Pailin, Cambodia

by Ann Kohler, Mar 23, 2006 | Destinations: Cambodia / Pailin

Pailin, Cambodia, 2004 - A young girl peeks her head out of the operating room, and the boys waiting outside quickly ask her, "Is it a girl?" "Boy," she broadcasts.

Moments later, clinic director Seng Vicheda emerges with the gait of someone going about her business. Her hospital gown is covered with blood, as is the collar of her checked shirt.

She takes off the gown, plops down and is eager to talk about Vibol Sok, her private, general-medicine clinic located in the heart of this former Khmer Rouge stronghold.

What she is not eager to say, however, is that she has a long history with the extreme leftist movement responsible for the deaths of more than one million Cambodians during the 1970s -- and that the difference between her life now and her life then paints one of the more revealing pictures of how rigid the regime was, right up until a few years ago, when thousands of Khmer Rouge soldiers and commanders here defected to the government.

For Seng Vicheda is no ordinary Khmer Rouge loyalist. She is the youngest daughter of Ieng Sary, who served as the deputy prime minister of the Khmer Rouge and often is referred to as Pol Pot's "Brother No. 3."

When she talks about her father, Seng Vicheda wavers between undying loyalty and simmering anger. She didn't meet him until she was 17 years old. By then she had suffered much.

It was 1977. She had been evacuated from Phnom Penh starting on April 17, 1975 along with millions of others. All she knew of her parents was that they were "in the jungle" and had left Phnom Penh in the early 1960s, when she was still an infant.

She was living with her aunt and grandmother at the time of the evacuation. They were professors in the capitol, and like so many other evacuees, she had to conceal her bourgeoisie identity just to survive the two years of hard labor in the countryside.

Her aunt, the sister of her mother, Ieng Thirith (who also played a key role in the movement), was not so lucky. In 1976, she was taken away, and Seng Vicheda never saw her again.

The teenager had been assigned to manufacture medicines in a rural cooperative outside Phnom Penh. Her two sisters were sent to other provinces; her brother Ieng Vuth, who now serves as deputy governor here, served as a soldier in Svay Rieng.

Eventually, her maternal grandmother fell ill. Authorities were notified, and one night, a Khmer Rouge cadre paid Seng Vicheda a visit and told her she was being called to Phnom Penh by the "organization."

She was brought to the capitol and told to wait at what is now the Council of Ministers. She waited for hours, as people of stature -- both Khmer and Chinese -- walked past her into an office at the end of the hall.

Finally, at nightfall, she was allowed in to see the man she would soon learn was her father. "I did not recognize him ... He looked Chinese. He did not know me either," she recalls.

Once their identities were revealed, "I did not have any feeling, as we had not known each other before. I had a feeling of anger, frankly speaking. Because they left me when I was young ... I did not believe that they brought my aunt, who had taken care of me since I was young, to be killed. "I asked myself why, with his position, that he could not save my aunt?

But I did not dare say anything. I was scared." The meeting lasted over an hour, and that was the last she saw of the man she now knew was her father until the Khmer Rouge government fell in 1979.

Afterwards, however, she received a promotion and was sent to work as a nurse to Khmer Rouge soldiers. "I did not want to become medical staff," she says now. "It was not my hobby. But I was appointed by the regime."

One Cambodian human rights worker who once was an intellectual loyal to the Khmer Rouge movement called people like Seng Vicheda "innocent victims" of ideology who had no choice but to obey their family's wishes.

"This woman has been through so much, but she probably still believes that she did what was right," he said. Other survivors of the Khmer Rouge, however, doubt Seng Vicheda was all that innocent.

Sisowath Ayravady, who was sentenced to a camp for members of the royal family, says Ieng Sary's children were "very closely protected, and always given positions of power."

Either way, when she met her father again in 1979, after the Khmer Rouge were ousted from power by Vietnamese troops, Seng Vicheda says she was told she would soon be leaving Cambodia to study medicine in China. Moreover, her father told her that he had no knowledge of the millions of workers and political prisoners who died in Cambodia from 1975 to 1979 -- an explanation she says she believes to this day.

"He told me Khmer must love Khmer, and the next generation should do their best to teach this," she recalls. "I understood and stopped being angry with him."

After earning a medical degree in China, she returned to the Cambodian-Thai border in 1986, where for the next 10 years she would treat Khmer Rouge soldiers fighting a civil war against government forces. When the rebels finally put down their arms in 1996 -- in the midst of negotiations between Seng Vicheda's father, Ieng Sary, and the government -- he helped his daughter fund the clinic, where people they had known for years in the jungle could feel comfortable.

"Trust is really important among the people who defected from the Khmer Rouge," says Ruth Hugo, who did human rights work in Pailin over the last few years and now is based in Phnom Penh. "With health, courts -- any issue -- people want institutions they can trust."

The baby Seng Vicheda has just delivered -- one of three since morning -- is now hooked up to a makeshift oxygen tank, sucking air through a tube in his tiny nose. He is his mother's fifth child. "I was wounded in the stomach during the Vietnamese invasion of 1979," the mother says an hour after the difficult birth. "It always takes me a long time to give birth. The clinic director has helped me with many of my children. She knows what I need."

While the small, 10-bed clinic appears noisy and chaotic, it is run in an orderly fashion by Seng Vicheda and a staff of several young women, many of whom say they want to be like her when they grow up. When asked what was the happiest time in her life, Seng Vicheda says, "Now," without hesitation. She might be loyal to her father and his beliefs, but she also is ready to build a life of her own. "Now I can think about my family, about their future. It's not like before."

But then talk turns to the tough times, and Seng Vicheda quickly excuses herself and slips out of sight. She says she has to come back later and work the night shift at the clinic. Moments later, a pickup truck pulls away from the clinic, and there in the cab she sits, smiling, wedged between her three children, on her way home for dinner.

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