Kassie Neou owes his life to Aesop and his fables, which he told over and over again, night after night, to the teenage boys who guarded him 20 years ago in a Khmer Rouge torture chamber.
“You’re the tortoise! You’re the hare!” the boys teased each other, delighted with the story, Neou recalled Friday.
Every night, sometimes exhausted and bloody from a day of beatings and interrogation, he said, he told the stories to one shift of guards after another.
“I was lucky because I knew those stories by heart,” said Neou, who had been the head of the English-language service for Cambodian radio and television and who is now the director of the Cambodian Institute for Human Rights.
“I told the stories all night long, with my ankles in leg irons like everybody else,” he said. “And because of that, I became someone who was needed by the guards.”
Then came the night when the prisoners were roped together and marched from the building to be killed. Above the loud squeaking of their leg irons, Neou said, he heard the voice of the 13-year-old guard who was in charge: “I need him. Quick! Pull him out.”
One of the guards hid him, holding a finger to his mouth for silence. Another, newly arrived prisoner was roped to the others and was killed in his place. Neou was spared.
Like Neou, virtually everyone of a certain age in Cambodia today is a survivor of the Khmer Rouge years - either a victim or a killer. And with daily reports here of the possible capture of Pol Pot, the Khmer Rouge leader, long-suppressed memories of the past are being stirred.
From 1975 to 1979, driven by a radical Maoist philosophy that quickly slid into madness, the Khmer Rouge government turned on its own people, ripping society apart and killing perhaps as many as 2 million Cambodians.
Many were executed at torture chambers like Tuol Sleng prison in Phnom Penh, or the provincial interrogation house in northwestern Battambang where Neou was one of the few survivors.
Nearly two decades later, this is a nation that still seems unable to face that past trauma. Piles of bones and skulls still lie unburied, as if the people who were spared their fate were too exhausted to lay them to rest.
The victimizers still live, unpunished, side by side with their victims.
Now, with the world mobilizing to prepare a tribunal that would try Pol Pot and other Khmer Rouge leaders, it is far from certain that the Cambodian people themselves are ready to see justice done.
The memories are painful enough already, many people say. A trial that could reach down to rupture their own families and neighborhoods might be more than they can bear.
“They killed my husband and my family,” said Ros Chhenda, who owns a small restaurant in Phnom Penh. “But now I don’t think about the past anymore.”
For 18 years, since they were driven into the jungle by a Vietnamese invasion, Pol Pot and his men have continued to wage a guerrilla war from their jungle hideouts. Their legacy of bitterness and violence remains alive in a feuding and fractious government that sometimes seems on the verge of open warfare.
Cambodian society is still too fragile to support the burden of a trial, Neou said.
“If facing the past will jeopardize the present, I do not think it is a good idea,” he said. “These people live among us, and we cannot wish them away. I support the national policy of reconciliation and building peace, because this is what Cambodia needs first. I choose peace first, and justice later.”
Now, for Neou, his own story has become something of a cautionary tale, and he tells it as he once told the fables of Aesop.
When he was being beaten and accused of working for the CIA, Neou said, he memorized the faces of his torturers, sustaining himself with thoughts of retribution.
“I told myself that when my time comes, I will take revenge five times worse than what they are doing to me,” he said. “As a human being, you have that kind of anger.”
Three years later, when the Khmer Rouge government collapsed, he said, he joined a flood of hundreds of thousands of people across the border into Thailand. Among the refugees at the Khao I Dang camp, he said, he recognized one of his torturers, a young man he had known as Comrade Han.
“He turned completely pale when he saw me, and he began to shake,” Neou recalled. “I asked him, ‘Oh, when did you arrive?’ He could not talk because of his fear, and he only said, ‘My wife is sick and my baby is dying.”’
Neou, one of the few educated people to survive the Khmer Rouge killings, was now the administrator of an aid program at the camp.
“Because of his fear, and because his baby was dying, I completely changed my mind about taking revenge through anger,” he said. Instead, he took the man to a feeding center, where he arranged for care for his wife and child and gave him money for cigarettes.
“When I did this, the guy was trembling and he had tears in his eyes, and he thanked me,” Neou said. “At this point I realized that I had made my revenge.”