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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 was accepted at Dartmouth College a mere seven years out of the refugee camp. He majored in Russian and devoured Chekhov, Dostoevsky and Solzhenitsyn. He worked as an assistant at the library at Tuck School of Business and sent as much money as he could to his surviving siblings and cousins in Cambodia.

When Bo graduated, he planned to go to law school. But he was devastated when Mary Godly unexpectedly died of complications from diabetes. He decided to go with his brother Roth back to Cambodia. There needed to be a reckoning.

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Bo was a man now, strong and lean, with a pugilist's hard brow. Within hours of arriving in his mother's village in November 1995, he set off alone from his family farm. He passed water buffalo and oxen as he headed into the paddies. The rice was ripening and he inhaled the jasmine smell, both plaintive and nostalgic. He found a spot on a berm to sit and listen to the birds and frogs and gurgling water.

This was where he secretly met his mother and caught the water lily snake. He felt as if that boy of long ago sat beside him.

"I love you, Mama," Bo whispered. "I miss you. I will do nothing to shame you."

His mind careened through disconnected memories and questions. He wondered how his parents were killed. Did they scream? Were their throats sliced with knives, or the sharp serrated edges of the palm fronds?

He put his head down and wept.

Roth came behind him and put a hand on his shoulder. "Let's go, brother," he said.

Bo stood and could feel the weight of the Glock 17 in his jacket pocket. He had seen Chorn when they first arrived. Bo could still feel the dents in his cranium where the brigade leader had hit him with a bamboo pole. He was a peasant farmer now, as poor as anyone in the village. He had stayed at bay when other villagers flocked around the returning brothers.

Bo and Roth walked back to the farm, where the family now had three sturdy homes on stilts. Roth quizzed his relatives, trying to find out who knew about the killers of their parents and baby sister.

"Forget it," their cousins said. "Let their karma take hold. Let it go."

Bo ignored them. If he couldn't find the killers, he still had Chorn. He needed to see the man's house and plot the best way to go about the execution. He wanted to kill him slowly while interrogating him to find where he had tied an unconscious child to a post. Bo hoped to finally see that it was just a place like any other, not the monstrous landscape of his memory.

When he saw Chorn's hut, he felt a flicker of pity. The thatch roof was ragged, clearly leaking, and the house sat without stilts on the muddy ground.

A group of his female cousins came running to him and fell on their knees. "Don't do it, cousin!" they said. "Look at what he has now. His dharma has caught up to him!"

Bo got down on his knees with them and cried. He didn't know how they knew of his plans. He was twisted with anguish. He had to do his job as a son and brother and protector.

"He has children now," his cousins said. "His children don't have anything to do with it. You don't want to make them orphans like you."

He felt ashamed. He couldn't do it.

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When he returned to America, Bo moved to Southern California to go to Whittier Law School but dropped out when he ran out of money. He bused tables at a Cambodian restaurant in Long Beach, then was hired by the nonprofit Cambodian Assn. of America to help the large refugee community in the city. He managed a martial arts school for a while, did investment management and became a court interpreter, often working two jobs to keep his family in Cambodia afloat.

He wanted to return to law school, but his mind was still on Cambodia. He was riven with guilt over the answers he could not find and the acts of revenge he could not commit.

He got married in 2000, had two daughters and bought a little bungalow in North Long Beach.

He was approached in October by Rob Lemkin, a British producer of an award-winning documentary called "Enemies of the People," to help with translation for several movie-related events. The movie chronicled the work of Thet Sambath, a journalist and orphan of the Khmer Rouge, who tracked down one of the regime's highest leaders and two foot soldiers to learn why the killing occurred.

Lemkin wanted to show the film to survivors in Long Beach and set up a videoconference the next week with the two soldiers.

Bo and his family saw the film at the community center in Long Beach's MacArthur Park. He watched coldly as Nuon Chea, the highest-ranking Khmer Rouge still alive, said that he didn't know about all the killings in the countryside and that any people he'd ordered to be "solved" were traitors to the nation.

Bo became outraged as he watched the two foot soldiers, identified only as Khoun and Suon, stand by a rice paddy and point to where they dumped bodies. "Thirty to forty in each ditch," said Khoun. "We didn't want too many bodies in each ditch."

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