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As Tribunal Nears, Trauma Surfaces

When the trials of former Khmer Rouge leaders start, former victims of the regime will have to relive the nightmare. The proceedings will be aired on televisions nationally and internationally. Already, the proceedings are starting to affect survivors of the regime.

Van Nath lived through incarceration at the infamous Tuol Sleng prison known as S-21. He will be one of the witnesses when Tuol Sleng prison chief Kaing Kek Iev, also known as Duch, goes on trial March 30. He told VOA Khmer that he felt unsettled as Duch’s trial approached.

“I have waited for this day for 30 years,” he said. “It’s natural that as the end is near, I feel unsettled. I cannot sleep at night. I keep waking up at night. And I ask myself why? I can’t find an answer.”

Thousands of miles away, a Cambodian-American author feels the same. Him Chanrithy lost both her parents and several siblings under the Khmer Rouge. Him Chanrithy, the author of a memoir, “When Broken Glass Floats,” told VOA Khmer she is trying to avoid news of the Khmer Rouge tribunal.

“On Feb. 17 when I heard from my friend in California about the initial hearing on Duch’s upcoming trial, I tried not to read about it, because it reminds me of the hardship under the Pol Pot regime,” she said. “It also brings back the nightmares.”

Kimlong Ung also lives in Oregon. When the Khmer Rouge took over Cambodia in April 1975, he was only 15 years old. He lost both his parents and a sister. He loses sleep, he said, tribunal or no.

“Whether there is a trial or not, I always have this feeling,” he said. “So when I go to bed, I often have nightmares. Sometimes I only sleep three or four hours.”

Dr. Kar Sunbaunat is the leading psychiatrist in Cambodia and the director of the Natural Program of Mental Health in Cambodia. Kar Sunbaunat said Cambodians suffered mentally starting in the late 1960s, as the Vietnam War spilled into Cambodia. But the most serious damage to their mental health really started during the Khmer Rouge regime.

“The Khmer Rouge tribunal is not the only reason to remind people of their past trauma,” he said in an interview. “Whenever they see images of people being killed anywhere in the world, it will remind them of what happened to them under the Pol Pot regime, and the symptoms will come back.”

Kar Sunbaunat said the Cambodian government anticipated the problems even after the tribunal and has trained about 35 psychiatrists to deal with the need. He said about 150 doctors have been trained on how to deal with mental health patients.

Helen Jarvis, director of public information of the tribunal, said her office is sending workers to remote areas to educate people about the importance of the Khmer Rouge tribunal.

“The court itself is making every effort to deal with people we come into contact with, so anybody who is called as a witness or anybody who is interviewed, we are doing our best to give them support,” she said.

Besides government services, there are a few non-governmental organizations in Cambodia that provide mental health care.

Dr. Chhim Sotheara is the director of the Transcultural Psychosocial Organization, one of the country's few mental health facilities. He said recently his organization has signed an agreement with the tribunal to provide mental health support to witnesses and victims of the Khmer Rouge.

Chhim Sotheara tries to remind people that it’s normal to have nightmares. His center has set up hotlines to consult people who need help.

“As we have predicted before, many Cambodians have come to us for advice on how to deal with the trauma that has started to come back as the tribunal nears,” he said. “A number of people say they have nightmares, that they see their dead relatives calling for justice. So the trauma is coming back.”