Around 1am on August 18, 1976, Soem Sei Lena and Nhek Veng Huor crept through a banana plantation towards the Mekong River. The former soldiers wore dark clothes and carried malaria tablets, vitamin pills, a homemade hatchet and a machete.
They headed east from Prek Pra commune on the outskirts of Phnom Penh, sticking to wooded areas. Earlier, Lena had scaled a coconut tree and scoped out a route that avoided any villages.
It was dawn by the time the pair reached the river at Chroy Ampil, so they hid out in a forest until dark. When night came, each man chopped down a banana tree and pushed the buoyant trunks into the water, using them to float down the river towards Vietnam. They hoped for good luck.
When the Khmer Rouge took Phnom Penh in April 1975 and toppled the anti-communist Lon Nol regime, hundreds of Cambodian servicemen remained in the US receiving military training. Suddenly stateless, these men were given a difficult choice: stay on in the US as refugees or repatriate to Democratic Kampuchea (DK). While most chose the former, 81 opted to return.
Cynthia Coleman remembers that period like it was yesterday. Now in her early 70s, Coleman was then 34, recently widowed and living in central Philadelphia with five children.
Though she came from privilege – her father was an ambassador under President Kennedy, an acclaimed investigative reporter and a speechwriter in three presidential campaigns – Coleman chose a career in social work. She dealt mainly with refugees fleeing Cold War turmoil in Southeast Asia.
In late 1975, Coleman was contracted by the US State Department to lead the effort in getting the 81, mostly young, Cambodian servicemen, as well as 11 refugee families, repatriated to communist Cambodia. It would become a defining period of her life.
“They were very brave, very crazy,” she recalled, sitting at a streetside table outside her Phnom Penh hotel this week, working her way through a pack of Marlboro cigarettes. “They felt a tremendous amount of guilt for leaving their families at a time when the regime was near collapse.” The men understood the risk of returning, she said, “better then any of us”.
Coleman first met the servicemen in December 1975 after they were flown from Fort Chaffee, Arkansas, to Philadelphia, where they were housed in a YMCA community centre. She was employed by an NGO called the Nationalities Service Center and saw them nearly every day, listening to their complaints, hopes and fears.
Coleman said Nhek Veng Huor, a 24-year-old naval second lieutenant, visited her office most often. Huor was thin and tall, with a dark mole under one eye, and unmarried, unlike most in the group. The only surviving son of farmers in Svay Rieng – his brother had died in the war – he had been in the US since September 1974, learning English in Texas and then how to pilot ships in Rhode Island.
Coleman remembers Huor as “terribly bright” and philosophical, “a quiet poet”. He dressed well, and spoke French and English fluently. “He became like a younger brother” to her, she said. She carried a copy of his passport photo in her wallet for two decades.
Now Coleman keeps something else of Huor’s: more than 100 pages of his confession from the S-21 Khmer Rouge detention and execution centre, where Huor was interrogated 12 times. She spent weeks transcribing it by hand from the original Khmer document, with assistance from DC-Cam.
During her time in Cambodia, Coleman used the S-21 confessions to trace the lives of some of the servicemen after they returned. She visited the areas mentioned in their confessions – including the wooded bank from where Huor and Lena escaped into the Mekong – before all of them were killed.
The wait to go home The servicemen’s repatriation process was complicated. The US had no official communication with Democratic Kampuchea and there was no protocol to follow. It was months before the Americans even knew the Khmer Rouge had a foreign mission where they could be vetted: a puny, mysterious office in Paris known by its French acronym, GRUNK.
There were 13 other such missions around the world, but Paris was the only one where Cambodians could undergo the repatriation process, they were told. But the office refused to directly communicate with US officials and made it difficult for the servicemen to return.
Coleman and her colleagues “constantly” urged the servicemen to reconsider their decision. In 1976 there was scant information out of Cambodia, but what people heard was grim. “Executions are reportedly widespread” was one detail of an ominous May 1976 State Department report from Bangkok. But the servicemen were determined to go.
In the information vacuum, they readied themselves for communism and self-radicalised. In Philadelphia, they formed a “Supreme Committee” and began calling each other “comrade” (including Coleman).
They held lengthy “indoctrination meetings” where men publicly confessed impure thoughts and actions, such as studying English or Christianity. Norng Sam Oeur, the Cambodians’ spokesman, complained of CIA infiltration at the YMCA building.
“These Cambodians sitting in Philadelphia were trying to reproduce how a communist society operates,” said Coleman. “It sounds comical, but it was so intense.”
Cabin fever set in. Men developed daily headaches and women complained of stomach pains and uterine cramps. The servicemen told staff they would self-immolate or starve themselves if they couldn’t go back. One night, a mother who had fled Cambodia in early 1975, leaving her husband behind, spoke to staff for six hours about killing herself and her children. A psychiatrist who was brought in diagnosed the group with hysteria.
With the third month came progress. After weeks of back-channel negotiations, GRUNK indicated that they would accept the servicemen’s repatriation requests, but only on a case-by-case basis, in person at their Paris office in the Left Bank.
The Cambodians flew to France on America’s dime. Coleman went to keep an eye on things, and bring State Department money when the process took longer than expected, but played no official role with GRUNK – the Cambodians were on their own.
Then, after weeks of lengthy interviews with Democratic Kampuchea representatives, the Cambodians were provided new passports. All of them could go home.
The servicemen left for Phnom Penh in three groups from May 25 to June 22, 1976, on commercial flights. They would stop for a night in Peking (now Beijing), the only point of entry into Cambodia. Some called Coleman before they left.
“Those were some very difficult conversations,” she recalled. “It was horrible. Everyone was crying.” Coleman recounted her conversation with Huor.
“I said: ‘Will you be alright?’ And he said: ‘I don’t know.’ I said: ‘For God’s sake, don’t go. Come back. We’ll take care of you.’” Coleman paused at the memory, removed her glasses and wiped her eyes. “He said: ‘I gotta go.’”
A week later, Coleman received postcards, first from Athens, a refuelling stop, and the next week from China. “Peking is a lovely and silent city,” said one. It was the last she would ever hear from them.
Searching for lost friends After Phnom Penh fell in 1979, Coleman went to Thailand to work in the refugee camps. She posted photos and information about the servicemen on bulletin boards at the camps, but heard nothing.
More than a year later, Ben Kiernan, a genocide researcher, showed up at her office with a partial list of S-21 victims he had collected in post-genocide Phnom Penh. Coleman compared Kiernan’s list to one Huor had written for her in 1976, with the names of every Cambodian in the repatriate group. Dozens matched.
As far as anyone knows, the servicemen never saw their families. Based on information collected by DC-Cam, all of the men were sent to the Khmer-Russian Polytechnic Institute for “re-education” and, after, dispatched to various work camps on the outskirts of the emptied capital.
In one case, following Democratic Kampuchea’s collapse, the wife of repatriated serviceman Kim Phuoc Tuong contacted the US military asking where her husband was – she had no idea he had ever returned for her.
There were at least 232 Cambodians repatriated to DK from around the world in 1975 and 1976, according to a list recently compiled by DC-Cam.
Expatriates returned for a variety of reasons, said director Youk Chhang. Some truly believed the new regime would bring prosperity and wanted to lend a hand. Others couldn’t bear to be separated from families and friends. All stepped unwittingly into a genocide.
Chhang estimated that only 5 to 10 per cent of repatriates outlived Cambodian communism. None of the servicemen survived, he added. They were all killed. “I think Cindy feels a sense of guilt for helping them come back,” said Chhang from his office. “But I tell her: ‘It’s not your fault.’”
According to the “confessions” they were forced to write before being executed, Huor and Lena floated down the river through the night. They made it 10 kilometres before Lena told Huor he was feeling unwell and they took refuge at Dei Ith, where the river narrows. Later, others would try to escape Cambodia the same way and the Khmer Rouge would set up guard positions there, but at that time, there were only farmers in the area.
Through the day, Lena and Huor rested on the bank. They found corn growing nearby and ate it raw. In the late afternoon, they heard voices. They panicked and hid in the trees. Some hours later they decided to enter the river again, but a group of farmers found the pair and gave them up to authorities. Lena and Huor had weapons, but in Huor’s confession he says nothing about fighting back.
Forty years later sitting at a desk in Chhang’s office, Coleman flipped through the record book from Democratic Kampuchea’s Paris consulate.
That morning, she had confirmed with DC-Cam researchers that four more servicemen under her care had died at S-21, bringing the number to 32, as well as eight from the refugee families – she had assumed they had all survived.
Each yellowed page of the record book had a passport photo and a file typed in Khmer. Coleman came to Huor’s page and paused.
“Look at those eyes,” she said finally. “So lively and smart. Soft and poetic.”