Hunger, lice at dam site

By: Ethan Harfenist

Constant hunger, hordes of lice and backbreaking labour were an everyday reality for the tens of thousands of Cambodians working at the “January 1” dam worksite in Kampong Thom under the Khmer Rouge.

Witness Un Ron, one of those who survived the project, recalled her horrific experience to the Khmer Rouge tribunal during a hearing for Case 002/02 against Khieu Samphan and Nuon Chea yesterday.

Among the hardships she endured, Ron said she was forced to dig and carry four cubic metres of soil per day on a diet that consisted almost entirely of gruel. If she wanted extra sustenance, she had to risk her life to steal some.

“If I was caught, I would have been killed,” she said. “But I [stole] out of hunger.”

In addition to meagre food rations, Ron said that she and her group were only given two pairs of clothes to wear. If her clothes happened to get wet during a rainy season shower, she said she would still have to work through the downpour and then sleep in her drenched clothing.

“My body was sometimes covered in lice, head to toe” she said. “We had to use the ashes from the firewood to wash the clothes to get rid of the lice.”

As Ron told it, medical care in her work unit was also dismal: those suffering from high fever or dysentery were only given ineffective traditional medicine to cure them. She also stated that workers who claimed they were sick too often and missed work would be taken away for “refashioning”, which, in her words, meant eventual death.

Victor Koppe, defence lawyer for Nuon Chea, challenged Ron on this definition later in the proceedings since she claimed none of her fellow workers were refashioned. Ron confirmed this was the case, but still stuck to her definition in spite of the scrutiny.

Meanwhile, the civil party also claimed to have once seen Pol Pot from 10 metres away at her work site.

“I did not actually know [who he was], but I was told by a work colleague that the man was Pol Pot, the top chief of the Khmer Rouge,” she said.

Koppe showed a grainy black and white film of the dam site. Ron said it wasn’t her unit, as the hats and baskets were different. At the conclusion, Chea and Samphan maintained their silence. The court will resume next Tuesday.