Welcome to Kampong Thom, cradle of Pol Pot, the infamous Khmer Rouge leader.
We are here to meet Chin Meth, on her journey through history.
Enrolled by the Khmer Rouge at the age of 17, she has decided to be a witness against a former Khmer Rouge leader on trial.
“When I come back to my native village, I feel sad because I’ve lost all I had here,” she says.
Just like her village, Chin Meth still bears the marks of that painful era. “My mother was dead. I was brought up by my aunt, and then I was called to be a Khmer Rouge soldier. When I came home, all my relatives were dead. My uncle, my great-aunt, and the 20 friends who had been enrolled with me,” she says.
Chin Meth’s life changed drastically in 1974, when she was recruited by the Khmer Rouge along with all the other young people in her village.
She didn’t yet know she was about to serve a regime of terror which would lead to the death of some two million Cambodians – around one fifth of the country’s population.
Chin Meth and her fellow female recruits were “re-educated” by the party to serve the revolution.
“They trained us to be tough, not to think about our relatives, or our parents,” she says. “We had to sacrifice everything, including our personal belongings.”
Chin Meth was then taught how to use weapons. On the battlefield, her female unit was in charge of carrying ammunition, and evacuating the wounded.
When the Khmer Rouge moved on Phnom Penh in 1975, the women were in charge of cleaning up the houses of those chased from their homes. “When I was cleaning up the people’s belongings, I saw dead bodies in the houses,” she says.
“The Khmer Rouge soldiers evacuated the town over three days. Everyone had to leave. There were people who didn’t want to leave their belongings behind, and old people who didn’t want to or couldn’t leave their homes. They were killed on the spot.”
She was then sent to work in the fields by the Khmer regime. Conditions were extremely harsh. “At first, when we worked in the rice fields, we were well fed. But then we were given only a bit of rice, mixed with tree roots, maize or swamp cabbage. My group started to rebel.”
As a result, she was sent to Phnom Penh’s infamous Tuol Sleng prison, otherwise known as S21. More than 12,000 people died in this former school that Pol Pot’s regime turned into a prison camp.
“This picture was taken when I was arrested, I was 19,” she says, pointing out her mugshot among hundreds of others on the wall.
“This is my friend from the same village as me, and this is another friend. This one was the group leader. They’re all dead.”
“I was held captive here, there were three of us in here, for nearly a month,” she says, pointing out a tiny cell.
“I could hear the sound of blows and screams coming from upstairs. That’s where I was interrogated and tortured. I still have the scars.”
She survived the death camp and was sent to work in another camp, called S24, which is now a prison. She spent two years there, along with women and children, half of whom did not survive the working conditions.
“It was hell, worse than death. I worked the fields, I was tortured, I built dams, I dug dykes. We pulled the cart instead of the oxen to plough the fields. My feet were full of sores, my face was covered with skin disease. We were so thin that when we crouched, our knees reached up over our heads,” she says.
When the Vietnamese invaded and took over Phnom Penh in 1979, the Khmer Rouge forced her to flee to the mountains with them. She was captured by the Vietnamese a year later, and then released.
After years of silence, Chin Meth decided to face up to the past by bearing witness at the trials of former Khmer Rouge leaders.
The first opened in 2009. She was the first female survivor to testify against Duch, former head of the S21 and S24 camps.
“It takes time to forget past sorrows,” she says. “I can’t forget. Even though the court has condemned former Khmer Rouge leaders, until this day, I haven’t forgotten anything.”
For a while, Chin Meth lived in fear of reprisals from relatives of those who were put on trial.
It is the price to pay, she says, to be rehabilitated as a member of the Cambodian community, and help build a better future for her country.
She will be called as a witness again at future trials. “It’s important to win the trials against those who are still alive, so that Cambodians and the new generations know the truth about what happened,” she says.
“And it will set an example for today’s leaders, so they don’t follow in the steps of the Khmer Rouge.”
Many Cambodian still bear the weight of the past.
In the next chapter of our Cambodian edition of Women and War we meet Davy Tith whose life is spent helping others cope with the past.