“I have grown up with your silences, with your feelings of guilt for having survived.”
A daughter is talking to her father. Neary Adeline Hay, a young documentary maker and the author of ANGKAR, presented in Paris at the last edition of the international documentary festival, Cinéma du Réel.
For thirty long years, Khonsaly Hay has been sunk into his own oblivion because of his memories, the refuge for the human mind when the weight of one’s memories become intolerable and links with the past irreconcilable.
«It was Year Zero. The beginning of a new era. Everything that had existed up to that moment no longer existe. Everything that you had had, was taken away. Above all, our individual and collective identity. From that moment we were new persons, in a new world of violence, silence and death. Angkar, ‘the organization’, had no shape, no face, but had eyes everywhere.» (Khonsaly)
Khonsalay Hay is Cambodian. He had been a pharmacist when the nihilistic revolution of the Khmer Rouge was unleashed. In the second half of the 1970s. Just as the other victims of the horrors of the Cambodian story, Khonsaly “lost his memory” for thirty long years, until the day he decided to stir up the past, allowing a piece of life to emerge, to come to the surface once again, not so deep, but with an endless wake.
ANGKAR is a story of his trip to Ta Saeng, the village where he had lived for four years, where he had risked dying innumerable times, where he had been able to escape carrying with him his sense of guilt for having survived one of the worst infernos on Earth that the 1900s had ever seen. The genocide of about two million Cambodian people at the hands of their own people. A world of darkness, violence and silence.
In Ta Saeng, Khonsaly meets “the other survivors”, his torturers, his enslavers, the guards, spies, the cut-throat Khmer. They all remember him, but he remembers no one. The elimination has gone deep. Pat is old, hunched over and shriveled up. He was the camp’s executioner. “They are all still alive, it’s disgusting, the Koy brothers, Taso, all still alive!”
«Also the cut-throat, Moeung Sang?» (Khonsaly)
«Oh yes, today he’s the village deputy head. But he’s ignorant.»
Old Pat now laughs at the thought of Moeung Sang, at one time he butchered “the enemies of the ideology”, he cut their throats, an efficient way to save on bullets. Now he has entered politics, administers the village. It does old Pat good to laugh.
«It was Wednesday, 17 April of 1975, when the Khmer Rouge became the masters of Cambodia. They immediately evacuated Phnom Pehn, they made us walk for days, we had no idea what would become of us, there were dead bodies everywhere. From dawn to twilight in the work camps on hunger rations. Angkar had found an industrial means to get rid of the weaker of us.»
In the dismal laboratory of social engineering of Cambodia Year Zero, “the social man” Khonsaly was the most dangerous enemy, the prototype of that urban middle class that had to be surgically removed and then injected with a new identity.
Whoever was under the slightest suspicion of having Western sentiments or influence had to be eliminated. It was enough to even speak a foreign language or wear a western style hat (by no means unusual in an ex-French colony) to die.
Thousands of Cambodians were deported from the towns to the countryside to the new working fields, that very soon became the killing fields. Teachers, doctors, lawyers, merchants, journalists. The so-called New People. The newly-born Democratic Republic of Kampuchea belonged to the Old People, the peasants and farmers of the Khmer traditions (the predominant ethnic group in Cambodia), which “had not been contaminated by capitalism, by modernity, by the West. The only thing they knew was the earth that they farmed, the animals they bred. They sang revolutionary songs all day […]. They became spies, informers, soldiers, executioners.” (Khonsaly)
The Khmer Rouge (it was King Norodom Sihanouk who gave the name to the movement), was set up in 1967 as an armed branch of the Communist Party of Kampuchea, an offshoot of the Popular Army of North Vietnam. Coming to power in 1975, the Khmer of Pol Pot, ‘Brother Number 1’, abolished religion, banned schools, closed hospitals, eliminated the Buddhist monks, razing their temples to the ground. The only pseudo religious belief was Angkar, the organization. Against minorities, the Chinese, the Vietnamese, Thai, a true pogrom. The cruelest against the Muslim minority of the Cham.
«Did you ever feel any pity for us?” Khonsaly asks the old guard. “Yes, I used to walk among the prisoners, I used to speak with them.»
Walking through the town, Khonsaly gathers his memories, visits places. His old house, the pharmacy.
«I don’t want to call them Khmer Rouge, there is the word Khmer and the people associate it with the regime. When I think about Angkar, I prefer to speak about the Communists.» (Khonsaly)
Among the deadly ideologies of the ‘Brief Century’, the Maoist-Stalinist utopia carried out in Cambodia in the second half of the seventies was probably the cruelest, the most macabre. A quarter of the population of 7 millions died during the 3 years, 8 months and 20 days of one of the most radical social experiments ever conducted – the transformation of Cambodia into a Communist agrarian society, an enormous rural cooperative based on a Stalinist gulag model. A population reduced to total slavery, annihilated by disease, malnutrition, exhausted by forced labor, killed by means of horrifying torture. All meticulously recorded in the perpetrators’ reports and seen in the many common mass graves.
Tan San, the spy. “Ask your questions, I am not afraid. There is no blood on my hands, my hands are clean. I was a spy only for one year. And it was hard.”
«Your mother and I were married against our wills» – Khonsaly tells his dauther, Neary Adeline, – «without knowing each other, together with 20 other couples. A Khmer soldier said “Angkar joins you together. We had to create a new generation for the party. There was no love, no feelings, they were prohibited.» (Khonsaly)
Society no longer existed, neither the family nor any other ties, husbands separated from thier wives, parents from their children. Only a robot in the service of the new Communist classless society.
«My brother, my cousin and I, after one month in the camp decided to escape to Thailand. We were still young and we could do it. I left my family in the middle of a mass of deportees. The soldiers of Angkar were behind us, theey hunted us down. After five days in the jungle they took us to a village called Ta Saeng, and that day I met Ta Sao, the heard of the district, Pat, the executioner, Moeung Sang, the throat cutter, and Ta San, the spy.» (Khonsaly)
«It was very difficult under the Communism, if we had thought things through better […], but I have to admit that we didn’t do things well, many of our relationships were very wrong, everything became so huge.» (Ta Sao)
Many things were “huge” at that time. The entire region, ex French Indo-China, had been embroiled in the flames of the war in Vietnam. Along the famous Ho Chi Minh Trail, which connected North and South Vietnam, the Vietnamese Communists, for years, smuggled in arms and men to support the Vietcong guerrillas who were fighting in the south of the country with the approval of Sihanouk, convinced that the Vietcong would have got the better of the Americans. However, the Americans were left a free hand to bombard the Vietnamese bases in the eastern part of Cambodia.
The rain of bombs dropped by the American B 52s became the determinant in the ideological radicalization of the Khmer guerrillas, welcomed as the liberators when they took over the country on 17 April 1975, after having defeated the American supported government of General Lon Nol (organizer of a coup in 1970 which dethroned Sihanouk) and then beginning a devastating civil war that was to last five long years.
They remained in power until ’79, when the invasion of the neighbouring Vietnam (in response to a series of provocations of the Khmer along the border) brought to an end the radical utopia of the ascetics of Mao. It was only then that the atrocities perpretrated by Pol Pot’s men came to light when thousands of starving and exhausted people began turning up in Thailand, while Cambodia ended up under the yoke of the Vietnamese for a decade. Supported by Beijing and hosted by Bangkok, Pol Pot had become a pawn in the geopolitical anti-Vietnamese game, and consequently, anti-Soviet, and knew how to play and use very well, the opportunities that the bipolar balance offered, being able to assure the government in exile, for all of the 1980s, the recognition of the United States and many other countries, as well as a seat in the United Nations.
Khonsaly’s journey comes to an end in rediscovering places and faces, resurrecting memories buried under the silence of shame for being alive. There is no hatred nor rancor in him, only silence.
«I am happy to see the Old People. I have survived from among the millions of dead. 3 years, 8 months and 20 days as if they had never happened, as if I had dreamt all that horror. After the fall of the regime I fled with the intention of never returning. Years later, I discovered what had happened to my family, they were all massacred on 7 January 1979, the day Angkar collapsed. I have often asked myself why I survived, why me. To tell the story, because this story is your memory.»