Phnom Penh residents sheltering from a Khmer Rouge rocket attack. Françoise Demulder © The Image Works
Sovannora Leng should be dead. Just before his 14th birthday in 1975, the Khmer Rouge took over his hometown Phnom Penh. Civilians were evacuated from cities and put to work in the countryside, as part of an “agrarian socialist” revolution targeting the educated and wealthy. After surviving a severe illness, teenage Sovannora was enlisted to “report” on his neighbours, friends and family – something that could lead to their death. "The only way I can explain it is that people had no choice,” said Sovannora to VICE.
In the next few years, Sovannora escaped reporting duty and went onto survive a stint in a prison camp, an execution attempt and an unfathomable journey over a minefield near the Thai border. His family eventually wound up as refugees in Australia in 1980. Not everybody was that lucky. An estimated 1.7 million – 21 percent of the population – died as a result of the Khmer Rouge’s four year reign in Cambodia, either through starvation, forced labour or execution in Cambodia’s now infamous “Killing Fields”.
Further explaining this period – now known as the Cambodian genocide – can be difficult, especially because Pol Pot’s regime essentially killed its own people and race. In the words of Sovannora, it was “a revenge against one and another”. In Cambodia’s darkest moments, mothers even ate their children’s dead bodies. Now, 40 years later, survivors are still waiting for answers despite the recent final sentencing of two Khmer Rouge officials. VICE interviewed Sovannora about surviving “Year Zero” and what the world has learned from genocide.
VICE: What your life like as a young boy before the war?
Sovannora Ieng: I always dream about going back to life before the war. It was peaceful. You went to school and played. Maybe I was just young, but I didn’t think about politics. I was a student from a working class family, and I always wanted to try something new. Once I got bigger, I got a part-time job and generated income to help my family. My mum passed away when I was six. I had a stepmother, but the love and the bond was slightly apart. It learned to stand up for myself and fight for my life.
Sovannora standing second from left (big grin). That's his father in the back.
What do you remember from the very early days of the war – when you and your family were still at home in the city?
The war started in the countryside, but not on the outskirts of Phnom Penh until the end of 1974. Then there was a lot of bombing. It worries you and we started to build a bomb shelter, but we didn’t know what war meant. We’d only heard of the WWI and WWII, and now we were wondering if that was happening to us? But I was still young, so I didn’t think that much. I was still thinking about playing and life as a child.
Then Khmer Rouge officers told everybody to evacuate the city. In your book, Surviving Year Zero, it feels like either people didn’t understand what was happening or they just didn’t want to think about the worst scenario. What did you think was happening?
Well, there was the propaganda. A Khmer Rouge statement loudly spoke out from the street speakers that Americans are going to bomb, and everybody was so anxious looking at the sky and seeing if there are any planes, and then we started to move. I don’t know if this is for everybody else, but after we left Phnom Penh, I was still always thinking about going home. It happened from when we left to when I was almost about to die, and I then realised there was no return.
One of the strongest memories in your book is when you arrived at a rural work camp and you accidentally stumbled into a Killing Field while you were sick. You described walking over things that you thought were fruit but were maybe bones or bodies in retrospect. It felt like your father knew what that field was for, but you didn’t quite understand yet?
That’s correct. At that time, I don’t think much. I only tried to focus my energy on fighting for my life. Nothing else. There was nobody else in my head, except for my mother, who I asked for strength. I feel very emotional now talking about this. But she tapped me and she said ‘you are not ready’. I just kept walking and never saw anything else, and thought about how to stay alive.
In your book, you talk about how some of the Khmer Rouge officers were sometimes nice or calm. Some of them were married couples. How do you explain how people can be nice, and then turn around and kill each other?
For all human beings, I think you would first say “I want to stay alive”. Do you want to live or you want to die? There’s no other solution. Some children even reported on their own parents. They were indoctrinated and they’d say “yes, my father was a professor and we had a house”. When they heard that, the Khmer Rouge would arrest their parents. Then they’re executed and it’s too late. The children sometimes did not realise that what they’re saying, as they’re miles away from village in the rice field. Then they’d come back and they can’t find their parents.
Sovannora's family at their home in 1975
You wrote a lot about having no food and physical survival in the camps. But how did you psychologically survive?
Oh, what can I say? I wished I was a God. But I realised it was all happening and it did take place. I don’t know why, but the feeling of my mother kept on coming, and she gave me the strength to guide me. It gave me some confidence, but I was also in a dream. Until one day, when I just got up and grabbed my stuff and walked out of the teenage camp. Then they arrested me, put me in a dark prison and locked me up for weeks before they sent me back to my village. I never thought I would be released.
So why did you decide to get up one day and try to leave?
I give you a story. It’s like I was a fish in a river, and the water starts to drain out. It’s getting hot and you know there’s a dolphin right in the middle that will snap you, but you know behind the dolphin is a big pond and the water is flowing. You know if you stay, you will die definitely. So you make up your mind to take a chance and move.
After you fell asleep while guarding the camp, the Khmer Rouge took you to be executed. What were you thinking?
They tied up both my hands very tight. In my mind, I only knew that I had been disobeyed the Angkar’s rule by falling asleep, and I knew nothing else. At that time in my spine, I can already feel the nerves. I couldn’t even walk properly. They took me to a place in the early evening, and we knew this place as Killing Field forests. I keep asking them “what’s going on?” and they said nothing. Until we get to the end and they ask me to confess to something I didn’t even know about, like stealing rice crackers. Then they told me to kneel down and they kept saying “you have contact with enemy”. I had no idea what enemy. In a way, I think they were trying to get me to confess about my father doing something. And then that was it. They started the execution.
What happened after they hit the back of your head with the stick?
I never cried so loudly as that time. I fell down into a grave filled with many dead bodies and said “okay, mum, I am coming to you”, and I did not even want to live. When I fell down into the grave, I thought that was it, but the guy somehow did not hit me 100 per cent. I still have a question mark about that. I’m asking myself why? It was a one in a million chance that I stayed alive. Then they pulled me back with my hands still tied. The executioner guy said “should we finish him off?” and the other man – who was a good guy – said no. And that was it. They gave me a second chance and put me to work in the rice field.
You eventually escaped the camps to get to a refugee camp in Thailand. To get to the border, you had to go through a minefield. What were you thinking as you ran?
When I ran through the minefield, I had a little boy with me. The only way to make sure I ran is to make sure I didn’t lose him. We just kept running. I saw bombs blowing up everywhere, and I thought to myself “if you blow me, make sure I die. Don’t just take my arm or my leg. You take my head and then I die. Hit me and I die is all that I ask”.
How did you feel when you got to the end of the minefield?
I felt alive, exhausted and happy! But after I checked the boy, and he’s okay, I looked at myself and I have a cut from bombshell through my leg. I did not know what to do with it – only split my saliva over it and put on some dirt to stop the bleeding. And then people just saying, “we must keep going, they are coming” – meaning the Khmer Rouge. We had to keep walking, until I reached people calling far away to get onto a truck.
Leaving Victoria's Wiltona Centre in 1981
What was it like to go from genocide to a Thai refugee camp to finally a new life in Melbourne, Australia?
When we got on the plane, we could not describe how wonderful we felt, but we were also worried about the big aeroplane. It was like “wooooo” and “wow!” We were so tried and exhausted after the flight. And then we got to Wiltona. I thought “we are in heaven now”. It was a heaven country that was so cold – even in November! We were so exhausted and we slept on a bed. We had never had a bed! And we slept on the bed on top of the blanket because we didn’t realise how to sleep. And then the toilets! In our country, we had flat toilets on the ground. And it was like my god? We have to stand on the top? It was shiny and slippery. And my brother didn’t not realise that it was a toilet and was washing his face with the water! So we sat down and we had breakfast, and we just laughed.
I once met another man who survived the Cambodian genocide. He said 30 years later, he still has nightmares every night. Do you think about the genocide a lot or have you found a way to move on?
No. No more. It’s all gone. It’s finished, once I returned to Cambodia and I touched the soil in 1992. When I landed, I kissed the ground, and then spent a night in a very expensive hotel! And that night I was peacefully in sleep. No dreams. I only dreamed back in Australia about life in Cambodia. You question if I had bad dreams? It’s very rare. And when I dream I always go back to life before the war. I don’t know why.
You never met Khieu Samphan or Nuon Chea. How did you feel when they were found guilty of war crimes last week?
I’m not surprised at the verdict. I knew they were going to be found that the first day they were arrested. For me, it was only a matter of whether they be executed or be given life in jail. I think to some extent, we’re happy they’ve been sentenced, but that is not what the people want. I asked other people in Cambodia about the verdict and they were also not surprised. But is it fair and is it justice? Is it true that just a few people – Khieu Samphan and Nuon Chea – made the whole of Cambodia into a genocide?
So what would be justice for Cambodia?
For me, so many of the perpetrators are now dead or old as it’s 30 years later. And do we really want to find them and put them in jail? No, we want to know why. Why has this happened? Why did those people not originally tell the truth? They all say they take orders. But who gave you orders like that and for what purpose?
Do you think you will ever know the answer to the question of “why” or have you given up hope?
I think it’s a hidden agenda. I think they know answer, but they don’t want to show. I am also disappointed with the United Nations. They should have started with a clear agenda and plan of activity. If we don’t know, then what have we learned from this? Unless the people – I mean Cambodians and the whole world – understand why genocide happens, there’s nothing significant for the world to learn from it.
What do you think the world has learned from Cambodian genocide?
Unless the people know the truth about the genocides – they have to understand what is the meaning of genocide and why does it exist – there is no significance for the world. To me, I think the world only learns the diplomatic outcomes. The world has not seriously paid attention to this issue.
Prime Minister Hun Sen is a former Khmer Rouge leader and so are many others in power today in Cambodia. After the Rwandan genocide, people had to learn to live next door to the killers of their loved ones. Is that what it’s like in Cambodia today?
Yes, but that is because they did not get the truth. Benefits and power seem to cover those issues. It seems to me like the truth is always hidden. There’s always something to hide. I think maybe it’s to do with power and greed.
More stories from Cambodia: