PHNOM PENH For three decades the scars branded onto Kim Khem’s arms have been a reminder of the sexual torture she saw under the Khmer Rouge. Now, aged 80, she is finally breaking her silence on the horrors of the past.
“They did bad things and if I continue to hide it, it’s like hiding an enemy in my village,” she said of the Khmer Rouge troops who terrorised fellow female inmates at a detention centre in Cambodia in the late 1970s.
“One day, soldiers came in with a red-hot iron bar and asked for ‘naughty women’,” the frail elderly woman added, a psychologist sitting by her side for support.
She went on to describe a brutal sexual assault inflicted on one woman using the implement. The soldiers then used the same scalding bar on her own arms, Kim said, sobbing as she unbuttoned her white blouse to show thick, jagged scars across her weathered skin.
In a country raised on the proverb “men are like gold, women are like white cloth” — implying that only the former can be cleaned after being stained — many Khmer Rouge survivors have kept their sexual traumas secret.
But a growing number of women are now coming forward to shed light on a largely hidden chapter of the country’s ‘Killing Fields’ era, when up to two million people died from starvation, overwork, torture or execution.
Kim said she outlived some 600 women at a prison in southern Takeo province after her guards were apparently spooked that she had survived being clubbed into a mass grave. Last month she told her story at a public forum in Phnom Penh.
“I speak on behalf of the dead women,” the slight old lady said to an audience of some 400 people.
Tearfully, she recounted how women were taken from the facility to be “played with” by soldiers, never to be seen again. She said while she did not witness those rapes “I heard the screaming”.
Kim decided to speak at the two-day event after attending Cambodia’s first “truth-telling forum” last December, also organised by the non-profit Cambodian Defenders Project (CDP).
“Sexual violence under the Khmer Rouge was widespread but there has been little research on it,” said Duong Savorn from the CDP, which has set up a series of events to raise awareness of the issue.
While the indictments acknowledge these crimes “were committed in diverse circumstances”, judges said they could not be linked to the accused because official Khmer Rouge policy was to prevent rape and punish perpetrators.
This position was not shared by the prosecution, which argued in vain that “thousands of civilians were the victims of rape and sexual violence sanctioned ... or condoned by the authorities”.
But not everyone agreed that sharing memories was enough if the crimes went unpunished. As the event drew to a close, an elderly Cambodian woman from the audience stood up and took the microphone.
“I can’t describe all my suffering because it’s too much,” she began, before asking how the victims could ever find “comfort”.
“The Khmer Rouge trial is going to finish soon ... and the government has not yet taken sexual violence (under the regime) seriously,” she said.
“We feel disappointed. We are like floating weeds in the river.”