Behind the Killing Fields

Behind the Killing Fields: A Khmer Rouge Leader and One of His Victims

Gina Chon
Sambath Thet
Copyright Date: 2010
Pages: 212
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  • Book Info
    Behind the Killing Fields
    Book Description:

    In recent history, atrocities have often been committed in the name of lofty ideals. One of the most disturbing examples took place in Cambodia's Killing Fields, where tens of thousands of victims were executed and hastily disposed of by Khmer Rouge cadres. Nearly thirty years after these bloody purges, two journalists entered the jungles of Cambodia to uncover secrets still buried there. Based on more than 1,000 hours of interviews with the top surviving Khmer Rouge leader, Nuon Chea, Behind the Killing Fields follows the journey of a man who began as a dedicated freedom fighter and wound up accused of crimes against humanity. Known as Brother Number 2, Chea was Pol Pot's top lieutenant. He is now in prison, facing prosecution in a United Nations-Cambodian tribunal for his actions during the Khmer Rouge rule, when more than two million Cambodians died. The book traces how the seeds of the Killing Fields were sown and what led one man to believe that mass killing was necessary for the greater good. Coauthor Sambath Thet, a Khmer Rouge survivor, shares his personal perspectives on the murderous regime and how some victims have managed to rebuild their lives. The stories of Nuon Chea and Sambath Thet collide when the two meet. While Thet holds Chea responsible for the death of his parents and brother, he strives for understanding over revenge in order to reveal the forces that destroyed his homeland in the name of creating utopia. In this age of suicide bombers and terror alerts, the world is still at a loss to comprehend the violence of zealots. Behind the Killing Fields bravely confronts this challenge in an exclusive portrait of one man's political madness and another's personal wisdom.

    eISBN: 978-0-8122-0159-8
    Subjects: Political Science

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. [i]-[vi])
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. [vii]-[viii])
  3. 1. Introduction
    (pp. 1-8)

    The corroded, rusting pistol, a relic from his glory days as Pol Pot’s most senior lieutenant in charge of Cambodia, always stayed nearby, just in case. The top surviving Khmer Rouge leader knew that in his beloved country he was despised by many. And the enemies who have dogged him for half a century, the enemies who have tried to destroy Cambodia, were still out there, ready to take him down at any moment. But the man who considered himself to be the moral leader of the Khmer Rouge said he won’t go easily, for he was a survivor. The...

  4. 2. The Faceless Father
    (pp. 9-12)

    He has never told this tale, a story of a man he hardly remembers. His wife doesn’t know, and he and his siblings never speak of it. The pain is still too raw. It is the tale of his father’s slaying at the hands of his own people, the beginning of the end for Sambath’s family. By the time the Khmer Rouge were ousted from power in 1979, Sambath had lost both parents and a brother. He felt like an old man at the age of eleven. But while these events were unfolding around him, his seven-year-old mind could not...

  5. 3. The New World Order
    (pp. 13-43)

    Crammed inside the stifling tank, Nuon Chea and Pol Pot could hardly breathe. Sweat rolled down their faces. They had already traveled for several hours, slowly making their way to Phnom Penh from Peam commune in Kompong Chhnang province, where Nuon Chea had been living for the last few weeks. Afraid straggling Lon Nol soldiers would shoot at them if they exposed themselves, they poked their heads out to get some fresh air only a few times during the long journey. Even though they had achieved victory, they assumed their enemies were still out there. Pol Pot had ordered soon-to-be...

  6. 4. The Lost Childhood
    (pp. 44-46)

    Sambath did not understand who the Khmer Rouge were when the group came to power. He just knew that people were starving and forced to work like slaves. In the mornings, he went to the cooperative to have rice or porridge. Sambath was still allowed to go to school, so he and about 30 other students his age would gather in the classroom. In the beginning, he was taught grammar and the Khmer alphabet, with the teacher writing vowels and consonants on the chalkboard. But the children had no books or pencils. Soon the teacher showed up to work, but...

  7. 5. The Vietnam Factor
    (pp. 47-78)

    The local leaders in Preah Vihear province knew that Nuon Chea was coming, and they had time to prepare. Brother Number Two would see the bounty that graced this cooperative. They made sure he noticed the few well-fed residents, and when he walked into the communal dining area he saw chickens and chunks of meat hanging from wooden posts. The rice paddies were filled with workers in the standard black uniform, laboring under the sun. The snapshot said prosperity. But cooperative leaders couldn’t produce miracles.

    Wanting to see how the Khmer Rouge vision for the ideal society was being implemented...

  8. [Illustrations]
    (pp. None)
  9. 6. The Missing Brother
    (pp. 79-81)

    Thet Vorn, the oldest sibling in Sambath’s family, was in the tenth grade when the Khmer Rouge took over. With his handsome features and gentle nature, he was liked by everyone and had a girlfriend whom he expected to marry. Sambath and the other three brothers and two sisters looked up to him. He lived apart from the family to study in the town, where he learned about health care through his uncle, a medic, who allowed Vorn to stay with him. Sambath only saw Vorn when he visited the village to see his parents and siblings.

    When Sambath’s family...

  10. 7. The Enemies
    (pp. 82-120)

    “Now it reaches a top leader who betrayed Angka,” Duch told Nuon Chea.

    “What do you mean?” he asked Duch, head of the notorious S-21 prison.

    “A confession points to Bang Hem,” Duch said, using the alias for Khieu Samphan.

    Nuon Chea was shocked. Khieu Samphan was a man so clean that he wouldn’t even take a new bicycle for his son, preferring a secondhand bike. Nuon Chea wondered why Duch would give such a report on a faithful servant of Angka. By now, at the end of 1978, many of Nuon Chea’s former colleagues and friends had already been...

  11. 8. The Year Zero
    (pp. 121-123)

    When Vietnamese troops marched into Cambodia to oust the Khmer Rouge in January 1979, Sambath’s life was again turned upside down. He moved to the nearby Thmar Koul district with his grandparents, along with his two sisters and a brother, while his two other brothers were sent to live with an aunt. Sambath and his relatives once again became farmers, toiling in the rice fields to put food on the table. This time, they were no longer restricted from foraging for food and could move about with freedom. But they were still poor and were just barely surviving. Sambath compared...

  12. 9. The Implosion
    (pp. 124-139)

    Nuon Chea scrambled to pack his few belongings for his escape from the capital, just before the Vietnamese captured Phnom Penh on January 7, 1979. After months of escalating attacks, Vietnam had sent ten army divisions into Cambodia on December 25, 1978. The size of their forces, along with their better-equipped troops, overwhelmed the Khmer Rouge. Vietnamese troops advanced so quickly that Nuon Chea had no time even to gather documents of policies or confessions at S-21. He traveled in one vehicle while Pol Pot rode in another. The two arranged to meet in the north soon. They caught up...

  13. 10. The Rebuilding
    (pp. 140-143)

    While infighting plagued the Khmer Rouge, Sambath and Cambodia were given a new life. After several years of studying and regaining a sense of normalcy, Sambath followed in his uncle’s footsteps and in 1988 took an exam to become a health worker for the American Refugee Committee.

    Working for the ARC, he received weekly rations of rice and canned fish, a luxury for him. He sold some of his food to buy books and pay for private English classes. Through his work as a health care assistant, Sambath began dreaming of becoming a doctor. “That was my first job and...

  14. 11. The Homecoming
    (pp. 144-151)

    A convoy of vehicles carrying dozens of government bodyguards snaked through Wat Koh village and parked in front of a modest-looking home in early 1999. Residents of the farming community, always open to distractions from manual labor, came to see what the commotion was about. Some wondered why a high-ranking government official would visit their small town. Others thought it must be a general. A guard opened a car door and the guest of honor stepped out. Attendants rushed to steady him. Some of the guest’s relatives gasped when they saw how frail and weak he had become. Leaning on...

  15. 12. The Understanding
    (pp. 152-158)

    Sambath couldn’t focus. His mind wandered. He couldn’t shake the feeling of melancholy. He kept thinking about him, how he was doing, if he was taking his medicine, whether he was getting enough to eat. Three months had passed since Nuon Chea’s arrest and imprisonment to await trial for crimes against humanity. Sambath held Brother Number Two responsible for what had happened during the Khmer Rouge regime, which killed his father and brother and caused his mother’s death. But he had spent countless hours with Nuon Chea, and they knew each other better than they knew their family members.


  16. 13. The Killing Fields
    (pp. 159-166)

    Through an airplane window, much of Cambodia seems deserted. For vast stretches there is little evidence that humans inhabit this place. It is a place still ruled by nature. Bright green rice paddies stretch to the horizon, with scattered pockets of banana, coconut, and mango trees breaking up the flat expanses. Grasslands give way to the thick carpets of jungle that cover the plains and mountainsides. The only lapses in the lush foliage are the rust-colored dirt roads and milk-and-coffee rivers that slither through the countryside.

    But the serene landscape belies what is underneath, in the reddish brown earth, where...

  17. Bibliography
    (pp. 167-168)
  18. Index
    (pp. 169-176)
  19. Acknowledgments
    (pp. 177-178)