A Khmer Rouge Dam, Built by Slave Labour in Eastern Cambodia.
Above Photo: The front of the first Khmer Rouge-built sluice gate in Ratanakiri Province, Cambodia.
Before the Khmer Rouge took control of Cambodia in 1975, their power base was deep in the jungles of Ratanakri Province, where local tribes like the Kachok, and other ethnic minorities in Cambodia’s wild east had joined them (or been forced to join them) to fight against the American-backed Lon Nol regime in Phnom Penh.
The Ho Chi Minh Trail also ran through this region, and the Khmer Rouge were supporting the North Vietnamese in their fight against the US and South Vietnam during the Vietnam War. Heavy bombing in the region was something I was always conscious of when wandering off into the jungle.
As part of the research for my novel BACK, I visited Kosa Peak village in remote eastern Ratanakiri Province in Cambodia, not far from the Vietnamese border, to view the remains of a Khmer Rouge dam that had been built with slave labour at gunpoint during the Khmer Rouge’s reign of terror.
Just because they had garnered support in the east, when the Khmer Rouge came to power nobody was spared anywhere in the country, and their former allies in the East were as enslaved, tortured, brutalized, overworked and murdered as everyone else in the countryside.
I wanted to see what, if any, physical structures remained in Eastern Cambodia from the Khmer Rouge’s genocidal regime, so I picked up a guide in Kosa Peak village. The guide’s grandfather, also from the village, had been taken off and murdered by the Khmer Rouge in the late 1970s, for uttering some well-deserved but ill-advised comments about the stupidity of the Khmer Rouge regime and the hardships that had befallen the village.
We walked across a one and a half kilometer-wide rice field which had been carved out of the jungle by villagers working as slave labourers under the watchful eyes and ready weapons of the Khmer Rouge after 1975, when they had implemented their retarded Angkor-style rice-growing policy countrywide. This involved emptying the cities and forcing the urban population to become rudimentary rice farmers, often using humans to pull ploughs as buffalos were too expensive.
After the thick jungle around the village had been cleared, the rice field at Kosa Peak was planted by the same villagers, who were also forced to build a 1 kilometer-wide irrigation dam, which is where we were heading that morning.
We crossed a fallow rice field full of delicate purple flowers then plunged into dense brush and bamboo before arriving at our destination, a dark grey concrete construction which I at first mistook for a Khmer Rouge defensive fortification, but which turned out to be the old sluice gate for the rice field’s irrigation canal.
The dam was made of reinforced concrete, the wooden gates now long gone. It was part of the 1 kilometer earth dam that was supposed to regulate water for the rice fields, most of which is now a denuded earth mound covered by trees and scrub.
The large body of water held back by the dam is now just a muddy puddle and rice fields on the other side.
I wondered how many malnourished, overworked villagers had died in the effort it had taken to build this.
Our guide told me small children had to fetch pebbles for the concrete from the Sesan river, 2km away. They would be killed if they were lazy or played around when carrying out their task.
Informants in the village or Khmer Rouge soldiers themselves would report lazy or troublesome villagers to “Angkar” the Khmer Rouge’s organization, and transgressors would be taken from the rice fields or from the dam construction as they worked, or abducted from their homes at night.
Then they’d be tightly bound and gagged, and walked off to be murdered in the jungle, usually with hoes or pieces of wood, as bullets were in short supply and bludgeoning someone to death is a lot quieter than shooting them.
Out of a total of five or six hundred villagers in Kosa Peak during the Khmer Rouge period (1975-1979) our guide said two or three hundred of them had been murdered or had died of overwork, malnutrition and diseases, as the Khmer Rouge’s brutal work regime took its toll.
In this village there were no “New People”, the term given to those Cambodians forced out of cities and towns to do hard labour in the rice fields. Here the killings had been perpetrated by locals on locals. After the war, the killers remained in the village, where they still lived, apparently trying to do good to atone for their sins.
I asked whether there was any resentment from families who’d had loved ones murdered by the Khmer Rouge killers still living in the village. Our guide, whose own grandfather had been one of those victims, said it was a long time ago and the killers were also under Khmer Rouge orders, on pain of death. In the circumstances, they had been forgiven by the other villagers.
We walked on, past buffaloes wallowing in mud, sheltering from the midday heat, to find another concrete sluice gate, still in excellent condition.
I looked at marks on the iron bars reinforcing the concrete (both the iron and the concrete had been supplied by China), and at pebbles in the concrete on the ground, and wondered whether the people who’d fashioned the iron and carried those pebbles had survived the Khmer Rouge regime.
Nobody will ever know.
For a modern-day take on the Vietnam War and Adventure Backpacking into the jungles of Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia, see: http://peteralanlloyd.com/back-part-2/backpackers-meet-the-vietnam-war-back-screenplay-finally-finished/
For POWs left behind in Laos, see also:
© Peter Alan Lloyd
BACK Parts 1 and 2
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