More than three decades later, survivors in a Vietnamese village still find it hard to forgive or forget a Khmer Rouge massacre
A Cambodian guide (2nd, R) points at a picture (C) of Khmer Rouge prison chief Kaing Guek Eav - better known as Duch - to tourists at the Tuol Sleng genocide museum in Phnom Penh on February 2. Duch, who oversaw the deaths of 15,000 people at a notorious torture prison, had his sentence increased to life February 3 by a war crimes court in the Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh.
Ba Chuc Village, situated just a few kilometers from the Cambodian border in the Mekong Delta province of An Giang, is a land where the voices of the dead speak as loudly as those of the living perhaps louder.
The dead are almost everywhere here. In an ossuary, more than 1,100 skulls peer through glass windows, graded by age and gender. There is a museum containing grisly photographs of victims who were slaughtered or cruelly tortured. In a temple nearby, where dozens of victims had taken shelter under the altar before being killed by grenades, faded bloodstains still mark the wall.
The last moments of the dead still seem to be etched in the memories of the few Vietnamese who survived a Khmer Rouge massacre of 3,157 people thirty-four years ago.
Though a landmark first case at Cambodia's UN-backed tribunal concluded earlier this month with a notorious Khmer Rouge jailer sentenced to life in prison, survivors find themselves wrestling to come to grips with the reality of what took place.
A Vietnamese survivor agonized that their long-delayed hunt for justice is not yet over.
"The other most senior surviving leaders of the [Khmer Rouge] regime must continue to be tried and get their comeuppance," Bui Van Le, one of just three survivors of the 1978 Ba Chuc massacre, told Vietweek.
"They deserve ten times the highest punishment considering the atrocities they committed to millions of people," said the 72-year-old Le, who lost his wife, five children, and dozens of relatives in the massacre.
Kaing Guek Eav, better known as Duch, who oversaw the deaths of some 15,000 people, including at least 345 Vietnamese, in the Khmer Rouge's infamous S-21 prison, also known as Tuol Sleng, had his sentence increased to life February 3 by a war crimes court in the Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh. Cambodia does not have capital punishment.
But this has been the only verdict the tribunal has been able to deliver since being set up in 2006.
Duch's case was also considered much simpler than another trial involving the regime's three most senior surviving leaders that opened late last year.
The 86-year-old Nuon Chea, the Khmer Rouge's chief ideologist; 81-year-old Khieu Samphan, an ex-head of state; and 87-year-old Ieng Sary, the former foreign minister, went on stand trial last November on charges of crimes against humanity, genocide, religious persecution, homicide, and torture in connection with the Khmer Rouge's 1975-79 reign of terror.
Led by supreme leader Pol Pot, who died in 1998, the western- and Chinese-backed Khmer Rouge was responsible for some of the 20th century's worst atrocities, killing up to two million people through starvation, overwork, and execution.
Amidst doubts that these surviving leaders would remain alive until a verdict is delivered, not only their victims but also analysts agree that the trial must be carried on.
"Yes, I absolutely think they should stand trial, given the extraordinary nature of the charges against them," Kenton Clymer, a historian at the US-based Northern Illinois University who specializes in US-Cambodia relations, told Vietweek.
"The question is really whether others ought to be tried or not," he said.
Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen has maintained that further trials after those of the three surviving leaders could be divisive and even lead to civil war.
Pol Pot led the Khmer Rouge regime to pursue an extreme policy designed to establish a rural utopia that forced people to leave cities, abolished money and outlawed religion. Its wanton executions, overworking of the population and forced starvation are estimated to have wiped out some two million people between 1975 and 1979 before Vietnam, whose border provinces suffered bloody attacks from the Khmer Rouge, drove them out of power.
"That Vietnam drove out the Khmer Rouge just as their atrocities were peaking is not seriously in doubt," Noam Chomsky, the American linguist and public intellectual, said.
"Nor is there any doubt that there were Khmer Rouge attacks in Vietnam, or that the Khmer Rouge were supported by China. It appears that the US was "˜tilting towards China' at the time, and some Cambodia scholars argue that some support for the Khmer Rouge followed from that.
"Vietnam"¦ was responding to ample provocation."
Ha Thi Nga (L), 72, one of only three survivors of the Khmer Rouge massacre that left 3,157 people dead in Ba Chuc Village in Vietnam's Mekong Delta in 1978, talks to a client at her small soft-drinks shop. Nga did not want to talk to Vietweek about the ongoing trial of the Khmer Rouge's surviving leaders, fearing it would just bring back terrifying memories.
The Ba Chuc massacre was a watershed event that prompted Vietnam to send troops to Cambodia, ending in 1979 the four-year reign of terror by ousting the genocidal Khmer Rouge regime.
When a large force of armed Khmer Rouge entered Ba Chuc on April 18, 1978, they used their practiced formula for execution.
"They scoured the caves where the locals hid," 72-year-old Ha Thi Nga, another survivor of the massacre, told Vietweek.
"They pointed their weapons and forced us to go meet their bosses."
Nga and her husband, six children, parents, 28 siblings, and around a hundred of their relatives were herded out of the cave they had been hiding in.
"They shot dead my parents, husband, and siblings. Then they began to club my children, five of whom died shortly.
"They struck the head of my three-year-old daughter three times. But she did not die. They threw her hard upon the ground. But again she did not die. They then gripped her legs and struck her head on the wall. She started crying "˜Mom, mom!'
"They shot her and she died."
The Khmer Rouge shot Nga through her neck and left her for dead. She passed out and regained consciousness later only to find everyone else was dead and she was covered in blood.
Nga ran away and was rescued 12 days later by Vietnamese soldiers. She has been living alone since, eking out a living by selling soft drinks to visitors to Ba Chuc.
She is a soft-spoken woman. She does not deny that she still struggles with the trauma inflicted by the massacre of three decades ago. She often suffers headaches, presumably a result of the bullet.
"Memories of the last moments of my loved ones often come back to haunt me."
She can never forget the voice of another child hiding in the same cave, begging, "Dad, don't kill me. I won't cry out any more."
The father was smothering his son, fearing his cries would reveal their shelter to the marauding Khmer Rouge.
"The father finally could not bring himself to kill his son. His neighbor did it for him before the Khmer Rouge could spot the hiding place."
When asked about the ongoing trials of the Khmer Rouge leaders, she just shakes her head. It is hard to guess what is going on in her mind.
All she would say was: "I'm too terrified and such a trip [to the past] would just bring back dark memories.
"Though the atmosphere here is still heavy with death, I just want to forget everything."