A Khmer Rouge Midwife







Sophal Ly


Ung Vuth, a former Khmer Rouge midwife, is now 56 years old and living in Ta Reap, a village in Cheang Torng Subdistrict, Tram Kak District, Takeo Province. (During the Democratic Kampuchea regime, Takeo province was in the Southeast Zone, which was controlled by Ta Mok. There were mass killings in this area.) She was the third child of a middle-class family. Ung Vuth now lives with her husband, the chief of Ta Reap Village, and her mother-in-law. She has no children. She makes her living by farming and is occasionally invited by the local people to help deliver their babies. She has been a skillful midwife since the 1960s.


As a 16 year old with a fifth-grade education (under the old educational system), she began working as a nurse in about 1962, and worked in different hospitals for 25 years. First, Ung Vuth worked at Ketomealea Hospital in Phnom Penh for three years, where she was responsible for nursing and delivering babies. After perfecting her skills, she was transferred to the Chinese Hospital for another 7 years.


She told us that she did not take any exam to study nursing. She was chosen by Doctor Chuon Choeun, called Ta Pen, who, along with Khieu Samphan, Hou Nim, and Hou Yun, used to have a good relationship with her father. “My father was at Chuon Choeun’s side and his friends are now very old. Khieu Samphan at that time was single and used to stay at my house [O Russey] for a few nights in a rusty iron bed, until Phnom Penh was liberated by the Khmer Rouge,” said Ung Vuth.


Due to the chaotic situation in 1970, one month before the coup, she left Phnom Penh along with Chuon Choeun and approximately 60 other hospital staff members. They fled into the jungle on national road number 3 towards Ua Ral Stream, Kampong Speu Province (Region 13) according to their pre-designed plan. She added, “We left the city without regret, for we were convinced. Chuon Choeun told us that if we wanted freedom, we must go to work in country hospitals...The so-called Sihanouk was now in the forest and wanted people to live under an atmosphere free from oppression.”


Upon her arrival at Ua Ral Stream, she saw Ta Mok, Khieu Samphan, Hou Nim, and Hou Yun. Ta Mok and Khieu Samphan used to encourage hospital staff to struggle for people’s freedom. At Ua Ral she worked in surgery for about a month, and after that there was a meeting to relocate nurses to various provinces. She was appointed to work in Pheak Hospital (Hospital 22). During 1973-1974, Region 13, which did not have enough hospital staff members, asked Chuon Choeun to let her work there. At the Region 13 hospital, Ung Vuth was ordered to ensure the survival of all mothers. “They demanded that the mothers of babies be kept safe. A midwife responsible for any death during the delivery of a baby would be imprisoned,” said Ung Vuth. She noted that she resisted this order, stating that, “I cannot ensure the survival of the patients if the hospital uses rabbit-dung tablets as medicine, because I am accustomed to using modern medicine, such as serums.


“In response, the organization fulfilled our request so that we could teach people from various communes about nursing and patient care.” Ung Vuth was the chief midwife at the Region 13 hospital, where her duties included delivering babies in all of the region’s villages and subdistricts. She also taught new staff from many regions in Takeo Province, but the teaching involved only clinical practices, not theoretical approaches.


Ung Vuth was a hard-working nurse, who tried her best to please the chiefs of villages, subdistricts and districts. She was always admired by subdistrict and district chiefs for her excellent work and for not having had any deaths during childbirths. She said, “The chiefs admired me and said that I was a diligent and prolific nurse.” However, she was usually criticized for wearing long-sleeve shirts (in the revolutionary forces short sleeves were preferred).


In 1977, Ung Vuth’s marriage was arranged by Ta Mok. Laughing, she spoke about this, saying that she did not want a husband yet, but she could not reject the organization’s orders. “One day, a Chinese-made truck came to pick me up, lying to me and saying that I was called to join a party at the provincial town of Takeo. But when I arrived they told me I was about to get married.”


She did not live with her husband after marriage. Recalling the troubles in her marriage, Ung Vuth said: “Within a few days after the wedding, we did not get along with each other, but the organization coerced us to compromise. Nevertheless, it took us a long time to do so.” After that, she requested technical training on abortions at April 17 Hospital (Russian Hospital) for a year, but after only six months she was called by the regional chief to return to Takeo because she had not lived with her husband since their marriage. Ung Vuth told us that she eventually loved her husband because of his  actions after the organization detained her at Sanlong Mountain prison at the end of 1977 under a pretext that she was required to attend a session. Her husband was ordered to do self-criticism for one night and told to divorce her. The organization told him that they would find him a new wife. But her husband refused. He packed his clothes and rode a bicycle to meet her at the prison.


Ung Vuth said that she was imprisoned because the organization had accused her parents of involvement in a traitorous network, and that all of the relatives of such people would also be imprisoned. She stressed that Ta Mok was the one who both arranged her marriage and the arrests of her parents. She was certain that many killings were the act of Ta Mok. “Ta Mok was a sweet-talking person.” Thinking about this, she began to sob and spoke with sadness that “All of my brothers and sisters perished. I’ve never heard about them. All twelve members, including my parents... Only I am still alive.” All her siblings were hospital staff. She still remembers the name of one of the people who arrested her: Khem.


Ung Vuth described her conditions at Sanlong Mountain. Most of those arrested were base people. Entire divisions and mobile units were accused of being members of traitorous networks and brought there to be imprisoned. Even worse, at Sanlong there was another jail, which was mainly utilized to detain people with purported serious violations. Five to seven days after their arrival, prisoners in this jail would be executed. Large pits had been dug beforehand around each cell. Ung Vuth stated that later, “I heard only two words: Yoy! Help!, then silence. In the morning everyone observed the sight, but no one dared to say anything.” She continued, “Sanlong’s inmates were sent to break rocks. April 17 women were ordered to excavate a cubic meter of soil a day. This was agonizing work for them, because they were starving and could barely take a breath. They would eat anything within their sight. Of eggplant leaves, only stems remained, the other parts were eaten with salt. Baby-frogs were skewered with a piece of stick, then put on a tiny fire. If they were seen grilling frogs or eating leaves, they would be forced to eat raw frogs or be punished by forcing masses of leaves into their mouths.”


At the beginning she was directed to grow crops, after that to cure inmates’ illnesses without being allowed to go outside, and finally she was sent to harvest and thresh rice. She stressed that, “I hadn’t known how to thresh rice with sticks. Instead, I threshed using my hands. A Khmer Rouge shouted at me that if I did not do it properly, he would hit me with his pair of sticks.” She told us proudly that, “I strongly confronted them. I had determined that before I died, I must knock those people to the ground with my shoulder pole if they dared to hit me, for my relatives had died. I could truly have done so.” Later, the Khmer Rouge carried out numerous experiments against her with an attempt to find her weak points to entangle her in crimes. She added that, “The KR sent me to embroider a hundred scarf margins per day in various units, then they told me to sew 100 elastic trousers for the youth per day... I did all that work on time and the result was also guaranteed... I had to finish it, if not the KR would punish me... Being unable to find my weaknesses, they sent me back to hospital.”


Two to three months later the Vietnamese liberated Cambodia. At that time she fled with several high ranking officers to Koh Kong, and eventually returned home by travelling through the Pich Nil mountain pass. She stressed that her efforts to help the organization were useless. What she received instead was the deaths of all ten of ten siblings and her parents, and her own imprisonment. Ung Vuth will never forget these experiences. “It’s all enough. I don’t want to participate in any political movement anymore, no matter how hard they try to convince me. Even if the former Khmer Rouge at Anlong Veng need me, I’ll never join them again,” Ung Vuth insisted. The thing that truly causes her grief is the death of her family. She said she had never been afraid that people hated her during the Khmer Rouge period because she had done good things for them. All people loved her. Wherever she goes, she is always warmly greeted. People often say that jack-fruit and mango trees are “the legacy of nurse Vuth!!” because she planted them.








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


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