On the trail of Brother No. 2
by
David Longstreath
(For those reading this who are unfamiliar with Khmer Rouge,  follow the link for a history lesson (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Khmer_Rouge) that will bring you up to speed.)
When back in 1998 I photographed Pol Pot's body in a jungle hut, what I saw and shot was a dead old man with a bad haircut.  The first time I met Noun Chea, Khmer Rouge brother no. 2 and Pol Pot's right-hand man I immediately remembered this scene and wonder how he had escaped justice.
Noun Chea after many years was alive and living in Pailin, Cambodia in a jungle shack at the end of an overgrown one lane dirt road.  Pailin was very isolated when the Khmer Rouge ran things back in the ’90s, and despite some new gravel roads getting there was difficult.  
Getting from Phnom Penh, the Cambodia capital to Pailin was a short plane ride for Shelly Culbertson, an Associated Press reporter, and myself.
Shelly and I were booked on a Royal Phnom Penh Airways flight.  Back then the plane we traveled by to Battambang an aging Russian AN- 24 prop plane that saw service in the Royal Cambodian Air Force back in the '90s.  The domestic part of Phnom Penh airport was little more than a freshly painted hut where Cambodian women in tight skirts and wearing to much lipstick collected tickets and luggage.
Walking across the concrete tarmac to the blue and white Russian plane the humid tropical air clung to my shirt.  Getting onboard required the use of an aluminum ladder.  The seat was hard and dirty.  I don't remember more than a handful of people on the flight.  On startup, it shuddered and belched blue smoke.   There were no hostesses, just two burly Russian pilots.  The co-pilot had a pack of cigarettes rolled up in his shirt sleeve. 
Shelly and I buckled up and about an hour later and 100 miles flown, we arrived at Battenbang in western Cambodia.   From the air, the view was mostly of rice fields and rural roads.  
We collected our bags.  Met our driver and set off for Pailin.
The road to Pailin back then was horrible.  In the monsoon season, it was mostly mud with holes that could swallow pickup trucks.  In the dry season, it was dust and sand with holes that could swallow a pickup truck. 
There were constant reminders of the fighting that had taken place in the area between the Khmer Rouge, the Vietnamese and Royal Cambodian Army.   Several Soviet T-54 tanks that had been "killed" by mines or rocket-propelled grenades stood silent witness to the violence.   The skulls and bones of fallen soldiers were housed in makeshift memorials along the roadside as well.
Around mid-afternoon we arrived at the only Hotel in Pailin, the Hang Means.  
In an Anthony Bourdain episode of a “Cooks Tour”  S01E06, https://youtu.be/ciqjo0ssUBw,  he features the Hang Means hotel at around 8:55 of the video.  He nails it, right down to footprints on the walls.
As we gathered later in the hotel’s restaurant, the only one in town, Shelly began by asking the question of our interpreter, a Cambodian with only one name, Kava.  Sitting next to him was our driver a nicely dressed light-skinned man with a pleasant smile. 
What came next Shelly and I had not talked about.  She looked at Kava and asked, “Can you get me an interview with Noun Chea?”   Kava seemed anxious, it was clear he had not been prepared for this question.
There was a moment of silence by all.
Kava looking at the driver then asked if it was possible.
The man’s name was Pon Lak.  He looked directly at me and nodded in agreement.  Shelly was eager to nail this down.  “This afternoon?”, She pressed.  Pon Lak nodded.
In about an hour we were at Noun Chea’s jungle home.  It was somewhere between Pailin and the Thai-Cambodian border, down a one-lane dirt road.
The shack was modest in appearance with no automobiles around.  
We climbed the stairs to the open front door, Kava introduced us to Noun Chea and his wife.  Hovering in the background were family members including grandchildren.

We exchanged hello's in English.  Shelly was eager to get started with her interview.  They both spoke French, so it began quickly.  I was thinking about how I could photograph the scene.  It was not clear how much time we were to be given.  The whole time I kept thinking how do I shoot a man who signed the death warrant on 14,000 Cambodians.  Then I realized as Shelly asked questions it was a matter of "shoot what you see."
Shelly finished her interview, I finished shooting a portrait of Noun Chea and the Pon Lak.  He had requested one.  Later I was told that Pon Lak was a relative and somehow related to Noun Chea.
The next day I photographed Cambodians voting in several places in and around Pailin.  I was also to photographed  Khieu Samphan and Noun Chea casting their ballots.  
It all went off without any violence.  Democracy it seems was being welcomed in the former Khmer Rouge stronghold.
One final note.  
As Shelly and I boarded the flight back to Phnom Penh, I was sure I had seen Pon Lak somewhere before.  I told Shelly that I was sure I had photographed him the day Pol Pot died.  Checking my files on my return to Bangkok I was right.  He was the young Khmer Rouge soldier along with several others I had photographed that day.  I was told later that he was an adopted son of Noun Chea.  I was also told he was head of Khmer Rouge security the day we were shown Pol Pot’s body.
Through Kava, I was to meet and talk with Pon Lak several more times.  It is more than 300 kilometers between Pailin and Anglong Veng.  Pon Lak’s home is near the site where Pol Pot was cremated in Anglong Veng.   And he had close ties with Noun Chea and Khieu Samphan.  Both men are the oldest living members of the Khmer Rouge leadership, and both are in jail for life for crimes against humanity.

A Cambodian official greets Noun Chea in Pailin.

Noun Chea, former Khmer Rouge leader, also known as Brother No. 2, cast his vote in an election in 2003.

Noun Chea, a former Khmer Rouge leader waits to cast his vote at a polling station hear his home in Pailin.


Noun Chea is photographed with family members in Pailin, Cambodia.

Former Khmer Rouge leader Noun Chea, Pol Pot's right-hand man, looks out from a window at his home in Pailin, Cambodia. Chea was arrested in 2007 and charged with crimes against humanity.  He is serving a life sentence.

Noun Chea, former Khmer Rouge leader and second in command to Pol Pot, listens to news on a portable radio at his home in Pailin. Chea was arrested in 2007 by the Phnom Penh Khrmer Rouge tribunal and later convicted of crimes against humanity .

Noun Chea stands on his front porch at his home in Pailin, Cambodia .  Chea was arrested in 2007 by the Phnom Penh Khrmer Rouge tribunal and later convicted of crimes against humanity .

Noun Chea listens to news on a portable radio at his home in Pailin, Cambodia.  Chea was arrested in 2007 by the Phnom Penh Khrmer Rouge tribunal and later convicted of crimes against humanity .

Cambodians gather near one of the gates to Pailin, Cambodia.

Pon Lak  stands outside the hut where Pol Pot's body was being kepton his death in 1998.

Pon Lak is photographed with Noun Chea in Pailin, Cambodia.



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