youk chhang, war: the afterparty

phnom penh, cambodia

WAR: The Afterparty is a one-of-a-kind citizen audit of the aftereffects of a half-century of U.S. military interventions. Through a series of extraordinary interviews and chance encounters with political and religious leaders, writers, teachers, mothers, and combatants, Brian Gruber examines whether the objectives of war are accomplished, and at what human and financial costs. 


In Chapter Six: ‘Indochina – I Want Them to Hit Everything’ Brian talks to Youk Chhang, the founder and head of The Documentation Centre of Cambodia or DC-CAM and a survivor of the killing fields. 


In this excerpt, Chhang talks openly about various aspects of his life, including his experiences during the Cambodian genocide, his work with DC-CAM, his personal relationships, and his reflections on the human condition.




DC-Cam is a creation of the U.S. Genocide Justice Act of 1994 signed into law by President Bill Clinton requiring Congress to establish an office for the investigation of the crime.


The research had to be conducted by an independent agency and Chhang’s team from Yale University competed for the grant.


I was here on the first day of the project, day one, to start the program. I thought back then that it was so sensitive, I tried to do something that people could relate to it. So. I called it DC-CAM. It can be translated in different ways, like documentation in Cambodia.


After two years, the State Department funding finished. Then I shifted the objective. I would look beyond justice, so it’s not only about prosecution, it’s about education. It’s also about healing, but still around the idea that, without justice, there is no peace. I began to understand that victims have to stand on their own feet at the end of the day. Genocide prevention requires the physical legacy that would connect you to documents and to educate the young population.

I ask what the level of success of bringing former war criminals to justice in Cambodia has been.

There is no success. I mean, you look for success, you have no success.
Because genocide is not about success. Genocide is a political issue, a political act. There has been no genocide prevented since World War I. The UN convention on genocide was signed in 1949 and only in 2005 did the UN began to realize that education is a means to prevention, creating the remembrance of holocaust survivors

I’m curious about whether there’s something unique about Cambodian politics, justice system, culture, that took so long to bring any people to trial.


Cambodia should be a reminder for all of us. This is not about Cambodia, it’s about humanity. We are all the same. One of the reasons that such a crime keeps continuing, it’s because we think that we are different than Cambodia, we are different from Iraq, we are different from Syria. Our culture, geography, might be different, but we’re all humans.

Cambodians are unique in the sense that it’s the first genocide trial in the 21st century. Next month will be the 100-year anniversary of the Armenian genocide. Genocide doesn’t discriminate. So there’s no success. We failed for a century. Armenian, Cambodian, Rwandan, you name it.

I ask Chhang for his insight into a fundamental question: what is there in the human condition, in the human heart, that allows us to commit crimes like that?


I think perhaps devastations, perhaps isolation or loneliness. This is a culture of obedience. You trust your parents, your community, your governor, your king. They are closer to God than us. But now, when we look back, what if we didn’t do it, what if we fought back? What if we stuck together?

Should other countries have intervened to prevent the genocide in Cambodia?


There was a debate led by Gregory Stanton, the founder of the genocide program at Yale University, on the stages of genocide. At certain stages, you try to intervene in a peaceful way, by negotiating. You just don’t want to believe it. But in cases like Cambodia, intervention is only by military means. We can’t intervene with negotiating. That’s why war is necessary in some cases. In 1977-78, Amnesty International sent a letter to Khieu Samphan, the president of the state presidium of Democratic Kampuchea at the time, expressing concern about human rights violations. To show how naive, when you try to raise a concern to a state, knowing that they’re killing millions of their own population. So, Vietnam came with troops to stop it.

For the survivors, they’re reborn, they can live again. For others, it’s an invasion.

Cambodia back then was a black wall; nobody knew what was happening. I have evidence that the U.S. State Department tried to document the story from the refugees who fled the country. But to whom do they send the information? Send it to the permanent Security Council of the UN? China is there, Russia is there. Who’s going to look at this? There was no mechanism in place yet to look at human rights accusations. So, the U.S. actually starts in 1976 to look at it, but we are already far behind the crime. Evil seems to be two steps ahead of us.

I offer the U.S. claim, when it was bombing Cambodia and supporting the Lon Nol government from 1970, that it was doing so to prevent communist aggression and what it argued would be a bloodbath if the Khmer Rouge took over.


Back then, I was 10 years old. There’s an economic conflict between Russians and Americans, so they took a strong position. When I study this, the king was also a factor in the bombing and in the Khmer Rouge coming to power. Back then he had good intentions. The United States tried to negotiate with the South, with the North, with Cambodia, with Laos. So, they were using two ways to find peace: you negotiate or you wage war. With war, I think it’s a matter of strength. But they overlooked the resistance of the communist ideology which is much stronger than destructive weapons.

By “ideology,” Chhang means both Marxism-Leninism and a search for independence from the colonialist rulers.

Because they’re looking for support and they had to turn to Marx. First the Khmer Rouge went to Russia because they were one of the two blocks.


War should not be the first choice in any event. But war is unavoidable. According to the Khmer Rouge documents, they were willing to die if they could mislead a U.S. plane so that the report would say that they were bombing civilians. They used an old battery to flash the light and they carried on running it. The pilots saw it, started chasing it, and they bombed it. In fact, that person is just like a suicide bomber. They even drew a picture in a notebook, how to do that and then they would become a hero. They were indoctrinated, all these young soldiers.

The Khmer Rouge came up with the idea of using the bombing to recruit supporters. They were trained by the Vietnamese, who had fought the Americans for long before. So, it came back to you Americans. You created a monster.

The Khmer Rouge were naive, low-class peasants, uneducated, had no idea. They didn’t know, in the Khmer language, what to call an airplane, they don’t know what it is. But because they were supporters or treated as a little brother by the Vietnamese communist movement, they were trained. They were brought to train in Hanoi and they used the bombers as a campaign to gain support.

It’s not hard for a cadre to indoctrinate a 16-year-old, I suggest.


When the young boy was isolated from his parents, their ideology becomes their parents’. The least they can do is be a hero for the family. When you have people die, the Khmer Rouge put a plaque called “Hero of the Village” in front of the house of the parents. It looks like the Chinese flag, it’s red color and they write how this comrade died because of U.S. imperialism, blah blah blah. They made a fake tomb and they put it in front of the house, and that family was special, was given honor in the village. Then other families would sacrifice their own kid, because when being honored, you get more rations, more food, better treatment, special status.

Chhang was 14 when the Khmer Rouge came to his village. He was forced to leave his parents and family, and go by foot to a Khmer Rouge camp on the Thai border.


I lived in Zone 5, the experimental zone, about 40 square kilometers, basically flat field, all water.

I lived alone. I would work in the field. You can die because every day they gave you only two spoons of water. You never took showers for months and months. Then you wait until rainy season comes and you can shower in it. Then you catch a crab, you can catch things on the field to eat. You can eat leaves. In rice season, it’s all green. In the dry season, there is only flowers that you cannot eat.

During my Khmer Rouge time, for me, Zone 5 was the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen. And every harvest season I would look at the flowers and tell myself I would return one day. So, I did, I returned to the flower field. Beautiful.

It’s beautiful and it made me live, because of the flowers. They’re yellow. I took a lot of photographs and I actually want to write a book about that flower. To me, it’s the most beautiful, healing sight I’ve ever seen in my entire life. I love it.

I became friends with a little girl, with Khmer Rouge kids because they helped me to steal. They would watch the guard and they would signal me and show how to pull the cassava and hide it and eat. Grill it under the ash to cook it.

Chhang returned and saw them again, now grown, with husbands and families.


In my memory, I always saw these little kids as beautiful. But when I met them, now they were all so ugly. (Chhang laughs.) I told them and they were laughing. I said, “you were so cute back then.” When we were running under the fog and the big tree. It’s like Hollywood. So beautiful. And this is deep in the jungle. You close your eyes, you see these potato rows, these cassava trees, ginkgo, little kids walking around. It’s just so beautiful.

Victims have selective memory. I might be a bit different, because I also remember the beauty of it and, through education, I accept it. But many victims, they only want to remember the suffering they’ve been through.

I recall and share with Chhang a recent story in a National Geographic article about an old Vietnamese woman talking about the days when she was helping the Viet Cong amidst the bombing, seeing these young boys blown up, all these deprivations; she would provide them food along the Ho Chi Minh trail. She said it was the most beautiful time in her life. There was something about being in thatbrutal situation, having to connect with people on this very primal  level.


Zone 5 for me is like a millionaire being right in the middle of those flowers. So I go there every year by season, I just want to see it.

When the Vietnamese came and Chhang’s mother was concerned he would be drafted, he left home and, with the equivalent of five dollars in his pocket, he made it to Dallas, Texas.

So I haven’t lived with my family in the last 40 years. And that bothers me. It’s not about genocide, killing, prisons I visit, no. It’s about family that I never have the same way. My mother now is 87 and she told us not to count those who died. Because so many have died. When you count, it brings back bad memories. She doesn’t want to be reminded. Because she lost everyone. Not just only her brother and sister, also spouse and children. My father, all his side, are gone.

I think my mother, she never cried. My sister died recently because of cancer, she didn’t come to the funeral. I think she has seen enough. She told us not to write down, to remember. But I tried at one point to remember who had died, it was about 60.

Chhang, who’s 54, has a son and a daughter, both in school. I told him about my two daughters and the Afghan army colonel and Afghan hospital CEO who want for their daughters something more than what their country brought to them. Chhang says it’s different for him.


My two kids were born American and I never wanted to bother them about Cambodia. At one point, one of my son’s friends wrote an essay in grade seven, I think, and it was about me. He was shy and shocked. It was called “Asian Hero, Youk Chhang.” He said, “It’s my Dad, I know him!”

I’ve adopted three kids who are Cambodian. I sent them to English school, to the international school. Because during the late 1990s, a lot of parents left kids in hospitals, so I gave my name to the hospital and said, “If anyone leaves a kid, let me know.” So, there was one boy and one girl who were left. I gave the nurses one dollar each for them, I tipped them. So, we raised them now. They’re 11 and 12.
I just love them so much. I give them everything that I never had as a child.

You can imagine a kid in Cambodia. But for them, they went to the most elite school in the country. They speak fluent English and several languages, they play basketball.

I give them anything they want. Any toy that a kid here doesn’t have, they have. I bought from America, I bought from Europe.

I keep worrying what I will tell them, that I’m not their father. They’re already 12, they know, because we don’t have the same last name. To adopt them, we had to put on their birth certificates that their parents are dead. But, in fact, they are alive.

I adopted them because I lost my childhood, so I wanted to give them everything that I lost.

For me, having adopted them is about me, not about them. I feel very guilty.

I’m known to some of my friends as a bone collector, I touch the bones. I meet the people who tortured me. Genocide is nothing to me. But one thing that they did to me, they took away my childhood. So whenever I think about my childhood, I get very, very irritated, very annoyed and very upset. Something is missing in me.

Chhang has a remarkable story and a remarkable attitude toward life and toward what’s happened in Cambodia. He draws his sustenance and personal philosophy from his mother.


She became everything to me. She’s a farmer girl who couldn’t read and write. And she always believes in her dreams. Even when I met her a couple days ago, she told me another dream. Before my sister died, she knew that she would die.

She told me that when she was pregnant that she lost me in the jungle and she was crying looking for me. And then she saw me sitting on the top of the mountain, cross-legged, looking to the east. So she said that I will have a good future if I don’t stay with her. For me it’s breaking my heart: I’m supposed to live with her.  And when the war came, because I was the youngest, all the attention went to my elder brother and sister. So, I had no attention from my own mother, parents. I started learning how to make kites, to make toys on my own. That prepared me to live with the Khmer Rouge independently. When I lived with the Khmer Rouge, I escaped to try to meet her. All the time I would do that. Because I wanted to see her.

She lives a couple blocks from here. Now when I see here, I don’t have any conversation with her. Nothing. I was there last weekend to see here, I wanted to comfort her because my sister just died, I didn’t know what to say. “You eat yet?” “I’m finished.” And that anger has driven me to do things like this. This anger of not having the attention and love from your own parents has driven me to do what I did.

Despite that, he has an attitude full of love towards life, towards his children, towards his country.


Because I don’t have it myself. I really discovered that. I don’t have it. So, I had to give it to somebody else. When I look back to 1961, now it’s 2015, I spent maybe eight years with my mother. A very small part, a little bit of time each day. So, I never wanted to live with her again. And that is breaking my heart and that I blame on genocide. That’s where genocide affected me.

Not all this crime, not all these perpetrators, they are nobody, I can hit them, I can arrest them, I can put them on trial. Why should I be afraid of them?

When I used to be in prison, because I would steal goods, I took it. Because I committed a crime defined by the Khmer Rouge and I was arrested. I didn’t resist, I didn’t say they were wrong, they put me in prison, they beat me up. As a punishment. I endured, I didn’t cry. I accepted it. Genocide is nothing. Then you start to look at the rice field when you plant the plants. Then the memory comes back, the childhood. That’s . . . I cannot tell you.

For me, when you’re close to the water, you begin to appreciate it. You can see yourself in the water. Because you cannot look around, you will be killed. So, then you focus on the water that can reflect yourself. And you appreciate the little things, the grass, the sun on the water, and they become the color, the color of a painting.

So I learned all these things and I started to love the country deeper and deeper, during the most devastated time in my entire life. When you live in the darkness, the little things are beautiful. People were laughing, too, people smiled.

But the victim mentality is that you have to be sad. They are so afraid to recognize other things that also happened at that time, the beauty of it. And perhaps because of that, they died, they had been traumatized. And that perhaps is how I lived, I used it as strength to move on with my life and I returned to the place and I faced it.

Many years ago, a Japanese-American reporter from the Washington Post, asked me, “Try to think, what is bothering you?” She kept asking me that question. I said, “This must be a crazy woman.” And then I started to think seriously about her question and I wrote how I survived. I discovered then that it reflected to my childhood.


Read about Brian’s travels through Guatemala, Nicaragua, Panama, Serbia, Iraq, Afghanistan, Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia by purchasing “WAR: The Afterparty”.
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