Finding religion in the killing fields

Cambodia As if being desperately poor was not enough, billboards in this dusty former Khmer Rouge village in a malarial zone in northwest Cambodia warn children against picking up metal objects. They graphically illustrate a farmer blowing up on a mine.

Pen Rim, 44, a one-time Khmer Rouge soldier, looks like he stepped from such an illustration. He has only one arm, now clutchng a Khmer-language Bible.

His other was lost to a Soviet mine as he cleared land formerly occupied by the invading Vietnamese army. Pen Rim says he has become a Christian.

"Before, as a soldier, I did not believe in religion," he said as we sheltered from the glaring sun beneath his rickety, stilted home. Other former guerrillas, some with wooden stumps for legs, sat around listening.

Since the death of Pol Pot, the movement's cruel, charismatic leader, Pen Rim has adopted Jesus Christ, as it were, as his new "Brother Number One."

I came with Uy Samnang, 25, a barber and lay preacher at the Good Samaritan church in Pailin, a former Khmer Rouge headquarters. He holds Bible classes in a dilapidated hut, sometimes dispensing anti-malaria palliatives.

Two dozen children in hand-me-down clothes shyly venture English words. In Pol Pot's Kampuchea, anyone knowing a foreign language, apart from the foreign-educated leaders, was bludgeoned to death.

"Thank you, thank you, Jesus," they sing in Khmer, Thai and English.

In 1979, in border refugee camps, I exchanged heated words with American proselytizers, who said they benefited from the psychological damage wrought on Cambodians in the "Killing Fields", because "now their minds are blank, more receptive to the Christian message."

I suggested they encourage refugees to return to their Buddhist religious-cultural roots. But to them, Buddhism meant bowing to "heathen idols."

Then the Khmer Rouge remained atheist, beholden only to their odious leader. Later, I found many Christian converts. Some thought this helped ensure resettlement overseas. It reminded me of "rice Christians" in an earlier China.

When British photographer Nic Dunlop in 1999 discovered "Brother Deuch," the notorious hatchet man of the Toul Sleng interrogation camp, where 16,000 perished horribly, it transpired Deuch had also found religion.

He languishes in jail awaiting trial by a UN-backed genocide tribunal, though his mission now is "to tell all people about the Gospel." It should make for an interesting trial.

Recent reports indicate further conversions, even among mid-level cadres.

I attended Sunday service at the Good Samaritan church. The pastor is the son of Khmer Rouge parents. Pen Rim was one of five former guerrillas in the 40-strong congregation. There was a "happy-clappy" atmosphere.

Later, he told me: "I clear mines to plant food, so my son can attend school. I don't want him to be a soldier, always facing death, as I was."

But, like his comrades, he won't criticize his former leaders, or the policies that killed 1.7 million Cambodians.

I asked former the former Khmer Rouge head of state, Khieu Samphan, about conversions. "Anyone in Cambodia is free to believe what they want," he said. How generous! His government forced Buddhist bonzes into the violent agrarian revolution, dismantled Phnom Penh's Catholic cathedral and turned Muslim mosques into pigsties.

It seems that some former guerrillas find the Christian message of forgiveness comforting. After all, Buddhists go through endless reincarnations to atone for past bad deeds.

As a long-lapsed adherent of the Scottish Kirk, I searched my memory from Bible School. Genesis 9, God's covenant with Noah, warns: "From each man I will demand an accounting for the life of his fellow man."

I could show this to Pen Rim, but what would be the point?

These Red Khmers may be self-serving new believers - "born-again killers" rather than "born-again Christians." Or perhaps they are sincere. Who really knows? Yet their off-spring must be regarded as innocent. Like most impoverished Cambodian children, they crave education.

No secular groups seem to assist them. And Buddhists, who again have a temple in Pailin, don't venture here. For now, the Good Samaritans have a clear pitch.