How I Choose to Give Myself
Genocide survivors as subjects, not objects
BY VINITA RAMANI MOHAN
Image: Untitled from Cambodia, Dinh Q. Le
We’re in Kep, a province tucked in the southwest corner of Cambodia. The Bokor Mountains sit in the distance just across the sea, with a peak always a little shy of our scrutinizing gaze. It’s lunch-time and the afternoon sun is scorching.
My husband Mahdev, our friend Sari and I are experiencing varying degrees of exhaustion and disorientation after a three-hour car ride to Kep that began in Phnom Penh at four o’clock in the morning. At 7am, we had to be at a local community centre for a public forum organized by a Cambodian NGO on justice, reconciliation and the Khmer Rouge Tribunal that has just begun its proceedings.
After hurtling down potholed roads, the prospect of walking into a crowded room filled with emotional Cambodian survivors of the genocide seemed like too much to take in. But I am here as a researcher looking at social memory in the context of the genocide, while Mahdev and Sari are both legal outreach coordinators interested in international criminal tribunals. We practically felt obliged to go, so we mutely packed our notebooks and headed out.
Sari has come here fresh from travels in Papua and Moluku where she has been working on women’s access to justice programs. On our early-morning ride out, she told us that as an Indonesian woman with access to education and economic privileges, going to these remote parts of such a disparate nation was eye-opening, enervating, always challenging. But something about Cambodia has taken some of the wind out of her usual gregariousness. In Cambodia, the energy is different; too much unsettled, unresolved past trauma.
After the forum session, we realize we need to shut our brains down. We have spent the morning considering genocide from the perspective of former low-level perpetrators, though we are increasingly unsure of what “low-level” means when considered within the context of general human brutality. Sari is desperate, like us, for a drink and silence.
That is when we run into Roath.
He lives here. He is about 24, or 25 years old. It doesn’t matter. He is in his twenties and he has had enough of all the seriousness associated with Cambodia. Unlike the Khmers who religiously cover themselves with scarves, sweatshirts and knitted tops to avoid the penetrating sunshine, Roath is a deep olive brown. But it is not the sunburn of a farmer or a construction worker who toils through the nearly year-long summer.
He has the bronzed glow of a man who lies under it, who revels in it, soaks it in and when he is all but exhausted from the pounding headache of a mild heatstroke, will return to it replenished from a cold drink, desirous for more. His hair is wavy and slightly unkempt. Just so. Just enough so that it is evident he meant for it to look that way. Here and there, there are blond highlights and streaks. But mostly, it is brown-black, greasy and trails back from his temple to strands hovering at the nape of his neck. The kind of hair a man runs his fingers through, front to back. He is slick and yet laid back.
He is a bohemian. He is a sun-loving, sun-kissed, traveling, guitar-playing, sociable guy who hangs out. This is not an observation. Roath practically states it to us as an identity declaration, just short of saying, “Let’s get this straight, I don’t do serious. I’m just here to have a good time, all right?” I can hear the drawl, just beneath the Khmer-accented English.
This is what Roath’s Brazilian football team T-shirt with the sleeves cut off screams out.
This is what his beat-up but cool motorbike says as he straddles it on a lazy afternoon.
Wind. Freedom. Riding on empty roads.
BUT WE ARE JUMPING THE GUN.
When we meet Roath, it is at the jetty, where we are waiting for the boat that will take us to Rabbit Island’s small beaches. It’s a brief encounter filled with smiles, waves and candid photos. Roath gave my husband a ride on his motorbike to the jetty. As they rode along the sea’s lapping edge, the two men got to talking.
Mahdev quizzed Roath on life in general and his routine in particular. What do you do? Where do you hang out? So, what’s life in Kep like?
As Mahdev recounts to us later at Rabbit Island, Roath has set up a small outfit with friends – Sunny Tours. They take tourists on hikes to the Bokor mountains. They do day-long trips to nearby beaches and old French ruins, the last vestiges of colonialism waiting empty, abandoned and sucked of all life, for passersby to admire their ghostly elegance.
Turning to me, Mahdev says that Roath communicated all this in near-perfect English because he was a translator for international NGOs for several years before he decided riding a motorbike is where it’s at.
This makes an immediate impression. Eager to bridge the language gap and frustrated by the slow pace at which I am learning Khmer, I feel we are lucky to have met Roath: a translator, a voice of the now-generation with a grasp of his history, without the attendant burden and trauma. I don’t know all this for a fact. I leap to some hopeful conclusions.
I communicate my sense of urgency without hesitation.
“Did you get his number? We can call him. We should talk to him eh?”
I barely mask the anxiety that sits like an obscured but powerful layer just beneath the eagerness. Mahdev nods patiently, furrowing his brows a little as if to say “take it easy, I know I know.”
The reassurance notwithstanding, I feel consumed by my research work, which is everything. Roath is a part of that process; an interesting, perhaps even critical detail in this regard. But every attempt to ease into the moment is thwarted by the larger imperative – the work, its substantive value in the eyes of the academe.
But we are on Rabbit Island and I am content in the knowledge that tomorrow, I will get to know this intriguing young man.
TOMORROW COMES and at breakfast the urgency has returned: let’s find Roath.
We convey the message to the beach house receptionist, who gives him a call. It is a small town where we are, they all know each other.
When Roath arrives, he is all smiles. He is waiting to take us on a tour around the island. He is waiting for us to say “Take us to a bar. Take us to another beach, to the mountains. We want adventure.”
Adventure, Roath can do.
But we are about to burden him with a bit of responsibility.
We are about to take him back to his days as a translator.
“We want to interview some villagers here in Kep about their experiences under the Khmer Rouge. You can help us translate, yes? We’d really appreciate it. This is for research.”
We say something to this effect.
Roath’s smile is still there, but his easy manner and the relaxed, lazy way in which he straddles his motorbike has suddenly lost its charm. Suddenly, he fidgets. He looks elsewhere and breaks into an awkward laugh. His hands reach for the handles of the bike, but he doesn’t look like he is going anywhere, anytime soon.
I don’t understand this and assume he is wary of such a tough task. I don’t blame him for this. “Translation is bloody hard work,” I think to myself. “In fact, why can’t I be effectively bilingual in any two languages? Because they need people like that.”
These random thoughts flit through my head, in part just a manifestation of the usual radio fuzz I generate and listen to inside myself and in part, a way of rationalizing and understanding Roath’s reaction.
Suddenly, the reluctance turns into a direct “no thanks”. He is still smiling, but not at us. He is still laughing, but at the Bokor Mountains just beyond the roofs of the villas.
He mumbles something and tells us his friend will take us down the dipping gravel path that leads to one of the main roads of Kep.
Everybody is a little taken aback by this. I am irritated. My husband and Sari quietly speculate that it must be about money. Translation is lucrative work. We have asked for the service in an ad hoc, casual manner. We did not broker a deal. We did not discuss time, rates, and other details.
Money. Why of course.
I don’t care if it’s about money. We’ve got the means and why can’t he honestly tell us it’s about money? We do not exploit the locals. Who does he think we are? Do we look like arrogant barangs who just want to use local services and move along to publish a cutting-edge paper in a human rights journal or at a conference?
We are Asians like him. We know what it’s like. What the hell.
My internal radio fuzz blasts on. But this is not about him or the situation. It’s about dealing with a conflicting, love-hate relationship with scholarship. I even envy Mahdev and Sari because I perceive that their difficulties with legal outreach are logistical, cultural, and even ideological, but they do not have to grapple with over-intellectualizing their interactions and experiences. I worry I will do it to the point of losing track of what is important. I want to hear Roath, but unlike Mahdev and Sari, I am not genuinely trying.
But here we are on a narrow strip of road in Kep and we have no choice, so we wait. A phone call is made and soon, a young tousle-haired, bespectacled Khmer man arrives in a tuk-tuk to take us to meet some villagers.
As we ride down the bumpy little road I am getting looks from both Sari and my husband. Sari sends out a compassionate smile and in her eyes, I see something of the calm that comes with experiencing similar scenarios. “It’s OK,” her eyes tell me, “these things have a way of working out.” It is all new to me. Mahdev reaches out and touches my leg gently, but I cannot be soothed. Instead, tears well up in my eyes; all this because Roath won’t help us out with some translation? I can’t make sense of it.
Somehow, Mahdev feels that if they talk about it privately, man to man, they may be able to resolve whatever the issue is. I cannot read this behavioral nuance, but I trust it more than my instincts.
WE STOP AT THE SIDE OF THE ROAD, and Roath, who has been following us close by on his motorbike, also grinds to a halt. We are near a village where we can interview some people. But before that, we have to ascertain if Roath is just coming along for a ride or if he will in fact help us.
At first, he tells us his friend can do it. I immediately ask the friend. I tell him we want to ask questions about the Khmer Rouge, about surviving the regime and memories and justice and the tribunal. I feel as though I am gently pummeling him with complex ideas just to see if he really can do it and to prove Roath wrong. He furrows his brow and quietly says he can speak English, “but only a few sentences.”
Roath is caught out. Something’s got to be done.
Mahdev and Roath are off to one side, speaking in low tones. They come back and the energy seems calmer, more trusting somehow.
Roath explains, in summary, what he feels.
NGO workers have come to Kep often. They continue to do so. He has been translating for the health workers for 4 years. That’s true. He got really good at it. He had experience. He was their point man when it came to translations in Kep. Eventually, he applied for a job in one of these NGOs. He didn’t get a position.
So you know…
Riding a motorbike is much better.
When I ride my motorbike, I am free.
My time is my own. I’d rather play the guitar. I want to talk about simple things.
Laugh. Smile at the mountains again.
Suddenly, I get it. I get it so well I feel flummoxed that I did not get it off the bat. Mahdev and I exchange looks and his says: “Now do you see why I said don’t over-react? There was a good reason…”
But he has agreed to help us. Something in their quiet whispering just now has made him feel he can trust us. Mahdev has a way of showing genuine respect for people and in this, he has a calming influence. I’ve seen it numerous times and I marvel at it, though right now, I wish I had been able to do the same.
But these reflections will have to wait. After all, we just managed to persuade a guy who would rather have taken us to a beach to swim and drink, to help us translate memories of trauma and genocide.
WE INCH OUR WAY THROUGH THE DIRT PATH to the first house on the right. The path continues to wind and like so many little roads in provinces across the country, it leads to a community hidden from the gaze of passing vehicles on the road out of the main town.
But unlike most of the houses I have seen in the villages elsewhere, this one does not stand on stilts, hovering over the ground, shading cattle, chickens and stray dogs under its foundation.
Another familiar sight at village homes is the bamboo settee; this home has one as well.
We meet the family, a wizened 65-year old man and his 55-year old wife. The man is wearing a weathered, brown-stained hat with a slim brim that looks like it is made for a day of fishing. Kep is a seaside town. When we arrive, he is carrying fishing hooks and tackle in his hands and has a small, crumpled plastic bag slung on his arm. I wonder if he’s just returned from scouring around for bait or if he is heading out to do this.
His wife, whose long, thin greying hair is let down when we arrive, gets up and disappears into the house. When she re-emerges a few minutes later, she has tidied herself up and her hair is tied into a bun at the nape of her neck. As is customary, the second strangers arrive plastic chairs are pulled out and carefully placed in a semi-circle so that we can sit to chat. It’s a small gesture, but one I find somehow grand because it shows trust. We could be anyone and they don’t yet know our intentions.
Again, as is the pattern in other villages, the family network emerges one by one through the duration of a visit. First, a granddaughter arrives; here a grandson sits. There, a son passes by, glances at us and continues on his way into the house. Suddenly, a baby passes hands, from one warm body to another. It’s as if the family slowly expands, rippling outwards the way water in a pond does when you throw a pebble in.
Roath and his tuk-tuk driver friend are with us and so it begins.
I sit with the old man and his wife on the settee and the others occupy the plastic chairs.
I ask the questions, Roath translates and all the while, I see the reluctance on his face. I try not to dwell on this as I listen and take notes.
Chiem Chhon is 65 years old and was from Kampong Trai district but was moved to Kampot province in 1979. His wife, Pol Aim, is 55 years old and followed much the same trajectory though the years are a little more muddled. 1975? Possibly. As with so many other instances, things get lost in translation and I do not press for clarifications. Not now.
“We were all brought together and we would eat rice together. But the men were all killed. We carried earth and disposed of people’s faeces and we took mud from termite hills to use as fertilizer. We ploughed the fields.”
“If they wanted to kill people, they would tell you they are taking you to a new village. Families were separated. Brothers, sisters, mothers and fathers were all torn apart.”
Even in his heyday as a stronger, healthier man, grandfather Chiem can’t have been too imposing or intimidating. Instead, there is something delicate and quiet about him.
He was, however, taken to a place in Kampong Speu province just north-east of Kampot province, because he was accused of being a CIA member, or a Vietnamese collaborator. He spent three and a half months in jail and then he was released.
Again, details come out in one thread and the same detail shifts a little when another thread un-spools from the first.
“I was sent to Phnom Voar, to the Khmer Rouge camp. I was sent there to work in the mobile unit.”
I cannot bring myself to ask about chronology and I cannot quite ask for precision of details in his recollections. So I just ask if they had already met and married at that time.
Not married yet.
This is where grandmother Aim’s thread weaves in.
She was married once before. One night, they came and they took him.
She is talking and she is enacting a few details. Her arms swing behind her and she mimics to show that he had his hands tied behind him. Hunching forwards slightly, she maintains this posture as she talks, her hands behind her, as if tied too.
She speaks with purpose, but tries her level best to keep the emotions under.
“He was taken and he looked at me and told us to take care of ourselves.”
She does not say it, but it seems as though her first husband knew he was heading out the door to his death.
Her husband, the one sitting now with her, looks down at the hooks and tackle in his hands and up at her. There is, in his eyes, a little bit of grief, a little bit of incomprehension. Knowledge that this past, which he was not a part of, is a past he nonetheless feels intensely for. Is there empathy? Is he feeling his wife’s pain because she, like so many others, lost someone she loved for no good reason? Or does he wonder, confused and unsure, whether this was karma, or destiny, because how else could they have met and married?
“I was three months’ pregnant and my sister took care of me. She did everything for me and protected me…and they took her to be killed as well.”
At this point, the effort to maintain composure is too taxing. She gives up. Her eyes look out to some point in the distant horizon, but she is fully present. There is a knotted silence for a moment, the way it feels when something is half-swallowed and there is no water to wash it down. Words are stuck.
“It’s too painful to talk about.”
The past has suddenly, very apparently, collided with the present.
I turn to look at the husband. He looks up, around, at his hands. Suddenly, he seems very small and very frail. I think of my grandfather. Somehow, every grandfather reminds me of mine. I want to break into Tamil and say, “Never mind grandpa… don’t worry. Don’t feel sad.” I want to say something, but I cannot say anything. My pen, poised over a page, is useless, documenting nothing.
When I turn back, she has disappeared. I look at my friend’s face and see her eyes are also hazy. I realise grandmother Aim went into the house. She can’t talk anymore.
Grandfather Chiem tries his level best to speak coherently. He keeps the grief — the kind that breaks you from the inside — at bay. But the sadness washes all over his every word. I do not need to understand a single word to hear it.
“I was a Lon Nol soldier at one time. At that time, there was a war and you had to fight. But at least there were still laws. There were rules. Even during Lon Nol’s time, there were laws. But during Pol Pot’s time, it was lawless. There was no jail because the whole country had become a jail. In Lon Nol’s time, they arrested lawyers and they jailed them. But in Pol Pot’s time, they just killed people. It was very different….”
“…It was a prison without walls.”
“So yes, we want the Tribunal. We want law.”
By now, grandmother Aim has returned, her face a little brighter, the after-math of tears barely evident.
HER GRANDSON HAS JUST BEEN HANDED OVER to her. He wears a white pyjama top with little blue flowers and no shorts or pants. He is probably about a year old and has beautiful, big, dark eyes. He stares. His gaze is inquisitive, even probing in moments. His little naked bum keeps brushing against my knee, because I’m sitting cross-legged on the settee beside his grandmother, who plays with him.
We share looks, the baby and I, and I make faces. He studies my face seriously while I look stupid. It’s a nice touch.
This lightens the mood and grandmother Aim is laughing, bobbing her grandson and allowing him to trample over her with his baby feet, or to grip onto her clothes with his tiny fists.
Thank god, I think, for continuity. For life.
Roath has finished translating and he implores with his eyes.
Let’s stop? This is all there is. Let’s stop?
It’s not desperation.
It’s an appeal to my humanity. I know I am not doing something wrong. But still, I understand what he’s trying to convey.
So we stop there.
Let’s stop with this last image. Baby gurgling in grandmother’s arms.
We scramble to offer a token, something to apologise, to show gratitude. This becomes embarrassing and difficult all at once.
My parents always told me: never go to anyone’s house empty-handed. At least buy some fruits. Fruits are sweet, and anything sweet represents good fortune and good wishes. Take something sweet.
Don’t go empty-handed.
We just did.
We are left with no option but to offer a small sum of money and to respectfully ask grandfather Chiem to buy some sweets for the children. He understands and nods, taking the gift discreetly and humbly.
EVERYONE IS QUIET on the ride back.
Roath and Mahdev agree that we’ll all meet at the resort café to have a drink and relax. Again, they’ve established a rapport I know works and I do not interfere.
Back at the resort, Roath is more forthcoming. Here, we’re just hanging out. Here, there are no tape-recorders, no books, no pens, and no questions. Here, it’s just a few beers, ice-cold juice and cigarettes. This is okay.
“My father used to be a Lon Nol soldier too. Before that, he used to climb coconut trees. He used to plough as well. He was such a strong man…”
Roath is smiling as he recollects —
“He had these huge muscles…”
He gestures with one hand to show big biceps and triceps on his other arm. His own are skinny in comparison. It’s an admiring narrative and a good one.
“He could walk for miles and miles and he would never get tired. So during the regime, they got him to do a lot of physical labour. After that, he became a traditional healer…kru-braam. Until five years ago, he was working tirelessly to heal villagers. Then he died. He could cure serious diseases…cancer…”
A natural death from old age. What a novel and wondrous thing.
He tells us about his girlfriend. The most beautiful girl in all of Kep. Long, flowing black hair and ivory skin. Apparently, she is from a very well-to-do family with a restaurant business. But she plays hard to get.
We try to give him relationship advice but he doesn’t really seem to want to make it go anywhere. The limbo state seems to suit him fine for now. Exasperating as she is, it makes her a little more desirable.
Suddenly, his ambiguous smile returns and he reminds us that Sunny Tours will provide everything you desire.
We are back full circle. Roath plays guitar, Roath rides motorbikes and Roath makes sure you never forget Kep.
I don’t want to do translations, he whispers, as a group of Canadian researchers amble over to the restaurant to get a table.
He tries to appear involved, or deep in conversation with us, so that there is no way the Canadians can ask him to come along for another research trip.
They come, they take, they do their thing, and they leave. I don’t want to do that anymore.
But somewhere within this, he has decided what he will do. What he can give.
There was a girl. A highly-qualified pilot of some sort. She was here for a short time. Asian-American. Asian-Canadian.
The details, again, do not seem to matter.
They had a thing. It was good. Then she left.
Sunny Tours will provide everything.
When he says it again, connecting the dots for us, taking us on one tangent and then back to the primary narrative, we are flummoxed.
He even looks for a second at Sari when he says the word everything, but his face is lit up with that now familiar smile, simultaneously joyous, teasing and suggestive. So we can’t quite tell. It’s time to get on with our day. We exchange numbers and handshakes before he scoots off to his motorbike and friends.
Sari breaks into a disbelieving laugh. She wonders out loud why his gaze was directed to her when he said “everything”. She and I chat about single women travelling alone — the pick-up lines, the faux marriage proposals, and the glances. Somehow, for the two of us, there is more to it.
Mahdev thinks we’re making a big deal out of nothing and reading into situations unnecessarily.
A day later, we are packing our bags to leave Kep when Sari knocks on our door to show us a text message that she has just received on her phone.
“Sari will you come back to Kep again? I do wanna see you. Sari, do you like Cambodian? I like you very much. We could have time to hang out together. Take care na, Sari.”
Back to her gregarious self, Sari simply laughs again, lets out a sigh and half-jokingly asks: “Why me?!”
We brush it aside and head to the car. But later on the quiet ride back to Phnom Penh, something else dawns on me: transactions are not the issue.
What matters is who decides on the transaction and what is transacted.
What matters is that Roath gets to choose.
VINITA RAMANI MOHAN is the Deputy Director of Access to Justice Asia, an independent non-profit established in Singapore and dedicated to social justice, legal capacity building and storytelling/ social memory in Southeast Asia. AJA is currently working towards representing minority Khmer Krom and Vietnamese victims of the Khmer Rouge at the Khmer Rouge Tribunal in Cambodia, as well as cataloguing the stories of these minority communities. (See KJ 76, “A Tale of Two Pagodas.”)