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Pol Pot’s Death Revives Horrors

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Up and down the treeless commercial strip that serves as the hub of Little Cambodia in Long Beach, the memory of dictator Pol Pot was alive as recollections of his atrocities reappeared Thursday like an exorcised ghost making an unwelcome appearance.

The community around Anaheim Street--the largest concentration of Cambodians outside of Asia--was asking if rumors of the Cambodian leader’s death were true. Or was it yet another sinister trick by the master of deception who engineered a genocide so horrible that people still wake in the middle of the night and shake off nightmares of near-death, starvation and torture.

“The people here want to look into his eyes to believe he is really dead and see his body,” said John Heng, 50, standing inside the Phnom Pich Pharmacy on Anaheim Street, where Cambodians lined up to buy medicine or sorted through rows of brightly colored clothes and Cambodian cloth that make up the other half of the store. “We hate him. He killed a lot of people.”

Heng, who came to the United States in 1982, does not want the horrors of Pol Pot’s regime to be easily forgotten by future generations. He tells his five children, ages 2 to 14, of the atrocities committed in the Khmer Rouge concentration camps where people were executed, starved to death or forced to labor in the fields. “My children say to me, ‘Oh, I don’t believe what you are saying.’ I say, ‘Believe me. I was there.’ ”

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If Pol Pot is indeed dead, there are those who are angry that he passed away so peacefully in the night after suffering an apparent heart attack.

“We would have liked that he experience the taste of his own style of killing. Of digging his own grave, kneeling and trembling on the ground in front of that grave and being killed with a blow by a bat to the back of the head because you were told your life was not even worth the price of one bullet,” said an angry Kimthai Rich Kuoch, 35, acting executive director of the Cambodian Assn. of America, a Long Beach-based refugee social services organization.

And there are those who were waiting for an international tribunal to mete out justice to the man accused of killing 1 million Cambodians during a brutal reign of terror from 1975 to 1979 in which every day is still remembered, all three years, eight months and 20 days.

“All of us are saddened by his passing because we wanted him brought to trial,” said Sovann Tith, 37, executive director of United Cambodian Community, another Long Beach-based social services organization. “In this country we are comfortable, but we are not peaceful because things like [Pol Pot’s death] keep coming up.”

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There is not one person in Long Beach’s Cambodian community of 60,000 whose life has not been touched by Pol Pot. Today’s adults lost their youth and their opportunity for education. Entire families were wiped out or separated. Some still hold out hope that siblings who disappeared in the middle of the night are living somewhere in Asia.

Tith, whose parents and three older brothers died in Khmer Rouge concentration camps, remembers having his hands tied behind his back and being told to kneel in front of his own grave. His crime? He stole a handful of rice. He was pardoned. But other family members were not.

“My mother and one of my brothers were killed in 1977,” Tith said, sitting inside La Lune, a popular Cambodian restaurant. “They were sitting there waiting for their death in the camp where we lived and they couldn’t do anything about it. My brother sat there and tried to comfort his wife, who was eight months pregnant. Human life meant nothing.”

Inside the Daily Cafe on Anaheim Street, where doughnuts, ice cream and video machines attract a knot of neighborhood children, owner Ratha Nop had only gotten word Thursday morning that the hated Pol Pot was dead. He immediately turned on the television to see a morning news program showing the body of the deceased dictator.

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And then the memories of his lost childhood reappeared. Nop’s parents and four sisters were killed before he had finished middle school. He was an orphan left to fend for himself when he was liberated from a concentration camp.

In his teens, Nop returned to Phnom Penh to search for his relatives. He found none. To this day, he still feels guilty that everyone in his family died and he survived.

“I have gone through a lot of pain and suffering through my life. I have it with me all the time,” he said, trying to put up a brave facade. “I hope this is the end of the Khmer Rouge.”


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