Thirty years on, the nightmare of Pol Pot's terror haunts a widow in a Paris suburb



Khmer Rouge

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Thirty years on, the nightmare of Pol Pot's terror haunts a widow in a
Paris suburb

France faces moment of truth over events that ended embassy siege in
Cambodia

Jon Henley in Paris
Friday January 27, 2006
The Guardian


The last time she saw him he was standing on the tarmac at Phnom Penh
airport, waving as the ageing Air Cambodia plane carrying her, her
daughter, two nephews and three suitcases to safety shuddered into the
sky, avoiding by some miracle the constant barrage of Khmer Rouge
shells.
In truth, she saw him once more, seven days later, on April 17 1975.
But she was in France, and he was on the television. He was hurrying
into the compound of the French embassy in Phnom Penh with the prime
minister and other high-ranking officials from the former republic,
clutching a suitcase she had left him stuffed with nearly $300,000 of
her mother's cash.

He is safe, she thought. But he was not. Four days later two French
gendarmes dragged Ung Boun Hor, the former speaker of the Cambodian
national assembly, to the compound gates and delivered him, with six
other alleged "traitors", to a platoon of waiting Khmer Rouge soldiers.
One eyewitness said he was so scared of what awaited him his legs were
"quite literally shaking". After that, no one saw Ung Boun Hor again.

Sitting now in her cramped one-room flat in the Paris suburb of Nogent,
Billon Ung Boun Hor, 66, relates the horrifying events of those few
days three decades ago - portrayed in Roland Joffe's 1984 movie The
Killing Fields - calmly enough. But the years have done nothing to
temper her bitterness.

Shot on the spot

"My life stopped the day my husband was handed over," she said. "I
cannot accept that France, so-called land of justice, cradle of human
rights, did that. If the Khmer Rouge had stormed the embassy, shot him
on the spot ... but the French knew exactly what would happen to him
and they just threw him out. There's a photograph of it happening,
here, in Newsweek, May 19 1975. Look." Her husband's face is a mask of
terror.

Now, with her three sons and daughter established in their own homes
and careers, Mrs Ung has engaged one of France's best-known lawyers,
William Bourdon, to sue persons unknown (a French legal tactic to
ensure the police investigation casts its net as wide as possible) for
illegal confinement and acts of torture.

She does not necessarily want compensation, she says, just an
acknowledgement that, in the confused early hours of Pol Pot's brutal
regime, the former colonial power could have made some effort to save a
handful of elected officials whose lives were in great danger and who
had sought refuge and political asylum at its embassy.

"We could have done something," said one senior former member of the
French community in Phnom Penh, who asked not to be named. "The
compound was vast; a few helicopters and a few legionnaires and it
would all have been over. The Khmer Rouge were kids, they wouldn't have
interfered. This whole episode has been hushed up in France and it
makes me ashamed to be French."

Contemporary accounts by Sydney Schanberg, the New York Times
correspondent on whose story The Killing Fields was based, Dith Pran,
his assistant, and by the Sunday Times' Jon Swain and Newsweek
photographer Al Rockoff, describe the chaos at the embassy as about
1,000 desperate Cambodians and 300 fearful westerners ran short of food
and water.

Fury

According to several reports, the remaining French diplomats and
nationals provoked fury by hogging the few bedrooms, standing on
ceremony rather than cooperating, and dining on steak when the rest of
the refugees slept outside and ate rice gruel, occasionally pork, and,
finally, dogs and cats - the pets they had brought in with them

Jean Dyrac, the vice-consul left in charge, was plainly out of his
depth. The Khmer Rouge refused to recognise the embassy compound as
French soil, calling it a re-groupment centre for foreigners and
demanding the handover of the "war criminals and traitors" - the seven
senior Cambodian officials. Otherwise the food, water and electricity
would be cut off, the communist guerrillas said.

No one knows how the Khmer Rouge knew that Ung Boun Hor and his
colleagues, including the king's cousin Sirik Matak, were in the
embassy. Father François Ponchaud, a French priest who was in the
compound, said recently that he could "only suppose they were betrayed
by a Frenchman, evidently, there was a leak from one of us".

Over the years Mrs Ung has talked to many of the western survivors from
the compound, almost all of whom were brought out in two bus convoys to
Bangkok. Few of the Cambodians who sought refuge in the embassy,
tainted by their obvious ties to Europe, survived: up to 30% of the
population died over the following few years. Mrs Ung lost, at least,
100 members of her family.

She has pieced together a picture of what she thinks happened; of how,
supposedly out of concern for the safety of everyone in the compound,
Paris ordered Mr Dyrac to hand over the men on the Khmer Rouge's wanted
list.

Classified

She has seen the classified files containing the 25 or so telegrams
between the embassy and the foreign ministry, the contents of which,
she says, "confirm absolutely" that she was right to bring her case.
She even knows the names of the five French nationals who shared the
$300,000 of her family's money put in her husband's suitcase.

Bernard Hamel, who reported from Phnom Penh for Reuters until a few
days before the Khmer Rouge entered the city, interviewed embassy
survivors as they got off the buses in Bangkok, and has written three
books on the period, told the Guardian it was "perfectly clear" from
what the fleeing westerners said - and what they did not say - that
something "shocking and appalling" had happened in the compound.

"There can be no doubt the 'super-traitors' handed over were executed,
probably the same day. 'Ordinary' Cambodians were forced to join the
mass exodus to the fields - it is harder to know their fate, though you
can make a good guess," Mr Hamel said. "I spent 12 years trying to find
out what happened to my Cambodian assistant, only to discover, in 1987,
that he and his family were massacred in September 1975."

Mrs Ung, who was born into one of Cambodia's wealthiest families,
enjoyed a gilded childhood, went to school in France and lived the
first 30 years of her life in great luxury (her husband, 13 years her
senior, was a minister, an ambassador and MP before he became speaker).
She landed in Paris in 1975 with $20,000 and some jewellery. Her
parents and three sons had fled there in 1973, when the nature of the
Khmer Rouge threat became plain.

For 25 years she supported her family, working as a bank clerk. Every
night still, she burns incense in front of her husband's photo and
tells him about her day. "The foreign ministry has never wanted to have
anything to do with me, not even to receive me. For France, it's like I
and my husband have never existed. It can no longer behave like that."

Who exactly, in Paris, took the decision to surrender Ung Boun Hor and
his colleagues, and why? Was it really the only option? The League of
Human Rights is backing Mrs Ung's case, which some experts believe
could, when it comes to court, rapidly escalate into a veritable
affaire d'etat.

Backstory

Part of French-ruled Indochina and occupied by the Japanese in the
second world war, Cambodia gained full independence in 1953. Its ruler,
Norodom Sihanouk, was deposed in 1970 and the country became the Khmer
Republic - against which the Communist Khmer Rouge waged a brutal
five-year civil war that ended with the capture of Phnom Penh in 1975.
Pol Pot became prime minister and, under massive collectivisation,
forced urban residents back to the countryside. Maybe three million of
the eight million-strong population died, through forced labour and
starvation, or were massacred - a terror later brought to public
attention by Roland Joffé's acclaimed 1984 film The Killing Fields. In
1978 invading Vietnamese troops overthrew the regime. The Khmer Rouge
continued fighting a sporadic guerilla war until the late 1990s.

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