A former messenger became the first witness to testify at the Khmer Rouge tribunal yesterday about the construction of the Kampong Chhnang airport, describing the constant fear workers felt for their lives after witnessing daily the deaths and suicides of their colleagues due to “terrifying” working conditions.
Before and after the fall of Phnom Penh to the Khmer Rouge in 1975, ex-soldier and witness Chan Man, 61, was working as a messenger for a commander in Division 502, which was in charge of the Cambodian Air Force.
In early 1976, he was sent to accompany Chinese engineers to measure land that would be the location of the new Kampong Chhnang airport – one of the largest forced labour sites during the Khmer Rouge era, where thousands were said to have died.
“I heard that the [airbase] was meant for military operation . . . and parachuting troops,” Man said.
The witness never saw the end of the airport’s construction but added that during his time there, the soldiers working in the site were “always afraid and terrified” for their survival.
“If the chiefs hate us, he or she can say anything they wanted, that we betrayed Angkar . . . and if we betrayed the revolution, we were killed,” Man said, referring to the name by which the Khmer Rouge called themselves.
According to him, the airport’s workforce consisted of two divisions with 5,000 to 6,000 soldiers in each, and a few other units. They worked in different sites where they performed tasks like breaking rocks, clearing terrain, digging soil and uprooting trees.
“Work-related incidents happened every day,” Man said. “Some people were injured from overworking, exhaustion and malnutrition. They also suffered from malaria.”
The working conditions, he said, were so dire and the leaders so strict that some workers committed suicide “out of desperation”.
“Some of the women just put themselves on the ground to be crushed by rollers . . . due to starvation and fatigue. They had no hope to hang on to. At the time, materials and equipment were more important than human life.”
Man was working onsite one day when he was arrested for allegedly transporting rice for “enemies”. Blindfolded, he was taken in a truck to the capital’s notorious S-21 political prison.
Upon arriving at the killing site, he was kicked out of the truck and helped by a guard and friend to escape.
“I fell off the vehicle and I was taken into a toilet by a guy. He tried to help me flee,” he said.
Man will resume his examination today.