LOWELL — For the Cambodians who remember the flights through the jungle, the hunger and executions, the enduring horror of the Khmer Rouge regime, there is no such thing as closure.
Revenge has little traction in their Buddhist faith, and no matter the reparations, they cannot breathe life into long-gone siblings and parents.
So Cambodian-Americans greeted with some ambivalence the life sentences delivered Thursday to the last surviving Khmer Rouge senior leaders. It was, perhaps, an overdue step forward from the mass killings that stained their generation in the late 1970s but hardly enough to erase the slaughter.
“The Khmer Rouge regime is a public wound that will never heal,” said Metrey Keo, of Lowell, who was just 2 years old when his family fled through the jungles of Cambodia for Thailand.
A UN-backed tribunal in Cambodia on Thursday found 88-year-old Nuon Chea and 83-year-old Khieu Samphan guilty of crimes against humanity. The men were sentenced to life in prison.
Both held advanced roles in the Communist Party of Kampuchea, but Nuon Chea in particular possessed power superseded only by notorious Khmer Rouge leader Pol Pot.
The regime orchestrated the killing fields of Cambodia, murdering 1.7 million people from 1975 to 1979. The leaders said they were in pursuit of an agrarian utopia.
Those who survived fled, many to Thailand. Some later settled in Lowell, where Cambodians now constitute 13 percent of the city’s 108,000 people, making it one of the largest Cambodian communities in the United States.
Kowith Kret, of Chelmsford, lost his parents and a sister to the Khmer Rouge. His father, a former government official in Phnom Penh, was executed, and his family was relocated from the city to surrounding farmland.
“We still have nightmares, we still have flashbacks, we still suffer, but we try to internally suppress our own feelings and accept that life goes on or else we’re going to suffer more,” the 60-year-old said.
Most Cambodians are reluctant to pursue revenge, and Kret said true justice is elusive.
“We learn about great tolerance. We don’t try to do any harm to another person; however our conscience, it feels that we need to get some explanation why they did that,” he said.
The greatest benefit from Thursday’s ruling, according to Kret, is that it reminds a younger generation of how inhumane people can be.
“I hope that the people in Cambodia will come to learn anew about their history and not to repeat itself,” Kret said.
‘It’s almost like you have a sort of a wound, and now it’s beginning to heal, but the scar is still there.’Sidney Liang, of Lowell, who lost his brother and father to starvation
Sidney Liang, 45, of Lowell, said he lost his brother and father to starvation on the same day during the Khmer Rouge regime. He said the court ruling Thursday was a chance for Cambodians to put a little more distance between themselves and their bloody past.
“It is an end to an episode,” he said. “It’s almost like you have a sort of a wound, and now it’s beginning to heal, but the scar is still there.”
The leaders will be in jail now, Liang said, but they probably will not see real punishment or suffering. Many people in Cambodia do not have working bathrooms or regular meals, he said, two luxuries the prisoners will surely be afforded.
“They’re going to live a life much better than a lot of people who have freedom today,” he said.
Meanwhile, Cambodians around the world continue to live with the emotional pain inflicted by the Khmer Rouge.
“These Cambodian people in Lowell or elsewhere in the United States or back in Cambodia, they are still living with scars,” said Nareth Muong. The 38-year-old just emigrated from the country in February.
Many, he said, would argue the Khmer Rouge leaders should be put to death. But to show the world his homeland can move forward, he said, it must dispense justice fairly and in a measured fashion.
“We have to really treat them well because there are processes, the principles of legality,” Muong said.
Visal Chin, 41, recalls being a young boy during the reign of the Khmer Rouge, when “they found work for everyone.” He said he picked up cow dung, chopped and stomped it with his feet, then delivered the compost to rice fields.
Chin emigrated from Cambodia in 2001 and said some Khmer Rouge officials remain in power under different parties in the country of 15 million today. The government is still corrupt, he said, and his hope for Thursday’s ruling is that it will rein in current leaders. “We all waited for this verdict for a long, long time,” Chin said.
Many lower-ranking Khmer Rouge district directors and soldiers remain at large, and Cambodians know they could never hold accountable everyone responsible for the killings.
“There are still more right now in Cambodia,” said Vera Tith, 61.
Still, she said, the verdict should serve as a warning to dictators across the world.
“You cannot get out from what you did wrong,” Tith said. “No matter what.”