Mon Mao (64), a survivor of the Khmer Rouge regime who attended reconciliation meetings with Khmer Rouge foot soldiers in Andong Bey, near Anlong Veng. Photograph: Nevenka Lukin
In Anlong Veng in northern Cambodia, the conversation turns to food.
“But what did you get to eat?” 14-year-old schoolgirl Thy Daly asks Huoy Teng(62) and Mon Mao (64), who survived the murderous Khmer Rouge regime in the 1970s. Very little, is the answer.
“Back then I was so hungry I’d go to the rice paddy and pick a few grains and roast them, unhusked. I would have eaten anything,” Teng explains to the group comprising schoolchildren and student teachers. “I had a makeshift torch and went around at night with my siblings to catch toads.”
“I was so skinny,” says Mao, “that you could see my knee bones sticking out.”
The two quiet-spoken men, who were civil parties to the UN-backed tribunal to prosecute Khmer Rouge leaders, have travelled from their village in Chong Kal district to Anlong Veng to share their experiences with young people born long after the atrocities of the regime.
Former Khmer Rouge cadre Tron Kron (72). Photograph: Nevenka Lukin
“Some people don’t believe our story, especially young people,” Teng tells the group. “Some dismiss it as a fairy tale. But you must believe that it happened. It is true.”
From 1975 to 1979, under the leadership of Pol Pot, the communist Khmer Rouge regime oversaw the killing by torture, hard labour and starvation of some two million people in Cambodia.
Teng and Mao were forced to work constructing dams and building the irrigation system that the Khmer Rouge viewed as vital to expand rice production. “The senior leaders of the Khmer Rouge are to blame,” says Mao. “If there was a death sentence, we would like them to receive it.”
Huoy Teng (62), a survivor of the Khmer Rouge regime. Photograph: Nevenka Lukin
Teng adds: “But the smaller cadres, the soldiers were not at fault. Please don’t discriminate against them. They are not to blame for their leaders’ acts.”
This visit to Anlong Veng, the final stronghold of the remnants of the Khmer Rouge before it integrated into the Cambodian state in 1998, has a dual purpose: the two men will also meet some of those ex-cadre members who now live quiet lives of retirement in the district.
The initiative is part of the work of the Documentation Centre of Cambodia (DC-Cam), whose founder Youk Chhang, himself a survivor of the regime, gathered some one million documents, films and photographs from the period, many of which have served as evidence in the tribunal.
The centre helped introduce the study of the Khmer Rouge period into secondary schools in 2009, and runs a peace centre and museum in Anlong Veng. It has elaborate plans for the area, including the opening of an educational tourist trail that includes, among other stops, the grave of Pol Pot, the home of Ta Mok, known as his “butcher”, and the peace centre.
Schoolgirls from the former Khmer Rouge stronghold of Anlong Veng visit the grave of Khmer Rouge official Ta Mok, known as Pol Pot’s “butcher”. Photograph: Nevenka Lukin
“Some nine million people had already left school by 2009, so in a country of 16 million there’s still a lot of people who don’t know their own history of past abuse,” Chhang explains in his Phnom Penh office. “There is a risk of it being repeated. People can know what happened by looking at social media, for example. But to understand you need to really educate people. Not just for memory but for healing, for reconciliation – to reconnect the broken pieces within us.”
It is in that spirit that Huoy Teng and Mon Mao travel with the students some 30km to Andong Bey, a struggling, dusty town with many boarded-up houses. “So many people have left to work in Thailand due to problems with micro-financing,” explains Phat Bora (22) of DC-Cam. “They borrowed money and now the prices of the crops went down, so they went across the border to work as labourers to try to pay the debt.”