Coming to terms with sadism
He spent much of his life consumed by what the three men on the screen before him had done.
He stared at the glossy, bloodshot eyes of the man in the middle, the one who had so casually demonstrated how he slit his victims’ throats, who explained how his hand grew so sore he often switched to stabbing them at the base of the neck.
They were gaunt figures now, impoverished men trudging the rice ponds of northwestern Cambodia. They had agreed to confess their roles in the Killing Fields, first for a documentary film, “Enemies of the People,” and then here, in a video conference with survivors in Long Beach.
Bo Uce, 39, listened to them explain that they had to obey orders or they too would be executed. He knew they would say this, and they were right. But it didn’t matter.
Uce wasn’t there to understand their rationale. Since landing in New Jersey as a 12-year-old refugee in 1983 and going on to graduate from Dartmouth College, he’d scoured history and psychology books and world literature to try to comprehend the sadism and indifference he’d witnessed as a child in Cambodia. He read “Crime and Punishment” three times to understand Dostoevsky’s character Raskolnikov, who cooked up wispy moral justifications to murder a pawnbroker, only to careen through a whorl of anguish after the act.
Uce came out on this damp Sunday night to make sure these men didn’t think time had diminished their deeds, even as they roamed free after taking part in an atrocity that killed more than 1.5 million people. He wouldn’t let them escape their own anguish.
But he would try to escape his own.
Bo Uce was 4 in 1975 when the Khmer Rouge, with its deranged vision of communism, took power. It purged the country of teachers, doctors, lawyers and writers and forced the population into hard labor on farming collectives.
Most of Bo’s recollections are far-flung moments he struggled to string into coherence later.
He couldn’t recall his father, Kharn, but preserved a few warm memories of his mother, Lah Sok. When the family was forced into the reeducation camps, she worked the rice fields in a women’s brigade within walking distance of Bo’s children’s regiment. When they could, he and his older brother, Roth, would sneak away to see her. She looked emaciated and tired.
His mother sat with him on the berm next to a rice paddy one day and pointed to a crab hole. She said there was a water-lily snake in it. Bo pulled it out and she whacked it dead with a rock. He laughed at her sudden ferocity; she was a gentle, devout Buddhist he’d never seen hurt a bug. They cooked it over some sticks for dinner.
Then one day she was no longer there. There was no grown-up to explain her absence.
When Bo was about 7, a Khmer Rouge guard ordered him to climb a toddy palm one night to get some sap. He scaled the tree but dropped the piece of bamboo he needed to tap it. When he climbed down, the brigade leader, a young man named Chorn, struck him on the head with a heavy piece of bamboo. Bo woke up tied to a pole, bleeding and freezing, crying for his brother to bring him a blanket.
The Khmer Rouge sent him back to work. His brother daubed clay and leaves on Bo’s wound. The throbbing lasted for two years, as if the nerves behind his eyes were pulled tight.
On days when his brigade moved to new fields, Bo hunted or stole whatever food he could find on the way. When the Khmer Rouge caught him pulling up some yams and scallions, they beat him and branded him an enemy — “Khmaong!” — then took him to a prison.
Bo spent most days there confined to a raised bamboo hut with other boys, trying to get at a pile of rice below, hoisting up single grains with wetted threads through the floorboards. Finally, one boy couldn’t take the hunger, and when the warden shoved him, he punched the man in the face. Guards beat him to the ground and the warden ordered the children to stone him. Bo remembers the thuds, sounding ever more pulpy, as the boy died.
These are his snapshots of the Khmer Rouge, the images he still struggles to understand.
When Vietnam liberated the country in 1979, he and his brother moved to an orphanage in Phnom Penh, then to a refugee camp on the Thai border. In 1983, they were adopted by Gordon and Mary Godly, who had grown children and lived in New Jersey.
Bo grasped English quickly and grew to feel loved by his new parents. Mary stayed up late with him as he struggled with homework and she tacked bits of poetry on the walls of his room.
He excelled in school and learned martial arts, letting bullies know not to mess with him. He never became a bully himself. But as he began to ponder the cruel hoax of his childhood, he knew he couldn’t let it go.
Why did those people do what they did? Were they born evil?
Slowly he pieced together what happened to his family. A cousin confirmed what he could only assume by their absence: His mother and baby sister were killed.
He knew it was his responsibility to avenge them, as well as his lost boyhood.
Bo was accepted at Dartmouth College a mere seven years out of the refugee camp. He majored in Russian and devoured Chekhov, Dostoevsky and Solzhenitsyn. He worked as an assistant at the library at Tuck School of Business and sent as much money as he could to his surviving siblings and cousins in Cambodia.
When Bo graduated, he planned to go to law school. But he was devastated when Mary Godly unexpectedly died of complications from diabetes. He decided to go with his brother Roth back to Cambodia. There needed to be a reckoning.
Bo was a man now, strong and lean, with a pugilist’s hard brow. Within hours of arriving in his mother’s village in November 1995, he set off alone from his family farm. He passed water buffalo and oxen as he headed into the paddies. The rice was ripening and he inhaled the jasmine smell, both plaintive and nostalgic. He found a spot on a berm to sit and listen to the birds and frogs and gurgling water.
This was where he secretly met his mother and caught the water lily snake. He felt as if that boy of long ago sat beside him.
“I love you, Mama,” Bo whispered. “I miss you. I will do nothing to shame you.”
His mind careened through disconnected memories and questions. He wondered how his parents were killed. Did they scream? Were their throats sliced with knives, or the sharp serrated edges of the palm fronds?
He put his head down and wept.
Roth came behind him and put a hand on his shoulder. “Let’s go, brother,” he said.
Bo stood and could feel the weight of the Glock 17 in his jacket pocket. He had seen Chorn when they first arrived. Bo could still feel the dents in his cranium where the brigade leader had hit him with a bamboo pole. He was a peasant farmer now, as poor as anyone in the village. He had stayed at bay when other villagers flocked around the returning brothers.
Bo and Roth walked back to the farm, where the family now had three sturdy homes on stilts. Roth quizzed his relatives, trying to find out who knew about the killers of their parents and baby sister.
“Forget it,” their cousins said. “Let their karma take hold. Let it go.”
Bo ignored them. If he couldn’t find the killers, he still had Chorn. He needed to see the man’s house and plot the best way to go about the execution. He wanted to kill him slowly while interrogating him to find where he had tied an unconscious child to a post. Bo hoped to finally see that it was just a place like any other, not the monstrous landscape of his memory.
When he saw Chorn’s hut, he felt a flicker of pity. The thatch roof was ragged, clearly leaking, and the house sat without stilts on the muddy ground.
A group of his female cousins came running to him and fell on their knees. “Don’t do it, cousin!” they said. “Look at what he has now. His dharma has caught up to him!”
Bo got down on his knees with them and cried. He didn’t know how they knew of his plans. He was twisted with anguish. He had to do his job as a son and brother and protector.
“He has children now,” his cousins said. “His children don’t have anything to do with it. You don’t want to make them orphans like you.”
He felt ashamed. He couldn’t do it.
When he returned to America, Bo moved to Southern California to go to Whittier Law School but dropped out when he ran out of money. He bused tables at a Cambodian restaurant in Long Beach, then was hired by the nonprofit Cambodian Assn. of America to help the large refugee community in the city. He managed a martial arts school for a while, did investment management and became a court interpreter, often working two jobs to keep his family in Cambodia afloat.
He wanted to return to law school, but his mind was still on Cambodia. He was riven with guilt over the answers he could not find and the acts of revenge he could not commit.
He got married in 2000, had two daughters and bought a little bungalow in North Long Beach.
He was approached in October by Rob Lemkin, a British producer of an award-winning documentary called “Enemies of the People,” to help with translation for several movie-related events. The movie chronicled the work of Thet Sambath, a journalist and orphan of the Khmer Rouge, who tracked down one of the regime’s highest leaders and two foot soldiers to learn why the killing occurred.
Lemkin wanted to show the film to survivors in Long Beach and set up a videoconference the next week with the two soldiers.
Bo and his family saw the film at the community center in Long Beach’s MacArthur Park. He watched coldly as Nuon Chea, the highest-ranking Khmer Rouge still alive, said that he didn’t know about all the killings in the countryside and that any people he’d ordered to be “solved” were traitors to the nation.
Bo became outraged as he watched the two foot soldiers, identified only as Khoun and Suon, stand by a rice paddy and point to where they dumped bodies. “Thirty to forty in each ditch,” said Khoun. “We didn’t want too many bodies in each ditch.”
Suon, the one with the bloodshot eyes, was asked to demonstrate, on camera with a plastic knife, how he killed. He smiled sheepishly and first said he could not do it, but then agreed. A man lay face down on a bamboo table with his hands behind his back. Suon knelt over him and pulled his head up by the chin.
“You hold his head up like this so they can’t scream,” he said. “Sometimes I did it another way. Because after I slit so many throats like this, my hand ached, so I switched to stabbing them in the neck.”
Bo saw his mother on that table. Her killers were walking around as free as these men.
Suon described how he ate his victims’ gallbladders because he was told they were medicinal.
“I don’t know what I’ll be reborn as in the afterlife,” he said. “How many holes of hell must I go through before I can be reborn again as a human. I feel desperate, but I don’t know what to do. I will never again see sunlight as a human being in this world.”
Bo saw no true remorse, just a killer seeking sympathy.
When the film was over, Bo translated for Lemkin as the producer gauged reaction. Some in the audience said they wished they hadn’t come. The movie was too raw. Others were grateful.
“Can I ask a question myself?” Bo asked, suddenly overcome with emotion.
“Why did these people not kill themselves?” he asked. “If they feel so bad about what they did, why didn’t they kill themselves right after they did it? How are they able to live after they killed my family, all these families?”
He started tearing up, and could barely speak through his grief and anger. “I’ve got to go. I’m sorry.”
Bo had to steel himself to face the killers the next Sunday.
That damp night, he went to a high-rise in downtown Long Beach to help translate at the videoconference. Several dozen Cambodian emigres took part.
Suon and Khoun were up on the Panasonic flat screen, sitting in a law office in Bangkok, looking relaxed. Another confessed murderer had joined them.
The questions started after formal greetings and blessings. “If [they] ordered you to kill your parents, your son and father, your siblings, would you be able to do it? Can you do it?
“If I received an order to do it,” Khoun said, “and I didn’t do it, I would be killed.”
One woman asked why they didn’t rebel.
“We had only our hands,” Suon said. “The people to be killed were brought from other places. If I had tried to rebel against the Khmer regime, all my people would be killed, my own family.”
Again and again, the killers said they had no choice. They didn’t know where the orders came from. They were speaking now so that people would know what happened, so that it wouldn’t happen again.
The three men seemed to be almost charming some in the crowd.
As Bo translated for several observers who did not speak Khmer, he worried that this exchange might ease their consciences. At one point, one man said he would love to host them in Long Beach. Their confessions were taking on strains of heroism.
Bo picked up the microphone. He was cool now. He wanted to ask something that would unravel their defense a bit, reveal its absurdity.
“Greetings from a distance, proud uncles,” he said. “I’m an orphan. I want you to know that I already forgive you.”
The men thanked him and smiled.
“Uncles, you used to eat human liver or gall bladder,” he said. “Did you do that on your own or were you ordered?”
The men glanced at each other, looking uncomfortable. There was a long pause. Suon kept his hands clasped in front of his mouth.
Finally Khoun took the microphone.
“I only saw … I saw it a bit and I tried it to test it, I tried it out. The gallbladder was for medicine so I wanted to try it. Just a little bit. That’s my honest answer. Just one bit.”
Bo handed his microphone off, frustrated at the flatness of the exchange.
On the drive home, he wondered if he had been searching for an answer that was not there.
He opened the front door, kissed his girls goodnight and stepped into his backyard alone. He looked at the cloudy sky, glowing above the city lights.
Answers would not bring closure, revenge would not bring closure. Nothing would.
Perhaps there was a certain peace in this.
He would try to let go of the anguish. He would forgive himself now.