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Therapy helps Khmer Rouge victims overcome pain

The Khmer Rouge’s brutal rule of Cambodia ended over 30 years ago. Many victims still find it difficult to talk about their experiences. The Transcultural Psycho-Social Organization Cambodia provides them with therapy.

Sam Rithy was tortured by the Khmer Rouge and has trouble sleeping

Sam Rithy was tortured by the Khmer Rouge and has trouble sleeping

Monks in orange robes are reciting prayers. A group of men and women is sitting in front of them. Their heads are bowed and some are crying. They are in a temple in the Killing Fields, not far from the Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh.

17,000 were killed in this place alone under the Khmer Rouge regime that lasted from 1975 to 1979. Those praying survived. They are taking part in a therapy course that is run by the Transcultural Psycho-Social Organization Cambodia (TPO).

Some 20,000 people were detained, tortured and killed in Tuol Sleng Prison

Some 20,000 people were detained, tortured and killed in Tuol Sleng Prison

"It felt like I was in hell"

One of the participants, Sam Rithy, was arrested and tortured in prison. The Khmer Rouge, which wanted to establish a classless society, thought that he needed to be rid of his "bourgeois side" since he lived in the city.

"They hit me with a weapon until I was unconscious. They killed innocent children in jail and let children starve to death. It felt like I was in hell. I never thought I would survive," he recalls.

The method that the TPO uses – Testimonial Therapy – was developed in Chile after the dictatorship fell. Participants work through their experiences of torture, war and human rights abuses, with qualified therapists.

Sleep problems and depression

Sam Rithy has problems sleeping and Im Sam At is depressed. The two are sitting in a cafe in Pnomh Penh, speaking about their experiences. Im Sam At is massaging her forehead:

"I think about the past too much," she says. "My husband was executed. I was a widow at 22. I lost my children and my mother. I feel very very lonely."

It is part of the therapy to write down memories and try to piece fragments together. Participants then go back to the Killing Fields together but only after they have been "debriefed", explains Sarat Youn, one of the TPO’s therapists.

At least two million people are thought to have died under the Khmer Rouge, through execution, illness or starvation

At least two million people are thought to have died under the Khmer Rouge, through execution, illness or starvation

"We tell them that this place is not a good place to visit and will remind them of really bad past experiences. We tell them that if they need to cry, they should. They should not keep it in but should release their pain."

Religious ceremony helps release pain and suffering

In the final ceremony, the therapists read out the stories of each person. Sam Rithy seems calm and composed as Sarat Youn reads his story. He nods over and over again.

Sam Rithy then gives the document to the head monk, who blesses it. The monk then wraps a red band around Sam Rithy’s wrist.

Sarat Youn explains that the religious ceremony can help victims release their pain and find peace. The monks relieve the victims of suffering and memories that they have kept deep within themselves for years by taking the documents and blessing them.

Those who have gone through the therapy say that they feel more hope and energy afterwards.

Author: Nina Ritter / act
Editor: Thomas Baerthlein

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