Soun Rottana is 57 years old today. He is a little over 1.6 meters, his skin is dry and brown, he’s missing a few teeth but his smile is wide and soft. He likes drinking beer, even for breakfast, and he sees smoking as probably healthy.
He spends most of his time in “his” small war memorial museum near the north western Cambodian city of Siem Reap, where he lives and works. The museum doesn’t actually belong to him but he supplied practically all of the exhibits here – the weapons, mines and old munitions - and he wrote all the signs himself too.
In the mornings, Soun teaches the 40 children in his small community English. In the afternoons he leads tourists through the country’s so-called “killing fields”, explaining up to seven times a day how the Khmer Rouge would cut people’s throats with banana leaves so as to save on ammunition, before disposing of their corpses in a pit.
Sometimes Soun can be found standing in front of a small field, dotted with signs warning that there may still be mines here. He explains to visitors about the different kinds of mines, who laid them here and what happens when you step on one.
Sometimes he takes a day off. When he is too tired because of the ache in his remaining leg – he himself lost a leg thanks to a mine – then he just sits under a tree near the entrance of the museum, smoking and reaching out to tickle the children going by. And then he also thinks about the time when he himself was a member of the Khmer Rouge, the group he is always telling the tourists about. He wants to stress that he had nothing to do with the “killing fields”; he only wanted to defend his country against the Vietnamese.
“Every now and then I miss being a soldier,” he says. “When I do, I go to a shooting gallery and shoot: Pow! Pow! Pow! Bang! Often with friends who were also in the war. And after that we go to a restaurant and celebrate, with fish and beer.”
Soun was just 14 years old in 1976, when he was thrown onto the back of a lorry and went from being a child to a soldier overnight. The Khmer Rouge kidnapped him and many other children. They were forbidden to cry. One soldier asked a small boy if he wanted to go home, Soun remembers. The boy nodded, so the soldier hit him on the head and threw him from the moving vehicle. That quieted everyone else down. Soun went to live in the jungle with the fighters and he remained there, a soldier with the Khmer Rouge, for 14 more years.
“At dusk every evening I would sling my hammock between two trees. Then I’d prop up my gun somewhere nearby with a wire attached to the trigger, so that if anybody was creeping up on me, they would trip on it and shoot themselves,” he recounts. “Of course I told my comrades that they shouldn’t come near me after the sun went down. But one of my friends forgot. He came to me because he wanted to bum a cigarette and he tripped the wire. Killed. That made me sad.”
As a young boy Soun had been frightened of weapons even though his father was a general. He was actually brought up by his grandfather in a small village and his ambition was to become a pilot, to fly as high as the birds. But with the Khmer Rouge, his gun became his best friend. A friend who was always there, who would protect his life and whom he would sometimes cradle in his arms when he was sleeping all alone.
“I was happy to fight for my life. Because if you did not shoot, then you would be shot,” Soun argues. “If you look at it that way, then you are happy to fight. When I was on the battlefield I always had the feeling that our enemies really were genuine enemies. But when I was sitting back in camp, I would ask myself how many people actually died today. I could count the ones that I had shot – one, two, three, four, five. Sometimes I cried and I looked at the stars above, the trees, the birds and the butterflies. I don’t know how I can wash myself clean of this. I don’t know how I can pray. I don’t know how I can make this massive apology. I don’t know any of that – because all I ever did was fight.”
During the Cambodian civil war, Soun went from being an innocent child to a fighting man. Is he a villain who murdered in cold blood? Or is he a victim who was forced to murder by the dictator Pol Pot and his regime? Or was he simply just a soldier?
One answer involves simply shooting at an enemy. But the other answer comprises a gruesome creativity, something that Soun was, in fact, part of and which turned the soldiers from being fighters into murderers.
“Sometimes we put grenades under the bodies of the enemy because we knew that their comrades would return for the corpses later. Anybody who tried to retrieve the fallen would die themselves,” he explains.
Today Soun knows how it feel when, after a war ends, a soldier might come to realise that the fight was all for nothing and that he had put his life on the line for a cause that turned out to be, for want of a better word, mistaken. He knows how it feels to realise that possibly it would have been better not to have shot a single bullet because perhaps there was no explicable reason for him to die, or to kill. When your own justifications give rise to a dull and ongoing discomfort.
“There was an exchange of fire near a village and a woman from there was trying to flee. She was a civilian, she didn’t have a gun. I was just firing at the enemy when she ran into my line of fire. I shot her, she fell and she died. When I came closer I said: Forgive me. This was not what I wanted.”
“Please forgive me. That was in 1984 . Another time I was standing opposite another man – he looked just like me. Same face, dark skin, just like me. As I shot at him, he saw me and I said: Excuse me, my friend. I don’t really want to do this. You are my enemy but I don’t really accept that you are. That was in May 1987. But I shot him anyway and he too died. That was the second time that I said sorry. But other than that, I never really asked for forgiveness.”
Now that the war is over, Soun often finds it hard to sleep. He dreams of his two sisters who starved to death while he fought in the jungle and of his mother, who disappeared, and of his father, who was shot. He dreams about lying on the battlefield while everything around him is exploding. And he dreams about all of the dead.
A monk tattooed a symbol on his arm to protect him from nightmares and since then he has been able to get a little more rest. The ghosts of his dead comrades often visit him in his dreams and they usually say friendly things. But when he is awake he still cries a lot – mostly on public holidays, because he no longer knows anybody he fought with, and he feels lonely and cannot help but think of the war. And at that stage he is left with little other option than to start drinking.
“I lost a lot of people on the battlefield. My friend was shot in the chest. I kneeled down and he asked me, please hold me. I’m frightened. I hugged him and told him that everything was going to be fine but he knew that he was going to die. He gave me his gun and said, take my weapon, it will be like my soul and it will guard you from harm. Then he died. I shot into the sky and then in a circle around his body until the gun was empty. I wanted to provide an armed escort for his soul.”
When Soun leads tourists around the battlegrounds, he talks to them in English. Sometimes the ghosts praise him for this. They say: “Soun, you learned English. How on earth did you manage that?” But Soun actually believes that it’s the ghosts themselves who helped him learn. How else could this miracle have happened? The ghosts want Soun to tell the world their stories, and to tell the world his own story, so that what happened to them will never happen again.
translated by Jess Smee