Return To Cambodia

This year, something remarkable has been happening Cambodia. Some of the top leaders of the Khmer Rouge - the regime that killed close to 2 million Cambodians 20 years ago - either turned themselves in or were captured. The fate of these war criminals has not been decided yet. In the end, they may not be punished at all.

To find out more about this seemingly incredible possibility, Correspondent Bob Simon went to Cambodia with two American citizens who lived through the horror: Seng Ty, a middle-school guidance counselor, and Arn Chorn Pond, a social worker and a musician. Both now live in Lowell, Mass.

Ty was about 7 years old when he and most of his family were put on trains, which were, he says, packed so tightly with people that he could hardly breathe. Ty lost his parents, as well as seven brothers and sisters, to the killing fields.

A couple months ago when visiting the village where his parents were murdered, he came across the arid, unmarked spot where he had been forced to dig a shallow grave for his mother.

Pond was taken to a death camp called Tra-Beng-Sva, one of hundreds of such places all across Cambodia. He was about 10 years old when the Khmer Rouge killed his father and then put him in a temple.

To find out more about the Khmer people, head to this site, Beauty and Darkness, which features photos, oral histories and other background information.
The country's ordeal began when the Vietnam War spread to Cambodia, destabilizing the old regime. The North Vietnamese were the first to attack; then came the local communist insurgents who called themselves the Khmer Rouge.

When the Khmer Rouge took over in 1975, no one had any idea how terrifying it would be. Like other engineers of genocide, the Khmer Rouge was driven by a dream of purity. It wanted to cleanse Cambodia of corrupt city dwellers, so it emptied out the cities. The Khmer Rouge wanted a pure peasant society, so it killed anyone educated or who looked educated.

Everyone else was enslaved in work camps or communal farms, where famine and fear were rampant. "The most difficult for me was the smell," Pond says. "I can smell it right now, the smell, the blood and the dirt together."

The Khmer Rouge didn't use bullets on its victims. Adults were usually killed with farm tools - with sharp blows to the back of the head. Children's heads were broken in more primitive ways.

"They took the head," Pond says. "They put the head like into the wall and the blood spread." He says that he will never forget what he experienced. "Even now I have dreams about this place," he says. "Probably I have to live with it for the rest of my life."

Ty was forced to live n a small hut with 30 people, including his parents, who had been professionals in Phnom Penh. He is the only one who survived.

He saw his father taken away in the middle of the night, to be executed. His mother told him not to show any emotion, because if the guards saw people crying, they would kill them. A year after Ty's father was killed, his mother died of starvation.

Ty survived because he was the bravest of the group, he says. "I knew, I'd rather just...go - just to get killed, with a full stomach," he says. "So I had to sneak out and night, to go and steal food." Ty eventually made his way through jungles and over mountains to a refugee camp in Thailand and eventually was adopted by a family in the United States.

Like Ty, Pond survived, while almost everyone around him did not. He is still alive, at least in part, because his captors wanted entertainment. He was a good musician, so the cadres treated him a little better.

"I got a little famous," he recalls. "They gave me a little more food to eat. And they were not killing me."

There are millions of such stories. Some Cambodians are trying to record them. One of the most infamous killing spots, Tuol Sleng, a former school in Phnom Penh where 20,000 people were killed, has been turned into a museum to commemorate the loss.

Youk Chhang lost much of his family during the massacres before escaping to Dallas. He returned to Phnom Penh to work at the museum and dig up documentary evidence, which he plans to turn over to prosecutors - if and when there are trials.

During the genocide, Chhang says, prisoners could be killed for almost anything: speaking in a foreign language, drinking water without permission, having sex without permission and even talking to someone without permission.

"It seemed to me that they wanted [to] purify the society, including the brain," Chhang says. "And the brain must be pure, must be clean, must be obedient to the revolution."

The Khmer Rouge kept track of all the show trials and killings, with elaborate records and files. "They're very bureaucrat[ic]," Chhang says. "Without [these files], we cannot convict the Khmer Rouge leaders. We convict them with their own files."

Soon a portion of these leaders may go on trial. But as of now, some of them are being allowed to remain free.

In fact, two of the Khmer Rouge's leaders, Khieu Sampan, who was the regime's nominal president, and Nuon Chea, the ex-prime minister, are living in a comfortable housing project just a few minutes from the Thai border. They surrendered Christmas Day last year to the Cambodian government. Instead of putting them in jail, Cambodia's current leader, Hun Sen, welcomed them.

To find out why, go to Justice For Cambodia.

Broadcast produced by Steven Glauber; Web site produced by David Kohn;