Khieu's home. Just to the left of this sign, the Thai border.
Our lunch together was purely unintentional. Vichet, the head of a local human rights organization, offered to show me around the remote northwestern Cambodian province of Banteay Meanchey. He proposed that we visit a few of his projects and then meet “some old Khmer Rouge guy”.
However, after spending a few minutes in this man’s presence I quickly realized that he was not just another “Khmer Rouge guy”. This was Khieu Samphan, former Head of State of Democratic Kampuchea under Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge regime. Khieu (last names are used first) is currently standing trial in the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia, the long awaited international war crimes tribunal. He is charged with war crimes, crimes against humanity, murder, torture and genocide.
Seated on a turquoise leather sofa, he wore a striped button-up pajama top and a bright plaid sarong. His spiky, white hair juxtaposed the dark sunspots that dotted his worn skin and his eyes were clouded with age. While his movement was slow and laborious, his wit was quick and his charm effortless.
Vichet had been to Khieu’s home once before at the behest of Khieu’s daughter, one of Vichet’s employees. His attendance however was not social, but personal. Following the murder of his parents under Pol Pot's regime, young Vichet spent ten years in a refugee camp. He accepted the invitation but only to ask the unanswered questions that plagued him since childhood. How could this man have been part of the ruthless murder of 1.7 million of his own people?
Unintentionally disarmed by Khieu’s hospitality however, Vichet never asked. Today, he hoped that I, a foreigner, might be able to obtain some of the answers he sought.
Suddenly, lunch was announced. Two large mats were spread out on the floor. Khieu’s wife and daughters came up and down the stairs, each time bringing bowls of food: pots of raw meat, bowls of eggs, plates heaped with noodles, strainers filled with green vegetables—cabbage and morning glory, mushrooms and chilies. The two older girls set two clay pots filled with smoldering coals on the mats, and on top of each they placed a bowl with an elevated island in the center. Strips of meat were placed on the raised perforated metal, while the moat around it was filled with broth, vegetables, then handfuls of noodles, and raw eggs, all left to simmer.
We took a seat on the floor. Khieu’s wife sat next to him and orchestrated this “soup fondue.” He turned to me and said, “This is why I married her.” She had been a cook for the Khmer Rouge.
Over lunch, Khieu claimed he was merely a symbolic head of state with no real knowledge of the killings taking place in the countryside. For Vichet and the countless Cambodians who seek the truth in order to heal, the current tribunal may finally force Khieu and his co-conspirators to admit their culpability in one of the worst mass murders of the twentieth century.
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