Justice is Not About Getting Revenge







Sam-An Keo


When the Cambodian civil war was at its peak in the early 1970s, I did not have any idea about why people were fighting each other because I was only about six years old. By the time the war had come to an end in 1975, I was able to understand some of the reasons behind it. I remember seeing the Khmer Rouge soldiers standing in front of my home, making an announcement through a bullhorn encouraging people to leave their homes and move away before the Americans started bombing. I also remember my father being hit by shrapnel just above his elbow. Since all hospitals were closed, some of my relatives had to apply first-aid to his wound.


Like many people living in Phnom Penh, our family was forced out of the city. On the way out of the city, I can remember seeing hundreds of corpses floating in the river, mainly soldiers in camouflage. While wounded, my father directed his family to head to his home village in Takeo province. After the Communists won the war, some knew that the Khmer Rouge would not forgive those who fought against them, and that hiding their identities was the best way to escape execution.


When my family had finally reached my father’s home village, we suddenly found ourselves on a Khmer Rouge hit list due to my father’s previous occupation as a police officer. Even though he was a poor policeman, he was still on their list. My father tried very hard not to expose his identity.  As more and more people moved into the village, Angkar (Higher Organization) had asked people to volunteer for relocation. After hearing the announcement, my father had signed up. He hoped that by moving away from a familiar territory, he could completely hide his identity, and therefore, escape death. To me, that was a very smart move!


I remember very well when we were on the train heading toward Battambang. I was very hungry and my mother had to do what she could to find something for me to eat. When we finally reached our destination of Mong, Battambang, food was very scarce. Both of my parents had traded gold and US dollars for food from the local people.


Life was very hard in our district. The Khmer Rouge forced all adults and teenagers to work in the fields every day, rain or shine. People died every day of starvation or were executed. I was fortunate not to be put to work because of my age and sickliness. My father, especially, worked very hard with very little to eat. When he had food, he did what he could to save it for his children. From what I can remember about my father, he was a decent person.


Early one morning, my father left home to catch fish in the stream. Two Khmer Rouge soldiers saw him and asked him to come out of the water. They questioned him and tied him with a rope. He was left there alone for hours. When the local people found out about him, they immediately rushed home to tell my mother. She was able to get help from the neighbors to bring my father home. The events of that morning had struck with my father forever, and he was traumatized by them. He began to have nightmares and we could see death in his eyes. He became every sick. As our conditions worsened, my mother sacrificed all her belongings to keep my father alive by trading for food and medicines.  Most men living in the village were killed. My father knew that it was just a matter of time before his turn would come.


One night, while everyone was sleeping, he quietly passed away. Everyone in our family had their heads shaved to honor my father’s soul. His body was laid on the floor of our home for three days before my mother was able to find people to carry him to the field for burial. Most people were too weak and too afraid to come and help.


While my father was able to escape execution by the Khmer Rouge soldiers, he could not escape his ordeal. My father’s death completely changed the life of my family. My mother could not function properly for a couple of years and my brother, sister, and I had to do the best we could to survive.


Currently, we live in the United States. Although I make a comfortable living here, I still miss my father and wish there had been a better way and time for him to die. Even though no one in our family is able to remember his burial site, I know in my heart that my father did not die in vain.


Like many Cambodians, I am in favor of bringing the Khmer Rouge to trial. I am asking for justice, but justice does not mean getting revenge. After all, if the current Cambodian government is strongly committed to bring a democratic process to the country, serving justice is very  important. Equally important is for people to understand that they will face consequences should they choose to commit criminal acts. Once justice is served, my father and millions of other dead Cambodians will forever rest in peace.








Documentation Center of Cambodia

Ten Years of Independently Searching for the Truth: 1997-2007


DC-Cam ® 66 Preah Sihanouk Blvd. ® P.O. Box 1110 ® Phnom Penh ® Cambodia

Tel: (855-23) 211-875 ® Fax: (855-23) 210-358 ® Email: dccam@online.com.kh ® www.dccam.org