Koh Khsach Chunlea: An Island of the Widows







Kalyanee Mam


Cambodia is a land of widows. The Pol Pot regime left behind many enduring legacies. One of the more striking reminders of this horrific period are the vast number of women who are left widowed and children left orphaned by their husbands and fathers. Where did all the widows come from and how did they come to be?  Five women from Sa-Ang district, Kandal province seek to answer this question by re-telling their own bitter stories of hardship, endurance, and survival on an island called Koh Khasach Tunle, where recent widows were ostracized and sometimes, even murdered. These stories reveal another determined effort by the Khmer Rouge to sever family ties and to uproot the traditional relationships that existed between the Cambodian husband and wife and between the Cambodian mother and her children. Abandoned by a hopeless future, the women wonder who will avenge their past and who will remember their story.

Before 1975, Theeda and her husband lived in Phnom Penh. She sold things at the market, while her husband worked as a servant in a hotel. When the Khmer Rouge ransacked Phnom Penh and evacuated the city, Theeda and her husband were sent back to their native village in Setbo. There, she was placed in the full labor force (kamlang sreuk) in Beoung Tnaot and forced to carry dirt up to the Toul Krasang dam while her husband worked in Chansa Cheang Kul, plowing the fields at night and carrying dirt in the daytime. They rarely saw each other since it was policy that husbands and wives only meet once a week. When Theeda and her husband did meet, he would help her complete her quota of five square meters of dirt per day, so that they would have more time in the evening to devote to each other, before separating again at the crack of dawn. Theeda only met her husband nine times this way, before he disappeared from her life forever. In March of 1977, they dragged him from his work site in the evening and took him to Koh Kor, the largest prison and execution site in Sa-Ang District. They accused him of being a 1st Lieutenant. During the Pol Pot regime, soldiers, military officers, civil servants and anyone educated were considered bitter enemies of the regime and it was  necessary to eliminate them. Although Theeda’s husband worked as a simple servant in a hotel in Phnom Penh, his connection with urban life made him a perfect candidate for execution.

Theeda did not get to see her husband leave, but she and her children were forced to endure the consequences of his execution. Even before Theeda and her children were sent to Koh Khsach Tunlea, they experienced the bitter contempt of Angkar. They were forced to dig with fixed quotas, they received the heaviest and most difficult work, and their food was rationed differently from the others. Despite her husband’s death Theeda continued to work hard. “If you don’t work, they will kill you,” she said, “because they have already killed your husband. But they did not allow you to cry. Anyone who dared cry would be killed.”

When her husband was taken away, Chantou was also forced to cry alone. Like Theeda, Chantou was a native of Setbo village. During the months of fighting, Chantou moved with her family to Phnom Penh, before she eventually evacuated to her native village in 1975. Chantou was a widow with one child, before she was forced by Angkar to re-marry. Chantou did not want to marry, but knew she would have to bear the consequences if she did not: “In my heart I did not want to [marry], but if you did not marry they would take you to be killed. They would kill you, so you just forced yourself to get married.” Like Theeda, Chantou only saw her husband once a week or every ten days. Their meetings were monitored and they were not allowed to visit each other freely: “When we went to work, we met each other like this, but we never spoke a word to each other.... We just steal glances at each other, but they never let us talk to each other.” Thousands of marriages were arranged during the Pol Pot period, but it is not clear why people were forced to marry since couples were denied the right to live together and were sometimes separated forever. Chantou was forced to endure such a fate while she was already seven months pregnant with a child. In 1977, she was helping to raise a dam in Beoung Tnaot when they sent her husband to Koh Kor. Only a week later, did Chantou discover her husband had disappeared.

Davy, on the other hand, witnessed her husband’s departure and even staged a small resistance to challenge the policies of Angkar. Davy was a “base person” who had lived in Prek Ambel ever since she married her husband. Her husband was poor and weak and they only had a small hut in the village. they raised only enough ducks to live on and they had some wood they were saving with which to build a house. In 1974, the militia leader came to ask Davy for some ducks and wood. She refused since it was all they had. A couple of days later, they came to take her husband away. “We are only taking him to be educated,” they said. Davy understood the consequences of being educated, “Being educated. It will not be quick. I know that if he goes, he will go forever.” She asked who would support her and her four children of her husband was taken away?  They answered, “Angkar will support you.”

During the Pol Pot regime, relationships were shattered, families were separated and emotional and sentimental ties disappeared. Angkar became the parent, the husband, and the family that one should only pledge allegiance and absolute loyalty to. Davy refused to accept this reality. She sat in the road in protest and dared them to kill her entire family, “Okay, why don’t you just shoot and kill everyone in the house.  Shoot and kill everyone, including myself, my children, my husband, everyone, because if you take him away, I will definitely starve and die.” Few people were willing to be as confrontational as Davy was. When asked why they did not dare to resist Angkar, Theeda answered, “How could you run away? If you run, the punishment is even greater, It will even touch on your children. I tell you, if your husband challenges them...he will live, but we will lose with their warning,  “It the husband dares to resist, we will take the entire family. At this point, your husband does not dare to resist.” But Theeda, quickly added, “If we knew that all our families would die anyway, we would have all resisted.” Davy’s husband did not resist. He resigned himself in order to save his family.

Bopha’s husband’s departure was less dramatic, Bopha lived for a short while in Phnom Penh, before returning to her native village in Svay Brateal. When they returned, her husband planted vegetables while she worked near the village. It was 7:00 in the morning in 1977, when they called her husband from the house. Bopha was two months pregnant at the time. They said that they were taking him to help plow the fields. Bopha remembered how her older brother, in 1976, also left in this way. Many different tactics were used at that time to deceive family members from the truth. Although one of the most popular methods used was to say they were taking the individual to be educated, Angkar also used other means of deception. According to Theeda, “They would pick at you and say, ‘Come on, fetch your earth basket.’ When you went to fetch your earth basket, you knew that they were taking you to be killed. And we knew. Inside our heads, we already knew.” When Bopha’s husband left, he also knew. He did not take anything with him. He kept everything for his wife, knowing that he would never return, A month after her husband was taken to Koh Kor, Bopha suffered a miscarriage while digging a canal.

Sopheap was also two or three months pregnant when her husband was taken away. In 1975, Sopheap and her husband were evacuated from Phnom Penh, where her husband worked as a motorcycle repairman. They arrived in their native village of Svay Brateal carrying a baby only 20 days old. Sopheap and her husband were divided into separate units. Sopheap entered a mobile work brigade for married women (Kong chalat sehtrey), transplanting rice seedlings and clearing forests, while her husband worked in a mobile work brigade for plowing (Kong chalat pchoor). It was broad daylight when they took her husband to Koh Kor and she was not able to see him go. He was not alone. Four or five people were dragged along with him. Like Bopha, they said they were taking him to plow the fields and to carry wood.

After their husbands were sent to Koh Kor prison, each of the women above was soon taken to Koh Khsach Tunlea. They were certain they would never see their husband again, not only because Koh Kor was an infamous execution center, but also because Koh Khsach Tunlea was an island reserved mainly for widows. “I could not say that we would be able to reunite again,” said Bopha. “If they take you and put you in that place....It is filled with widows.”

Sopheap was almost ready to give birth when they took her to Koh Khsach Tunlea. They told her she was going to meet her husband. “When I left, I didn’t even know they were taking me to this island. Only after they pulled the boat in, did I know. When they took me, they didn’t tell me where I was going. I just kept walking. They said, ‘We are taking you to be with your husband.’ …They just lied, They already killed my husband. They just lied to me. They gathered everyone. Everyone, who’s husband they had killed, they took to live on this island.” Theeda was also told she would go meet her husband .She was so happy she tried to walk faster while she advised her own child, “Go easily. We are to meet our Pa; we are going to meet your father. Look, your father is waiting to welcome us,” On the way there, Theeda saw many women crossing the river. But there were no men. “Whenever they sent you anywhere, they always said it was to go meet your husband. Go here, and we will meet. Go there, and we will meet. We were all so happy to hear that we were going to meet our husbands. But until the day we broke out, I still do not know where my husband went.”

The five women never met their husbands again, but on the island they met many women who confronted the same fate they did. It was uncertain where all the women came from, but there were thousands of them. Chantou was  surprised to see how many widows there were on the island. Each of them had one thing in common. They were widows, left stranded on an island because of their suspicious connections to their husbands. When Sopheap reached the island, the unit leaders announced to the women,  “Those who come to this island, do you realize what’s going on? You are all wives of soldiers and the military police. We bring you and put you on this island.” Sopheap asserted that there were no wives of soldiers of military officers present on the island, They were all just regular people. This line of reasoning, however, was used simply to justify their own classification schemes.


Koh Khsach Tonlea wa an island 6 km in length and 2 km in width and was divided into six mess halls. Three mess halls formed a row on the western side of the island, while another three formed a row on the western side. Homes were built surrounding the mess halls. “Base people” who were native to the island and widows who were re-married by Angkar, lived on the western side in mess halls #1, # 2, while the widows without husbands, lived on the western side. “They wanted to distinguish between the ‘old’ and the ‘new’ people,” explained Bopha, “They ‘new people’, whose husbands they had taken away , they put in one place. They didn’t want us to remain mixed with the ‘base people’. They did this to make it easier to supervise  (kapear) us. If we commit a crime, they are able to take us away quickly.” The Khmer Rouge was a paranoid and systematic lot. Classification gave them the ability to manage their ‘enemies’ and away to keep their revolution pure from contamination. Although the widows committed no crimes, they were still guilty by association. Davy was a ‘base person’ entitled to rights and privileges, but she was eventually sent to Koh Khsach Tunlea for her guilty connections, “I’m also a base person, why wasn’t my life good?” she asked. “What is the reason? It’s because I have guilty connections, guilty connections with my husband who was taken away. So they also grouped me with the 17 April people.”

On this island, the Khmer Rouge created a new society, a brave new world that consisted only of women. In this world, there was no concept of privacy and ownership, there was no concept of family, and there was no concept of community. Each person’s actions were dictated by an absolute fear of Angkar, a fear that they too, would be taken away and killed.

At the outset, the Khmer Rouge sought to destroy any representations of uniqueness and independence, any symbol that could distract the women from their work and from their uncompromising loyalty to Angkar. These representations consisted of physical ties to property, emotional ties to family, and intellectual ties to ideas and freedom. As Davy appropriately recalled, “They didn’t let me have anything, not even a word.” When Theeda first arrived on the island, they discarded everything personal to her. “From here on, they removed all the dishes and pots from us. Even our clothes were removed from us. They would not let us take them with us. They only allowed us to take one bundle. There was nothing in that bundle. We had just one pair of pans and a skirt we wore there. We had nothing.”

The women did not even have the right to express their uniqueness from others in their appearance. Their clothes were piled away and they were forced to wear black clothing and cut their hair short, up to their necks, Korean style. If they did not have black clothing, many would soak their clothes in mud to dull the colors or in a dye called makkloeu. It was important that the clothes did not distract attention and did not look better than the clothes of the “base people” who had clean back shirts, rubber-sole sandals, and red kramar to wrap around their necks. Any attempt to look different from others on the island was met with punishment. “Everyone had to wear black.” said Chantou, “No one had color. If we wear color they’ll harass us and they’ll call us to be educated. If they call us once or twice, we don’t listen, and we continue to wear this kind of clothing, they’ll take us to be killed. We could not do this. We had to soak it in mud until it was black and dirty.”

Not only were the women deprived of their own self-concept, they were also robbed of their traditional, nuclear concept of family. When the women made the trip from their native village to Koh Khsach Tunlea, they were allowed to bring their children with them. Their workdays were so long and regimented, however, that the women rarely saw their children. When Dvay arrived on the island, her youngest daughter was only five months old and still required breast-feeding. At four o’clock in the early morning Davy would leave her children with the old grandmothers in the children’s unit and ferry a boat across the river to work. She worked in Prek Raing planting rice seedlings in front of Phnom Tun Mun. After her afternoon meal with the other workers, Dvay would row the boat back across the river, and feed her five-month-old baby then take leave again. “All day, I never get to stay, “ said Davy. She could only return in the late evening. Davy would finish her evening meal first before picking up her children to return home. “At night when we return from work, the grandmothers would give each of us our children and we would return to our respective homes. They let us live in a house and in that one house there were four or five families. There were large houses and small houses. The large houses had ten families. They just laid our rugs and let us sleep with our children.”

Chantou also arrived on the island soon after she gave birth.  Her baby was only one month old. Instead of forcing her to work in the fields immediately, Chantou had to serve as a wet-nurse for seven to eight months. Within that period, she watched and breast-fed ten children in her group. There were many other women, in many other groups. Chantou did not have a lot of breast milk, but she continued to watch the children. She watched them from six in the morning to six in the evening. The mothers would drop off their children in the early morning and then leave for work. Sometimes, like Davy, if they could break from their work, the mothers would come to check up on their children. “Some people see their children and they cry. They embrace their children and cry. They feel sorry for their children because they’ve been away for so long. Some hug their children and cry because they have nothing to eat.” When asked how she felt about having to look after other people’s children, Chantou said she did not really think about it. She just kept doing her job. “ Angkar had already assigned a job for me to watch [after the children]. If I don’t follow they will kill me. If I argue they will kill me. And if I don’t look after the children carefully, that will also not do.” During the Pol Pot regime, the personal and private duties of motherhood were reduced to a collective and impersonal event. In traditional Cambodian families, mothers watched after their own children, especially during the initial stages following birth. During this period of collectivization and no-privatization, mothers could no longer care for their own children but had to depend on others to look after them. Certain mothers, like Chantou, were even forced to serve as a “collective mother” for other people’s children. Her personal duties as a mother were transformed into a public good for Angkar.

Sopheap, who gave birth soon after she arrived on the island, only served as a wet-nurse for a short while. Her baby died one month after she gave birth and immediately they placed her in a special unit and sent her away to work in Prek Raing and Prasat. Most of the women were sent to Prek Raing, a village across the river and on the western side of Koh Khsach Tonlea, to work. They woke up early in the morning to cross the river. There, they transplanted rice seedlings, cut down forest, pulled grass, planted corn, and harvested rice. They women there even plowed the land, a job traditionally reserved for me. After a long day at work, the women did not return until late evening. They took their meal in a collective mess hall before returning to their sleeping quarters late at night.

Although the Khmer Rouge sought to destroy traditional notions of family, they still wanted widows on the island to remarry. Many of the married ‘base’ women on the island viewed the single “new” widows as a threat to their own marriages and hoped to alleviate any problems by marrying them off. According to Davy, “Sometimes they would bring soldiers and those who were handicapped to marry.” The marriages took place at a temple at the end of the island and couples were lined up row by row. Women stood on one side while men stood on the other. Women on the island were rarely threatened or torture into marriage. Most of the time, the unit leaders came to ask the woman personally if she was willing to remarry or not. Most of the women, however, agreed to marry for fear of their lives. According to Bopha, “Even if they weren’t forced [to marry], it was as if they were forced. They were afraid they would die. During that time, if you did anything to offend them, you were afraid you would die. So those who had children, just endured it. They went along with it because their husbands were already taken away. If they tried to resist and they also died, they would leave their children. So they just endured it.” Although Sopheap managed to resist remarriage, she wondered why marriages were arranged if families continued to be separated from each other: “Why should I take [another husband]. I already had children and they were not yet even fully-grown and they forced me to work myself to death. My children are not yet fully-grown and they separated them [from me]. They did not get to live with me. Why should I give birth? I give birth and they take them all away and use them and starve them.” When asked whether the life of those with spouses were much easier than the life of those unmarried, Dvay answered, “The lives of those with spouses do not seem to be much easier than the lives of those who were unmarried. Sometimes, after they married them, if they did anything wrong, they would take them away.” It remains a mystery why the Khmer Rouge felt it necessary to force couples into marriage only to break them apart again.

The women from the island described Koh Khsach Tunlea as a prison surrounded by water and enveloped by fear. Although women were not physically tortured on the island, they were tormented by the loss of their husbands. “They did not torture me or put me in prison with chains and shackles,” said Bopha, “but [when they took my husband away] it is also like putting me in prison.” With the loss of their husbands, the women also dreaded the loss of their own lives and the possibility of leaving their children behind. Bopha explained, “If I don’t work hard, I am afraid they will take me away and I will leave my children. So I tried to work hard.” Not only were the women forced to strain themselves in labor, they were also compelled to restrain themselves in speech. The women became mute figures deprived of the freedom to express themselves or even to relate to each other. Militiamen  (chlop) and young children would sneak up underneath the house to make certain nothing inappropriate was being said about Angkar. It was safer not to speak at all. Chantou remembered, “During the Pol Pot regime, every night, people would just enter their mosquito net. No one joked around or laughed, because we were afraid we would say something wrong.” The fear on the island was so pervasive, that every night for Theeda, became a night of judgement: “In one day, if I can sleep one night, I say that I am alive. If I sleep one night and I wake up the next morning to see the light of the sun, I say that I am alive. One night I die, one night I live. When it is night, I know I am dead. I don’t know if they are coming to get me, because I keep seeing them come to get people.”

Although people were not being killed on the island, many women disappeared from the island. The Khmer Rouge set up an intricate system of informants. Besides the numerous militiamen posted throughout the island, there were unit leaders responsible for ten people within their group. The unit leaders were familiar with each member of their group. When a problem arose with one member, they would inform the group leader and the group leader would inform the higher officials. The member would then be taken away. Chantou remembers one woman who was taken away to be killed. They were shelling corn together and while they were shelling, they called out to her and told her they wanted her to return to her district. When she heard this, the corn fell from her hands and the women urinated in her pants. Two or three days later, Chantou saw her body floating down the water. This woman was probably taken to Koh Kor, the largest prison and execution site in Sa-Ang. According to the five women, Koh Khsach Tunlea was the island  for re-education, while Koh Kor was the island  for execution. “They would put them in a rowboat and cross them over to Koh Kor....Koh Kor is full of dead people.” During the flooding season, the women would see dead bodies floating in the water from the direction of Koh Kor.

Although executions accounted for many deaths, most of the women and children on the island suffered or died from disease and starvation. Instead of the Cambodian staple diet of rice, the women were only fed lotus stem soup, somla machoo thacuan, wood potato, and small cobs of corn. Many of the women had to look for other foods to supplement their diet. Chantou remembers the first few months while she was there: “When we arrived there in the beginning, they starved us. We did not have any rice to eat for months. We had no rice to eat. We ate only leaves, like potato leaves, any leaves. Whatever leaves as long as we could eat it and not get poisoned.” The health of the women on the island quickly deteriorated from lack of food and adequate nutrients. The women failed to menstruate and mothers barely had enough breast milk for their children. Many of the women became sick with swelling because they lacked salt in their bodies. According to Theeda “I was so skinny, you could see my bones. I was really skinny, everyone was. In Koh Khsach Tunlea, people were mostly sick with swelling. They would swell up and die, swell and then die, because there was not enough to eat.” The people on the island suffered especially during the wet season when much of the island fell victim to heavy flooding. Chantou, who was a wet-nurse on the island, noticed that many of the children died during this time. “So many people died on this island,” she says, “especially the young children because they did not have anything to eat. So many kids died, none of them remained. Some developed bruises, some developed....I don’t know what it is, but they would sleep on banana leaves. Some developed large sores this big and they would lay on banana leaves...and die. Many children died...When [people] returned their hands were empty. When they went hey had their children, but when they returned each person lost their children.”

With numerous executions and with the threat of disease and starvation, the island population was in constant flux. Although most of the women estimated that there were thousands of women living on Koh Khsach Tunlea (Theeda and Chantou asserts there were tens of thousands), it is difficult to asses how many women and children were still alive after the Vietnamese invasion and liberation of Cambodia in 1979. Theeda claimed that, “Close to 1979, close to the time of liberation, they really killed a lot of people. There were very few when we returned from Koh Khsach Tunlea.” At the same time, Theeda also recognized the chaos of that period: “There was too much confusion. They sent some over here and some over there; so how are were supposed to know? We didn’t know. They would say, ‘Okay, we need people to work over there.’ The fill up two or there cars and go...When we were being sent over [to Koh Khsach Tunlea] there were a lot of people...At the end, in 1979, there were very little people left. We don’t know where they put them. We were all separated.” With the slow encroachment of the Vietnamese on Cambodia, the Khmer Rouge panicked and evacuated many women from the island, forcing them to travel west.

From an island of widows, Cambodia became a country of widows. Currently, 20 percent of the female population in Cambodia is widowed, according to the UNDP’s statistics. The stories of the five women in Kandal Province speak volumes of the suffering that occurred during this brutal period, but yet, they represent only a fraction of the suffering endured by women during this time. What of the other widows and how will their suffering be remembered? At the end of her interview, Bopha pointedly answered, “I wanted the organization to seek justice for widows. The name Pol Pot-he is the one who killed the husbands of widows.”








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