For almost 35 years, Rys Yamlas kept a secret. The memory of being taken into a forest in her native village of Ochero in Cambodia, pushed against a tree and then brutally raped by a Khmer Rouge soldier was too painful to share - until recently.
"It still hurts, but letting the world know about my story makes me feel better," Rys told IRIN after participating in a recent hearing for victims of sexual violence under the Khmer Rouge, hosted by a local NGO on the sidelines of the Khmer Rouge Tribunal.
The UN-backed Extraordinary Chamber of the Courts in Cambodia (ECCC) - commonly referred to as the Khmer Rouge Tribunal - earlier this week heard closing statements from defendants Khieu Samphan (former head of state) and Nuon Chea (chief ideologist for the Khmer Rouge).
Cambodia Defenders Project (CDP), in cooperation with Transcultural Psychosocial Organization (TPO) and the Victims’ Support Section of an ongoing war crimes probe, launched these annual public hearings in 2011 to give voice to sexual violence survivors during the Khmer Rouge regime (1975-1979), when an estimated 1.8 million people were murdered.
The tribunal’s judges ruled in September 2010 that extramarital sexual crimes could not be tried in their court because while such rape occurred under the Khmer Rouge’s rule, the judges said it was not leaders’ policy.
Outlawing extramarital sex
“Those people who were suspected of `immoral’ behaviour, including rape, were categorized as `bad-elements’ or `enemies’, and were often either re-educated or killed,” the judges wrote in September 2010, adding that since the cadres’ policy clearly aimed to prevent rape, they could not be held responsible for gender-based crimes outside of marriage.
This policy, also known as Code No. 6, prohibited sexual relations between unmarried couples, with the possibility of both parties being executed if discovered.
“Despite the fact that this policy did not manage to prevent rape, it cannot be considered that rape was one of the crimes used by the CPK [Communist Party of Kampuchea] leaders,” the judges concluded.
After the women were spurned from seeking justice in court, Duong Savorn, a lawyer and project coordinator for the NGO said the NGO “decided to give them [gender-based violence (GBV) survivors] a voice, to share their experience and to release and acknowledge their suffering”.
Finding the words
As a civil party in the tribunal, Rys is accustomed to testifying.
She has talked about the hard, forced labour on the rice fields, the constant fear of being executed and the struggle to find enough food to survive. That she had been raped, however, she never mentioned publicly until the 24 September hearing attended by an estimated 400 people.
"When I saw this one woman talk [in 2011] about her experience - she was much younger than I am - I decided to speak out as well. If she was brave enough to share her story, I would be, too," Rys, now aged 70, said.
Two years later, CDP selected her to testify.
There have been three of these public hearings, each attended by five participants who shared their experiences (including victims and witnesses of GBV).
Survivors of sexual violence during the time of the Khmer Rouge have only come forth in recent years, said Duong with CDP, who started researching the topic in 2009.
"I thought that it [GBV] must have happened," although evidence was scant, he said.
Other than a study published in 2008 there was little systematic research.
A radio programme Duong started in 2009 that encouraged women to speak about their experiences with sexual violence, as well as advocacy by local human rights organizations, led the war crimes tribunal to include forced marriage as a punishable crime in its proceedings.
Rape not considered war crime
But rape and other acts of sexual violence (except in cases of forced marriage) would not be considered in court trials on the basis of the Khmer Rouge’s policy banning extra-marital sex.
Theresa de Langis, an expert on GBV in conflict and post-conflict countries, is interviewing 25 Cambodian women about their experiences under the Khmer Rouge for an oral history project.
Instead of preventing rape, de Langis said respondents told her the Khmer Rouge leaders' policy ensured survivors would not report their perpetrators, given that the penalty for extramarital sex, including rape, was death.
"When he raped me, I wasn't in a position where I could have cried for help. He would have killed me. Later, if I would have reported him, they [Khmer Rouge cadres] would have killed him, but they would have also killed me," said Rys.
Call for action
Last month, in its most recent review of the government’s compliance with the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, which the country ratified in 1980, the UN questioned the failure of Cambodian government to address “adequately” sexual violence against women under the Khmer Rouge regime.
The UN called on the government to “develop effective non-judicial transitional justice programmes, including the provision of adequate reparations, psychological and other appropriate support”.
Meanwhile, for Rys, she said just being able to speak publicly has brought her some peace. "We want the world to know what really happened.”