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Chan Khoun: Cover Story

by Bruce Sharp

Note: This article was written in 1990. An edited version originally appeared in the Providence Journal-Bulletin. The TIME Magazine cover described in this article can be seen at,16641,1101791112,00.html.


Chan Khoun is looking at her photograph on the cover of TIME Magazine. Nearly 10 years have passed since the picture was taken, and she is looking at the photo for the first time.

The picture shows Chan, age 17, holding her baby sister. The baby's name is Hong, and she is one year old. Her body is matchstick thin, a fragile skeleton covered by loose, wrinkled skin. She lacks the strength to hold up her head. Her eyes are passive, without hope, as if she has known nothing but pain and hunger. The pain is visible in Chan's face as well: her expression speaks sorrow and confusion.

Now, Chan stares at the photo silently, and her face betrays no emotion. The magazine sits in front of her as she answers questions about her life in Cambodia. Her father, sitting on the floor beside her, glances sadly at the photo from time to time. Later, Chan tears the article and the photograph from the magazine, then folds them carefully and puts them away. Hong has been dead since 1979. Cambodia is part of the past.

Today, Chan lives in Providence, Rhode Island, with her husband, Rounh Nhy, and their two infant daughters. Chan's father and brothers and sisters also live in Providence.

Portrait of Chan Khoun, 1990 It has been fifteen years since the Khmer Rouge communists seized power in Cambodia. They no longer govern the country, but the suffering they inflicted still scars the survivors.

The devastation of Cambodia had its roots in the Vietnam War, when Vietnamese communists began to use Cambodian territory as a base for guerrilla operations. Despite Cambodia's professed neutrality, the U.S. responded by attacking the suspected base areas. As they moved out of their bases, the Vietnamese were drawn into combat with Cambodian government troops. The Vietnamese soon emerged as surrogates for Cambodia's own insurgency. As the fighting escalated, the insurgents -- the Khmer Rouge -- rapidly grew in strength. By the time the besieged government surrendered on April 17, 1975, the Khmer Rouge had earned a reputation for ruthlessness and brutality. Nonetheless, most people believed that the end of the war would bring better times. They were wrong.

The Battambang province, where Chan's family lived, had. been spared the worst of the fighting. It was not until the war ended that the Khmer Rouge arrived in Chan's village. They went from house to house, asking for soldiers, doctors, and teachers. Those who came forward were taken away without explanation. Several months passed before their fate became known. Most of them were never seen again.

For the first few weeks, the Khmer Rouge made few demands of the people. Then, suddenly, they issued a bewildering order: Families were to be separated. Each person was to be assigned to a different work group, miles apart. Those who protested were given a vague but ominous warning: "If you don't leave, something will happen." Chan's parents were upset, but they knew they had no choice but to comply.

Like most Cambodians, Chan had little understanding of the goals of the Khmer Rouge. Led by Pol Pot, the Khmer Rouge sought to create an agrarian communist society where equality and subservience to the state were the supreme values. The uncompromising nature of the revolution became apparent quickly. One of Pol Pot's first acts was to order the complete evacuation of all cities. In many cases, even hospitals were emptied. Witnesses described seeing wounded patients crawling along the highways; other patients, still lying in their beds, were pushed along by distraught relatives. High-ranking officials of the former government were often executed, and in many cases their families -- even infants -- were also killed. Virtually all private property was banned; except for clothing and a handful of personal effects, everything was the property of the State. All markets and currency were abolished. Books and printed materials were forbidden. Travel was allowed only with Khmer Rouge permission. Cambodia was cut off from the outside world.

For Chan, the new society was characterized by monotony and fear. She worked in a group of about 50 young women. They worked every day, beginning at 6 AM. Generally, the work centered on the planting and cultivation of rice. So that valuable work time was not lost in going to and from the fields, thatch and bamboo houses were built near each worksite. Five or six women lived in each house. As they worked, they were constantly guarded by armed soldiers. Despite the rigors of the work, none of the women tried to escape. Orders were followed exactly; it was made very clear that the punishment for disobedience was death.

The harshness of the Khmer Rouge varied widely in different regions. Initially, Chan was relatively lucky. While many of her friends had family members executed by the communists, Chan did not. Rounh Nhy was less fortunate. His father was executed in 1977. According to Rounh, in his region corpses were often left where they would be found by people working in the fields. They served as a very effective warning. In other areas, executions were sometimes performed publicly. Chan's oldest brother, Nhim Khoun, witnessed many such killings, often for minor infractions. Some victims were stabbed and disembowelled. Others were hung. Many others were suffocated: the victim's hands were tied; plastic was then wrapped around the victim's head and tied at the neck. "A few minutes, they die," Nhim says. "Oh, I saw that a lot of times."

In Chan's area, the greatest danger was not execution, but malnutrition. Their diet consisted almost exclusively of rice, and by mid-1976 they began to suffer from food shortages. It was also in 1976 that the Khmer Rouge began to implement a policy of communal eating; from then on, all meals were prepared and eaten together. However, the local cadres did permit foraging for food. In other areas -- including Nhim Khoun's area -- gathering food privately was strictly forbidden. While entire families starved to death, the Khmer Rouge murdered people for the crime of trying to feed themselves.

Despite the risk, Nhim says that he and many others still crept away during them night to search for food. He recalls the desperation that hunger brought: "Rat, rabbit, snake ... people eat everything, believe me," he says. "The people watch the bird. If the bird can eat that thing, the people follow the bird and eat it, too. That's why they survive..."

But, he recalls bitterly, while the rest of the people grew weaker, the Khmer Rouge remained plump and well-fed.

In fact, the cause of the spreading food shortages was not a lack of rice. The problem was that the rice was not distributed to the population. Local administrators were expected to meet quotas set by the central government. In theory, they would provide the necessary food for their people and then send the "surplus" to the central government. The surplus would then be exported, mainly to China, in exchange for weapons. However, the quotas were arbitrary and unrealistic. Many depended on the success of large irrigation projects, projects designed by Khmer Rouge cadres rather than engineers. Few of the projects worked, and few of the quotas were met. Local administrators often simply pretended that the goals had been reached; they then sent the desired rice to the Center and let their people slowly starve.

The lack of food was complicated by the virtual absence of medical care. Like other intellectuals, doctors were widely regarded as enemies of the State. It is estimated that roughly half of the country's doctors died under Pol Pot's reign. With only a handful of exceptions, those who did survive were not permitted to practice medicine; they were instead sent to work in the fields with everyone else. The only medicines Chan saw under the Khmer Rouge were folk remedies made from local plants and animals. Rounh described one such mixture as resembling diarrhea; it was given as an injection. Sick persons were still expected to work. Those who could not had their rations reduced. It did not matter to the Khmer Rouge that lack of food was what had made them sick in the first place. Many people, Nhim recalls, became blind from the lack of vitamins in their diet; many others died from drinking water infested with parasites.

The failure of Khmer Rouge policies was obvious to all those who toiled in the fields day after day. Soon it became obvious to Pol Pot as well, and he began to search for scapegoats. The rate of executions soared, and the Khmer Rouge began to devour itself in a series of bloody purges.

The search for enemies extended beyond Cambodia's borders. Disputes with Vietnam had briefly erupted into heavy fighting by 1977. However, few people outside of the border areas were aware of the conflict. Chan's father, Khoun Bou, remembers 1978 as the year he first heard rumors of a war with Vietnam. The rumors soon proved true: On Christmas Day, 1978, an estimated 90,000 Vietnamese and 18,000 dissident Cambodians launched a full-scale invasion.

The Khmer Rouge were quickly routed. Within two weeks the Vietnamese had captured Phnom Penh. Liberated by the invasion, Cambodians abandoned their collectives en masse. Some returned to their former homes; hundreds of thousands of others fled toward Thailand, and the famine soon worsened. Retreating Khmer Rouge forces often destroyed rice stocks to prevent them from being captured by the Vietnamese. Further, much of the existing harvest may have rotted in the fields in the wake of the sudden migration.

Chan returned to her family's home in mid-1979. The Khmer Rouge still controlled the area, but Chan learned that her brother Nhim had already escaped to Thailand. Now, however, with the Vietnamese closing in, the Khmer Rouge saw that they might benefit from the relief operations mounting along the Thai border. They ordered several families -- including Khoun Bou's -- to accompany them to Thailand. The families would be used as porters, and as cover: the relief agencies would not give food to combatants, so the Khmer Rouge would conceal their weapons just beyond the border and present themselves as innocent refugees. They would then return to mount guerrilla attacks against the Vietnamese.

With only a few articles of clothing and a meager supply of rice, Chan, her two sisters, two brothers, and their father began a long, arduous journey. For Chan's mother, it was too late; she died of illness before they reached Thailand.

For three months they walked constantly, through dense woods and into the mountains separating the two countries. Mines and booby traps previously planted by the Khmer Rouge took a heavy toll on the refugees. The lack of food and fresh water compounded their exhaustion. Chan's infant sister Hong became particularly ill. It was not until refugees began to pour into Thailand that the magnitude of the Cambodian tragedy became widely known. By November 1979, journalists had begun to converge on the border. One of then was Arnaud De Wildenberg, a French photographer working for Gamma/Liason.

According to De Wildenberg, many of the refugees were arriving at a site just south of Aranyaprathet, Thailand, called Ban Taprik. There, the Red Cross picked up the refugees and took them to Sakaeo, where a new refugee camp was being built.

The condition of the people at Ban Taprik was appalling. Many collapsed in the surrounding forest, unable to walk any farther. "The Red Cross had to go in the woods to look for people," De Wildenberg recalls. "They would die in the woods if nobody picked them up. Some were already dead." De Wildenberg himself found two people and carried them back to the Red Cross buses. And, he adds, "Nearly one person in every bus died between Ban Taprik and Sakaeo."

Chan's family was among those taken by bus to Sakaeo. Just after they climbed off the bus, as they knelt down on the ground beside the vehicle, De Wildenberg photographed Chan, cradling her dying sister in one arm. Knowing no French or English, Chan could not speak with the photographer, yet she remembers the moment clearly.

Ten years later, De Wildenberg, too, remembers Sakaeo vividly. Construction of the camp was only beginning as the first buses arrived. "They had just taken away the trees and the brush. It was just a piece of land closed with barbed wire... They were just arriving on a piece of land. Like leaving cattle in the field."

Sakaeo's population, quickly swelled to 35,000, and more than 400 people died there in the first two weeks alone. "I remember the doctors running from one person to another..." De Wildenberg says. "I've never seen so many people dying at the same time."

At Sakaeo, the Khmer Rouge continued to threaten and intimidate the other refugees, often trying to force them to accept "voluntary" repatriation to the Khmer Rouge-controlled areas of Cambodia. The international presence in the camps did at least make it more difficult for the Khmer Rouge to enforce their will, and many refugees refused to return. Khoun Bou was among those who decided that his family would stay.

Conditions at Sakaeo were harsh; but when asked about the camp, Chan's husband offers a simple response. "In Sakaeo," he says, "they had something for you to eat."

Chan and her family spent about a year in Sakaeo. They were then moved to Sakaeo II, and they applied for asylum in the U.S. Nhim Khoun, who had reached Thailand first, had come to the U.S. in 1982, but it was not until 1985 that the rest of the family was allowed to come to America. Nhim had settled in Providence, Rhode Island, and he sponsored the rest of his family when they arrived.

Like all refugees, they faced a difficult period of adjustment in the U.S. The greatest barrier was the language. Chan still has difficulty with English. She worried, too, that they did not know anyone, did not know how to get anywhere, did not know how to find a doctor ...

Arriving in the U.S. in November did nothing to ease the transition. The snow and freezing cold of New England winters are an unwelcome surprise to Asians accustomed to sweltering tropical heat.

Since 1986 Chan has worked at a small jewelry factory in Providence. In 1987 she met and later married Rounh Nhy. Their first child, Sokhoeun, is almost two; their second, Chanath, was born in April, 1990.

It was not until last year that Chan learned her picture had been on the magazine. A cousin in Chicago had been looking through a stack of old news clippings when she recognized Chan's picture. She contacted Chan a short time later.

De Wildenberg's photograph presents a moment of anguish, permanently frozen. Looking at Chan now, it is hard to imagine all that she has witnessed. One remembers words from Stephen Vincent Benet:

They are cured now, very much cured.
They are tanned and fine. Their eyes are their only scars.

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