THERE WAS a newcomer in hell last week. He was a communist mass murderer whose given name was Chhit Choeun, but that wasn't what people called him.
The one-time Khmer Rouge commander was more commonly known by his nom de guerre, Ta Mok; or as "Brother Number Four," the title bestowed on him by his fellow Cambodian revolutionary, Pol Pot ("Brother Number One"). Hun Sen, Cambodia's prime minister, called him the "Hitler of Cambodia." To countless ordinary Cambodians, he was simply "The Butcher."
It has been 30 years since the Khmer Rouge murdered 1.7 million of their fellow Cambodians, an orgy of ideological blood lust that wiped out one-fourth of Cambodia's population in the name of a radical Marxist utopia. Last month, a UN-appointed tribunal was finally formed to bring the architects of that genocide to justice. But three of the bloodiest Khmer Rouge sociopaths -- Pol Pot, Son Sen, and now Ta Mok -- are now dead. Only one other, Kaing Khek Ieu, known as Duch, who ran the torture prison at Tuol Sleng, is even in custody. All the others are in their 70s or 80s. And in any case, no trial is expected to begin before next year.
As was true of most of the communist monsters of the last 90 years, then, there will be no earthly accounting for Ta Mok's crimes. There will be no venue to preserve the names and stories of his countless victims, whose blood will continue crying out from the ground.
While those killed by the Khmer Rouge will never have the chance to bear witness, some of those who survived have told their stories. Below are short excerpts from three such memoirs.
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Ranachith (Ronnie) Yimsut was 13 when Cambodia fell to the Khmer Rouge. During the last week of 1977, he and his extended family were sent on a forced march to Tonle Sap, where the Khmer Rouge waited to kill them. Of the dozens rounded up that day, only Yimsut survived. His story is among those compiled in Dith Pran's Children of Cambodia's Killing Fields, published by Yale in 1997:
I was the first one to be tied up tightly by the soldiers. . . . My head began to bleed from a wound. I was still semiconscious -- I could feel the pain and blood flowing down on my face. They were using me as example of what one would get if they got any kind of resistance. They quickly tied the rest of the group without any problems. . . . I was getting dizzier as blood continued to drip across my face and into my right eye. It was the first time that I had tears in my eyes -- not from the blood nor the pain, but from the reality that was now setting in. I was numb with fear.
I was beyond horrified when I heard the clobbering begin. Somehow, I knew that this was it. Oum's elderly father was next to me and his upper torso contracted several times before he fell on me. At that moment, I noticed a small boy whom I knew well get up and start to call for his mother. Suddenly there was a warm splash on my face and body. I knew it was definitely not mud -- it was the little boy's blood, or perhaps his brain tissue scattering from the impact. The others only let out short but terrifying, sputtered sounds. I could hear their breathing stop. . . . Everything seemed to happen in slow motion; it was so unreal. It happened in a matter of seconds but I can still vividly remember every trifling detail. I closed my eyes, but the terrifying sounds continued. . . .
I woke up to the familiar sound of mosquitoes buzzing like bees over my body. Only this time there were tons and tons of them feasting on my and other peoples' blood. . . . I was disoriented. I could not remember where I was. . . . Suddenly, reality set in at full blast and I broke into heavy sweat. The memories of the events that happened earlier came rushing back and smacked me right in the head. I realized the sharp dull pain all over my body and head. I was very cold. I had never been so cold in my entire life. Fear ran rampant in my mind. . . . "Am I already dead? If I am, why do I still suffer like this?" I kept on asking myself the same questions over and over again, but always came to the same conclusion. I was still alive. I am alive! But why?
I could not understand why I was still alive and suffering. I should have been dead. I wished then and there that I was dead like the rest of people lying around me.
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At Tuol Sleng, a Phnom Penh schoolhouse converted to a prison, at least 14,000 victims of the Khmer Rouge were tortured into confessing nonexistent crimes against "Angkar," the communist ruling body. After they confessed, they were killed. Vann Nath was one of only seven inmates known to have survived Tuol Sleng. His account of what happened to him there appears in The Killing Fields, a volume of photographs from Tuol Sleng published by Twin Palms in 1996:
That evening around 7 o'clock, several men, one holding a name list and another carrying an AK-47, came to take me out. . . . They pushed me into a small brick house, where they lit a lamp and told me to sit down. I saw long metal bolts, truncheons, plastic bags, and whips hanging on the walls. Under my chair there were fresh blood stains. As one of the men wrote, they asked me about my background. . . .
"What was the problem that caused them to arrest you?" the interrogator asked. I said I didn't know. "Angkar is not stupid," he said. "It never catches people who are not guilty. Now think again: What did you do wrong?" . . . . The interrogator told me to confess, or else he'd hurt me. I didn't have any answer. He tied an electric wire firmly around my handcuffs and connected the other end to my trousers with a safety pin. Then he sat down again.
"Now do you remember? Who collaborated with you to betray Angkar?" he asked. I couldn't think of anything to say. He connected the wire to the electric power, plugged it in, and shocked me. I passed out from the shock.
I don't know how many times he shocked me, but when I came to, I could hear a distant voice asking over and over again who my connection was, who I was communicating with. I couldn't get any words out. When they still couldn't get the confession they wanted out of me, they shocked me again so severely that I collapsed onto the floor. . . .
Each day they would take some prisoners out to be interrogated. They would handcuff and blindfold the prisoners before they left the room. Sometimes, prisoners came back with cuts or blood on their bodies; others disappeared. Later, prisoners who had been in the room when I arrived started dying one by one. If a prisoner died in the morning, they would not take him out until night. I lived that way for more than thirty days.
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Haing Ngor, a doctor from a prosperous Cambodian family, lost most of his family during the Khmer Rouge terror. After being repeatedly arrested and tortured, he escaped from Cambodia in 1979, and reached the United States in 1980. His memoir, Cambodian Odyssey, was published by Macmillan in 1987:
Just before they put the plastic bag over my head, I glimpsed the pregnant lady next to me. She already had a bag over her head and she was kicking convulsively with both feet. They tied the bag around my neck. . . . I tried to breathe, but the plastic got in the way of my mouth and there was no air and I went wild, struggling to get the bag off, but I couldn't and my feet were kicking and I couldn't see. Then they pulled the bag off. . . .
They took the bag off the pregnant lady next to me, but it was too late. She had died of suffocation. A guard ripped her blouse apart and pulled down her sarong. Then he picked up his rifle, which had a bayonet attached. He . . . . slashed her belly from her sternum down below her navel. He took the fetus out, tied a string around its neck, and threw it in a pile with the fetuses from the other pregnant women. Then he reached into her intestines, cut out her liver, and finally sliced her breasts off with a sawing motion of his blade. . . .
I lay on my side without moving. They would disembowel me next, just for fun. It was nothing for them to cut someone open. Just a whim. They would come for me soon. But the seconds turned into minutes and then they walked away.
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Unlike the men, women, and children who met violent deaths at his command, Ta Mok, a.k.a. "The Butcher," died in a hospital bed. He was 80 years old, and passed away peacefully.
(Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe).
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