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In the Years Of Dying
Human bones bear mute testimony to Pol Pot's Cambodia. Here survivors give their accounts

Year Zero begins, April 17, 1975. After a civil war that kills 600,000 and topples the 1970--75 Lon Nol regime, Pol Pot and his Khmer Rouge fighters roll together Mao Zedong's Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution into a vision of utopian rural society. They clear the cities. Their workers are "new people" without any history or culture. Soldiers burn dollar bills as cooking fuel. Children are co--opted into spying, controlling, murdering their parents and elders. Until the Vietnamese invade on Christmas Day 1978, more than 1,300 Cambodians die daily in fields, ditches, torture centers -- at the hands of other Cambodians. The survivors are mostly beyond tears. The catharsis continues.

Meas Bopha's father was a doctor, working at the Russian Hospital. As the forced marches that emptied Phnom Penh in 1975 began, he was confronted by some young soldiers and produced his identity card. "They said: 'Thank you so much, please step this way,' " recalls Bopha, then 9. The doctor took two steps and was shot in the back. As he fell, he turned to his wife and daughter, imploring them to flee. The soldiers shot him in the head while Bopha's mother tugged her away.

Her parents had just returned to Phnom Penh after visiting relatives in Canada. Cambodia had been ravaged and the capital was swollen with refugees, but they wanted to be home. It was around Khmer New Year and the long civil war appeared to be drawing to a close. Two days later the Khmer Rouge arrived. "They told us to take clothes for three days," says Bopha. The 80--km trek northeast to Kompong Cham took 16 days.

Soon, Bopha was separated from her mother and surviving on her wits. The youngest of seven children, she changed her name, denied everything about her comfortable, happy childhood and told anyone who asked that her father had been a barber. Three times she was marked for death. Once, her judge was a 12--year--old boy who coolly ordered the bludgeoning of two other children in front of her. The trio's crime had been to scream when they discovered a corpse stuffed into the hollow of a tree.

Today Bopha is 34 and a partner in a promising Internet business in Phnom Penh. She lost three of six siblings to Pol Pot.

Ker Hun, 55, and his wife Chea Sam Oy, 45, live outdoors in the shade of a large tree on a plot of state--owned land beside the Tonle Sap. As in 1975, Hun ekes out an existence as cyclo driver. His wife sells food to workers on a nearby construction site. "It's not a good life," he admits. "But I am not afraid of robbers -- there's nothing for them to steal."

In 1975 the couple and their three children were sent to Kompong Cham. The family survived intact -- a rarity. "They saw my feet and my hands," says Hun. "I think they did not kill me because they believed I really was a cyclo driver. But all of my brothers and sisters were killed, and all my wife's relatives too." In the Lon Nol period, cyclo drivers often were rounded up and forcibly conscripted. "Nobody does that today," says Hun. "We have much more freedom, but it's been a sad life." He and his wife now have eight children, the youngest just 12. Hun's daily toil is to make $2.50 for their rice.

Sok Siphana, 40, is a secretary of state at the Ministry of Commerce. He has a law degree from the U.S., wears a bow tie and suspenders, and usually brims with confidence. Sitting in his office, he fights back tears. "We all survived," he says. "I owe the whole thing to my mother. She had some jewels that she managed to trade for rice. She saved us." Theirs was one of 183 families resettled about 140 km north of the capital in Kompong Thom. Only three families survived intact.

One of five children, Siphana could have avoided the horror if he had taken up a scholarship to France. "I refused to go," he says -- even though rockets had started thumping down in the city early that year. Siphana, who spoke better French than Khmer and wore glasses -- traits that could have meant death -- spent nearly four years digging ditches.

A sister's husband had worked for the U.S. Agency for International Development and the couple was evacuated just before the city fell. "I took them to the U.S. embassy and even touched a helicopter," says Siphana. A few days later, he was forced to flee.

As he went along his journey, Siphana picked up four discarded books: a Harraps French--English dictionary, a James Bond thriller, a book on Freud and the memoirs of a Romanian refugee. Each day he would tear out a page of the dictionary and use it to wrap lunch scraps. "It was an escape to another world," he recalls of his secret reading. "I didn't realize I knew English so well until I got to the Thai border."

After the Vietnamese arrived, Siphana's family urged him to go to the Thai border to scout the situation. On his first day there he was found by an official sent by his sister from the U.S. embassy in Bangkok.

Noy Chhomya, 34, was the youngest of seven children. His father worked in the Ministry of Commerce and his mother was a teacher. A brother who was a pilot was the first to disappear in 1975. Chhomya's father died the following year from overwork.

The boy was taken from his family and put to work collecting buffalo dung and digging dikes. His other two brothers and three sisters were either executed or starved to death. He believes his mother died from grief in 1977. "I felt very lonely, but I struggled to survive," Chhomya says. "I have numerous bitter stories relating to the Khmer Rouge, but I try to bury them. I face them only for building my life in the future."

In 1979 Chhomya was one of thousands of Pol Pot orphans who straggled back to Phnom Penh. Now a teacher, he earns $30 a month and recently married a colleague, Ros Tila, who wasn't orphaned. They live in a two--room house at the Rose One Orphanage, which they share with 57 other orphans. Many of them work in schools, hotels, nongovernment organizations, even the police force. They draw strength from their shared past misfortune.

The orphanage once housed more than 500 children. Today the area is earmarked for redevelopment. Power and electricity already have been cut, and the orphans face the prospect of their surrogate family being dissolved.

The widow Yem Yon, 57, lives quietly in Daun Sor (the Village of White Old Ladies) just outside the capital. In 1975 she was pushed out of the city to Kandal province, then to a commune in Pursat province. "I was seven months pregnant and treated like a slave," Yon says. Put to work digging irrigation ditches, she was given only rice meant for pigs. "We could not avoid the killing," she says. "My boys were sick and forced to work. It killed them. My husband once went to beg some rice and they used the plate to beat him over the head."

Her husband vanished. Of her seven children, five died from overwork and two from sickness. "My children were put in a hole with 24 other bodies," she says. "Others were thrown away like dead cats." Yon was accused of being rich because her husband had been a soldier who chauffeured a customs official. She says they weren't wealthy, just content. "We had a very happy family life. My husband used to let me go for picnics on the riverside."

She had no inkling of the disaster about to engulf her. "I was very surprised by the Pol Pot regime -- I never dreamed of anything like it. I have had a very sad life since 1975. If somebody dies, I don't cry anymore. I have cried enough."

Bouy Kok, 68, describes himself as a dignitary at the Champuskaek Pagoda near Phnom Penh -- arguably Cambodia's richest temple. Lists painted on the blue walls honor donors who have contributed anything from $2 to $70,000. Prime Minister Hun Sen donated $11,000. Many visitors believe that the pagoda is a font of wealth and good fortune. There are two schools for 1,000 children on the grounds.

Kok, who was a prosperous fish merchant in Lon Nol times, knows all about the pagoda's dark past. The grounds were used as a detention center. In the middle, a shrine with glass windows brims with skulls and bones from the 18,000 people Kok and others believe were executed and dumped in the killing ground at the back.

Less than a kilometer away, Kok survived. "I tried to work very hard at farming," he says. "I was waiting to die." Five members of his family simply vanished. "I do not know what happened to them. Every class of person was in the camp: children, officials, monks . . ."

"A lot of people died inside this pagoda," confirms its abbot, the Venerable Am Lim Heng, 35, a respected Pali scholar. He was a child in Kandal province whose family somehow survived intact. "I just knew that bad things came from the Khmer Rouge," he says. "Many people had to live on rice gruel and their bodies swelled up. A lot of those who died here were Chinese. There were also some Westerners, but their skeletons have been taken away."

The abbot finds it hard to explain why Cambodians now flock to the Champuskaek Pagoda. "After 1979 many were scared to enter, but nobody is anymore," he says. "They come to be blessed. We keep to the old ceremonies as this is important for the older people. A lot of people believe that by visiting they will prosper. People from all political parties come. The Buddha is for everybody."

As he wraps swatches of betel, the abbot carefully avoids political questions. But the bones outside beg them. "We wanted Pol Pot alive to ask him about the killings," he explains. "Buddhist tradition is to cremate, but if we did that now there would be no evidence. The dead have already been reborn and are grown up. What they are now depends on what they did in their previous lives. This is an unusual case."

People don't forget such things. Few can forgive. When Vietnamese troops swept through the country in early 1979, chasing Pol Pot's cohorts to the Thai border, ordinary Cambodians turned on low--level cadres. Some were bound and hauled up coconut palms, then dropped headfirst to the ground. A witness in Moung Aussey, Battambang province, reports seeing 2,000 corpses, including piles of Khmer Rouge footsoldiers, in the months following the Vietnamese arrival. Yet many escaped untouched. Bopha, the doctor's daughter, knows that Penh, the sadistic killer of one of her brothers, is now a rice farmer living peacefully in Kompong Cham. At 15, Penh had been a provincial chief. His revolutionary credentials were confirmed when he murdered his mother.

Before the rout, another young cadre, Yong, 14, presented himself as a suitor for Bopha. Her mother, living nearby, was appalled. The youth controlled 20 villages and could extinguish each and every life as the whim took him. He, too, had earned his stripes through matricide.

With the Vietnamese invasion under way, Yong was seized by villagers and tied to a stake. They slit him open and pulled out his liver. "He never cried out," says Bopha. She is still puzzled by that. Finally, the villagers cut off his head and impaled it on a stick.

With reporting by Khieu Kola/Phnom Penh

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