"WHEN I was in the States people [seemed to think] that what happened under
the Khmer Rouge is not true. And this hurt me, because you know I was one of the
victims, and I have to try to explain to them."
Youk Chhang, aged 36, is the director of the Documentation Center of Cambodia. The
research institute collects and catalogues information about the 1975-79 regime that
caused the death of as many as two million of his compatriots and shattered the lives
of the survivors.
Chhang lost a sister - whose photo sits in his office - a brother-in-law, and a niece.
Unlike some other survivors, who prefer not to revisit the dark times, he has devoted
his life to making sure the KR's actions are not forgotten.
"I am one of not just my family, but of all Cambodians," he says. He fears
the dangers of revisionist history and tirelessly campaigns to raise awareness of
the atrocities and oppose the return of KR cadre to power.
"If all of us can do that, the Khmer Rouge will have no way to come back, or
to damage our children's futures."
Chhang was a child himself when Phnom Penh fell to the KR in April 1975. He watched
teenage guards younger than himself, surrounded by a chanting crowd, savagely beat
a young couple and then bury them, perhaps still alive. Their crime was to fall in
love - he was a "new person", from Phnom Penh, and she was an "old
As a 15-year-old, Chhang tried to take care of his pregnant sister during the worst
of the food shortages, sneaking out at night to steal grass from the fields for her
He was caught and beaten by the guards, and briefly put in prison. But his sister
and her baby survived.
He laughs fondly when speaking of his niece, now a 20-year-old college student: "She's
a bit spoiled by me, in fact...because every time I see her it reminds me and I feel
proud that I have done the right thing."
When the KR fell, Chhang ended up in Dallas, Texas via the border refugee camps.
In Dallas he got an MA in political science, worked for city government, married
an American nurse and had two children.
But he spent his free time working for the Campaign to Oppose the Return of the Khmer
Rouge Regime, a lobby group he helped found. "I was in Texas but Cambodia was
always in my heart."
When asked if he had always planned to return to Cambodia, Chhang pauses and says
thoughtfully: "Yes, coming back here as a better person."
In 1992 he joined UNTAC as an electoral officer and arrived home at last. A stint
with the International Republican Institute followed, and then the Documentation
Center was established in 1995.
Asked if he felt afraid to take such a job with the KR leadership still at large,
Chhang shakes his head. "I don't know, I do not feel threatened, I do not feel
danger, I just feel - safe... I hope the spirits of those who died by the DK will
He says he feels no need to avenge all those souls, however, except through legal
By a freak chance, he stayed in the same Sihanoukville hotel as Ieng Sary last month
- in fact, Sary bumped Chhang's reservation. But Chhang did not confront the former
KR "Brother Number Two", the man whose name appears on many of the incriminating
documents Chhang and his staff sift through every day.
"Some people said to me I was a coward there, not to kill him ... but if you
kill him, it shows you haven't learned anything... we shouldn't kill people. We should
let the law judge."
Yet he does not seem despondent that in 20 years, no legal punishment has befallen
the top KR leaders or that Ieng Sary is free to take beachside holidays. Even if
a trial never happens, Chhang believes his work has value as historical documentation
and a testament to those who suffered and died.
He feels this way even though his job obliges him to be away from his family in Dallas.
"It always breaks my heart... [7-year-old son] Alex always says: 'Daddy, I want
to quit school, I want to help you help all those poor people in Cambodia',"
he recounts, smiling. "I miss them."
He hopes and believes that there will be a trial one day. He has met with UN officials,
scholars and lawyers, and is confident that his center's research will form a large
phalanx of the evidence against the KR.
"I will be very happy if I can give this information to a trial of Pol Pot.
That would be my dream come true."
However, Chhang sees life beyond the Documentation Center. "I'd like to make
a difference in Cambodian society, in policy. I hope to be part of the National Assembly
one day in the future," he says, adding that he would like to concentrate on
human rights and democracy.
He tells a story in a low voice about April 1975. The cadre had told his mother he
was sent off to the fields and would be back soon. His mother had some precious watermelons,
"and she was waiting for my arrival so we could eat watermelon together. But
I never came. The watermelons melted in the sun, and she kept waiting and waiting
but nobody came home. It was very sad."
This is what motivates him to do his job despite its hardships and frustrations,
he explains. "I do this for my mom, for her love, and I'm sure many mothers
during that time had the same experience ... I feel part of one very big family."