Most interviews are conducted during the weekend when our interviewees are not working and can find time to meet with us. This Saturday was no exception.
We had throughout the week planned a field trip to the province to do interviews with four different people, where two of the interviews were going to be with former Khmer Rouge cadres.
It’s strange to admit the feeling of excitement when you know that your next interview will be with a former Khmer Rouge cadre – with a perpetrator. You will face that one person that belong to the wrongdoers, a person who caused so many people so much pain.
But there is also a sense of uniqueness coming from this perspective. By creating space for everyone’s voice to be heard, even the wrongdoers, creates an opportunity to reveal who you are behind all the blaming and shaming of being a former Khmer Rouge soldier. And many of the former cadres seem to have taken this opportunity with the most amazing result. The survivors we meet and interview put no blame on the former cadres. “It was never their fault”, they say, or, “we know they would have been killed too if they didn’t follow order”. “I do not want to revenge any lower ranked former Khmer Rouge cadre”.
I have this in mind when climbing up the ladder to enter the former cadre’s home. He is a very poor man and lives in a house made of bamboo in a village far from Phnom Penh. As we all take a seat on the floor I look at the old man sitting in front of me and try to imagine him 36 years ago. Is this the face of a killer? Is this what a perpetrator looks like? No. Trying to realize my expectations like this is exactly what will have all this to fall apart. I have to keep in mind what most survivors say about the former cadres and I will listen to this man’s story from this very perspective. The survivors have showed me the value of not judging before knowing the truth – no matter what the truth might look like, and I will follow their advice.
It does not take long until I realize that the excitement of meeting a former perpetrator is gone. I admire the man in front of me and his willingness to share his story so that we better can understand the perspective of a former cadre.
He sits in front of me so well aware of him being called a former Khmer Rouge cadre in all the documentation that has his name but he still tells his story with pride. He is not scared of who he is to everyone else, because only he himself know the truth and he is willing to share it with us, no matter if we believe it or not.
All I can think of is the braveness of this man and the importance of listening carefully to everyone’s story. They all deserve to tell their version of it, and they all deserve to be heard without judgemental aspects of their story. So many times I’ve read papers and articles about reconciliation where the voices of former cadres are used to further justify for the suffering of the victims. Chaining them to the box of The Perpetrator. I will not do this. I will not let this stamp have an effect on me before listening to this man’s st
ory. Maybe it is because I’m so tired of academic ways of drawing conclusions from individuals suffering, or just the way this man looks at me. Looking into his eyes tells me that there is so much more than a perpetrator to this man.
He tells us that he like so many others was forced to join the Khmer Rouge and he was assigned to work at Toul Sleng prison. 2 years after the breakout of the war the Khmer Rouge started to arrest its own soldiers suspected of treason, which in turn lead to the imprisonment of many of the Khmer Rouge’s own soldiers facing the same destiny as the civilian prisoners.
Luckily the man in front of me managed to survive, and this is where the line between victims and perpetrators becomes blurred. They were all somehow victims of Pol Pot’s regime. Everyone who was not killed during this time has therefore come to be called survivors instead of victim, no matter whom you were and are today. The word survivor displays resistance, resourcefulness, inner strength, and the ability to take action against vast obstacles. I’m starting to see how small things can change something as big as national reconciliation process.
The man in front of me smiles when he tells us about the child survivor from Toul Sleng who he is now friends with and how together they do presentations for reconciling purposes both in schools and villages around the country. He talks about how both former cadres and civilian survivors are now equal and that they by showing mutual acceptance for each other can help others to do the same.
This man amazes me. He is so aware of who he might be to people and he is prepared to tell his story and tell us who he was during the Khmer Rouge era. He is prepared for us to judge him for his past, but what he makes me understand more than anyone else has is that with the past comes a future, and now is when space must be created for dialogue of who we were in our past and the reasons behind it. We must create space for everyone’s story and we need to listen carefully.
When I climb down the ladder after the interview I realize how my excitement of meeting a former Khmer Rouge cadre has been replaced with excitement and hope for this reconciliation process where everyone is invited.