Eventually we called it a day and headed back to Phnom Penh.
Richard and I went back to DCCAM and told Young Chang about us feeling threatened when we were in the village.
His reaction comforted us. “Under Khmer Rouge law, you are entitled to police protection while doing a KR story,” he said. “All you have to do is call the police in the morning, and they will drive you out to do the story. Also, anyone who refuses to talk to you, if you report them the police, the police are obligated to arrest that person, bring him to the police station, and force him to talk to you.”
I definitely had the feeling that in the villages we were in danger. And, back in Phnom Penh, many Khmers and foreign journalists had told me that the police and army in these villages were just KR who had changed their uniforms. And they still operated as they always had. But we were close enough to Phnom Penh that my gut said if I contacted them through official channels they would do as they were told, and protect us. But if they didn’t, they could be the ones who would attack us. I later heard that two French cameramen were driven out of the village by the police.
Of course, it may have been a coincidence that they were doing a KR story. They may have been driven out just for being smelly, unwashed Frenchmen. But, it still made us nervous. I was careful to spend extra time bathing. And Richard constantly sent our GPS coordinates back to his office.
When we returned to the survivor’s house, we came unannounced. It turned out that he had been in the feed store on the day of our previous visit, and that he had been dissuaded from talking to us by the 39 year old guy, who we had paid for the interview. We couldn’t get a straight answer from the survivor, anyway, if the 39 year old had worked for the government, the KR, or both.
The survivor told us his name was Da Chien. As much as my heart went out to him, interviewing him was extremely frustrating, as none of his facts made any sense.
He said he was captured in 1972, at age 14, by the commune leader when he came here to visit relatives. His brother was arrested first one month earlier.
But I didn’t think that Takeo province was already a Khmer Rouge stronghold in that year. Also, I thought the prison didn’t open till 1974. He said that he was arrested first, held for more than a year, and then witnessed his father’s execution.
According to Da Chien, the prison was built in 1972. But no other information that we had corroborated his story.
On the second telling of the story, Da Chien was 16 when he was a prisoner, in 1974. His father, the president of the district, was taken by Pol Pot in 1975. Supposedly, they chained all of the high-ranking Lon Nol officials together, and walked them from Jium Ba village to the prison, a distance of 56 km.
“Before they got here, they didn’t let the prisoners know where they were going,” said Da Chien. “In the prison, there were a lot of high ranking officials. They were told it was reeducation. But, they killed all the Lon Nol officials, from 1975-1978.”
“When I saw them put my father in jail, I thought I might be killed any day,” said Da Chien.
He was obviously afraid to talk to us, and kept glancing around at the other villagers, who were taking too much interest in our conversation. We had begun the interview at his house, but people started coming around. So, we moved to the stupa. A huge crowd gathered, and Richard eventually got nervous.
“Walk calmly back to the car,” he whispered. “Keep talking.” We got in the car and continued the interview while driving. Eventually, we stopped under a tree to talk.
Da Chien said that one mass grave contained 100 people. “After they filled a grave they started a new one and killed the next group of people.” Of his father he said, “He was taken in 1975, at 9 pm, and killed the next day at 12 noon.”
His father was in a mass grave and he had recognized the corpse from its gold teeth. He said that the prison was liberated by the Vietnamese in 1978 and that there were seven survivors, of whom two were still alive.
According to DCCAM it was normal that people would be in the prison less than 36 hours before being killed. So the story about the father was believable. But why was this boy taken so early? And, why did he survive for so long?
“They kept me alive because the leader loved me,” said Da Chien.
“But it doesn’t make sense that he loved you enough to countermand orders and keep you alive,” I pointed out.
“There were no orders,” explained Da Chien. “No one knew I had been arrested.”
“Then why were you arrested?”
“Because my father was with Lon Nol, and they arrested all of the families.”
“Then there was an order for your arrest?”
“Then people knew you had been arrested. Why weren’t you killed?”
“The commander wanted someone who could climb trees and gather coconuts.”
“But this is the provinces. Everyone can climb trees and gather coconuts.”
“He also had me look after the cattle. And do some farming.”
Those weren’t really specialized skills out here.
The only way I could think of that he stayed alive was that he hadn’t been captured at all. I believed that he had been Khmer Rouge himself.
“You said that the leader spared you because he loved you. Did you know the leader before?”
“Yes, he was the father’s best friend.”
Mok was the name of the head of the prison. Now, he and Da Chien lived next door to each other.