Seng Thi Thach was just 12 when she watched her family members die, one by one, of starvation, exhaustion and disease.
Sokha Tenmeyer, shackled and malnourished, was allowed to see her husband every three days; they were so emaciated and weak they couldn’t even hold each other.
What is justice, what is just, when you have endured so much?
On Thursday, two Khmer Rouge leaders were convicted and sentenced to life in prison for their role in the deaths of almost 2 million Cambodians nearly 40 years ago.
Nuon Chea, 88, and Khieu Samphan, 83, the only surviving members of the Khmer Rouge leadership deemed fit for trial, were found guilty of crimes against humanity by a tribunal run by the Cambodian government and the United Nations. They will appeal.
For Chicago-area survivors of the Killing Fields — people who found their way out of hell and built a new life in the United States — the decades that have passed disappear when they talk about their suffering. To them, the verdict means little.
“Capture or not capture, both of my parents already pass away,” Seng Thi Thach said. After the Vietnamese Army liberated the farms, Thach lived in Cambodia, until she met her husband and they immigrated to the United States.
Thach lived with her family in Phnom Penh until they were forced to leave their home and farm rice for the Communist collective. The backbreaking work in rice paddies, often flooded and teeming with leeches, made Thach and her mother sick. Before long, the illness and starvation killed her mother and sister.
It was 1975 when the Khmer Rouge began clearing the cities, driving everyone to rural areas while executing intellectuals and soldiers along the way. In early 1979, the Vietnamese army captured Phnom Penh, and Khmer Rouge leader Pol Pot and his soldiers fled to Thai territory.
The Communist control of Cambodia is counted down to the day: Three years, eight months and 20 days, to be exact, but Thach doesn’t know when her family died or how long she was enslaved to the rice fields.
“Never have time to count, and don’t want to know how many years,” Thach said through a translator. “The hunger is the one that is stronger than thinking about what day it is; how many years, it don’t matter.”
Tenmeyer was 23 and married with two young sons when the regime began.
“I am so hurt and so angry when I see the people that have a family, brother, sister, grandmother, you know how much I hurt. Where is my family?” Tenmeyer said.
“I lost all my family, my husband, they kill all in front of my face,” she said.
The Khmer Rouge frequently used blunt objects, like garden hoes, to bludgeon prisoners to death, rather than waste bullets.
She’s incredulous at the treatment Chea and Samphan receive while in prison. Both were arrested in 2007 and face separate charges for genocide, for which preliminary court hearings have already started.
“Why don’t they kill [the Khmer Rouge leaders] the same way they kill us?” Tenmeyer said. “Why do they keep them so many year?”
“They didn’t put the shackle on him, they don’t starve him, beat him up every day, let him go to work for no food like us, and let them go to work no medicine when he got sick,” Tenmeyer said. “The way he go to jail for right now, that’s not going to bring my family back.”
Now Tenmeyer splits her time between Cambodia, Chicago and South Carolina with her second husband. She said she doesn’t like to tell stories from this period to her children, but when she starts talking about it, it’s clear she remembers great detail.
Tenmeyer and Thach regularly visit the Cambodian Association of Illinois, which is home to a museum that tells the stories of survivors of the Killing Fields and hosts a memorial for the murdered. Glass panels are engraved with the names of relatives lost: The association gathers the names from visitors and lists them in Khmer, the victims’ native language.
Though the Cambodian population of Illinois is just over 4,000, with about 2,300 in Chicago, the site draws visitors from around the globe, said Dary Mien, who is director of the memorial and museum. It is the only memorial that lists victims by name.
The association is about to launch a fundraising drive with the Chicago Community Trust to expand the museum as a way of honoring the 40th anniversary of the genocide, which will be marked next year. The proposed $2 million renovation would dramatically increase space for the museum, research library and social services center located one floor above. It would also create a space for traveling exhibits, performances and panel discussions, Mien said.
“Justice means different things to different people. We need both legal justice and social justice,” she said.
Education for the younger generation about Cambodian heritage and history is the way to bring justice to survivors, she said.
“Most of the Cambodians we serve are Killing Fields survivors, and they need a place to heal,” said Kompha Seth, one of the association’s co-founders, now serving as its interim executive director.
“We cannot sit still. We have to go beyond survival.”