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‘I Thought I Had Died’: Women Share Stories of Life Under Khmer Rouge

A collection of testimonials by Cambodian women who survived the brutal Khmer Rouge regime reveals the long-term effects of enslavement, terror and sexual abuse, and gives the women a chance to break their silence about a tragic period of the country’s history.

Written by Ruth Carr Published on Read time Approx. 4 minutes
Over two years, De Langis, left, and her team collected testimonials from women who survived the Khmer Rouge, in order to fill what they saw as a gap in understanding about the regime's use of sexual violence. Francesca Bini

PHNOM PENH, Cambodia – “I don’t want to hide anymore. I want to share my story so the young generation will know what happened, that it’s really true.”

Sok Samith, 56, was just 15 years old in 1975 when the Khmer Rouge unleashed its wave of terror across Cambodia. During the four years that the brutal regime ruled the country, Sok Samith was forced from her home in Phnom Penh to carry out manual labor in the countryside.

When Sok Samith talks about sharing her story, she’s referring to a video that is part of a new project that collects the stories of Khmer Rouge survivors. In the recording, she describes what happened to her friend and neighbor Ouk, “who was raped until she was pregnant, then sent to the prison, tortured and beaten, her legs in chains.”

The tyranny of the Khmer Rouge regime, which killed up to 2 million people while in power, has been well documented – history books are filled with records of how the regime, under leader Pol Pot, terrorized Cambodia through slavery, torture and execution. The regime’s legacy has come under fresh scrutiny during the U.N.-backed Khmer Rouge tribunal, known as the Extraordinary Chambers in the Court of Cambodia (ECCC), which lasted over a decade and concluded for deliberations on June 23.

One of the issues the ECCC addressed was forced marriage, where men and women who often didn’t know each other were made to marry as the regime attempted to breed a new generation of adherents. But many activists said the trials were failing to address other forms of sexual violence perpetrated by the Khmer Rouge. Theresa de Langis noticed that gap while serving on the informal advisory committee and, later, as a co-facilitator for hearings held by the Cambodian Defenders Project, which was gathering testimonies from the regime’s survivors outside of the official tribunal.

“The overriding belief has been there was no sexual violence, that rape was not part of the Khmer Rouge atrocities,” says De Langis, who is now associate professor of Global Affairs and Humanities at the American University of Phnom Penh. “[But] the more I learned about forced marriage and the more I was talking to women, I realized that that’s not a full understanding of what was happening during that time period.”

At the end of the informal hearings, survivors were asked to come up with a set of recommendations, which is when they stressed the importance of not just sharing their stories, but also having those stories preserved. In response, De Langis launched the Cambodian Women’s Oral History Project (CWOHP) in 2012. “To be able to construct your story, your narrative, about your life, the way you want it to be constructed, that’s a very powerful exercise,” she says.

As part of the project, Sok Samith tells about being evacuated from her home in the city and forced to work in the country. But it’s her friend’s rape and torture at the hands of the Khmer Rouge that still haunts her. (Ruth Carr)

Self-funding the project and working with a team of local university students and graduates, De Langis set about recording through audio, video and text the life stories of 24 women in explicit and, at times, painful detail.

“After the time they killed my parents, I was raped,” recalls Nam Mon, 52, in one of the recordings. “They ordered my brother to kill my parents. After that, they killed my brother.”

In another recording, Kim Khem, 80, describes being rounded up with her infant son and taken to the infamous killing fields, where the Khmer Rouge performed mass executions. “I fell into the hole face down, my baby under my body,” she says. “Just then, a tree branch fell on top of me, and I lost consciousness. They thought for sure I was dead and walked away. I thought too that I had died. But I was still alive.”

Now Kim Khem’s story and those of the other women who took part in the project serve as tributes to courage in a place that was once filled with pain and fear: the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum.

Formerly a high school and later transformed by the Khmer Rouge into a site for interrogation and torture, the site is now a place where tourists wearing headsets move silently through blood-stained rooms and barbed wire corridors. The building has been recognized by UNESCO as a world memory site and is seen by many Khmer people as the most significant physical memorial to the atrocities.

Though the women of the Oral History Project were never taken to Tuol Sleng, De Langis felt it was the perfect place to act as the final “steward” for the project’s records.

“I realised how symbolic it is to have this collection of women’s voices telling the truth of their experience next to the records of forced confessions that are there at Tuol Sleng Museum, where prisoners had to make up lies about their own lives,” says De Langis. “It feels like a reclamation.”

Sok Samith says she is proud of her part in the project: “Before, I was scared but not anymore. I told the truth. I feel better. I feel very, very good.”

For De Langis, the honor is in giving these women the chance to finally break their silence.

“The thing that was meaningful to me was the meaning making,” she says. “When you are telling your story, you are also constructing the meaning of your life. Every person [involved] said it felt good to externalize. I don’t know if it’s therapeutic or healing, but it seemed to provide some relief. And there was something very human about having that opportunity.”

Correction: This story has been updated to clarify Theresa de Langis’ role in the informal Khmer Rouge hearings.

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