KOMPONG CHHNANG, CAMBODIA
AFTER all the bad press about the Khmer Rouge, why would anyone still join them? Yet two years ago, when Som Sam Vy was 27 years old, a friend approached him with a promise: If he joined the Khmer Rouge, he would be given a high public position and bring honor to his family name once the Khmer Rouge again took power.
With hope of high social status, Mr. Som left his lowly job as a river stevedore and trekked to the mountain hideout of a unit that is part of the estimated 20,000 to 35,000 Khmer Rouge guerrilla force waging war since 1979, when Vietnam ousted the Pol Pot regime.
Som also left his mother all alone. She survived by selling porridge. And he ignored the memories of how his father died by starvation during the Khmer Rouge period of radical communism.
And he ignored government propaganda that has tried to incite hatred in Cambodia against the Khmer Rouge.
On his first day with the Khmer Rouge, Som realized his mistake.
``I was shocked at how many people they killed,'' Som said, ``and how much rice they stole from the people.''
But for two years he thought it impossible to escape. Anyone who tried would be shot. ``I wanted to escape many times, but it was difficult. They put mines around the mountain, and the only people who knew their location were the relatives of the commander,'' Som said.
He worked as a medic, not a fighter, but he probably saw as many of his own comrades killed by his unit's leaders as his unit killed in fighting. He witnessed four executions of fellow comrades.
Two had tried to escape. One had lost his rifle. The fourth had slept with a village girl. ``Make war, not love,'' his commander yelled as he shot the young man in the back of the head, Som said. All their bodies were dumped in the jungle.
But he saw more. Any fighter seriously wounded was considered useless. During his time, more than 100 wounded soldiers were killed and ``never buried,'' he said. Fresh fighters were brought in from camps on the border with Thailand.
The only shooting that he ever did was for food, he claims. He was a good shot with his AK-47 rifle, and his commander trusted him to hunt wild game.
He was fortunate to be such a good shot. During his two years, he killed more than 30 wild elephants - each, he claims, with a single bullet. One elephant provided enough meat to feed his unit for a month. To cut the tough skin, Som used the blade of a B-40 grenade.
The elephants' tusks were tossed away.
One time, alone in the jungle, Som shot a tiger. But that took 15 bullets. ``And the meat tasted terrible,'' he said.
He was not allowed to talk much with others. The guerrillas were separated into small groups by day. ``Work, work, work,'' he remembers. A lot of work was digging roots for food. At dusk, they got into hammocks and stayed silent.
He was given a monthly wage, which amounted to half of what he earned as a stevedore. He bought a radio from another soldier, but was told that he was only allowed to listen to Khmer Rouge broadcasts.
But one day, alone in the jungle, he tuned into a government station and heard one of his old friends, a former Khmer Rouge fighter, appealing for guerrillas to surrender, promising amnesty if they did so.
Som and four others in his unit made an escape last August. As they fled through the jungle, they ran into another Khmer Rouge unit that attacked them. Three in his group were killed.
When he reached his mother's hut, he turned himself in to the authorities. He received $15 for bringing two rifles, three mines, and three grenades.
Som is an only child and his two-year absence ``made my mother very upset,'' he said.
He is now looking for a job, battling malaria, and glad to be alive.