Ediing Office - Geneva
The terror-driven Khmer Rouge regime of Pol Pot was defeated in 1979 but it took Cambodia 40 years to bring some of the worst perpetrators to justice. Survivors believe it was worth the wait.
PHNOM PENH, Cambodia – Yon Bin’s presence in the shuffling line leading to the war crimes tribunal is nothing short of miraculous. He shouldn’t even be alive.In 1978, the Khmer Rouge came to his village and threw him into a truck. They told him he would be taken to a reeducation camp.“It was filled with people who were wearing no clothes. I was also told to take my clothes off. Then I knew I would be killed.”After a five-minute drive he and the others were pushed off the back.“I could smell blood,” said Yon Bin. “I expected a gun but I was hit with an axe. I fell into a hole, unconscious.”His story unfurled like a piece of crinkled crepe, halting and jagged and uneven.Yon Bin felt bodies beneath him, riddled with worms and putrid with stench. More bodies were thrown on top of him, their slippery blood helping him slip out of his ropes.“The Khmer Rouge kept coming back. They would pitch a hand grenade into the hole to make sure everyone was dead. But some people were still screaming.”Wounded and bleeding, Yon Bin tried all night to climb out by stacking bodies one on top of the other. In the morning, Khmer Rouge soldiers returned and threw yet another grenade into the pit. Again, Yon Bin survived.After more close calls, he finally emerged from hiding, an extraordinary story of luck and determination.He made a vow. “I promised myself that if I survived, I would try to find justice for all the dead.”
Yon Bin would get to keep his promise. He would testify in Case 002/02 of the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC), a hybrid UN-Cambodia court set up to try the senior leaders of the Khmer Rouge and those most responsible for grave violations of law between 1975 and 1979.During the 1970s, the Khmer Rouge advance was initially welcomed but that welcome turned to disillusionment and terror as their leader, Pol Pot, emptied the cities, torturing and killing anyone considered too educated for his utopian agrarian society.It is believed that by the time the Khmer Rouge were routed in 1979, nearly a quarter of Cambodia’s population had been murdered or had died through torture, starvation, exhaustion or disease. Like many survivors, Yon Bin’s mental recovery took time.He credits the Transcultural Psychosocial Organization (TPO), a community mental health programme partly funded by the UN Voluntary Fund for Victims of Torture, which is managed by UN Human Rights.“TPO is the only NGO currently providing mental disability assistance to different kinds of populations in Cambodia,” said Simon Walker, Representative, at UN Human Rights in Cambodia. “In Cambodia, there is still very little public health care for persons with mental disabilities.”In addition to helping victims recover from trauma, TPO prepares them to testify in court.“As psychologists we have been helping with testimony therapy and self-help groups and by bringing different generations together because today, some young people don’t even believe Pol Pot existed,” said Pich Panha, TPO’s clinical supervisor.Forty years may have passed, but Yon Bin’s wounds are as fresh as in his youth.“Without TPO I would not be alive today,” he said.At 66, Leang Kon appears cheerful, her jovial face serene. But then she parts the top of her dress and reveals a deep crater of flesh on her chest, remnants of the gunshot wound she sustained when she tried, unsuccessfully, to escape a forced Khmer Rouge marriage.After her husband’s death and her recovery from the bullet wound, she was called into the Khmer Rouge office, a day she relives with horror.“Everywhere I saw gallbladders hanging,” she said. “I was told my husband had been a spy and the officer made a gesture like cutting me open. I fainted.” They allowed her to leave, but she would be raped twice and almost killed several times.The second rape left her pregnant and even though her baby died a week later, the stigma of being a single mother would stick throughout her lifetime.She too would bear witness against the Khmer Rouge at the ECCC.“When I first came to TPO I didn’t believe psychological support could help, but now I am very much a believer.”