Men are marched out of prison camps. Then corpses float down the river, now just water, in Cambodia. With Reuters and UNICEF, John Hanson reports.
By John Hanson | Reuters
Last August, Cambodia’s government began a crackdown on the leaders of the country’s largest opposition party after the 2018 election put them in disfavor with the ruling communist party. Political clashes also broke out within the Cambodian People’s Party (CPP), prompting the ruling party to blame Khmer Rouge soldiers, and the Khmer Rouge blamed the CPP.
And as Khmer Rouge forces tortured the country’s leaders in recent years, the Khmer Rouge made sure that the prisoners who were killed while in their custody received a gruesome tribute: a river journey with their corpses.
In July 2018, my colleague Jonathan Herbst and I traveled to Cambodia to investigate the village of Sinheung, about 40 miles south of the capital Phnom Penh. We encountered still-smoldering debris of the giant but unexploded explosion from the Khmer Rouge’s 1975-79 reign of terror. Kim Jong Il reportedly instructed the late Lee Sang Cheol, whose family was accused of having hid a number of Khmer Rouge elite, to build an underground bunker to protect the younger Kim when the North Korean leader went on a trip to the region.
A camp commander named Chyang, 42, who fights with government-affiliated militias near Sinheung, knew that we had been there, and beckoned us into his courtyard and helped us down a rickety wooden stairway that led to the outside. Chyang’s brother, who was a member of the Khmer Rouge revolutionary army when it was still based in southern Cambodia, then led us toward his metal-roofed hut where they smoked cigarettes and drank.
Just before we entered the house, their father, now 89, was giving us some inappropriate dirt-cut advice.
“He must repent; get old men like you to repent,” he said, shoving us into the mud that surrounded the mud brick house.
“That is why I want you to keep away from the government and concentrate on fighting,” he said. “Be an old soldier’s son.”
From inside, he threw open the door to the room where his family lived and told us to lower ourselves onto the concrete floor below. Like the rest of the Khmer Rouge people we’d spoken to before, the father said we were not to look at the pictures. “If someone shows them to you, you might not believe your eyes,” he said.
“But look!” he smiled in a sadistic manner as we looked at a photo, perhaps of one of the Khmer Rouge soldiers who killed his father.
As we entered, we could see that the walls of the room were covered with the bones of the family’s murdered members.
Outside, the mud wall of a hut under construction had four distinct frames, each covered with an equally long chain and some electrical wires. In the last frame, a young man was chained and piled onto a scaffold. Another six bodies lay at a nearby pond, their bodies decomposing and foaming at the mouth.
None of the bodies visible in that final frame resembled the men we’d been looking at in the room before.
The land that we’d been looking at burned around us, and, like everything else here, the smell was rank. At one point, we heard a rustling in the forest.
“Hey, everything over there is going to be finished,” said our guide, Michael. “It’s going to be 100,000 people living there.”
His cocky tone contrasted with the times when Michael, too, was in the Khmer Rouge’s army, and to this day, he resists describing the regime as a revolutionary revolution.
“It was just war,” he said. “It wasn’t a revolution. It was about war. We were like an infantry, going into the field.”