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Coming to terms with sadism

An orphan of the Killing Fields of the Khmer Rouge struggles to overcome his anguish.

December 15, 2010|By Joe Mozingo, Los Angeles Times
  • Bo Uce holds a picture showing his father, Kharn Uce; mother, Lah Sok; brother Roth, left; himself; brother Neak and sister Chinda. He was able to confirm that his mother and sister had been killed.
Bo Uce holds a picture showing his father, Kharn Uce; mother, Lah Sok; brother… (Francine Orr / Los Angeles…)

He spent much of his life consumed by what the three men on the screen before him had done.

He stared at the glossy, bloodshot eyes of the man in the middle, the one who had so casually demonstrated how he slit his victims' throats, who explained how his hand grew so sore he often switched to stabbing them at the base of the neck.

They were gaunt figures now, impoverished men trudging the rice ponds of northwestern Cambodia. They had agreed to confess their roles in the Killing Fields, first for a documentary film, "Enemies of the People," and then here, in a video conference with survivors in Long Beach.

Bo Uce, 39, listened to them explain that they had to obey orders or they too would be executed. He knew they would say this, and they were right. But it didn't matter.

Uce wasn't there to understand their rationale. Since landing in New Jersey as a 12-year-old refugee in 1983 and going on to graduate from Dartmouth College, he'd scoured history and psychology books and world literature to try to comprehend the sadism and indifference he'd witnessed as a child in Cambodia. He read "Crime and Punishment" three times to understand Dostoevsky's character Raskolnikov, who cooked up wispy moral justifications to murder a pawnbroker, only to careen through a whorl of anguish after the act.

Uce came out on this damp Sunday night to make sure these men didn't think time had diminished their deeds, even as they roamed free after taking part in an atrocity that killed more than 1.5 million people. He wouldn't let them escape their own anguish.

But he would try to escape his own.


Bo Uce was 4 in 1975 when the Khmer Rouge, with its deranged vision of communism, took power. It purged the country of teachers, doctors, lawyers and writers and forced the population into hard labor on farming collectives.

Most of Bo's recollections are far-flung moments he struggled to string into coherence later.

He couldn't recall his father, Kharn, but preserved a few warm memories of his mother, Lah Sok. When the family was forced into the reeducation camps, she worked the rice fields in a women's brigade within walking distance of Bo's children's regiment. When they could, he and his older brother, Roth, would sneak away to see her. She looked emaciated and tired.

His mother sat with him on the berm next to a rice paddy one day and pointed to a crab hole. She said there was a water-lily snake in it. Bo pulled it out and she whacked it dead with a rock. He laughed at her sudden ferocity; she was a gentle, devout Buddhist he'd never seen hurt a bug. They cooked it over some sticks for dinner.

Then one day she was no longer there. There was no grown-up to explain her absence.

When Bo was about 7, a Khmer Rouge guard ordered him to climb a toddy palm one night to get some sap. He scaled the tree but dropped the piece of bamboo he needed to tap it. When he climbed down, the brigade leader, a young man named Chorn, struck him on the head with a heavy piece of bamboo. Bo woke up tied to a pole, bleeding and freezing, crying for his brother to bring him a blanket.

The Khmer Rouge sent him back to work. His brother daubed clay and leaves on Bo's wound. The throbbing lasted for two years, as if the nerves behind his eyes were pulled tight.

On days when his brigade moved to new fields, Bo hunted or stole whatever food he could find on the way. When the Khmer Rouge caught him pulling up some yams and scallions, they beat him and branded him an enemy — "Khmaong!" — then took him to a prison.

Bo spent most days there confined to a raised bamboo hut with other boys, trying to get at a pile of rice below, hoisting up single grains with wetted threads through the floorboards. Finally, one boy couldn't take the hunger, and when the warden shoved him, he punched the man in the face. Guards beat him to the ground and the warden ordered the children to stone him. Bo remembers the thuds, sounding ever more pulpy, as the boy died.

These are his snapshots of the Khmer Rouge, the images he still struggles to understand.

When Vietnam liberated the country in 1979, he and his brother moved to an orphanage in Phnom Penh, then to a refugee camp on the Thai border. In 1983, they were adopted by Gordon and Mary Godly, who had grown children and lived in New Jersey.

Bo grasped English quickly and grew to feel loved by his new parents. Mary stayed up late with him as he struggled with homework and she tacked bits of poetry on the walls of his room.

He excelled in school and learned martial arts, letting bullies know not to mess with him. He never became a bully himself. But as he began to ponder the cruel hoax of his childhood, he knew he couldn't let it go.

Why did those people do what they did? Were they born evil?

Slowly he pieced together what happened to his family. A cousin confirmed what he could only assume by their absence: His mother and baby sister were killed.

He knew it was his responsibility to avenge them, as well as his lost boyhood.

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