Someone stole my pants in Laos while I swam in my briefs down a river that flowed beneath some rocks into an underground cavern. By the time I returned to sunlight and shore, the fraying cut-offs I’d stashed under a bush were long gone, along with my wallet and bank card. I stretched my remaining cash all the way to Phnom Penh, spending my last riel on a bus ticket to the international airport. My flight home didn’t leave until the next morning. I’d planned on sleeping at the terminal, but it was a small, tropical airport, and the doors locked for the evening, so I propped my pack against the wall and prepared to spend the night with the mosquitoes.

The head of security came outside to practice his English with me. He called himself a soldier. He enlisted when he was fourteen because, in his words, “If we don’t go to fight in the jungle, we go to die in the jungle.” He didn’t specify which army in particular he joined – the montagnard guerillas, the Vietnamese-backed Salvation Front, a resistance unit loyal to the royal family, one of the liberation front factions, or the notorious Khmer Rouge militias. “Parties,” he said when I asked, “so many parties, all fighting.”

We swapped stories. I told him about losing my wallet in Laos, and he told me a story that ended, “And when the bullet go inside me, I put on tree-skin so the blood won’t come out.” Later, he brought me a banana, a napkin, and a mini-bottle of water. It may have been my imagination, but Cambodian men of a certain age seemed to have the same blankness of the eyes you see in pictures of wild west gunfighters. His face cinched or smiled like a rubber mask, but the eyes never changed.

I’d read survivor accounts of the Khmer Rouge genocide from the ’70s, and the Killing Fields struck me as a bizarre Third World madness – the willful immolation of a state. At the time of the atrocities, reports filtering out of Cambodia were so cartoonishly ghastly that they sounded like Cold War propaganda. In 1977, Noam Chomsky famously pooh-poohed the mounting evidence of mass killings in the Cambodian countryside, and later complained that no one ever spoke about “the positive side” of the Khmer Rouge.

The genocide remains as incomprehensible to Cambodians as to outside observers. The executioners followed orders that Pol Pot attributed to his underlings, and the village officials who oversaw the killings blamed the party center. In this way more than a million Cambodians perished in the night by the light of bamboo torches. In his 2009 documentary Enemies of the People, Thet Sambath, a Phnom Penh journalist, sets out to untangle the mess. He interviews ground-level killers and the highest living echelon of Khmer Rouge leadership.

Nuon Chea, known as Brother Number Two, ranked second only to Pol Pot in the Khmer Rouge hierarchy during the genocide. Sambath meets him near the Thai border in a stilted shack furnitured with plastic lawn chairs. Half of Nuon Chea’s mouth is toothless gum, turning the natural expression of his face into an ornery, crooked pursing. According to his narrative, the Khmer Rouge movement was an act of daring, and the purges protected the party line from hijacking. This story defends him from any sense of moral responsibility. It feels like a dress rehearsal for war criminal hearings. He says he will open the eyes of the court.

Sambath also befriends some old throatslitters, now rice farmers with daggered, rotten teeth, who remember the smell of blood (“worse than buffalo flesh”) and the faces of the killed (“her face was small but long, her skin was white”), and they point out trees, rooted over mass graves, that have grown tall from the flesh of the dead. Suon, a Buddhist, bleakly wonders how many holes of Hell he will endure after this life before seeing sunlight as a human again. But he also bows to Nuon Chea when they meet, and calls him uncle.

In one of many astonishing scenes from Sambath’s film, the throatslitters meekly ask Nuon Chea who ordered the massacres. His answer: “Someone in the sky, perhaps?” He borrows a note from Chomsky, telling them not to fear prosecution for their crimes. “Who killed Cambodian people? It was U.S.A. and Vietnam. Not Cambodian killing Cambodian, right?” That is what he says to his footsoldiers who wearied their arms opening smiles under the chins of so many victims, who piled ditches with bodies that made sounds like falling rain – ku ku ku ku ku – as they decayed. He says Suon and the other throatslitters should be happy with themselves for what they did. “Do you know the word proud?” he asks.

Sambath has his own motives for arranging meetings like this one, which he reveals over the course of the film, but he claims history as his purpose. And it’s true he has performed a great service to that master by conducting these interviews. But if a history is a story of what happened, Enemies of the People is better viewed as an illustration of the value of history to those who lived through it. Something compels the two throatslitters to broadcast the stories of their brutality, against their own interests.

Suon worries about revenge seekers hunting him down, but nevertheless wants the film screened across the country. He envisions his testimony leading to an archive of public confessions. “Otherwise we will be gone soon and the new generation won’t know the story.” He likes when others tell their part of the killing. It gives him company in his desolation. And it feels strange to write it, but the victims, it seems, are the luckiest of all. They undergo the horrors only once and it is over, whereas both the killers and the survivors repeat those horrors in their sleep, in their bungalows, in the ricefields, about their families, swinging in their hammocks, before the cameras, in airports to foreign strangers, and like a pot boiling over – ku ku ku ku ku – it keeps burbling out.

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