PHNOM PENH (Reuters) - At the height of Pol Pot’s genocidal Khmer Rouge “killing fields” regime which devastated Cambodia for more than three years from 1975-79, Srey Heng overcame her crippling hunger by catching and eating frogs, snails and insects.
“I was just skin and bones,” said Srey Heng, who was conscripted by the Khmer Rouge into a mobile labour unit for children, and forced to dig canals.
Thousands of Cambodian survivors of the Khmer Rouge marked the 40th anniversary of their demise in a commemoration in Phnom Penh on Monday.
About 60,000 people gathered at a stadium in the capital, where dancers and performers held banners and waved flags in scenes reminiscent of an Olympic opening ceremony.
The event was organised by the ruling Cambodian People’s party (CPP), whose Prime Minister Hun Sen has led the Southeast Asian country for more than 33 years.
The 66-year-old, a former member of the Khmer Rouge, came to power under a government installed by Vietnam, which invaded Cambodia at the end of 1978 and captured Phom Penh on Jan. 7, 1979, ending Khmer Rouge rule and forcing its leader, Pol Pot, into hiding.
Much of the event was dedicated to the achievements of Hun Sen, who has come under fire from rights groups for his intimidation of political opponents and for winning a widely criticised general election last July.
Songs praising the prime minister as a “peaceful and loyal statesman” echoed through the stadium. Traditional dancers performed in honour of his policies.
Outside, survivors like Srey Heng, now a street vendor selling water and soft drinks, cast a more sombre figure compared with the scenes inside.
“Many of my relatives died under Pol Pot because they were hungry, Srey Heng said.
“I don’t even know what happened to the others”.
An estimated 1.7 million people died at the hands of the extremist, communist regime.
Most victims died of torture, starvation, disease, or exhaustion in labour camps. Others were beaten to death during mass executions.
Seang Tharuon, 69, lost 11 siblings and both her parents during the killings. She was forced by the Khmer Rouge to marry her husband.
Like many others, Seang Tharuon was evacuated from Phom Penh by the Khmer Rouge at the start of its nightmarish rule. She walked for more than 100 km (62 miles) from the countryside back to the capital when the regime fell in 1979.
“We mainly had gruel to eat, and they would let us eat rice once a month,” Seang Tharuon told Reuters as she bought drinks from Srey Heng’s stall outside the stadium.
In downtown Phnom Penh, former Khmer Rouge soldier Prum Punly balanced on one leg as he fed birds by the river.
He lost his other leg to a landmine while fighting against U.S.-backed Cambodian government forces in 1975, as the Khmer Rouge came to power:
“I was too young to understand politics,” the 67-year-old said.
“It was chaos”.
Reporting by Prak Chan Thul; Editing by James Pearson, Robert Birsel