Dispatch

'Around Here, People Love Him'

In the Cambodian province where Khmer Rouge leaders came to die, people aren’t celebrating a guilty verdict against two top regime officials. After all, they’re neighbors.

PAILIN PROVINCE, Cambodia — When former Khmer Rouge officials Nuon Chea, 88, and Khieu Samphan, 83, were sentenced to life in prison on Thursday for committing crimes against humanity, no one inside a small pagoda near the Cambodia-Thai border clapped. Sitting on mats strewn across the floor, most people watching the state broadcast of the ruling seemed to be intermittently paying attention. Many viewers chatted with friends and family or stared down at their cell phones as judge Nil Nonn from the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC) -- the U.N.-funded tribunal established to try senior leaders of the Khmer Rouge -- read the guilty verdict.

There were 20 such public screenings across the country, organized by the Documentation Center of Cambodia (DC-CAM), an organization that specializes in historic preservation, education, and outreach about the Khmer Rouge, the brutal communist regime that ruled Cambodia from 1975-1979. Nearly two million people were killed in the Cambodian communists' attempt to create their own brand of the Great Leap Forward. Except for a hasty 1979 show trial convicting senior leaders in absentia, there was no justice in the immediate aftermath of the ruinous regime. It wasn't until 2006 that, as a result of international pressure, the ECCC was established. And until Thursday, there had been only conviction in the court, in the case of Kaing Guek Eav, or Duch, who ran an infamous prison torture center.

The men on trial this time were two of the Khmer Rouge's top officials: Nuon Chea, who served as deputy to Pol Pot, the regime's notorious leader, and Khieu Samphan, the one-time head of state. They faced a raft of charges, including crimes against humanity and genocide. Cambodians who have waited 35 years for a major Khmer Rouge leader to be convicted finally saw it happen.

But Pailin province, where the pagoda screening was held, is different.

One of the first places invaded by the Khmer Rouge when it was an insurgent army, Pailin also became the de facto home of many of the Khmer Rouge leaders after the regime fell. Ieng Sary, the ex-Khmer Rouge minister of foreign affairs who died last year before the verdict in his trial, and his former wife, Ieng Thirith, who was declared unfit to face the court due to dementia, both still have relatives and property in the area. Chea and Samphan also lived there at the time of their arrests in 2007. Pailin, in short, is where many Khmer Rouge figures came to die.

Many in the area want to forget the past, and those who knew the defendants, including the men's relatives, think they are innocent or were too old to be prosecuted. Others have simply stopped paying attention to the ECCC after nearly a decade of limited progress.

Him Klou watched the verdict with his prosthetic leg placed beside him on a mat. Klou, 65, served in the government army before being forced to enlist with the communists when they maintained an insurgency in the 1980s. He lost his leg after stepping on a landmine. Klou, who also lost relatives to the Khmer Rouge, now runs the commune, the small administrative area where the screening was held -- and his time in Pailin has given him a unique view on the ECCC. Klou said the verdict was just and that he supports the court, but he also said that since locals are friends of Chea, he can understand why they don't want him to be in jail.

"From my point of view, what I see is good," Klou said, describing Chea's life in Pailin. But then he hedged: "When he has no power, he is good."

***

Pailin is a six-hour drive from the Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh; it is the last province before the Thai border. The vestiges of the Khmer Rouge came here in the late 1980s as the Vietnamese military, which had pushed them out of power in 1979, withdrew from Cambodia. As part of a deal with the government, the part of the Khmer Rouge loyal to Ieng Sary lay down their arms and defected in exchange for semi-autonomy. Chea and Samphan, who had been with Pol Pot in a separate stronghold, followed a few years later. In the early 2000s, the area became a legitimate province.

Among those who moved to the border in the 1980s are the relatives of Samphan and Chea. They now live in Prom, a village within sight of Thailand. A taxi driver named Has Sarom knew the way.

"[Chea] was just a normal person, he stayed at home," Sarom said as he drove along a winding mountain road. "Very simple and very kind." Sarom, 57, said he was not aligned with the Khmer Rouge when it was in power, but he also doesn't understand why officials would want to lock up a man in his 80s. "Nuon Chea is so old. Why did the trial arrest him?"

"I cannot believe [Chea] made the decision to kill people," he added.

Nearing the Thai border, Sarom turned left down a muddy road before pulling up to a clearing. A short walk down a path stood two clapboard structures. Laundry was hanging up, and a young child was feeding ducks, but no one else was in sight. This, Sarom said, is a house that Chea used to live in. The complex was in disarray. Later, a relative of Chea's said the owner of the land had gotten so sick of journalists coming down the path seeking interviews with Pol Pot's second-in-command that he personally dismantled the house.

Back toward the main road, Sarom parked outside a large house built of timber. A man identifying himself as Chea's grandson-in-law, a 36-year-old police officer named Ou Boran, came outside to talk. Like Sarom, he didn't understand why Chea was in jail, let alone about to be sentenced for crimes against humanity.

"[Chea] is clean. He did everything for the nation," said Boran, referring to Chea respectfully as Lok ta, which translates to "Sir Grandfather". "Around here, people love him. People in Pailin, they believe that those leaders are respectful."

Khieu Samphan's house is located about 20 minutes away, on a street closer to the center of Pailin town, across from a gas station and in view of a mountain peak. The house is a rectangular box of concrete surrounded by coconut and mango trees. An elderly man who came out of the house said he was a distant relative of Samphan's, though a neighbor later said he was actually a brother-in-law. The man refused to give his name and seemed nervous, ambiguously saying that he had to call someone to make sure he could give an interview. (He did not specify who was on the other end of the line.)

Yet after a while, he seemed more at ease. "A lot of people living here think it is wrong to arrest Khieu Samphan because he was not involved and had no part in the killings," the man said. (A common argument offered in support of Samphan is that he was just a figurehead in the Khmer Rouge.) "About Nuon Chea, I don't know, but about Khieu Samphan, it's an injustice."

***

The vast pagoda where the verdict was screened has columns stretching from floor to ceiling. Paintings of the Buddha's life cover the interior, and a 15-foot Buddha statue stands at the head of the shrine. The crowd inside for the show was mixed in age; some had lived through the Khmer Rouge's awful reign, while others weren't alive at the time.

Hun Pheun, 61, a senior village official, joined the Khmer Rouge in 1973, two years before the group took power. He insisted that he never killed innocent people, and that he only learned of the grievous nature of the regime when the ECCC trials began. He said he tried to leave the Khmer Rouge many times to defect to the government, but never succeeded. As for the verdict, Pheun said the life sentence was necessary, to set the right precedent. "It would be a bad habit for the old to be released," he said. "It will be a model." He suggested giving the convicted two life sentences, just to drive home the point.

Like others at the viewing, however, Pheun couldn't help expressing misgivings about the convictions. "Everybody has bad and good," he said, noting that when Chea was in power, he did some things right, like eliminating thievery and striving for equality.

"But," Pheun acknowledged, "he killed people."

TANG CHHIN SOTHY/AFP/Getty Images

Dispatch

The End of Days for Iraq's Christians

In the lands of the Old Testament, an endangered religious minority is being wiped out by the brutal Islamic State.

ERBIL, Iraq — Rania, an outspoken middle-aged woman with graying hair, loved her job as a nurse at a hospital in the Iraqi city of Mosul. She had worked there for 30 years -- until one day she walked in and was told she was no longer welcome.

"The Islamic State told me I couldn't work there anymore because I am Christian," she says. "But I told them that I am from Mosul, that Mosul is my home."

No longer. Instead, like thousands of other Christians, Rania has been made a refugee by the jihadists' intensifying war against religious and ethnic minorities. After being stripped of her job, she was forced to flee her home after the Islamic State, which captured Iraq's second-largest city on June 10, told Christians to either convert to Islam or pay a religious tax of $250 per month. Failure to do so would result in execution. According to several Christian families, the militants later revoked the tax as an option.

Even as Rania and her husband fled Mosul, however, the Islamic State extracted a tax from them at the checkpoint as they left the city. Rania recounted how the jihadists stripped fleeing Christians of their valuables, even taking the jewelry she was wearing. Her husband, Raad, a former government employee with a graying beard, slammed his tea on the table as she told the story.

"We were stripped of everything: money, wallets, ID, passport, watches. They took everything of value we had," he said.

The family's home, along with those of other Christians in Mosul, was marked with the Arabic letter "N," for Nasrani -- an Arabic word for Christians that many consider derogatory. Even while the family was still living in its home, the family was informed that the home was now the property of the Islamic State -- the family's understanding is that the home has now been looted.

Rania fled to the Mar Mattai Monastery, 10 miles northeast of Mosul, atop Mount Alfaf, along with 250 other Christians from the city. Run by the Syriac Orthodox Church, the monastery offers a semblance of peace and quiet far removed from the violence Rania fled. Despite the proximity of the Islamic State, her family feels safe there -- the monastery, and aid organizations, supply them will all their basic needs. However, with no schools, jobs, or medical facilities there, they cannot make it a new home.

It has been a dramatic and catastrophic end for Christians in Mosul. A little more than a decade ago, the city was home to about 60,000 Christians -- now, only a handful remain in the city. And they're not the only Christian population under threat: On Aug. 7, the Islamic State seized the town of Qaraqosh, the largest Christian city remaining in Iraq, after the withdrawal of Kurdish forces. The city, which lies roughly 20 miles southeast of Mosul, was largely abandoned by residents as the jihadists advanced.

"It is no longer possible for Christians to live in Iraq," Rania says.

That's now a widespread view among Iraqi Christians. Nagham, a middle-aged mother of two, fled Mosul in the dark of the night with her husband and two children. Rather than leave in silence, Nagham confronted the militants before departing. The evening she and her family fled, fighters stopped them in the middle of the street -- her children screamed in fear as the militants pointed their guns at them.

"A man from the Islamic State said, 'You don't want to live with us, we're Muslims,'" she said. "I replied that we were from Mosul. He wanted us to pay jizya [a religious tax] and to change our religion."

"These conditions are impossible, I told him. I yelled at him [but then] he yelled at us to leave and threatened to kidnap us," said Nagham. "They took all our money -- they didn't even leave the small bills. We really have nothing left."

Nagham is now living in a rented apartment with other family members in Erbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan. Considering how other people forced to flee Mosul are faring, she's doing well: Her parents and siblings live overseas and are supporting the family. Nagham and her family want to apply for asylum in Europe. But they're just sitting around now, waiting to see what happens to their country.  

"All of Iraq's Christian are trying to get out of the country," she said. "The only possibility is to go somewhere else and build up something new."

U.N. Special Rapporteur on Minority Issues Izsák Rita says she is gravely concerned about not only the safety of Christians in Iraq, but also other minority groups -- including Yazidis, Shabaks, and Turkmen. Tens of thousands of Yazidis, a Kurdish-speaking religious minority group, were recently forced to flee Sinjar, in the country's western Nineveh province, after Islamic State fighters captured the town on Sunday.

Roughly 200,000 people fled the Islamic State invasion of northern Iraq to the relative safety of the Kurdish cities of Dohuk and Erbil. However, U.N. groups said at least 40,000 have taken refuge on Mount Sinjar, where they are currently stranded -- and facing dire water and food shortages. At least 40 children have already died, according to UNICEF, while Kurdish leaders have appealed to the United States for immediate assistance to help reach the stranded refugees. The U.S. government is now reportedly considering airstrikes on Islamic State fighters and humanitarian food drops.

Meanwhile, Rita is pushing the Iraqi government in Baghdad to do more to help its citizens.

"The underlying issue here is that whoever might be the perpetrator of violence and atrocities against any population in a given country, the government is responsible to protect its people," she says.

In an extraordinary first, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki authorized airstrikes on Monday to support Kurdish forces struggling to contain the Islamic State's advance in northwestern Iraq. Baghdad's intervention, however, hasn't been sufficient to turn the tide of the battle: The Islamic State reportedly captured the Mosul Dam on Aug. 7, which would give it control over water and electricity for the entire region.

Meanwhile, as the jihadist advance continues, the Christians of Mosul are still waiting for much-needed assistance.

Salwan, an engineer and father of two from Mosul, is just one of the men who have been abandoned by the Iraqi government one too many times. While the Iraqi government promised roughly $860 to each family that has fled Mosul, he complained that he's still waiting for the money. When he heard that France was ready to welcome displaced Christians, he joined the long queue of people in Erbil applying for asylum.

Soon, he hopes to wave goodbye to his lifelong home.

"There is no future for Christians in Iraq," he said. "Christians in Iraq are over."

Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images