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National tragedy obscures untold personal dramas. LIFE IN CAMBODIA

BEFORE joining the Khmer Rouge, Chann Sophal was a simple Cambodian cowherd, young but poor, adventurous but stuck in a small village. He could only imagine promises of money and gold, fighting for a cause, or falling in love. Yet in 1983 he became a guerrilla for the secretive and ruthless Khmer Rouge, and his dreams became nightmares.

Mr. Sophal's tale is a reminder that behind the daily intrigues of power struggles over Cambodia lie thousands of untold personal tragedies. His story, which offers a rare glimpse into a little-known organization, also is a reminder that the notorious Khmer Rouge have not been put out of action despite killing millions.

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As a teenager at the time the Khmer Rouge ruled Cambodia under Pol Pot (1975-79), Sophal was taken from his parents and put in a child center. His father died in 1977 under the extreme austerity of the Maoist-like communist regime.

After Vietnam ousted Pol Pot, Sophal and his mother lived in a raised hut on the edge of a forest in Prey Vihear Province. Wearing a checkered red headdress against the sun, Sophal tended cows.

Then one day a stranger named Sen stepped from the fringe of the forest. Dressed in a green Khmer Rouge uniform, he asked Sophal to help him buy food in the market. The man, holding a rifle, pulled out $40 in Khmer currency.

Sophal agreed to the request, and in fact saw the man for four days, buying more food to help him stay in hiding.

``I had a bad impression of the Khmer Rouge,'' says Sophal, who was 21 when he joined them. ``But then that man promised me money and gold. I forgot everything and left the village.

``I never even went back to say goodbye to my mother,'' he said. ``Our village was very confused about who to trust and which army to support.'' In all, five military forces, wearing five different uniforms, contend for the hearts and minds of villagers in Cambodia (or Kampuchea).

On the rebel side are the Khmer Rouge and two noncommunist, Western-aided forces under Prince Nordom Sihanouk and Son Sann. On the other are the Soviet-backed Vietnamese Army and its ally, the armed forces of the People's Republic of Kampuchea (PRK) under Hun Sen, a Khmer Rouge defector who rules in the capital.

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With so many competing authorities, peasants often find themselves forced to switch allegiances, only to swing back at other times.

In Sophal's case, he fell in with the Khmer Rouge and was taken to one of their camps known as ``1003,'' near the mountainous northern border with Thailand. His commanders told him of the historic ``disloyalty'' of Vietnamese communists toward their fraternal Khmer communists, and the glories of certain victory. They taught him military and psychological-warfare tactics, such as how to use antitank guns or frighten villagers by spreading rumors that the Vietnamese were poisoning wells.

Rapidly promoted, he became a deputy commander of the 44th Battalion in the Khmer Rouge's 801st Division. ``They trusted me,'' Sophal says. He met often with one of Pol Pot's most notorious officers, the one-legged Ta Mok, who directed the seven troop divisions in Camp 1003.

``Ta Mok was kind to us and very gentle,'' says Sophal. ``He promised us high posts when we took power, but that if we surrendered to the Vietnamese or the PRK, we would be killed or jailed.''

Vietnamese soldiers ambushed Sophal's battalion at night on his first mission, killing two of his men. But they escaped and entered a village in Cheung Prey district of Kompong Cham Province, where they planned to kill the commune leader and win over the peasants. But they only succeeding in burning down the office of the PRK's Communist Party.

Later, in another Vietnamese ambush, seven of his men were killed. ``I had to run for my life,'' says Sophal.

In April last year, he was part of a major assault of 800 guerrillas, followed by 300 women who were carrying food. This large Khmer Rouge division walked 24 nights into central Cambodia.

Small mistakes brought summary justice. The division commander killed two scouts who failed to spot Vietnamese troops that later ambushed the Khmer Rouge unit. Afterward, the commander killed one soldier for refusing to retrieve a corpse from the battlefield.

Sophal's battalion spent nearly two years in central Cambodia, attacking Vietnamese or being attacked, and trying to win over villagers.

One of his tasks was to capture women to help carry in food supplies.

During one foray, he ran into a peasant girl who, like himself, had been coaxed to buy food for the hidden Khmer Rouge. For two weeks he managed to see her. They talked under cover of a forest, and quickly became sweethearts. At one point, she suggested that he surrender.

``I had never received any of the money I was promised by the Khmer Rouge,'' Sophal said. ``And I was living a miserable life. I was disillusioned. We lacked food, medicine, and ammunition. And I missed my mother.''

On March 20 this year, he surrendered to local officials, with the help of his girl friend who promised him protection.

As a reward, local authorities gave him twenty-one dollars for his weapons, a mosquito net, two shirts, a blanket, some rice, and 30 feet of cloth.

He was also asked to join the PRK forces in attacking his own battalion or persuade them to surrender. Back in battle again, he discovered that his former Khmer Rouge comrades had kidnapped his girlfriend. Sophal believes she has been killed for helping him to surrender.

His twisted tragedy has compelled him to fight eagerly for the PRK. So far, he has killed two Khmer Rouge guerrillas.

``I loved her,'' he says with sadness and regret. She was his last dream. ``Now I must get my revenge.''

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