healing.
In 1967 he was sent to Ratanakkiri Province to work as a Government customs official.
After the coup in 1970 he fled to Laos, but returned the following year after accepting
a KR offer to live in territory controlled by the guerrillas.
Back in Ratanakkiri Kem said he was afraid to stay in one place too long because
he thought the KR would learn he was educated and execute him.
He said he had different types of jobs during the following years, including farming,
guard duty, and transporting sick and wounded KR cadre to the K16 hospital for treatment.
Kem said by 1973 many people were sick and the KR looked for people knowledgeable
in the use of traditional herbs for healing. "They selected some old people
and one old man recommended me to work with the team," he said.
The old people were too weak to forage in the mountains every day, so they needed
the help of young people, like himself, familiar with the necessary herbs and plants,
Kem first saw Chinese advisors at the K16 research facility in 1972. He said the
advisors were transported to K16 by elephants that brought them down from Laos.
"The people who produced the medicine are not our nationality. Those people
used Cambodians to collect herbs from the jungle. Those people were very white and
had fat stomachs," Kem said.
Others working at K16 told him the Chinese were there to teach the KR how to make
medicines. The Chinese would sometimes give orders for what plants they wanted gathered
from the forest. Kem said the Chinese were rarely seen in public "because the
KR liked to do things in a secret way".
But Kem is not sure if the Chinese advisors were fully aware of the brutal way in
which the KR conducted their medical field trials.
"The KR used different ways to experiment with medicines. Sometimes they would
ask people to eat poison roots as food every day. Some people would get sick after
they ate and their bodies would swell," said Kem shaking his head at the memory.
"The way the KR did experiments there was not proper, not like a modern country.
If they wanted to operate on anyone they used an anesthetic plant; sometimes they
operated without using that kind of medicine.
"Sometimes they gave patients a poison fruit, Sleng . For strong people to be
made unconscious they took three fruits; weak people got only a half and they would
be unconscious. But the KR gave people ten [to see how the patient reacted].
"The KR did not sterilize knives, they just operated. They didn't care about
the life of the people. If they died, they died; if they didn't then they would just
continue the experiment. I learned that this is the way of KR experiments. They didn't
have any proper formulas, or clean facilities.
"[The KR] did not use a real hospital for the patients. They used the real hospital
[from the old regime] as a place to store fertilizer because they cared more about
agriculture than people.
"They operated on people like they were just cutting up chickens or pigs. For
simple people the KR did not operate, they just offered black tablets they produced
Because the KR did not trust him completely, Kem was not told by the KR how the medicines
But the old people would tell him they would steam or boil the herbs depending on
what kind of medicine they wanted to produce, then mix herbs with potato flour to
bind them in tablet molds made from bullet cases. Other medicines were in liquid
Kem said at first the research unit produced simple, traditional medicines to treat
stomach aches, wounds, and broken bones, but later their efforts took a more sinister
Kem said sometimes the KR experimented on former Lon Nol soldiers or civil servants,
whom they kept prisoner at a compound near K16.
"When Angkar needed anyone, they were called out to be used. Sometimes they
were just executed; sometimes they were used for experiments," said Kem.
But more often they used hill tribe youth. The KR would produce new "medicines"
they thought might be useful for treatments. To test the strength of their concoctions,
the KR researchers intentionally gave hill tribe youths overdoses, he said.
After the KR produced a "medicine" they would announce they were looking
for volunteers to take it.
"During Pol Pot time, every body wanted to show their good stance publicly -
to tell that they liked and honored Angkar. We all pretended because we wanted to
save our lives from execution," said Kem.
Kem attended a meeting where KR cadre told the tribal youth that Angkar needed their
help with the experiments.
"The youth of the hill tribes were more flattered than others because they are
uneducated people. 'Leave it for me, Samakmit [comrade]," said one of the youths,
raising his hand to volunteer. Then everybody raised their hands to volunteer."
Sometimes when "volunteers" swallowed the experimental medicines they had
a bad reaction and then the KR used another "medicine", also experimental,
to try to reverse the reaction, he said.
"For simple people, when they tested 'medicine' and an overdose reaction occurred.
The Khmer Rouge just offered a spoon of sugar and told them to go away. They were
told, 'If you die you die, but if you live then go back to work,'" said Kem.
Kem told of one experiment he witnessed. "Four to five among ten people died
in the experiment. I have seen that," he said.
Because Kem did not work at the K16 facility full time, he is not sure how long the
Chinese advisors stayed, but he thinks they were gone by 1974 and a Cambodian team
worked alone till the Vietnamese invasion in 1979.
Kem believes he is the last surviving herb collector from K16 and he heard the last
KR "doctor" from the facility died a few years ago.
Today Kem runs a busy traditional medicine practice on a dusty lane in Phnom Penh.