In 1975 the Khmer Rouge killed 2.5m people. Now one Leeds woman gives her first-hand account of the aftermath. Neil Hudson reports.
Julie Marder never meant to end up on the front line. As a 27-year-old and the wife of the American ambassador in Bangkok, in 1979 she found herself living a life of comfort and luxury, with the run of a period mansion complete with staff.
Now almost four decades on the 62-year-old from Leeds has broken her silence over her experience of the aftermath of Cambodia’s notorious Killing Fields and believes her experiences can be used to help modern war veterans suffering from post traumatic stress syndrome.
Julie told how she became embroiled in one of the worst humanitarian crises in recent history.
“I learned of a meeting at the French ambassador’s house and someone invited me to go along.
“This was even before the UN had officially commented on the situation in Cambodia. At the meeting, the Thai Red Cross were going to make some kind of statement. It was all to do with the tens of thousands of refugees who came across the border into Thailand. It was horrific hearing of the appalling situation they were faced with. The Thai Red Cross came to me and said no-one cared because Vietnam was over.
“‘All you have to do,’ they said, ‘is come with us in the van.’ It was not something I planned to do in my life but I decided to go.”
When she arrived, she almost couldn’t believe what she was seeing.
“We get out there and find 35,000 people, no food, no water, two doctors and one nurse from Medicins Sans Frontieres (MSF) and two women from Geneva to sort out some orphanage for the children. When you look at something like that, it’s difficult to describe. It’s like 9/11 – unless you see it you can’t imagine it.
“Amongst this civilian population was the major part of the Khmer Rouge. I was administering water, I didn’t speak the language but they took to me.”
Before she knew it she had been recruited by the MSF.
“That day one of the women from Geneva came and asked if I would stay overnight. They needed to go to Bangkok for supplies. It was a dilemma for me because the Thai commander told me he could not guarantee my safety. A lot of people have asked ‘why did you do it?’”
“When you are confronted with things you have to stand by your convictions.
“I was not living in the UK thinking I want to become some kind of Mother Theresa and it’s true you don’t have to go far in Britain to find someone who needs help but this was on my doorstep and when those things confront you if you walk away from them, then you walk away from yourself.”
And so she answered the call and stayed the night. Before they left, the MSF workers handed her a lantern – by 11 o’clock it was dead. “I was with about 15 kids, some of them had dysentery and diarrhoea, they were distressed, they’d witnessed horrible things, been separated from their families, they were pacing up and down, I couldn’t communicate with them.
“I did think I wasn’t going to live through the night. When the sun set I felt genuine fear. I found myself alone with 35,000 people and the major part of the Khmer Rouge. I remember thinking ‘I’m going to die tonight’.
“I would be a fool to say I did not feel afraid. There was no-one there I could call out to. I remember reciting the Lord’s Prayer, songs, I even made up a poem.
“The poem ran: ‘The sun which had shone today was now gone, did another show its face, the moon?’
She went on: “When I found myself alone and I couldn’t look down because of the horror that was around me, I looked up. It was a real spiritual, survival moment. I saw the glory of the universe, the stars above my head and whatever it was that made the world I am living in, to ask ‘why am I here?’
“People were not moving around, they were pretty quiet, they were dying, they had no food, they were completely exhausted, sick... I was 27... I made it through the night.
“Morning comes and I see this mass of Cambodian people just laid there, desperate.”
Julie found herself spending more time at the camp. She would stay with the children routinely throughout the night, a fact which did not go unnoticed.
“After the first night with children, then I started to have a base on the camp. Then everyone knew I maintained my position by day and night. The Khmer Rouge would look for me at night and people would make me lie down and they would lay upon me. They would look for me on a night. I might have gone in a chop suey. The signature of the Khmer Rouge was that they would eat the liver of their enemy.”
“But then a small group of democratic freedom fighters came to the camp and said please continue to stay with us, we need you. They offered to protect me.”
It was enough to keep her there, helping where she could.
She didn’t just dole out food, water and medical supplies, she bought the orphaned children some paper and crayons so they had an outlet for their feelings – and she still has some of the pictures they drew.
“It was just something I thought of,” said Julie, who at that time had two children of her own aged six and eight.
“Colour connects to our primary instincts. Having those crayons meant so much to the children, though some of the pictures were quite disturbing.”
Julie spent time in camps in Thailand’s Sakeo camp from September 1979 to January 1980 and Mairut from January 1980 to April 1980.
One of the things which has stuck in her mind was an encounter with a gun-toting Thai soldier.
She recalled: “He just appeared in the empty hospital building I was working in, he looked like some kind of Disney character, swaying with his gun.
“He was ready for it and I didn’t speak his language. Somehow I managed to convince him to leave.”
But her experience took its toll. She’d been in near constant fear for her life, living among the refugees Monday to Friday and returning to her home in Bangkok on a weekend to see her children.
Once she returned home, she had a breakdown.
She said: “I’ve been confronted at gunpoint, seen death and seen people in the worst circumstances and seeing things like that has an effect – and it’s the same for soldiers today – so that when you do come back to normal life, nothing seems real.
“You’ve been dealing with death and people with guns and orphans that wake in the night screaming because they think soldiers are coming back and then you come back to this other world obsessed by materialism, where people seem obsessed with getting drunk and get annoyed if the car in front isn’t going quick enough.
“All of that materialism stuff is so short-lived. In the end, people don’t even remember it, they remember people, the connections they make with people.
“When you are on the front line, there’s no bulls**t in a situation like that, because you’d be dead.
“So people respect what you’ve done in a situation like that.
“When you work for it, you cannot put a price on that, when it walks in the door, you do not value it.
“Why did I stay? I never asked myself that at the time. I was faced with so many issues there that I could relate to back home, that I just could not stand for it.
“I was also originally a child who had been abandoned. I was adopted by a Jewish family as a baby, who had experienced the horror of the Nazis in the Second World War first hand.
“My adopted mother and grandmother had always supported the rights of women in Britain and my family had always supported the civil rights of people in the free world. And I was there... On the front line. If I didn’t make a stand for these people, who would?
“They say celebrate the struggle, it’s the struggle in life that makes who we are, it gives us the backbone, it’s the struggle that people value in us, it’s not the ones who were born with a silver spoon who have never been confronted by upset and don’t know how to do anything, it’s those who are willing to step up and make change.
“But that said, we cannot then abandon those who take on those roles.
“I feel it is very important to add, that one in four of the suicides in Britain today are British ex-service personnel.
“A high number of Britain’s homeless and mentally ill are British ex-servicemen and women also.
“Post traumatic shock disorder can strike an individual down, even 15 years after their military involvement (as I know well) and frequently leaves them unsupported and uncared for, which is a very important issue for us all in Britain.
“Though Cambodia happened for me so many decades ago, in another part of the world, the after effects of war are happening right now on our doorstep right now.”
Telling Julie’s story in film
Julie’s story has recently been highlighted by film-maker Josh Levin from Leeds. The 18-year-old, who has made several online films available on YouTube (email: firstname.lastname@example.org), said he was humbled by Julie’s story: “It wasn’t something I expected to do but it is of interest to a wider audience. Julie’s story is amazing.”
The political situation which led to the Killing Fields was complex.
As America attempted to thwart the advance of communism in the East it embarked on a very public war in Vietnam but what was not so well known until Government papers were declassified in the 1990s was it engaged in a secret bombing campaign in Cambodia, a communist stronghold. The campaign destroyed much of the country’s infrastructure forcing most of its population into cities.
Some claim the US campaign did the opposite of what it was meant to in that it galvanised communist support and aided the regime of Chinese-backed Pol Pot.