Only ‘Lovers’ Left Alive

Forced to marry under a genocidal regime, seven Cambodian couples decide to renew their vows

Forced to marry under a genocidal regime, seven Cambodian couples decide to renew their vows
Nou Sout, left, and her husband, Morb Heang, at the reception following their wedding ceremony.

ROLEA BA’IER, Cambodia — It was Yim Ran’s wedding day, and she could not stop weeping. Dressed in jet-black clothing and plucked from her work in the rice fields, she stood next to her husband-to-be, a man she had just met.

“I just felt fear. I didn’t love my husband at all,” she recalled. “During that period, I was just starving all the time, so I didn’t have any feelings for him or any men or anyone.”

Held in April 1978, Ran’s wedding came three years after Pol Pot’s troops swept through Phnom Penh to establish the ultra-Maoist Khmer Rouge government. Promising a utopian society by returning Cambodia to its agrarian roots, Angkar — a term that referred to the Khmer Rouge leadership — morphed quickly into a nebulous catchall that instilled fear in those punished, tortured and killed for any behavior deemed to be against the regime.

“I was afraid that if I didn’t follow what Angkar said, I would be killed,” Ran, now 58, said.

She recalled there having been two other couples in the same wedding ceremony, along with a number of young Khmer Rouge cadres holding guns. Like the regime’s ideology, the event’s setting was austere — Ran remembers only wildflowers on a table — and the ceremony straightforward. The couples were not marrying each other out of love or kinship, but were coming together to vow allegiance to Angkar.

“I started to cry because I felt so much regret for my young life,” she said. “I’d seen my relatives marry people who they loved and yet here I was, marrying a man I didn’t know.”

Yim Ran, right, and her husband, Sok Hort, join in the fruit parade that traditionally accompanies a Cambodian wedding, top left. Ceremonial items for the weddings, right, and a group photo of the couples who elected to marry anew. (Click to enlarge images)

Almost four decades later, that anguish remains fresh. Yet on Jan. 29, she chose to renew her vows with Sok Hort, the stranger she once feared.

In a traditional wedding ceremony paid for by Youth for Peace, a local nongovernmental organization that focuses on education and conflict resolution, Ran and Hort — along with six other couples whose unions were coerced during the regime — got the chance to experience the traditional marriage rituals they’d missed out on.

“It’s important for us because in our whole life, this will be the real ceremony and we would be able to show our children that we are actually married now,” Ran said the day before the nuptials. “Now that my husband and I know each other, we will be marrying out of love.”

Morb Heang and Nou Sout

‘I was terrified because there was a spy underneath our house’

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In 1977, Morb Heang was mending a fishing net by a river when Khmer Rouge cadres approached him and said, “You are getting married today.”

Stunned, he wordlessly followed the black-clad teenagers to a community hall. “I just went with them because they told me if I rejected the marriage, that means I am against Angkar,” Heang, now 57, said. “I knew they would kill me if I said no.”

Inside, a table was topped with a vase of wildflowers and dishes of lort, a Khmer dessert made of rice, sugar and coconut. Heang and his bride-to-be stood on an stage along with 11 other pairs. They promised themselves to Angkar as cadres with AK-47s looked on.

The ceremony was quick, but their wedding night was not. His new wife, Nou Sout, started hyperventilating when cadres ushered them into an stilt house, divided into 12 small rooms, where they were expected to consummate the marriage. As is customary after a mass wedding, young Khmer Rouge cadres were stationed beneath the home, listening for sounds that the couples were “getting along,” or having sex.

“I was terrified because there was a spy underneath our house,” she said. “My husband just kept patting my chest to soothe me, because he knew I was afraid. I was shaking so hard from fear.”

Morb Heang could hear couples in the adjacent rooms making amorous movements, but he could not bring himself to do the act.

“We didn’t have sex, because we felt so embarrassed. We felt like strangers because we knew nothing about each other,” he said. “We had no desire to have sex. It was just us marrying to survive; it was not out of love.”

Instead, once Sout calmed down, they talked through the night. They commiserated over their predicament and exchanged information about each other’s family. “We said that we were just doing this to stay alive,” he said.

A 2010 photograph of Morb Heang, left, and his wife, Nou Sout, taken during the 100-day funeral of her father, left. The couple poses on the day of their renewed vows, January 2016. Nou Sout prepares for the ceremony of marrying anew. (Click to enlarge images)

The next day, the couple was separated. Heang was sent to work as a fisherman on a river far from the fields where Sout farmed. But they immediately felt an unbreakable bond.

Desperate to return to his wife’s side, Heang put in frequent requests for a transfer to Sout’s work cooperative. “I kept asking them if I could return to the farming area or if she could come to the fishing area,” he said. “I tried to get us back together.”

But a year passed before they saw each other again. When the two were reunited, there was no hesitation. “We had sex immediately,” Sout said. “After our year separation, we were more sure of each other and of ourselves. I thought of him often while we were apart that year.”

Heang admitted the same. “I missed her. We felt sympathy for each other because there were no parents on either side during the wedding.”

Unlike other couples who chose to renew their vows, Heang and Sout rejected the idea that their continued love was the result of shared suffering during the regime.

“It depends on us and how we understand each other. That’s how we have been able to build a family after the Khmer Rouge,” Heang said. “It’s because of us working together and learning to compromise with each other.”

Nou Sout plays with her grandchild in their home a day before the ceremony. (Click to enlarge images)

Theirs is a happy story, but it is not a common one. Researchers estimate that roughly 250,000 women were forced to marry during the Khmer Rouge’s brief but devastating regime. In the U.N.-backed tribunal being held in the Cambodian capital, Phnom Penh, the Khmer Rouge’s two surviving leaders are on trial for enacting policies considered to be crimes against humanity; the issue of forced marriage has been included in the trial’s scope.

Due to the sensitivity of the topic, researchers are only now beginning to study the long-term societal and psychological consequences of these marriages. Among those who chose to stay together after the regime’s fall in 1979, many have suffered spousal abuse and mental trauma. Even happily married pairs are sometimes ostracized because the ceremonies performed during that period, a dramatic departure from typical Cambodian weddings, are seen as inauspicious.

Traditionally, parents would arrange marriages for their children. And because of the vital role family plays in Cambodian society, the unions were regarded as alliances whose main function was to better each family’s social standing, said Theresa de Langis, an independent researcher on sexual violence during the Khmer Rouge regime. Wedding ceremonies were communal affairs, performed in front of parents, relatives and the entire village as a form of legitimization.

“By far, what people seemed to miss the most was this presence of ancestral rites. Your parents have to be there, your community has to validate it, the ancestors have to be called so that the union would be prosperous,” de Langis explained. “We are talking about rituals that are thousands of years old, and to not have that was very sad for many people.”

But strong familial bonds were considered a betrayal of the Khmer Rouge, as all loyalties had to lie with Angkar. Couples were typically paired at random. Family members were not even allowed to attend the wedding ceremonies. Hort said that when he heard he was to marry, he asked his mother to come and give her blessing.

“She responded that Angkar did not allow her to join the wedding, so she could not attend even though she wanted to,” he said.

As they get ready for the re-marriage ceremony, some of the brides sit by a painting illustrating war crimes carried out by the Khmer Rouge. (Click to enlarge images)

Abolishing traditional family units, establishing absolute allegiance to the party and exerting utter control over individuals’ lives were the primary reasons behind the nationwide policy of forced marriages, de Langis said. But there was also a reproductive rationale behind it.

“It is not just that they were forced to marry, but they were forced to have sex as part of the relationship,” she said. “That makes it a sexual crime committed against men and women.”

“The goal was to get rid of the corrupted people in the revolution and to start a whole new race of pure Khmer,” she added. “So it’s easier to indoctrinate people from scratch than to try and re-educate them when they are older.”

What happened after the wedding ceremony varied, but the majority of victims she interviewed reported having cadres spy on them for a few days to ensure that they were “getting along,” a euphemism for having sex.

Some couples recognized that neither was a willing party and would pretend to have sex in order to trick the cadres. Others would agree to perform the act just to ensure their survival.

Because they did not have a photo of their first wedding, Bun Vantha and Kao Roeun paid someone to photoshop their faces into another couple's wedding photo, left. Groom Meul Chamroeun and bride Chhoeun Sok Ran in a vacation photo, dressed in the attire of the people indigenous to the area around Bou Sra waterfall. (Click to enlarge images)

The Transcultural Psychosocial Organization, or TPO, a nongovernmental organization that provides mental health services to victims of the Khmer Rouge, released a series of interviews last year revealing some of the horrors visited upon the women unwilling to have sex with their husbands.

One woman said she was married at 14. After three nights of resisting her husband’s advances, she escaped to another cooperative, but was recaptured and tied to a bed. The night of her capture, two guards stood watch as her husband raped her.

“After [my husband] raped me, he did not want to release me. He still wanted me to be tied up, because he wanted to rape me again,” the woman said. “I cried for help and begged him, ‘Please do not do this!’ but he said he could not help me, because he had to follow Angkar.”

TPO also found that nearly one-quarter of these marriages involved spousal abuse. Almost half of the respondents chose to separate after the regime ended.

Those who stayed together overwhelmingly cited children born during the course of the marriage as a reason. More than half of these couples reported that the domestic abuse continues to this day.

“However they perceive it, it is clear that those Khmer Rouge policies never ended for them,” said de Langis, who co-authored the survey.

“The second reason [people stayed together] is shared suffering,” she added, citing a common refrain she heard during the interviews: “Over time, we came to love each other.”

Red string is tied around the hands of groom Meul Chamroeun and bride Chhoeun Sok Ran, a traditional Cambodian wedding ritual. (Click to enlarge images)

This was the case for Chhoeun Sok Ran and her husband, Meul Chamroeun, one of the seven couples who renewed their vows during the remarriage ceremony. Sok Ran said initially, she felt neither love nor hate for her husband, and it took her almost a year to have sex with him.

“My husband just took pity on me because he knew I was shy and embarrassed,” she said. Despite her general apathy toward him, she chose to stay with him after the regime ended. From there, feelings developed, largely because Chamroeun appeared to be a kind and understanding man.

“I took a long time to become comfortable with him. In the meantime, I received a lot of encouragement from him, like he told me I should work on opening a small business,” said Sok Ran, who acknowledged that she was luckier than most when it came to these marriages.

Guests form an aisle at the wedding ceremony. (Click to enlarge images)

For the 14 individuals choosing to renew their vows in Kampong Chhnang province on a balmy Friday last month, all longed to participate in a voluntary ceremony witnessed by relatives and friends. The affair was relatively modest in terms of cost. But its staging was elaborate, lasting roughly 16 hours.

The women were resplendent in gold-threaded costumes and bejeweled updos. The seven grooms, dressed in stiff brocade suits and bearing trays of fruit, marched with their family members down a dusty road to receive their brides. After this dowry was accepted, the wedding procession marched to a community hall, its walls draped with colorful sheets to hide the murals depicting the Khmer Rouge period.

The rituals became more and more intricate as the day wore on. At 9 a.m., family members mimed cutting each couple’s hair to signify a cleansing of the old life and the beginning of an auspicious union. The afternoon came with an hourlong blessing ceremony conducted by two monks who led the entire community in Sanskrit chants.

In Cambodian weddings, money is given the couple, and at 4 p.m., relatives gathered to tuck small bills into the hands of the newlyweds. Each couple jointly carried a long silver dagger, signifying the husband’s protection of his wife. Then, family members tied crimson-colored string around the bride’s and groom’s wrists, thus binding them together with their well wishes.

Grooms hold flowers before the traditional fruit parade, left, while the brides await their dowry. (Click to enlarge images)

These rituals are crucial to many Cambodian families as they’re considered a way for brides and grooms to express gratitude to their parents, said Kim Thida, a psychologist who worked with TPO on the forced marriage studies. Because weddings during the Khmer Rouge reign didn’t include these rites, they’re often considered illegitimate, she said. Couples married during that time are typically denied the chance to attend their own children’s weddings in their capacity as a father and mother. Instead, the children ask a relative who went through a traditional wedding to act as a surrogate parent.

“They are being excluded from the wedding ceremony by the community, because they didn’t really have a proper marriage,” Thida said. “People believe that it can bring bad luck to the child.”

The severity of this social exclusion varies by region, but if it is stringent, it can erode a person’s confidence and mental well-being, she said.

Some victims also show signs of post-traumatic stress disorder, while many suffer from anxiety and depression. “One sign is that [the husband] is really afraid to get married again. He really suffered from the previous union, and he is really afraid that he would suffer again,” Thida said.

These ramifications are only just beginning to surface publicly. The tribunal in Phnom Penh began hearing testimony about forced marriages in early 2015, roughly a decade after the court launched. These testimonies are usually from Khmer Rouge victims who applied to become civil parties in the tribunal, working alongside prosecutors to air their grievances and experiences during the regime.

Ly Lay Eun and Kae Khan

On our first night together, I was so scared.’

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Kae Khan, 18, was given an ultimatum: Marry the man Angkar had chosen for her or be raped and killed by Khmer Rouge cadres.

A female cadre delivered that message one October day in 1978. The woman, chief of the commune where Khan lived, accused her of being a Vietnamese spy because she’d spurned the marriage proposals of eight men.

“A woman told me that if I kept refusing men, they would send a person to rape me and kill me,” she recounted, tears pooling in her eyes. “I’d already lost my father, and I was worried about how my siblings and my mother would survive without me. I had to stay alive to take care of them, so I agreed in the end to marry my husband.”

Ly Lay Eun, the man she would marry, wasn’t pleased about this match either. But he’d heard rumors of a man and woman who were killed by the regime for refusing to wed. He didn’t want to face that same fate.

After the brief wedding ceremony, he and his new wife went to a house set aside for newlyweds, where they were instructed by the cadres to fry bananas. “They wanted to test us to see if we could get along, because my wife was very stubborn,” he said. “I was terrified after hearing about the other couple getting killed, so I tried my best to understand her to avoid that same fate with her.”

Khan was aware of the bind she’d put herself in by rejecting the other men. Even after the wedding, and after she and her new husband had sex a week later, she felt she was constantly under surveillance.

Not long into the marriage, the teenager began to have feelings for Lay Eun, though she wasn’t sure if they were a sign of true love or resignation. But when Lay Eun was assigned to roving work units and sent away from their commune for weeks at a time, she began to recognize the extent of her emotion.

“I found myself missing my husband,” she said. “Whenever they transferred him to work in another area, I was so scared that he was going to be taken somewhere to be executed. I was worried every time they moved him, and that was when I learned that I really cared for him.”

A 2006 photo, left, of groom Ly Lay Eun and bride Kae Khan on a holiday trip to Siem Reap where they posed with coconut juice in a café near Bayon Temple. The couple at home on the day before they married anew. (Click to enlarge images)

After the regime fell, the couple found themselves plagued by problems. Khan miscarried their first child not long after Vietnamese troops marched into Phnom Penh and ousted Pol Pot’s soldiers. After their eldest son was born in 1981, she and Lay Eun fought constantly about how to raise him. In a fit of anger, she’d shout, “If it wasn’t for the Khmer Rouge, I wouldn’t have married you.”

But after their third child was born, Khan realized how foolish and immature she had been. “I started to act more loving toward him.”

In 2012, their eldest daughter, who’d suffered since she was a teenager from fear and paranoia, hung herself. The couple has few explanations for what afflicted her, though Lay Eun lamented that while medical treatment seemed to relieve the paranoia, it was too expensive to keep up.

The couple embraces amid family and friends at the wedding ceremony. (Click to enlarge images)

Unlike most victims, they spoke openly about the regime. They have never stopped honoring the loved ones killed, never stopped recounting to their children the horrors seen during those three years, eight months and 20 days.

The oldest of their five children, Ly Channa, 36, an engineer, traveled from his home in Siem Reap, about 200 miles northwest of Kampong Chhnang, to attend his parents’ remarriage ceremony. With a smartphone in hand to take photos of them in their wedding attire, Channa said the ceremony was a long time coming.

“I have seen my parents sacrifice a lot for the family. My mother goes to the fields to work, and my father climbs palm trees daily to get the palm juice to sell,” he said. “It’s important [for them to remarry] because, I believe, all people should be able to experience it at least once in their life.”

Four days after her wedding, Khan was thankful for the opportunity to legitimize her union. “The relationship between my husband and I has gotten sweeter because we both feel that we are officially man and wife,” she said. “There are no words to describe this.”

Bride Kae Khan waits to greet guests at the wedding. (Click to enlarge images)

Silke Studzinsky, a lawyer who worked for the tribunal from 2008 to 2012, representing the victims, said getting the court to include the issue of forced marriage — and thus sexual violence — into the scope of the trial was an uphill battle. One reason was the common belief that crimes of sexual violence are less serious than those involving killings and torture, something that has been historically true in international war crime courts.

There were also serious lapses during the investigation period, which began when the tribunal opened its doors in 2006. Victims were reluctant to talk about the trauma and the abuse they experienced during these marriages, and investigators, unaware of how pervasive this practice was during the regime, did not probe.

“This is a crime where you have to ask the right questions and be proactive or otherwise you wouldn’t find it,” Studzinsky said.

Once she realized the gaps in the interviewing process, she went back to some of the victims to reinterview them. The result was that 781 people signed on as civil parties affected by forced marriage, nearly as many as the number affected by forced transfer, an allegation the tribunal has focused on due to the violent evacuation of the urban population when the Khmer Rouge forces entered Phnom Penh in 1975.

In 2010, forced marriage was finally accepted as one of the charges within the scope of the trial, but Studzinsky does not think this is enough. She believes the issue needs to be urgently and vigorously examined, given the failing health and old age of the two senior Khmer Rouge leaders on trial.

“It seems that forced marriage is still — if you are looking at ranking it [based on the order in which issues are being addressed] — it is considered to be less important,” she said. “It should be treated equally to other crimes, and that means considered and taken as a serious crime.”

Despite the tribunal’s limitations, researcher de Langis believes the court has come a long way. Now that the issue has entered public discourse, it will serve as an important step toward ensuring that forced marriages never happen again, she said.

And for those who entered into such a painful union, she is glad there are some who fell in love and are choosing to renew their vows. “There’s been a lot of resiliency and compromise, but also true love and loyalty that can grow out of something as horrible of a violation as this,” she said. “So it’s really a testament to the human spirit.”

In the commune of Svay Chhum, where the wedding took place, deputy chief Men Nou, who presided over the morning rituals, estimated that of 1,500 families living there, roughly a quarter were forced to marry during the Khmer Rouge. “For forced marriages — well, sometimes there is a happy ending. But other times, it is not so smooth.”

After dinner, the rituals went from religious to boisterous. The announcer asked all the husbands what they had prepared for their wives that night, his lilting voice playful and suggestive. Each man announced, “I bought a timber bed.” Each woman said, “I bought new pillows.”

When it was Sok Ran and Chamroeun’s turn, the announcer asked, “Will you kiss each other?”

And 61-year-old Sok Ran — who once upon a time slept with her back to Chamroeun, terrified at the thought of his touch; who made him wait a year before she consented to have sex; who said she stayed with him at first because she was “too lazy” to find another man — grabbed his face without hesitation and planted a kiss full on his lips. The guests erupted in laughter.

Chan Phalkun contributed reporting to this story.

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