Khieu Samphan and Nuon Chea were among those who put 15-year-old Ronnie Yimsut
on a path to a killing field in 1978. His execution was botched and he survived;
his family did not. Twenty-one years later Samphan's and Chea's defection has prompted
him to walk that path again. Christine Chaumeau was with him as he did.
Ronnie: "How could I forget?"
It's farm land now. It wasn't the last time Ronnie Yimsut saw it - then it was bush
covered. But it was a similar night 21 years ago and a similar time of day - dusk
- though maybe a little bit later, that he and his family were sent out to be killed.
"We were walking in line, on that same dike," he says pointing.
"They were escorting us and walking on the side, like now," he says.
"This is the tree. It was dark but I remember the tree with the big trunk and
the funny branch going towards the south."
He walks ahead of his companion, a friend from America, and begins to cry, using
his krama to wipe his tears.
Ronnie, who now lives in the United States, has been back in Cambodia every year
since 1992 mainly doing volunteer work such as setting up an orphanage and working
with the World Monuments Fund at Preah Khan temple.
He has bought land ten kilometers from Siem Reap, his home town. But despite these
renewed bonds with his country he has never been back to the site of the massacre
- the Pouk district near Siem Reap.
"The first time, I returned to Cambodia, I went very near to the site. But the
security was not good at the time and I was advised not to go further."
This year he decided it was finally time to confront his past.
Ronnie passes the tree, walks away on the thin dike, then sits down with his head
in his hands. His American friend David Linsdell joins him as do two members of Ronnie's
He then starts to explain what happened.
"Twenty-one years ago, this is the place. Imagine, one night 200 people walking
through here, so many people that not everyone could walk on the dike, they walked
on the side.
"The KR cadre were walking on the dike, as an escort.
"There were bigger trees at that time," he suddenly recalls. He then looks
round and continues.
"It was in an evening like tonight, a bit later, at sunset, it was dark. At
that time there was no farmland."
Ronnie recognizes and points out more landmarks. Each adds another detail to his
"They came from behind this bush. Khmer Rouge were hiding there, we were all
sitting here and they could hide there.
"They brought more people, bodies all scattered around. I was tied with a krama
just like this one," he says showing the red scarf he carries today.
When the group arrived he says the black pajama-clad Khmer Rouge soldiers started
to beat the group of old people, women and children that he was with.
The next day, when Ronnie woke up in the middle of the smashed bodies, he recognized
his parents, brothers and in-laws. They were all dead.
Suffering from a severe head wound, Ronnie fled.
He hid in the bush, found some help from people in the nearby villages, and joined
a group that launched attacks against the Khmer Rouge. Over the next few months he
made his way to Thailand, where he was immediately arrested.
Ronnie was eventually released and looked after by the Red Cross.
Looking at the site which few people come to now, except to collect firewood during
the floods, Ronnie recalls it was not wood that was thrown up by high water 21 years
"With the flood-ed water, the bodies would float to the lake. They killed people
all season long."
Ronnie looks through his back-pack. He pulls out three incense sticks and a candle,
which he lights.
He asks his friend to film the scene, but the battery goes dead. Ronnie then turns
back to his duties.
He squats in the muddy ground below the dike but after a few minutes he decides to
walk back to the tree with the incense. From the bag, he takes out a paper folder
in which he has carefully collected the hair of his three-year-old son.
At the tree, Ronnie silently puts the incense in the ground close to the trunk, lays
down the hair and burns the paper, a January 1999 calendar page. "21 years ago,"
Standing up again, Ronnie says "I've seen enough." He walks away and repeats
as he sobs: "I've seen enough."
"They tell us to forget about it. How could you forget something like this?
You can hide the bones, bury the bones but how could you forget?
"But I'm still here. As long as I'm still here, I could not forget."
As Ronnie looks around, only the birds respond to his words. In a deeper voice, he
"Khieu Samphan, Nuon Chea, they are still here, walking around free men. How
could I forget? They are here, all with their families intact."
Ronnie Yimsut contemplates his return to the scene of his parents' death 21 years ago.
Then Ronnie says he wants to go: "I've seen enough. Mosquitoes can be bad."
But instead of leaving he keeps talking.
"The tree is a landmark. Khmer Rouge used it as a landmark. There were 50 soldiers.
The mosquitoes were buzzing around. It was muddy, people were screaming, running.
"It is like yesterday. Dead bodies were scattered around. . . I was scared of
walking here, to be honest."
Asked why he wanted to come back, Ronnie says: "to remind my dead loved ones
that I am back, I have to see to it that the world heard about it, that it does not
forget these kind of atrocities. If it happens again, who is to blame?
"If we forget, it can happen to another family just like mine.
"The murderers want us to forget. I dare them to come here and tell me to forget,
unarmed, hand-to-hand tell me to forget. Cowards, bunch of cowards."
Ronnie, his relatives and his friends are walking back on the dike towards the place
where they left their motorbike 500 meters away. After five minutes, Ronnie changes
his mind and returns, for a last solo look at the tree.
Back in his hotel in Siem Reap, Ronnie shares a beer with his friend and his relatives.
He looks relieved. He has done what he came to do.
"It is like a closure for me. I have no need to go back. The spirits of my loved
ones have been with me for 21 years. Last night I dreamt of them. They were nicely
dressed. That was the sign for me to go today.
"If Khieu Samphan and Nuon Chea had not come out I might not have come, he said.