Home > Local News > The second Lemkin’s Genocide story frames the ‘Enemies’

The second Lemkin’s Genocide story frames the ‘Enemies’

Nuon Chea (left) and Thet Sambath in “Enemies of the People.” A film by Thet Sambath and Rob Lemkin.
Filmmaker Rob Lemkin’s most famous relative is the late Raphael Lemkin,
a Polish attorney who spent his life crusading against mass murder and
who invented the term “genocide” to describe what the Nazis had done to
the Jews, including 40 members of his family.

Rob Lemkin never knew Raphael Lemkin, a distant cousin.  But the elder
Lemkin’s legacy has motivated much of the filmmaker’s work, notably his
documentary “Enemies of the People,” an exposé on the Cambodian
genocide that claimed two-million lives during the Pol Pot regime of
the 1970s.  Co-authored with Teth Sambath, the groundbreaking film –
which culminates with a confession by Pol Pot’s second-in-command, Nuon
Chea – is short-listed for the Academy Award and has received a Writers
Guild Award nomination.

“We went from village to village looking for individuals,” Lemkin said
of his search with Sambath for lower-level peasant executioners.  “I
felt I was with people who had repeatedly looked into the faces of
people they were killing.  “It was utterly chilling.  But also
inspiring that they were willing to be so open about their deeds.”

The movie is also the personal story of Sambath, whose father was
stabbed to death in the Killing Fields and whose mother died in
childbirth after being forced to marry a Khmer Rouge leader.  Orphaned
by age 9, Sambath became a journalist specifically so he could seek out
and query the kinds of people who had destroyed his family.  His most
fervent mission was to insinuate himself into the confidence of Nuon
Chea by repeatedly visiting the octogenarian in order to elicit a
confession.  Sambath was so obsessive about his work that his newspaper
career languished, and his wife and children were sometimes left
without money for food.

Lemkin’s dedication to the project was also obsessive, stemming from
his own family’s experience, he said during an interview in Los
Angeles.  The conversation turned back to Raphael Lemkin, who put
everything else in his life on hold in order to convince the United
Nations to declare genocide an international crime. The work took years
and proved exhausting: Just three days after the U.N. finally voted to
adopt the Genocide Convention in 1948, Raphael Lemkin became gravely
ill and collapsed.  When hospital doctors queried him about his malady,
he said his condition was “genocide-itis.”  After he died in poverty in
the late 1950s, only seven people attended his funeral.

“My grandmother was very active in the Kindertransport,” Rob Lemkin
continued of his connection to the Holocaust.  “And my father was very
much haunted throughout his life that another holocaust could happen in
Britain—a nightmare that lurked in the shadows for him as a sort of
brooding threat. I myself was very frightened by photographs of
concentration camps as a child.  There are images in ‘Enemies of the
People’ of dead bodies and piled bones that are similar to the images I
saw through the keyhole when my parents were watching late-night films
about the Nazis.  I think that was definitely a motor to keep me going
on ‘Enemies of the People,’ because the work was quite tedious and

Lemkin met Sambath in September 2006 when Lemkin traveled to Phnom Penh
to make a film on Cambodian genocide following news that a United
Nations-backed war tribunal was preparing cases against Nuon Chea and
others.  Initially he hired Sambath as a translator and “fixer” to help
him secure interviews, but when he discovered that the Cambodian
journalist already had access to Nuon Chea, the two men decided to

Their goal, according to Lemkin, was to “peel back the so-called ‘mask
of evil’ to reveal the human beings who committed these terrible
crimes.”  The resulting interviews are both chilling and heartbreaking:
One peasant demonstrates with a plastic knife how he pulled back the
heads of prisoners – in such a manner that they were unable to scream –
and slit so many throats at once that his arm ached, and he had to
switch to stabbing victims in the throat.

An elderly woman recalls how the swollen, piled-up bodies made hissing
sounds as they decomposed in mass graves, causing rainwater to “bubble
as if it were boiling.”  Several executioners admit to drinking the
liquid from human gall bladders, which they believed was a medical
elixir.  Echoing the language of the Nazis, they say they were only
carrying out orders, and would have been killed had they refused.

When the Cambodian war crimes tribunal got word of the
confessions, officials demanded that Lemkin and Sambath turn over their
hundreds of hours of videotapes. “We refused,” Lemkin said.  The two
had promised interviewees their testimony would be used only for
historical purposes.  And a promise is a promise, even to a mass
murderer.  As a result, former executioners are continuing to speak to
them, and, last year, a historic teleconference took place between
several perpetrators and survivors now living in Long Beach, CA.  The
plan is for another such conference to take place at the Museum of
Tolerance in 2011.

The film has been described as a Cambodian “Shoah,” albeit without the
hidden cameras.  “But I see Sambath as quite different from [a figure
like Nazi hunter Simon] Wiesenthal,” Lemkin said, “because Sambath
believes reconciliation is not only desirable, but possible and every
action is dedicated to that end.”

Lemkin does see parallels between Sambath and his famous cousin.
“Raphael Lemkin waged an incredibly lonely, one-man campaign to get the
word ‘genocide’ enshrined into international law, and in fact after
that finally happened, he was found [exhausted] in the basement of the
United Nations building, having about given up on the idea that the
world would take it seriously,” Rob Lemkin said.  “He was fighting a
solitary campaign against world indifference, which is very similar to
what I found in Sambath. The echoes are very real, because Sambath has
been fighting alone for a kind of truth and reconciliation commission
in his country, and to come to terms with the trauma of Cambodia.”

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