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With Sentencing of Khmer Rouge Leaders, Memories Return


Former Khmer Rouge leaders Khieu Samphan and Nuon Chea appear before the the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC) in Phnom Penh.

Former Khmer Rouge leaders Khieu Samphan and Nuon Chea appear before the the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC) in Phnom Penh.


The recent court decision and sentencing of two aging Khmer Rouge leaders holds deep personal meaning for survivors of the 1970s genocide in Cambodia.

Two of these survivors shared their stories with VOA after the former Cambodian head of state, Khieu Samphan and party official Nuon Chea were found guilty. The men were sentenced to life in prison. Their crimes included murder and political persecution or oppression.

Samphan is 83 years old and Chea is 88.

A court supported by the United Nations announced the judgment. It came more than 30 years after rule by the Communist group resulted in the death of a quarter of the population of Cambodia. Some estimates say more than one and one-half million people died as a result of Khmer Rouge actions between 1975 and 1979.

Reasey Poch serves as an editor in the Khmer Service of VOA. He said he was seven or eight years old when he and his family were evacuated – or removed - from Phnom Penh in 1975. He compared it to a terrible dream.

“It’s horrible, it’s a nightmare. Sometimes I still have that nightmare after so many years.”

To gain cooperation, the Khmer Rouge told people they had to leave home because the United States might bomb Phnom Penh. At the time, the U.S. was involved in the Vietnam War.

The Cambodian leadership, the Khmer Rouge, told people in Phnom Penh and other areas that they would return home after three days. Instead, they were continually forced toward rural areas. Mr. Poch said the Khmer Rouge never explained where they were going. Instead, they just kept pushed the people to keep moving.

“Once we were out of the city limits, then we realized there was no way we were going to turn back. So word spreads. And nobody told us anything. “

Currency lost its value during their evacuation. The Communist government had canceled use of money. He remembers that people traded gold and jewelry -- and anything of material value.

“There’s no way to buy food, so what you did was you bartered. So, you have a watch, you barter for rice. So, you negotiate the amount, and that’s how you get the food.”

Reasey Poch said he saw no executions. But he saw people die every day of hunger and disease. His younger brother and sister died of the intestinal disease diarrhea that could have been treated. But no medicine or hospital was available.

The young boy helped his father bury them. And much later under Khmer Rouge rule, he saw his father taken away, supposedly to work on a forced labor project. He never saw his father again.

Sarem Neou is a former member of VOA’s Khmer Service. She was far away when the evacuation began. She had left her husband and their two daughters in Cambodia for a year of study in France on a scholarship. She said she followed the French media and other sources for news about events at home very carefully.

“I follow the news every day. I knew everything about the evacuation. And yeah. Everything. I was very, very sad. ”

She was permitted to return to Cambodia in January, 1976. But she could not find any of her family members. Time passed without news. Then:

“…I came to United States in 1979, like June, and six months later I get a letter from Paris, from my cousin, counting only the survivor, only three people survive from my family and extended family. Only girls.”

Now, so long after their crimes, two Khmer Rouge leaders finally face punishment. Mr. Poch says he feels satisfied with the verdict and sentence of the two Khmer Rouge leaders.

“..Now in history books …the future generations can see that the Khmer Rouge were arrested …then were put on trial and found guilty…To me that’s enough because it happened so many years ago. But I’m happy to see they’re found guilty. You cannot change the past.”

Ms. Neou offered a more severe judgment.

“I think, you know, for justice in Cambodia, nothing is enough. It is like a drop of justice in the middle of the ocean.”

This story is based on a report by Ira Mellman of VOA’s Daybreak Asia, adapted by Jerilyn Watson and edited by Mario Ritter.

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Words in the News

genocide - n. an action plan to kill or destroy a national, religious, racial or ethnic group

verdict - n. in law, the decision made by a jury in a trial; a judgment or opinion about something

population - n. all the people in a place, city or country

currency - n. the money that a country uses

barter - v. to exchange things such as products or services for other things instead of money

cooperation - n. acting or working together

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