KANHCHHAET, Cambodia (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – Net Savoen still wakes up screaming, reliving the evening she and about 30 other women were dragged to a forest by Khmer Rouge cadres.
The women had been resting after a day of digging a pit in the sweltering heat. The soldiers tied their hands and raped them. When they were done, they began slitting the women’s throats. Savoen was the last to be taken.
“Three soldiers raped me and they hit the back of my head with an axe,” recalled Savoen, a slight figure with graying hair, sitting on the veranda of a neighbor’s wooden home in the village of Kanchhaet in Svay Rieng province. “I lost consciousness. I don’t know why they didn’t kill me.”
For more than three decades, she never spoke of that evening in Cambodia’s western Pursat province. The shame was too great, said Sovoen, one of two daughters in a farming family of nine from Svay Rieng who was forced into manual work when the Khmer Rouge came to power.
As the sole survivor, she feared nobody would believe her.
The horrors of the Khmer Rouge’s “Killing Fields” rule between 1975 and 1979 are well documented – how Cambodia was turned into a virtual slave labor camp in which as many as 2.2 million died of disease, starvation, torture and execution.
But the narrative of the genocide has long kept a dark secret: that rape and sexual torture were also a daily reality for many women, and men, during the late Khmer Rouge leader Pol Pot’s “Year Zero” revolution.
Supported by testimony of rape survivors at recent public hearings, the revelation debunks the well-worn idea that for all its murderous brutality, sexual violence was not a feature of the Khmer Rouge reign of terror.
“There is this unfortunate myth that says the Khmer Rouge soldiers were very pure and had a very strict ethical code,” said Beini Ye, an adviser with the Civil Peace Service at GIZ, the German development agency.
Rights activists blame the myth on the regime’s loudly trumpeted proscriptions against abusing women – and its policy, known as Code No. 6, that sexual relations outside of marriage could be punished by executing both partners.
Because the code’s condemnation of “immoral offences” included rape, they say it perversely allowed sexual violence to flourish. That’s because victims wouldn’t report perpetrators out of fear of being shot themselves. In a climate of terror and extreme violence, cadres could rape with impunity.
MARRIED AT GUNPOINT
The myth has persisted across the decades. A judge at Cambodia’s U.N.-backed war crimes tribunal said in 2011 that “this particular conflict is unusual (in that) is does not contain allegations of widespread violence against women because they are women.”
Not so, say activists at human rights organizations like the Cambodian Defenders Project, which arranges annual public hearings in Phnom Penh to let rape survivors tell their stories. It also runs a website detailing acts of sexual violence committed by the Khmer Rouge.
“From our experience and research, we have learnt that if you don’t ask the question, it will never come up,” said GIZ’s Ye. “People will tell you about the killings, the prisons, the hunger and the forced labour. They will not tell you about the rape.
“We’ve come across people who said, ‘I’m so glad you’ve asked me because I’ve been waiting for people to ask me for the last 30 years. But no one ever did.’”
The true number of rape victims may never be known. Many of the perpetrators and victims have died and the issue remains a social taboo.
In addition to unofficial acts of sexual violence, rape was a reality for hundreds of thousands of women subjected to forced marriage during the Khmer Rouge years, according to lawyers, academics and rights groups.
Such marriages were part of a drive to increase the population to ensure a bigger workforce as the ultra-Maoist regime tried to re-engineer Cambodia into an agrarian utopia.
A landmark 2008 study by Nakagawa Kasumi, a lecturer at Cambodia’s Pannasastra University, documented countless cases of Khmer Rouge cadres helping husbands to rape their new wives if they refused to have sex.
For many women and girls, the fear of being found out by Khmer Rouge spies and punished was enough to make them unwillingly consummate their marriages.
Um Nit, a farmer’s daughter, was one such girl. Sixteen at the time, she was finishing her morning’s work in the fields in Svay Rieng under the watchful eye of Khmer Rouge cadres, when the chief of her work unit turned up and told her she was to be married.
Nit was too scared to object. Refusal meant imprisonment, torture and probably death.
That evening, she was sent to a meeting room where men and women were sitting in separate rows. A man’s name was called, followed by Nit’s. They walked to the front.
“That’s when we saw each other for the first time,” Nit, now in her 50s, recalled.
As Nit and the stranger stood side by side a bell rang, marking the end of their marriage ceremony, one of 50 that took place that evening. There was no dress, jewellery, music, celebration, family or friends. Her parents knew nothing. Her husband picked up his belongings and followed her home.
“That night, a guard came to check and patrol the area to make sure the newlyweds consummated their marriage,” she recalled.
Nit’s marriage was brief. Ten days after the mass wedding, the Khmer Rouge moved her, her husband and her family to Pursat in western Cambodia. Her husband, convinced they would be executed, tried to persuade her to run away with him one night.
“I rejected him outright. I was worried something would happen to my parents if we ran away,” she said. He fled and she never saw him again.
“They killed my parents anyway and brought back their clothes to me afterwards,” she said, breaking down in tears.
SLOW WHEELS OF JUSTICE
The survivors brave enough to speak out about their experiences worry they may never get their day in court.
Hopes for justice rest with the Extraordinary Chambers of Cambodia, set up in 2006 to try the most senior members of the Khmer Rouge. But dogged from the outset by allegations of corruption, political interference and waste, it has convicted only one person, former prison chief Kaing Guek Eav, better known as “Duch”.
After a three-year trial he was jailed for life for the deaths of more than 14,000 people at Tuol Sleng (S-21) prison camp. He was also found guilty on one count of rape as torture.
Researchers say the hybrid U.N.-Cambodian tribunal is the first international court to allow victims to take part as civil parties and claim reparations. Close to 800 cases have been admitted on the basis of forced marriage, seeking conviction of the accused as well as a remembrance day for other victims and rehabilitation projects to address decades-old trauma, among other reparations.
Forced marriage is one of the indictments in the second case being heard at the tribunal, originally involving four defendants. However, one died in March and another has been deemed unfit to stand trial, leaving “Brother Number Two” Nuon Chea, 87, and former President Khieu Samphan, 81, the right-hand men of Pol Pot.
As concerns have grown over the health of the remaining defendants, their case has been broken up into smaller cases to try to secure a conviction, activists say.
The allegations relating to forced marriage are due to be heard in a future sub-trial that has yet to be set. Activists believe the defendants may not be alive when the verdict for the first sub-trial is handed down within the first half of 2014.
The tribunal faces other problems too. Early in September, many of its Cambodian staff went on strike because the government had failed to pay their wages since June.
Despite the obstacles, Nit remains optimistic.
“This is about finding justice for me,” she said. “It’s very hard for me to ignore what I suffered.”