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RPCV Linda McKinney helps Khmer Rouge defectors settle
RPCV Linda McKinney helps Khmer Rouge defectors settle
Khmer Rouge defectors brought in from the cold S.F. group helps rebels get roots
Ben Schnayerson, Chronicle Foreign Service
Wednesday, March 20, 2002
Chamcar Bei, Cambodia -- A former Khmer Rouge rebel sat in a Buddhist temple, recalling his 30- year career of war and the slaying of more than 1 million Cambodians by his colleagues.
"We are tired of war and now only think about peace," said the 48-year-old man, who asked not to be named.
He and many other former soldiers for the late Pol Pot, the despot who ruled Cambodia in the 1970s, still maintain their hard-line views and blame their political foes for Cambodia's ills. In fact, many might still be in the jungle killing wild animals for food, stealing rice from farmers and fighting government troops if not for a 1996 amnesty program that allowed them to join 450 other Khmer Rouge defectors and their families at this village in southern Cambodia.
Now, four years after the last Khmer Rouge stronghold was defeated and with war-crime tribunals looming, these once notorious soldiers have become simple farmers thanks to a San Francisco nonprofit organization called the United Cambodia Community Development Foundation, or UCC.
"Our goal is not to serve the Khmer Rouge but to see if development can help reconciliation," said Linda McKinney, 59, an Oakland resident who until this month was the program's director. "What is the alternative? To let them go back into the jungle so that their sons and daughters become guerrilla fighters?"
McKinney, a former Peace Corps volunteer, adviser to then-Gov. Jerry Brow and children's advocate, first met the Khmer Rouge soldiers eight years ago in the small village of Chamcar Bei, three hours south of Phnom Penh near the border with Vietnam. She had been running a vocational program in nearby Kampot city for land-mine amputees when the provincial governor asked her to do something similar for the 300 defectors, who were living in dire poverty with their families.
"There was no one to support them. They weren't very popular, and no one trusted them," said UCC board President Judd Iverson, 57, who is also the director of the Center for Law and Global Justice at the University of San Francisco Law School.
After McKinney overcame her initial fear of the infamous guerrillas -- known to kidnap and even kill foreigners -- she realized the situation was clearly an emergency. Most families had little food and water and no seeds for crops or the tools to cultivate them.
"You couldn't help but have a compassionate response to all these old ladies and babies," McKinney said, referring to the fighters' families. "The jungle supported them on the move. But when they started settling down in one spot, it became much more complicated."
McKinney began a food-for-work program to de-mine the village, clear the land and build roads and a school. She even persuaded U.S. officials to donate military rations for the defectors and got the U.S. Agency for International Development to become the program's major sponsor.
The defectors eventually learned how to build irrigation systems and grow rice, corn, mangoes, papayas and the Southeast Asian fruit durian.
To date, the UCC boasts 109 graduates, almost all of whom run their own self-sustaining farms and sell chickens and pigs. And it has expanded to work with 200 Khmer Rouge defectors and their families in the village of Kosla.
"For a minimal investment, you have a strong group of people providing resources to the community," said Iverson. "They are an asset rather than a divisive force."
While all Khmer Rouge defectors need UCC aid to make the transition back to civilian life, many say they never truly believed in or willingly joined the Mao-inspired rebels.
Prap Chahem, 60, says his involvement was based on survival and not ideology after the Khmer Rouge captured his village of Koh Som in southern Cambodia. When Vietnamese troops invaded in late 1978, ending Khmer Rouge rule,
Chahem fled to a refugee camp in Thailand.
Several years later, Chahem returned to Koh Som and was appointed village chief by the Cambodian army. In 1992, however, he was forced to rejoin the guerrillas.
"The Khmer Rouge invaded my village, captured me and took me to the mountains," Chahem recalled. "They later released me, but the government chased me. They chased me so much, I joined the Khmer Rouge for help."
By then, Chahem and many of his comrades cared so little for war that they would often lay down their weapons and socialize with government soldiers.
"We would borrow government's army clothes and go to the market to drink," he said. "We were getting too lazy to fight."
In 1994, Chahem defected and went with his family to live in Chamcar Bei.
The UCC not only provided him with food, medicine and farm supplies, but also paid for his study of agriculture and for surgery on his stomach.
"From the first day I came here, UCC has stayed with me the whole way," Chahem said.
The UCC is also remarkable for employing several Cambodian Americans, many of whom despise the Khmer Rouge.
Binika San, 47, the UCC site manager at Chamcar Bei, fled to the United States after his father and two brothers were killed by the Khmer Rouge. Eventually, he earned his doctorate in agriculture from the University of California at Berkeley and bought six doughnut shops in Riverside (Riverside County).
But San longed to go home and now teaches farming techniques that he learned at Berkeley to ex-soldiers of the army that killed members of his family.
"I don't hold a grudge against anybody," San said. "These people were just machines. There needs to be forgiveness, and we need to move on from the past."
While it is clear that most Cambodians are trying to move forward, these nascent villages still have major problems.
Violence is often used to settle disputes, McKinney said, and 20 residents of Chamcar Bei are infected with HIV, which has reached epidemic levels in Cambodia.