A friendship born out of the ruins of a nation, a dangerous journey home, and a 40-year search for the truth.
One day in February 2019, Cindy Coleman sped through central Cambodia in a motorcycle rickshaw. Most of the half-hour ride from the capital, Phnom Penh, to her destination followed a narrow two-lane road through poor, bustling towns. The rickshaw, or tuk-tuk, passed a busy wet market with fish gasping in styrofoam boxes, meat hanging from rusty hooks, and women in face masks pushing wagons of river snails. “The kids aren’t in school,” Coleman shouted over the roar of the wind and the engines, referring to a gaggle of roaming children. It was a national holiday, and hot. The air smelled of mangos, burning charcoal, and sour trash.
The tuk-tuk came to a stop at the edge of the Bassac River. Coleman, petite, with short white hair and an airy white shirt, ducked out of the rickshaw and made her way toward a shaded school across the street from the water. Dogs began barking. “Oh, be quiet,” she rejoined. The last time Coleman visited Cambodia, she walked with a cane. A recent hip replacement meant she didn’t need it anymore, but she kept a pad in her shoe to compensate for a leg shortened by the surgical procedure—an annoyance for the 77-year-old retired social worker and teacher from northern Michigan. She preferred flip-flops.
The school gates were closed. Coleman placed her small hands on the wrought-iron bars, slipped her fingers through the slots, and gazed at the empty grounds. Low-lying, red-roofed buildings encircled a concrete courtyard. There were palm trees, potted plants, and a flagpole. Cambodia’s flag—navy blue and red, with a white sketch of Angkor Wat in the center—hung motionless in the heat. “This is the place,” Coleman murmured. “I’m sure of it.”
Decades ago, this school, like all of Cambodia, was a kind of prison. From 1975 to 1979, the country was ruled by a Communist militia known as the Khmer Rouge. The group seized power in a coup, and immediately, as if thrust into a fever dream, Cambodia transformed. The new regime turned back the clock to what it called Year Zero. Private property was outlawed, families split apart, whole cities emptied. A few days after the militants took Phnom Penh, residents were marched into the countryside at gunpoint to build a new proletarian utopia. They were allowed to bring only what they could carry. Many died or were killed along the way. Those who survived began a life of toil, working long hours in makeshift labor camps, their days dictated by orders delivered over crackling loudspeakers or shouted by exacting military cadres. Everyone was forced to wear black.
The threat of death was constant. People were called away by the authorities and never came back. There seemed to be no rhyme or reason to who disappeared. At any time it could be you, your brother, your daughter. Temples were used as torture centers; ancestral farmland served as mass execution sites. Under the Khmer Rouge, one in four Cambodians died. It was the worst genocide since the Holocaust. Tiziano Terzani, an Italian reporter who covered the country both before and after the Khmer Rouge’s reign, wrote that he “could no longer see a row of palm trees without thinking that the tallest were those most fertilized with corpses.”
The school that Coleman had come to see, 40 years after the Khmer Rouge’s downfall, is in a place called Prek Pra. The Communists referred to the surrounding area as Region 25—everything in the country has another identity, one that it was forced to inhabit. After peering at the small campus for a while, Coleman lit a cigarette and walked away from the gate, toward the river. She stood on the bank, thick with reeds. Rising above the ochre-colored water were clusters of wooden hovels balanced on stilts. To the north was Phnom Penh, a cityscape interrupting the flat, brown and green countryside. Coleman studied it like someone might a tombstone. It represented, she later remarked, “the beginning of the end.”
Looking out at the river, its soupy current flowing southward, Coleman was thinking of old friends.
Chapter 1: Premonitions
Social activism practically ran in Coleman’s blood. Her father, John Bartlow Martin, was a celebrated investigative journalist who reported on the forgotten segments of society—the poor, the mentally ill, criminals. Today there is a journalism award in his name at Northwestern University. He and his wife raised Coleman and her two younger brothers in Illinois. A tomboy, Coleman watched Cubs games with her father and joined him on hunting trips; she got her first shotgun in her early teens. She was also curious and passionate, intrepid and decisive. In college, she attended feminist rallies, even burning her bra at one. Later, she got involved with antiwar efforts and volunteered as a marshal at protests in Washington, D.C.
By the mid-1960s, Martin was working in government. He’d been a speechwriter for various political figures, including Adlai Stevenson and John F. Kennedy. Once elected president, Kennedy appointed Martin ambassador to the Dominican Republic. On a visit there one summer, Coleman met a young foreign service officer named Joseph Fandino. A charming Cuban American from New York City—among the first Hispanic members of the foreign service—he’d served in the Air Force during the Korean War and attended Columbia Law School. Like Coleman, Fandino was sharp, quick on his feet, and darkly funny. Once, when angry rioters swarmed a car he and Martin were riding in, the ambassador asked, “Joe, what do you intend to do if things get really bad?” Fandino responded, “I’ll jump out of the car, tear off my tie, and yell, ‘Down with the Americans!’”
Coleman stayed in touch with Fandino. Eventually, they were married. Fandino was posted to Spain in 1968, and Coleman went with him. Despite her husband’s job, she was stalwart in her opposition to U.S. foreign policy. She even anonymously copublished an antiwar ad in the International Herald Tribune, which she remembered provoking an investigation within the U.S. embassy. Coleman helped resettle Cuban refugee children in Spain, and after she and Fandino moved back to the United States, she became a social worker for abused children. By then she and Fandino had two kids of their own, a boy and a girl.
In September 1971, Fandino was sent on assignment to Vietnam by the U.S. Agency for International Development, as part of a hearts and minds campaign. Coleman hated the new position: Her husband was now part of a war that she thought was an abomination. She also worried about his safety. When Fandino came home to America for Christmas, Coleman pleaded with him to quit. “I kept saying, ‘If you go back you’re gonna die,’” she said. “It was one of those things. I just knew.”
Fandino returned to Saigon. In June 1972, Coleman received a call from a State Department receptionist. Her husband had died in the line of duty. Coleman never learned how.
Nhek Veng Huor grew up about 120 miles northwest of Saigon, just over Vietnam’s border with Cambodia. His village was in Prey Veng, a poor province in a poor country. Its name means “long forest” in Khmer, the language of Cambodia’s dominant ethnic group. French colonists converted much of its jungle into farmland in the 19th century. Silt deposited whenever the Mekong River overflowed made the soil fertile. Both of Nhek’s parents were rice farmers.
Born in 1952, Nhek had eight siblings. It was clear from an early age that he was smart. The family acted accordingly, preparing him for life beyond the rice paddies, for an education. His father pushed Nhek to learn; the boy got more free time to read and study and received fewer chores than his siblings. He excelled in school. In his free time, Nhek roved the village and the countryside with his best friend, Peng, who came from a wealthier family. They climbed tall, skinny palm trees, caught croaking frogs, looked at the stars, and swam in ponds. Peng was a good student, too. Theirs was a bond forged by the pressure of familial expectations: Leave the village, make something of yourself.
Nhek and Peng were the only children their age who in 1969 went to Phnom Penh for high school. The city’s long, Parisian-style boulevards were hectic with shiny cars manufactured in Japan and America; its cafés and nightclubs blasted rock and roll. Magnificent new buildings, designed by visionary architect Vann Molyvann, gave the city a sense of looking to the future. Nhek had few means to partake in the capital’s pleasures, though. Any money he had went toward schooling and food. He secured free lodging with a Christian missionary, who helped him sharpen his French.
Cambodia had been independent since 1953, and by the time Nhek arrived in Phnom Penh, the country was becoming a war zone. The Nixon administration had begun a covert bombing campaign aimed at disrupting a network of Communist supply routes that cut through Cambodia. Over several years, the United States bombed Cambodia more heavily than it did Japan during World War II, including Nagasaki and Hiroshima. This effort only bolstered support for Cambodia’s own leftist insurgency. Strongest in rural areas, it was led by the Communist Party of Kampuchea, which would become known as the Khmer Rouge.
A 1970 parliamentary coup in Cambodia ushered in a fierce anti-Communist government, led by an army marshal named Lon Nol. Unhinged and unpredictable, with a penchant for the occult, Nol was prone to delusional thinking; one U.S. government cable described him as “a sick man, both mentally and physically.” Nol dramatically escalated Cambodia’s battle with the ascendant Khmer Rouge while encouraging U.S. air strikes. Shell-shocked peasants poured into Phnom Penh. Many were forced to live in the streets. Food prices skyrocketed. Amputees were a common sight. The war, once a distant worry for city dwellers, became impossible to ignore.
The conflict became Nhek’s life when, after high school, he enlisted in the navy. He joined the crew of a ship that transported troops to battle. It had a heavy front hatch, which Nhek helped lower onto riverbanks so that soldiers could scramble out. Guerrilla strikes were common. “They attacked every time we got out of the city,” remembered Sim Tan, a veteran who served on the same ship. Nhek kept a yaon, a piece of cloth blessed by a monk, with him always; it was said to afford protection. Once, after lowering his boat’s hatch, he watched as the deploying troops were decimated by a rocket attack. Their limbs stained the water and the sides of the boat red. Somehow, he was unscathed.
Nhek was eventually stationed on a larger carrier affixed with a 105-millimeter cannon. His job involved transporting supplies provided by the U.S. military in South Vietnam up the Mekong to Phnom Penh. The war was getting uglier. Nhek killed Vietnamese and his own countrymen—the enemy was defined by ideology. In one battle, he helped rescue a civilian family, which returned to Phnom Penh with him. Nhek became engaged to a daughter in the family.
In early 1974, Nhek received good news: The humble country boy had been invited, along with other select servicemen, for military training in the United States. Navy commander Sophano Vong called each man personally to deliver the message. Nhek enrolled in three months of mandatory English classes at the naval headquarters in Phnom Penh. It was a happy time. Instead of deploying to battle zones, he was learning a new language. When lessons were done for the day, he went to bars and movies with friends. “We’d just have a good time together,” serviceman Um Sihourn said. “Nhek and I were like twins.”
One day, Nhek and Um visited a palm reader. Like many Cambodians, Nhek harbored a strong belief in the supernatural and in destiny. He was leaving his country, his fiancée, and a war that had engulfed his life. He wanted to know what would become of him. The seer made two predictions: You will soon travel far away, she told him—and never in your life will you marry.
Chapter 2: Year Zero
The men’s training began in the fall of 1974, at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas. Friends remembered Nhek radiating warmth, but he could also be rowdy, in the way of young military men. He drank beer in the dorms, and once, during playful roughhousing in a campus cafeteria, he tackled an Iranian serviceman twice his size who was also there for training. “All the teachers said, ‘Don’t mess around with this guy, he knows kung fu,’” Um remembered. Nhek also wasn’t afraid to speak his mind. On another occasion in the cafeteria, he accused an English teacher of speaking down to the Cambodians and demanded an apology. The teacher had been instructing them on how to use a toilet.
That winter, the Cambodians continued their training in Newport, Rhode Island, at a U.S. Navy facility composed of squat buildings on a rocky spit of land jutting into Narragansett Bay. Newport Bridge, stretching across the water and easily visible from the school, must have seemed near divine to a rice farmer’s son from a province where the only way to cross the Mekong was by boat. In a picture of the Cambodian servicemen taken on campus, Nhek crouches in a black uniform and white hat. He has large ears and a dark mole beside his nose. His left hand is draped over his knee, his mouth pulled into a pensive grin.
With its pristine streets, quaint New England charm, and extravagant wealth, Newport could not have been more different from Phnom Penh. This was especially so in January, when the Cambodians experienced their first blizzard. At first they marveled at the snow, laughing and taking pictures. The novelty wore off during their daily dawn walks to an indoor pool where, as part of their physical training, they had to tread water. They requested thicker jackets.
Meanwhile, Cambodia descended into chaos. Congress forced an end to Nixon’s bombing campaign, and the Khmer Rouge ramped up its efforts to seize Phnom Penh. Rockets and artillery shells rained down on the capital, and civilians perished while shopping, biking, or hawking noodles. The city was running out of food, medicine, money, and oil. Blackouts were common. Supplies had to be airlifted in by U.S. military planes because the Khmer Rouge deployed floating mines in the Mekong.
In early April 1975, Lon Nol fled the country. Soon after, the communists captured a key military base south of Phnom Penh. To the men in Newport, it was crushing news: The Cambodian capital became a sitting duck. On April 12, U.S. Embassy staff began evacuating the country. A week later, Khmer Rouge troops entered Phnom Penh virtually uncontested. As the militants asserted control, ordering everyone by megaphone to evacuate to the countryside, an Associated Press reporter named Mean Leang transmitted a message from the bureau. “I have so numerous stories to cover. I feel rather trembling,” he wrote. “Appreciate instructions. I, with a small typewriter, shuttle between the post office and home. May be last cable today and forever.” A year later, he would be executed.
The old Cambodia was gone. The Khmer Rouge renamed the country Democratic Kampuchea, a signal of its intent to erase history. In Rhode Island, many of the servicemen requested political asylum. A State Department representative described the situation as “unprecedented”: soldiers on student visas—they were in training, after all—suddenly made stateless. A Navy spokesman called them “men without a country.” They were assured, in letters sent by President Gerald Ford, that the government would resettle them.
Nhek, though, didn’t want asylum. He wanted to go back. This perplexed some of his fellow servicemen. “I couldn’t believe he would trust the Khmer Rouge,” Um said. Everyone knew how brutal the Communists could be, a reputation accrued over many years of war. They decapitated “Lon Nols,” shorthand for government soldiers, with the razor-edged branches of palm fronds. Captured Cambodian servicemen often chose suicide instead.
In mid-1975, as Um and other soldiers began the resettlement process, Nhek went to Camp Pendleton, a military facility in Southern California on a green stretch of rolling plains between the Pacific Ocean and the Santa Ana Mountains. Thousands of Indochinese refugees were already there, housed in hastily erected camps. Saigon had fallen to the North Vietnamese shortly after the Khmer Rouge took Phnom Penh, and operations New Life and New Arrivals were underway: In the largest humanitarian airlift in history, the United States transported some 150,000 asylum seekers to military bases in Arkansas, Pennsylvania, Florida, and California.
Among them was Peng, Nhek’s best friend from childhood. Peng was thrilled to see Nhek but bewildered by his friend’s plan. “You better stay for a while,” Peng remembered cautioning him. “Wait to see what’s going on in Cambodia. Right now nobody knows.” The arrival of Year Zero had brought a virtual news blackout. People who made it out of the country spoke of horrors—killings, torture, forced labor—but it was hard to separate rumor from fact.
Nhek convinced himself that his chances of surviving were good. He reasoned that the new regime surely had desperate need of skilled navy men like him. He had some money saved up that could be used to bribe officials. Besides, the civil war was over. Going back might be risky, Nhek thought, but it wasn’t suicide. He said goodbye to Peng—who moved to nearby Long Beach to start a new life—and waited for America to send him home. Instead, it sent him to Cindy Coleman.
Every day in the autumn of 1975, Coleman walked the two blocks from her townhouse in Center City, Philadelphia, to the local branch of the Nationalities Service Center, a refugee-resettlement agency. She was 33 and recently remarried, to a social worker named Joe Coleman. As a volunteer at the center, she helped register refugees for English classes. The agency occupied several floors of an old brick building with dark hallways. Its director was a man named Mike Blum, a short, fast-talking liberal idealist with a curly beard.
One day, Blum called Coleman into his office, a large room with windows overlooking busy Spruce Street. By that point, three weeks into her time with the Nationalities Service Center, word of Coleman’s past experience with refugees had got around. Blum had an assignment for her, a paying one. The agency had been subcontracted by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to manage a group of 114 Cambodians. Roughly a quarter were civilian families. The majority were military men who’d been training in various parts of America when the Khmer Rouge overran Phnom Penh. All of them wanted—desperately—to go back. Some had even threatened suicide if they couldn’t.
The Cambodians had been corralled and were now coming to Philadelphia, where they would live in a YMCA in Center City for five months. During that time, someone had to figure out how to get them back to Cambodia. The Khmer Rouge had almost no diplomatic presence anywhere in the world, which meant there wasn’t an embassy or consulate to liaise with in Washington, D.C., or New York City. The regime had cut off the country from international travel, allowing commercial flights to come only from Peking (now Beijing). It wasn’t clear what repatriation would require: what documents, whose permission, which transit route. It would be Coleman’s job to oversee the group of stateless people until the details were ironed out.
“It was pitched to me as crisis management, basically,” Coleman recalled. The Cambodians were due to arrive in a week. She accepted the job on the spot—she never shied away from a challenge.
On the night of December 11, 1975, Coleman, Blum, and another Nationalities Service Center staffer named Mary Beach drove to Philadelphia International Airport to meet the Cambodians’ plane on the tarmac. Blum and Coleman boarded to make an announcement over the intercom, introducing themselves and welcoming the men and women seated in the jet’s rows. “I remember feeling really nervous, but not about the project, just that I had to say something,” Coleman said. She despised public speaking as much as she hated airplanes. When the introduction was over, the Cambodians disembarked and loaded into buses bound for the YMCA.
The servicemen moved into the eighth and ninth floors of the facility, while the civilians, most of whom didn’t speak English, moved into the twentieth. Coleman, whose office was on the eighth floor, became the point person for the soldiers, while Beach lived among the civilian families. The situation was tense from the start. A man named Norng Sam Oeurn was the first soldier to introduce himself to Coleman. He had a rigid posture and, according to Beach, “a face that always looked like it was wincing.” Norng, who often carried his suitcase with him, told Coleman sternly that the servicemen “would take it from here”—they didn’t need her guidance.
Not all the men were so cold. One was a pilot named Taing Vannassy who always wore a long white scarf with a bomber jacket, like an old-fashioned aviator. Another was an aging navy captain named Keo Keam who was perpetually sick; he stayed bundled in flannel pajamas, a sweatshirt, and a wool hat, and he wore his room key dangling from a string around his neck.
Then there was Nhek, who’d come all the way from Camp Pendleton. He was especially affable. He began stopping by Coleman’s office every day, settling into a chair near the door. “He’d come in for ten or fifteen minutes,” she recalled. “Sometimes he’d just sit.”
Nhek was charming and endearingly curious. He asked about Coleman’s evenings—where she’d gone, what she’d done—as well as her kids and her home life. Coleman took an immediate liking to the soft-spoken man. There was something quietly impressive about him. “I always considered Huor one of the smartest and bravest of the entire group,” she said, using his first name.
Before long, Nhek was sitting in a chair closer to her desk. He called Coleman bong srey (older sister). They were becoming friends.
Chapter 3: In Another Life
The servicemen instituted a strict system of internal control: check-in procedures, a nightly curfew, mandatory meetings, and a prohibition against single men visiting the twentieth floor. They set a desk next to the eighth-floor elevator, and a watchman was there at all hours. All comings and goings were monitored.
To some extent the rules were kneejerk, products of the servicemen’s ingrained military culture. They were also political and preemptive. The men were going back to a country utterly remade, and they had to be ready. That meant eschewing American influence. The Cambodians studied Communist philosophy. In nightly, hours-long gatherings that mirrored reeducation sessions, they confessed to various impurities of the flesh and the mind: adultery, doubting the revolution, studying English or Christianity. Once condemned by the group, they could be redeemed.
Coleman and her colleagues were barred from attending these sessions. Many of the servicemen were wary of the American staff, who they feared only wanted to thwart their efforts to go home. Beach recalled one of the men telling her that he knew “it would look bad on the U.S. that these guys wanted to return to a Communist country.” They began calling each other “comrade” and America “imperialist.” They organized a “supreme committee” mimicking the structure of the Communist Party in China. Norng claimed that he was in touch with a Khmer Rouge “mission” in New York. Contacts at UNHCR and the State Department told Coleman there was no such thing. (Later, it would be revealed that the mission consisted of a Cambodian economics professor who received information from Phnom Penh via a Chinese courier at the United Nations.)
Meanwhile, the private conversations between Coleman and Nhek that began as small talk evolved into more substantial dialogue. Nhek talked about his time in the war, his family, his worries and doubts. He admitted that he’d considered striking out on his own—leaving the group and traveling to a country where it might be easier to repatriate. Somewhere in Africa, maybe, that wasn’t aligned with either side of the Cold War. In the charged atmosphere at the YMCA, where the group mattered more than the individual, the thought constituted a high offense.
Beach remembered other servicemen telling Nhek not to be so sociable. “He really didn’t care what the rest of the group thought,” she said. “He would talk to us anyway.” On a few occasions, Nhek snuck out to get French novels from the Philadelphia library. He went to the Philadelphia Museum of Art and became indignant when he saw an Angkorian statue, arguing that it belonged back in Cambodia. One day he asked Coleman where in Center City he might find a woman he could pay for sex—a forbidden act. Gingerly, she suggested a shady-looking fortune-teller’s shop. That evening, Coleman laughed all the way home.
Life at the YMCA wasn’t all secrets and suspicion. The refugees had a food allowance, and a nearby Thai restaurant compiled a special menu entitled “For Our Cambodian Friends.” On a television in a common room, the men devoured episodes of M.A.S.H.— Nhek and three of his close friends always sat on a brown leather couch to watch the show. Most mornings, Beach, a 22-year-old blonde who walked with a limp, would accompany the Cambodians to local newsstands so that they could look for stories from home.
In the afternoons, the YMCA opened its recreation rooms to the servicemen, who liked volleyball and Ping-Pong. They were particularly adept at the latter, and an audience often formed around their matches. “I couldn’t even see the ball when they were playing,” Beach recalled. Sometimes Blum, the Nationalities Service Center director, joined in. The servicemen let him win. “Hey folks, we live in a democracy here. Just play your game,” Blum told them one day. He never got another point after that.
One night two Cambodians started playing a guitar and a fiddle. The others gathered to hear the music; so did some of the American staff. In a photograph snapped during the impromptu show, Nhek is seated cross-legged on the floor, his eyes fixed on the guitarist. He looks content.
In early February 1976, a UNHCR official named Virendra Dayal arrived at the YMCA with news. A Khmer Rouge mission in Paris—one that actually existed—had informed the agency that the Cambodians would need to come to France and apply for new passports. There would be multiple interviews and reeducation classes. There was no guarantee that the Cambodians would be allowed to return home. Speaking solemnly, Dayal gave the room his recommendation: Become refugees, start new lives. On his way out, Dayal stopped and placed his hands on Coleman’s shoulders. “Poor friends,” he said sympathetically.
The announcement increased the sense of urgency at the YMCA. The group had hoped they would be granted repatriation collectively, because there was safety in numbers. That they might be separated, and that any one of them might be denied entry to their home country, was devastating news. Some of the Cambodians repeated threats of suicide by self-immolation or starvation. A psychiatrist hired by the Nationalities Service Center said the group had hysteria. Some were prescribed valium. The psychological distress was piled atop existing physical ailments acquired through poverty and displacement, particularly among the civilians: tuberculosis, malaria, oral disease. (A patient report from Temple University’s dentistry school described one of the Cambodians as having “severe dental disease with rampant decay affecting every tooth in his mouth.”)
In mid-February, Blum and Coleman traveled to Washington to speak with State Department officials, who recommended that the Cambodians get to Paris as soon as possible. The government had intelligence suggesting that the Khmer Rouge mission in France might shut down, cutting off the only known access point for repatriation. Soon after, a few of the Cambodians requested to leave for Paris, and the Nationalities Service Center helped them get French visas. Among them was Keo Keam, the old navy captain; he’d run afoul of some of the other servicemen, who in a state of growing paranoia now believed he was a CIA plant. Taing Vannassy, with his scarf and bomber jacket, went too. Before he boarded a bus for the airport, Taing hugged Coleman and sniffed her, a Khmer signal of affection. “I’ll see you in another life,” he told her.
Blum told a newspaper reporter at the time that the Cambodians “would like to go silently back to Paris and silently back to their country.” In reality they were desperate. After the first Cambodians left, others began bombarding Coleman, begging to be sent to Paris. “In an alley, walking home, people jumping out of buildings, people showing up at my door, people calling at night on my home phone saying, ‘I have to be next, I have to be next,’” Coleman said.
Even while they coordinated visas and flights, Coleman and the other American staff issued repeated reminders: The Cambodians could become refugees at any time. No one was forcing them to return. None of them took the offer.
Chapter 4: “Love, Huor”
The Cambodians kept tabs on everything the Americans at the YMCA did. When Coleman went to pick up a set of airline tickets to France at a local travel office, some of the men followed her and hid in a bookstore across the street, holding open volumes up to their faces as if they were in a Spy vs. Spy comic. When she flew to Paris for a short visit because the first group of men were still waiting for passports and had run out of money, they would meet with her only in out-of-the-way cafés. They wouldn’t tell her where they were staying or where the Khmer Rouge mission was located. They didn’t want to jeopardize their chances of being allowed into Cambodia—not when they’d made it that far, to the final gauntlet. “This was real cloak-and-dagger stuff,” Coleman recalled.
Meanwhile, news reports about Cambodia were scarce. Some mentioned that half a million people had died of starvation, disease, or execution since the fall of Phnom Penh. The group in Philadelphia largely ignored such reports. “They didn’t believe that Cambodians would treat other Cambodians that way,” Beach recalled. Instead they read work by American journalist Gareth Porter, who praised the Khmer Rouge victory and disparaged claims of Communist atrocities. (In 1977 congressional testimony, Porter described international reaction to the Khmer Rouge as “hysterical” and the death march after the fall of Phnom Penh as a “myth.”) Porter’s writing inspired optimism among the men. Coleman felt it, too. “I still hold that against him,” she said of Porter.
According to Coleman, the State Department—specifically the Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs—told the Nationalities Service Center that it knew nothing about what was happening in Cambodia. In fact, an official in Thailand named Charles Twining was filing reports to the bureau informed by refugee interviews. On March 31, 1976, Twining described “a Spartan, miserable existence for people constantly living in fear, under strict control. Disease and executions have become commonplace.” There was also at least one government cable about the fate of Cambodians who returned home from foreign countries. Sent in September 1975, it noted that there was “fairly reliable evidence that a number of Cambodians who repatriated themselves from Thailand were executed by the Khmer Rouge.”
As they prepared to leave, the Cambodians ventured into Philadelphia, visiting the zoo and the Liberty Bell. Nhek and Coleman sometimes drank together at the YMCA, and she was allowed to attend reeducation film screenings. At one, the Cambodians showed a propaganda movie about the industrialization of North Korea. Everyone sat on the floor, backs against the wall, passing around a soda can half-full with gin. Coleman was next to Nhek. The film lasted nearly four hours. Turning to Nhek at one point, Coleman quipped, “Dear God, if only we invaded North Korea, I wouldn’t have to sit and watch this stupid movie.” The two friends burst out laughing.
If Coleman was like a bong srey to Nhek, Beach was something else. Nhek told her about Cambodian cultural etiquette: Don’t touch a child on the head; don’t put your feet on a seat. He relayed a Khmer folk tale about a couple in love who couldn’t be together, so the man swallowed the woman up. That way he could produce her from within himself whenever he desired.
One day, Nhek mentioned that there was a woman waiting for him back home. A few days later, he reversed course, insisting that he had made it up “because he was trying to make me jealous,” Beach recalled. Nhek told her that Cambodian men, when they are interested in a woman, follow her around so that she will grow used to him. “One day I had gone out of the Y, and when I got back I was standing, waiting for the elevator, and all of the sudden I noticed he was behind me,” Beach said.
Nhek and Beach developed a romance. It was sweeter than it was impassioned. He liked her, she liked him; they were both modest people. In March 1976, Nhek proposed. Beach was shocked. “I really hadn’t known him all that long,” she said. If Beach accepted, Nhek said, he would not return to Cambodia.
Beach told Coleman, who counseled against accepting the proposal. “If not now then later he will resent you for having kept him here and not letting him go back home,” Coleman said. It wasn’t that Coleman didn’t want her friend to stay. She constantly pressed Nhek to change his mind, not because of romance but because it would mean safety, a better life. During one exchange, she lost her temper and threw a packet of cigarettes at him. “I didn’t realize Americans were emotional,” Nhek said.
Ultimately, Beach asked Nhek if he would be happy living in America without her if a marriage didn’t work out. He didn’t answer.
A few days before Nhek flew to Paris, in April 1976, he gave Coleman his navy officer’s hat. Once he got to France, the interviews and reeducation with Khmer Rouge officials began. Coleman waited for word of what would happen next. Nhek called her one night. “We’ve all been accepted to go back,” he told her. In three groups over as many weeks, the Cambodians would fly to China, then to Phnom Penh. The friends talked for a bit—Nhek liked Paris; everything was fine with the Khmer Rouge mission; the YMCA was quiet without the servicemen around.
In mid-June, Nhek called Coleman again.
“I’m leaving in the morning,” he said.
“Will you be safe?” Coleman asked.
“I don’t know.”
“For God’s sake don’t go. Come back. If you come back, I’ll take care of you.”
Nhek was crying. “I have to,” he said, and hung up.
A week later, Coleman received a postcard from Athens, where the plane to China had made a refueling stop. Another one arrived from Peking.
“The city is beautiful and silent,” it read. “Love, Huor.”
Chapter 5: Not Enough of Anything
Coleman stayed at the Nationalities Service Center for another year before taking a job—again working with refugees—at the Pennsylvania Office of Mental Health. She thought about Nhek and the other Cambodians often. She even kept Nhek’s passport photo in her wallet, alongside photos of her children. There was nothing she could do for him. Nothing, that is, but worry.
The situation in Cambodia remained frustratingly hazy. The silence emanating from its confines could be excruciating, and as an outsider, Coleman had no easy way to penetrate it. She considered finding a way to travel there and seek out her friends. Then, in late 1978, three Western reporters were given a tightly controlled tour of Phnom Penh. One of them, a British writer, was murdered by a Khmer Rouge soldier. News of the incident, like removing a veil, brought into stark clarity for Coleman that there was no way she could—or should—go to Cambodia. She had five children and a husband to think about. She felt absurd for even entertaining the idea.
A few weeks later, in December 1978, Vietnam invaded Cambodia. Once allies, the Communists in the neighboring countries had become adversaries. The Vietnamese easily overpowered the Khmer Rouge, and leaders in Phnom Penh fled into the country’s forested north. (Pol Pot, the regime’s notorious dictator, would remain there until his death in 1998.) Overnight, the government’s grip on its citizens loosened. Refugees began spilling out of the country into Thailand, where they gathered in camps. The Cambodian diaspora went into a frenzy as people frantically searched for information about family and friends they hadn’t heard from since 1975.
Coleman and her husband, Joe, took leave from work and flew to Thailand. She was determined to find Nhek and the others, or at least some news of their fate. “It was just, make the reservations, go visit the camps, do anything—just get to the border and see if I could find anything,” Coleman recalled. She had a list of names and some photos, including Nhek’s passport picture. In the image, his shiny black hair is combed over. He has a wide jaw, full lips, and an imploring gaze.
Officials at the U.S. embassy in Bangkok already knew who Coleman was because of her work in Philadelphia. “Around here we call you Ms. Cambodia,” one staffer told her. The embassy provided the Colemans with a car and a driver. For more than a week, they traversed the Cambodian border, moving between refugee camps. They were desperate places, Coleman said, with “not enough of anything.”
Coleman had drawn up fliers in Khmer identifying some of the servicemen: their names and the fact that they were ex-military. There was barely anywhere to put up the fliers, however, save for a bulletin board in one camp. So Coleman talked to whomever she could. “I was going to any little field where there was a group of bedraggled Cambodian refugees sitting, surrounded by Thai guards and barbed wire, just looking for a familiar face,” Coleman said. “Nobody knew anything.”
One day toward the end of the trip, in an eastern Thai region called Aranyaprathet, Coleman walked from the car, alone, to the border. Nothing marked the divide but a rusty iron gate. The land was flat all the way to the horizon, with high grass and few trees. “There wasn’t a soul,” Coleman recalled. “It was just dead silent.”
She stood looking into Cambodia. It was a strange feeling to be so near this country that had had such a dramatic impact on her life. She thought about stepping in—over the invisible boundary, toward the truth about her friends. But then she thought about the land mines in the ground, the Thai border guards that were possibly watching her, the brutal heat, and her dismal chances of success. Dejected and exhausted, Coleman turned back to the car. “There are some places you cannot go,” she said.
In the fall of 1980, Coleman was in her office at the newly formed Indochina Refugee Action Center in Washington, D.C. She was up to her elbows in resettlement work once again, and she had yet to hear any news, good or bad, about Nhek and the other Cambodians. She hadn’t lost hope, but she was realistic. “I knew it was looking pretty grim,” she said. “It had been a long time.” That day around noon, Ben Kiernan, an Australian scholar, stepped into her office. He hadn’t announced his visit. He was a historian, and he had just returned from Cambodia. He knew about Coleman’s search for her friends.
Kiernan told Coleman that he’d met Ung Pech, a survivor of Tuol Sleng, the infamous Khmer Rouge prison, who’d recently become the first director of a museum dedicated to what had happened between 1975 and 1979. Pech was compiling names of the people killed by the regime, which, like the Nazis, had kept detailed records of its cruelties. Kiernan handed Coleman a list. There were dozens of names, most of which she didn’t recognize. But 19 of them she did—19 of the servicemen she’d helped in Philadelphia were dead. One of them was Nhek.
“I just kind of shut down,” Coleman said. She’d waited so long, and now she knew. The truth was too big, too final. She couldn’t feel it.
A few weeks after Kiernan’s visit, Coleman had lunch with a journalist who’d been to the refugee camps in Thailand. She carried with her a letter from a Cambodian refugee who was a dancer before the revolution. Coleman read it, and one line landed like a punch to the gut. It was an entreaty, the kind of desperate plea that follows an unfathomable disaster, and it triggered the full weight of Coleman’s grief and guilt.
“Does anybody out there remember me?” the letter read. Coleman began crying and couldn’t stop.
Chapter 6: Confessions
Coleman held onto Nhek’s passport photo for another decade, until she moved to the Bahamas. Her marriage to Joe Coleman ended in divorce, and with her kids grown and gone, she went to the island nation for a fresh start. She worked as a schoolteacher and a translator for Cuban refugees. Gazing one day at the picturesque beach next to her home, she thought: Nhek was a navy man. She walked to the ocean’s edge and tossed her friend’s photo into the great spill of radiant blue. It was a way of moving on.
In 1998, Coleman moved to a small town in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan with her new partner, a yachtsman and Korean War veteran named Larry Shanley. She taught sociology at a high school. She told the story of the servicemen to her students, and some of the teenagers suggested that she might be able to find out what had happened to Nhek and the other men. The internet, a new luxury, might turn something up, the students offered. They crowded around a classroom monitor. Some browser searches led to the website of an organization called the Documentation Centre of Cambodia, or DC-Cam, a research organization in Phnom Penh that preserved records of Khmer Rouge atrocities. Kiernan, by then a scholar at Yale, had helped start DC-Cam in 1997 with funding given to the university by the State Department.
Coleman sent a short email to DC-Cam inquiring about the Cambodians who’d lived at the Philadelphia YMCA. She hoped that some of them might still be alive. Maybe there’d even been a mistake and Nhek’s name shouldn’t have been on the list Kiernan showed her. DC-Cam’s director, a gregarious man named Youk Chhang, responded quickly. “Sorry to tell you, they’re all gone,” he wrote.
It was a devastating start to a years-long correspondence between Coleman and Chhang. Like most Cambodians of his generation, Chhang understood loss. Though he’d survived the Khmer Rouge, several of his family members had not. After the Vietnamese invasion, he’d lived in a refugee camp in Thailand for many years before eventually making it to the United States, where he earned a degree in political science from the University of Texas at Dallas. He’d then returned to Cambodia to run DC-Cam. Over time he and Coleman would become close friends. “I think Cindy feels a sense of guilt for helping them come back,” Chhang said. “But I tell her, ‘It’s not your fault.’”
In one of their early exchanges, Chhang said that he had torture confessions from some of the men, recorded at Tuol Sleng. The documents, often remarkably long, were the final records of many victims of the Khmer Rouge. Chhang offered to translate them into English. Coleman told him to send copies of the originals to Michigan; she’d have someone there help her with them. She got the papers in the mail and leafed through what amounted to the last chapters in the lives of Nhek, Taing, and others. She asked a Cambodian friend to translate. Not wanting to distress Coleman with the confessions’ contents, the friend politely refused.
Coleman let the documents sit untouched for several more years. In 2008, she and Mary Beach went together to Cambodia, both for the first time. They met Chhang and toured Tuol Sleng, which had been transformed into a museum of the genocide. It made Coleman want to throw up. Displayed on long panels were photographs of prisoners taken upon their entry into the prison: doomed men, women, and children, their eyes pleading from every frame. Coleman searched for faces she knew and found none. She and Beach also visited Choeung Ek, better known as the Killing Fields, where more than a million people had been executed and dumped in mass graves.
Though Chhang had offered before, Coleman didn’t ask him to translate the confessions. She was too overwhelmed. Perhaps her Cambodian friend in Michigan had been right; maybe she wasn’t ready to hear the truth—not yet. “I could barely take the fact that they were all dead,” Coleman said. “I couldn’t face it.”
It took another seven years for her to decide that she wanted to hear her friends’ voices. When she did, Coleman was back in Phnom Penh, volunteering for DC-Cam. Larry, who’d never really approved of her returning to Cambodia, because he worried about her safety, had died recently. Coleman had her cane by then; her hip replacement was still a few years off. She spent a portion of her days at DC-Cam, which occupies a modest building beside the imposing, lotus-shaped Independence Monument in eastern Phnom Penh. Coleman sat next to a Khmer translator, slowly going through the confessions.
The translator dictated. With a pen, Coleman wrote out the words once uttered by people she cared for. Nhek’s confession was nearly 400 pages long.
Only a few thousand Cambodians repatriated from abroad after the Khmer Rouge took power. Among them was Ong Thong Hoeung, an intellectual who survived the genocide; he later remembered a militia cadre boarding his plane while it was on the tarmac and collecting people’s personal items like watches and passports in a bucket. Most repatriates were taken to the Khmer Soviet Technical School in Phnom Penh, known then as K-15. Servicemen like Nhek were separated from the other new arrivals, most of them students, and the groups immediately began reeducation in the form of hard labor: smashing rocks, digging in rice paddies, repairing houses. “The reeducation was for us to forget everything in the past,” Ong recalled. He never witnessed any violence at K-15, but he saw many people “taken out” who did not return. Meals consisted of a “thick gruel … like the food we give pigs to eat.”
According to Nhek’s confession, which reads almost like a memoir, after ten days at K-15, he and some other servicemen were sent to work at a place called Ta Lei, a village outside Phnom Penh. Some weeks later, on August 10, 1976, he and a soldier named Soem Sei Lena, who had also been in Philadelphia, were sent to another labor site south of the capital. It was on the east bank of the Bassac River, in Prek Pra, at a school with pastel yellow walls. It was the school that, in 2019, Coleman would visit on a sweltering February day.
Nhek and Soem plotted to escape, to get to Vietnam—they wanted to live. On the night of August 18, they snuck out of their sleeping quarters in the school. They were armed with a homemade hatchet, a knife, and a slingshot. Silently, the pair managed to slip past the camp’s guards—youth with Kalashnikovs—and into the nearby jungle. The day before, one of them had climbed up a coconut palm and scoped out a route that avoided other labor camps. They followed the path east toward the Mekong. At dawn, when the rising sun illuminated the plain of central Cambodia, they neared the river and felled two trees in a banana grove. The men hauled the green trunks to the riverbank and rested until the evening.
As darkness fell, Nhek and Soem, clutching the tree trunks as flotation devices, eased into the flow of the Mekong, submerging their sweaty bodies into the dark torrent. Water soaked their clothes and splashed their faces as the current carried them south toward freedom. Around dawn, Soem said he was feeling unwell, so the pair rested at a place called Dei Ith, where the Mekong narrows. Other people would try to escape Cambodia the same way, and the Khmer Rouge would eventually set up guard positions at Dei Ith. But that August, there were none.
The men found some corn and ate it raw. In the late afternoon, they heard voices and hid among the trees. A few hours later, they decided to enter the river again to continue their journey. But a group of peasants appeared, detained the men, and gave them up to authorities. Though Nhek’s confession mentions the weapons that he and Soem carried, it says nothing about fighting back.
The men were sent to Tuol Sleng, which the Khmer rouge called S-21. It had once been a high school—square buildings surrounding two sun-drenched courtyards, taking up several blocks in south-central Phnom Penh. Of the more than 15,000 prisoners assigned to Tuol Sleng, less than a dozen are known to have survived. When the Vietnamese entered the premises in 1979, there was fresh blood on the walls but no prisoners.
Tuol Sleng was the black, raving heart of the Khmer Rouge’s murderous enterprise. The regime sent people there not to house them but to break them. The facility’s crumbling surfaces were the color and texture of moldy bread. Spirals of barbed wire topped the walls surrounding it. Cells were hardly bigger than a few square feet, hastily created in classrooms out of cheap concrete and brick. Each was equipped with a chain to loop around the prisoner’s ankle and an ammunition box for bodily fluids.
According to the few survivors, interrogations could last days or even weeks, and they often extracted only lies. Prisoners were under excruciating pressure to confirm the conspiracy theories of their torturers, who were themselves under pressure by superiors to discover such plots. People were asked who recruited them to the CIA, KGB, or Vietnamese intelligence forces, and who among their friends and family were working as spies. They were accused of trying to sabotage the regime. Guards beat prisoners with sticks. They pulled out toenails. They broke fingers. They attached wires to ears and administered electric shocks. Eventually, prisoners relented and told their captors what they wanted to hear. Each confession was recorded by a torturer tapping away at a typewriter, then the account was signed, dated, and stamped with the prisoner’s thumbprint. Once it was finished, the only thing left to do was die.
Nhek’s records say nothing about how he died, but most people at Tuol Sleng were transported to the Killing Fields, where, to save ammunition, soldiers executed prisoners by hitting them in the back of the head with a shovel or some other blunt object. Nhek was put to death after admitting in his confession that he’d been involved in a clandestine CIA plan to overthrow the Khmer Rouge, a common theme in torture documents. He also said that he was party to a CIA scheme to take down Kim Il-sung in North Korea before doing the same to Cambodia’s leaders.
As she scratched it down with her pen, Coleman recognized this detail. It echoed the joke she’d made to Nhek at the Y, when they’d watched the propaganda film together and sipped from the same can of warm gin.
The servicemen from the YMCA were told in Paris that they would be reunited with their families in Cambodia, but there is no evidence that this ever occurred. Following the Khmer Rouge’s collapse, one man’s wife contacted the U.S. military asking where her husband was. She had no idea that he’d returned for her. The servicemen returned home to a purging they didn’t—or didn’t want to—expect. In 1976, the Khmer Rouge accelerated its campaign to rid the country of suspected enemies. People once associated with Lon Nol’s government were among the prime targets. Though Nhek’s attempt to escape down the Mekong may have been what sent him to Tuol Sleng, he likely would have wound up there regardless. The regime always found a reason to kill.
It took three months for Coleman to finish Nhek’s confessions and four others. One came from Keo Keam, who had survived only four days at Tuol Sleng. The navy captain’s cause of death was listed as “[got] sick and died,” but Coleman chose to believe that “he willed himself dead.” The translation work was exhausting and painful; Coleman could do it for only a few hours in a sitting. Still, there were times it made her laugh, like when she copied down claims that she and other Nationalities Service Center staff were CIA agents. “There was stuff that was just funnier than hell,” she said.
Nhek had relatives who survived the genocide but never learned his fate. Peng, still living in California, reached out to Coleman after learning of her connection to his friend. (I wrote about Coleman in a 2016 article for the Phnom Penh Post, which Peng read.) He put her in touch with Nhek’s surviving siblings, who were still living amid the rice paddies of Prey Veng. Coleman went to meet them at Nhek’s childhood home, a green-roofed dwelling on stilts. “People told me he had been arrested, but I didn’t believe them,” said Vann Limheng, Nhek’s older sister. Coleman shared what she’d learned from the confession. She also recounted happier memories from the YMCA.
Speaking with people who knew him, it was clear that Nhek had become a repository for various emotions, traumas, and explanations—joy for halcyon legacies and youthful promise; guilt over living when others had not; regret over actions not taken and things not said; confirmation that, far too easily, human cruelty can become a source of power. Peng said that he had recurring dreams about Nhek in which his friend was dressed well and looking healthy, like he had when they were young. Sihourn Um, who became a software engineer with IBM in Colorado, and later Texas, remembered Nhek as a patriotic warrior who would have done anything for his country. To Mary Beach, he represented a parallel life.
For Coleman, he would always be “a sweet, gentle, poetic, smart, lovely, kind guy who everybody agrees was just a wonderful, wonderful kid.” He’d been cut down in his prime, severed from his home and then swallowed by it. Not in an act of devotion like the one described in the Cambodian folk tale, but in an attempt at total annihilation.
Love is obliteration’s undoing; memory endures. On the morning that Coleman and her translator finished Nhek’s confession, they sat at a table in a shaded outdoor space at the DC-Cam office. Just as the translator reached the end—the pages that preceded Nhek’s unrecorded death—a butterfly came over the steel wall surrounding the office. “It just kept flying around, and I started watching the butterfly. I quit writing,” Coleman said.
She was entranced. Coleman, a longtime gardener, had never seen a butterfly like it before—small, with yellow and black wings. It fluttered for several minutes, until the translator read the final words on the page before her: “Signed, Nhek Veng Huor, September 13th, 1976.” The butterfly rose up as if on a current of air. Then it went back over the wall, flitting out of sight.