- Bo Uce holds a picture showing Lah Sok; brother… (Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times)
An orphan of the Killing Fields of the Khmer Rouge struggles to overcome his anguish.
He spent much of his life consumed by what the three men on the screen before him had done.
He stared at the glossy, bloodshot eyes of the man in the middle, the one who had so casually demonstrated how he slit his victims' throats, who explained how his hand grew so sore he often switched to stabbing them at the base of the neck.
They were gaunt figures now, impoverished men trudging the rice ponds of northwestern Cambodia. They had agreed to confess their roles in the Killing Fields, first for a documentary film, "Enemies of the People," and then here, in a video conference with survivors in Long Beach.
Bo Uce, 39, listened to them explain that they had to obey orders or they too would be executed. He knew they would say this, and they were right. But it didn't matter.
Uce wasn't there to understand their rationale. Since landing in New Jersey as a 12-year-old refugee in 1983 and going on to graduate from Dartmouth College, he'd scoured history and psychology books and world literature to try to comprehend the sadism and indifference he'd witnessed as a child in Cambodia. He read "Crime and Punishment" three times to understand Dostoevsky's character Raskolnikov, who cooked up wispy moral justifications to murder a pawnbroker, only to careen through a whorl of anguish after the act.
Uce came out on this damp Sunday night to make sure these men didn't think time had diminished their deeds, even as they roamed free after taking part in an atrocity that killed more than 1.5 million people. He wouldn't let them escape their own anguish.
But he would try to escape his own.
Bo Uce was 4 in 1975 when the Khmer Rouge, with its deranged vision of communism, took power. It purged the country of teachers, doctors, lawyers and writers and forced the population into hard labor on farming collectives.
Most of Bo's recollections are far-flung moments he struggled to string into coherence later.
He couldn't recall his father, Kharn, but preserved a few warm memories of his mother, Lah Sok. When the family was forced into the reeducation camps, she worked the rice fields in a women's brigade within walking distance of Bo's children's regiment. When they could, he and his older brother, Roth, would sneak away to see her. She looked emaciated and tired.