Confronting the Past
The 2006 Khmer New Year marked the 31st anniversary of the fall of Phnom Penh to the Khmer Rouge. That date - April 17, 1975 - marked the beginning of great suffering for my generation and left the nation drowning in a sea of infamy. Cambodians are still trying to measure the depth of their losses and the nation still feels the effects of the regime.
On April 22, 2006, I woke up with a vision. After a two-hour ride in a cramped taxi, I returned to Chrey village, where I had lived in fear nearly 30 years ago. It was the same month that my family was relocated to Mong Russey and settled in this village among people we never knew. We remained there until the regime collapsed in 1978.
As I stepped out of the car in Mong Russey and felt my foot touching the ground, I was instantly reminded of standing to wait for instructions from the Khmer Rouge. It made me feel strange in a way I cannot explain. I was alone in a familiar place.
I stood watching the taxi depart north to Battambang; I was on the very spot where my family stood many years ago. The road seemed wider and there were fewer trees; it was now filled with food stalls and waiting moto-dops. Gone was the roadblock erected across the national road during the regime to prevent people from traveling. Now, there were more houses along the road, Mong Market had been reopened, and there was a health clinic across from the pagoda where my brother Dara died.
As soon as I stepped off the paved road, I began to feel that I was back where I left off more than thirty years ago. I began looking for familiar faces and names, like that of my brother Omarith who disappeared while building a dam in 1977.
My first thought was to look for the dam. Just before the Vietnamese invaded, the floodgates had been brought in by ox cart and truck; they were to be installed and tested for the rainy season, just few months away.
I stood on the edge of the bank looking at a man taking a bath and washing his clothes, thinking how I once took part in building the dam. I remember standing in line, passing baskets full of dirt to the next person 50 meters away. A man named Ry oversaw this part of the project. While he was supervising, cadre Shay usually wandered around smoking and yelling at people, who were compelled to listen to revolutionary songs that were broadcast over loudspeakers. My twin brother Phal was in a different group further down along the dam.
Looking around for something that might be recognizable, I saw that the giant por tree on the opposite riverbank was still standing; it is no taller, but it is aging. Behind it are two small buildings: one older one of wood and a brick office building that is under construction. Chey Pagoda has been rebuilt with contributions from Cambodians living in the US and France. They dedicated many of the stupas and Buddhist shrines to their lost family members.
On the opposite bank, a health clinic has replaced the community center built in early 1976. This was where the Khmer Rouge detained Bunthan before sending him to his death, presumably at Wat Tom Ma Yut.
By this time, many memories began to reappear: the trees I climbed, ponds I swam in, and places where I hid things from the eyes of the Khmer Rouge.
As I crossed the river, the first person who came to mind was cadre Daz, his wife, and their two sons, Tuy and Roun, but there was no trace of them. Along the dirt road leading to our hut, I began asking villagers about the people I had known. Many of them gave conflicting accounts. If my memory served me well, I recognized the five palm trees that were behind our thatched hut. One morning, a man fell to his death while trying to cut off leaves to make a roof for his hut. Across the road was the house where cadre Daz had lived, and to the right was cadre Soth's house.
Our first hut was about 6 by 8 feet and stood a foot off the ground. To me it was simply a place to sleep (it had no kitchen). Every rainy season the floods would reach within an inch of our house. During the first few months we were there, I would sit in the hut, swinging my feet, looking around at the neighbors and enjoying my time. My mother cleared an area near the house and began planting mints and vegetables, and putting up fences to protect her garden from chickens and intruders. But most important, this was the way she marked her sanctuary.
Living in a world without color is unimaginable. But by 1976, anything that nature didn't kill, the Khmer Rouge did. Chrey village has fertile soil and a river, which made it easy to plant rice, corn, potatoes and a rich assortment of citrus and other fruits, giving farmers not only good harvests but also plenty of fish and fresh water year-round. But as the days turned into weeks and years, I sat in the hut and watched the leaves gradually disappear from the trees.
By late 1977, as more people died, Chrey village also became like a graveyard. At night the village was dark and lonely, left entirely to wild dogs roaming and howling, and scavenging for food. My mother spent most nights alone, afraid for her life. She remained there until the village was regrouped as people scattered in a 2-3 kilometer radius of the village.
For nearly four years, the thatched hut in Chrey village was my whole world. The regime taught me to never wander anywhere unless instructed otherwise. Almost every day, with friends and foes alike, I struggled to live for a bowl of rice. But it was always clear to me that a home is a home: a concept laden with significance in Khmer culture. And, of course, I wanted to be close to my mother and the knowledge that she was alive comforted me.
A half block from our hut was a medicine station where traditional herbs and roots were made into medicines for the sick. I went there a few dozen times for medicine, not because I was sick, but because sometimes the medicines were made with palm sugar and I needed the carbohydrates for strength. Also, Kan and I often stole mangoes from a giant tree every time there was a rainstorm.
It took an effort to walk to the field behind the tree line. I stood and looked out to area where I think my twin brother Phal's grave is. I sense his presence all the time. I feel closer to him now than ever before. I recognized a fruit tree, but further down, the small pond where my brother and I used to swim is no longer there. There are many places carved out in my memory. They all here, except the people I lost; they, like my 14-year old twin, cannot be replaced.
Phal was the first death in our family at the hands of the Khmer Rouge. When he died, I was too worn out to be sad, so I just cradled his head in my arms. Two nurses immediately began digging his grave, wanting to buy him as quickly as possible. While they were digging, I leaned close to him and grabbed his cool and pale hands. I said "please don't leave me." I must have looked odd. I wasn't crying. Inside I felt somewhat at peace. His face told me that he was no longer in pain.
Everything felt so wrong, and I had no idea of how to make it better; everything was dreamlike and indistinct. Five of us - the two nurses, my mother, my sister, and me - gave our last condolences, surrounded by bushes and freshly dug graves. The anguish in my mother's face was plain. My sister Amarine was speechless. Something fundamental had died in Chrey that day. I lost a brother.
That sinking feeling lasted for nearly a year. At night, when I lay awake, I missed him and regretted things I hadn't said or done. I imagined his soul drifting closer and closer to heaven, his final resting place, and I also felt that a part of me was drifting further away from him. The world was very beautiful at that hour, and the night usually comforted me. The darkness made things less painful, and Phnom Penh felt very near.
Back inside the makeshift hospital, on Phal's bed, which my mother had shared with him during his last few nights, his clothes were still warm 15 minutes after his burial. His small cloth bag, which he used to wear across his shoulder, hung at the end of the bed on a bamboo pole. A few of his personal belongings were still inside: his aluminum spoon, a tin milk can, a few crumbs of rock salt, dried rice, his red and white checked karma, and a filthy but beautiful long-sleeved shirt. Now that we had done everything in our power, my mother gave his belongings to those who needed them and left the hospital.
Many thoughts went through my mind in Chrey village. An appealing one is that I want a place closer to him, perhaps a small plot of land with a small house, and to start a life here. In the meantime, on my mother's next visit, we plan to erect a Buddhist shrine at Wat Chrey in memory of our lost family members.
There seem to be more inhabitants in Chrey than when I left in 1978. People I used to know have relocated or died. Among the many faces in the village are the sons and daughters of former Khmer Rouge. Many others left, just like us. Some went to the cities seeking work. One villager asked me when I left Chrey. I had to pause for a minute, for it seemed I had been there all of my life. At that moment, America and Phnom Penh were something I could only imagine.
I traveled along the dam to Ream Kun village where Wat Tom Ma Yut, a notorious detention and torture site, is located. By design, this vast plain stretching to the national road will be submerged when the floodgates close, taking all of the farmland and its people with it.
Wat Por compound, the makeshift hospital where my brother Dara spent his final days, had been rebuilt and converted into classrooms. Next to it is a small tin-roofed shack that was used as a kitchen and sleeping quarters for nurses and guards during the regime. Today, it is an administrative building. A vegetable plot has been turned into a school garden with a flag pole. A small pond nearby was said to have been used as a burial site during the regime. Today it has been filled in. I sat on the school bench for long time and looked around, trying to figure out the exact location where Dara might be buried. Something told me that he is here.
Dara was the youngest boy in our family; he was born in 1965. Polio had left him paralyzed from the waist down. The Khmer Rouge felt that people who were physically or mentally impaired were unfit for the regime, and they attempted to kill him on at least one occasion. My mother begged them to spare his life. A few days later, Dara tied a log onto his waist and dragged it as the Khmer Rouge looked on. This act alone may have saved him from an early execution.
I then went to Mong Russey train station, where Phal and I once followed the ox carts that were transporting rice to the waiting trains. The station is run down and filthy. Villagers have taken over the passenger waiting area and ticket booth as shelter, while the loading dock and barber shop are abandoned. The rice warehouse is still operating, though. During the regime, I stole rice from this warehouse, then snuck into the woods across the road and back to Chrey village.
Under the searing heat of April, I looked at my watch; it was 2:42 pm. I thought I had seen everything I wanted to see. My next stop was Battambang town, where I visited the school my brothers and I shared for a few years before the Khmer Rouge shut it down in 1975.
The house where we had lived for two years was gone; only an empty lot remains. The land is up for sale, along with three other empty lots surrounding it.
I went back to Doun Teav, where the boat dropped us off, and headed down the Sangké River. I only recognized a few places. Doun Teave Lycce, where we took refuge for several nights, has been remodeled and given a coat of fresh paint.
I have learned about the horrors of Auschwitz, the Nazi's mastermind Adolph Hitler, and victims like Ann Frank, but nothing compares to what I saw at Tuol Sleng (S-21). My suspicions about the brutal murders that took place there have been confirmed by many outsiders like the journalist for Australia's Daily Mirror John Pilger, who called Pol Pot an "Asian Hitler" in his article "Echo of Auschwitz." I thank him and others for their courage to write about the regime: Chanrithy Him (When Broken Glass Floats), Dith Pran (founder and president of The Dith Pran Holocaust Awareness Project), Vann Nath (A Cambodian Prison Portrait), and Loung Ung (First They Killed My Father). And acknowledgment is due to the Documentation Center of Cambodia's Director Youk Chhang and its entire staff for their pursuit of justice.
The first full account I read of the atrocities committed in Cambodia was an article in Reader's Digest: "Murder of a Gentle Land" by Anthony Paul and John Barron, followed by Cambodge Année Zéro by François Ponchaud, a then a more detailed account by William Shawcross, Sideshow: Kissinger, Nixon and the Destruction of Cambodia.
I read and reread them, making sure that I won't forget those who died. I lost three bothers and two sisters to the Khmer Rouge. Two of them - one with two children and the other who had a son and was six months pregnant in late 1976 - were executed. Two of my brothers died of starvation and disease at Chrey village in 1977-1978. And one went missing and is presumed dead.
The disappearance of my brother remains as fresh for me today as it did then. My mother still lives with the agony she feels over his disappearance in mid-1977. Although we remained hopeful for some years that he might resurface, it is painful today to look back at those moments of optimism.
Most Cambodians having seen the killing fields, but it is difficult for me to accept that my brother is among the victims there. Since I returned to Phnom Penh in October 2003, I have visited and revisited the Tuol Sleng torture center, hoping not to find his picture there, but to learn more about the regime that remains shrouded in secrecy.
Was my brother caught and brought here to face charges or could he have died here? I walk from cell to cell, and when I reach the gallery where photographs of victims are displayed along with implements of torture, I look at them and see things I witnessed during the regime. This experience has had a disturbing effect on me. Many of the methods the Khmer Rouge used to curb dissent proved to be similarly ferocious in Chrey region.
My brother left Chrey village as he lived in it, fearless of death. His fate was determined by the immutability of his character, which came predictably to one who was defiant and confident in his judgments, knowing there was no hope of success against such overwhelming odds.
Over the years, I began to speak out more about him. Recently, two men, one in his fifties and one around my age, claimed to have had lived in Chrey village in those years and knew the area quite well. But no one knew or heard of my brother's whereabouts.
His days with us were short, and I hope that his disappearance from our life would justify the cause of freedom and the life he sought to live. My brother Omarith was just seventeen years old.
Soon after the Vietnamese invasion, my father went back to the village in Kampong Cham where he stayed during the regime. His hut was left untouched; the banana and papaya trees nearby were ripe, and the grass around the hut was about knee-high. Looking from a distance, he felt convinced that someone was still living there and waiting inside the hut! The door was ajar so he stepped inside, where he saw writing on the wall: "I love you father." It appeared to be the writing of my sister Chanthou Reth. My father sat there recollecting for a while, and moved on.
The Khmer Rouge robbed me of a father during my childhood. My father loved us unconditionally, and family bonding was most important to him. Although we have been apart since I was a child, because of war and many unfortunate circumstances, I have always had a sense of him being with me.
He taught us to love and to support your country, its purpose, its past, and its destination. His wonderful sense of optimism gave me the greatest challenge in life, but the fear of growing up disappointing him always weighed strongly in my heart and mind.
My father shared with us his love of public works, and I obviously have inherited the same way in a sense. All my conscious life, my father seemed involved in public life. He handed Cambodia down to me as though it was my inheritance alone. His commitment to Cambodia has given me a reason to continue.
He left Cambodia, only to pursue new projects working with the Humanitarian Relief Project, International Red Cross, and working earnestly with the Cambodian Communities. I can think of no more honorable act than his current deeds, helping the rebuilding process in his former war-torn country.
Cambodia has always been a "Distant Land of My Father." To him, leaving Cambodia for France was abhorrent to every instinct in his body. He has seen war and destruction in his life, and I think this experience affected him greatly, now my life; I intend to do my part so that my children and future Cambodians may live in peace.
My parents' love and affection has been the most prevalent thing in my life, and they gave their children unconditional love, and let us chart our own path in life. That's the greatest gift a parent can bestow upon their children.
Now that I am a father myself, I am able to understand the difficulty of overcoming the loss, separation, and responsibility.
Fate has been kind to Cambodia, but costly, considering the numbers: thirty years of war, millions killed. Our modern history has been one of ongoing tragedy and the fallout has been our national sadness; the senseless loss of life will be felt for generations to come. But I hope history will teach us some lessons. Indeed, the Khmer Rouge regime marked a turning point for all of us, and change requires commitment and sacrifice. We can only make the changes needed if our consciences are clear and we have a sense of unity as a nation.
Cambodia has fundamentally changed since April 17 brought a permanent catastrophe to the nation. I also understand those not wanting to hear and be reminded of our country's bitter past, because I too woke up with a feeling of denial: that April 17th never took place. How can this day be remembered? As a Cambodian, I must not forget. Part of me died along with it, systematically murdered by the Khmer Rouge.
Most nations denounce war as a way of settling things. For Cambodians, more time must pass. Meanwhile, we can begin to form our own judgments through the experiences of all pasts: ours and those of others. I hope the result will give each of us clear guidance that might become a model for future Cambodians. With this, I can honestly say that the Cambodian people stand at the dawn of a new era, with unprecedented opportunities and the rebirth of idealism in each and every individual. I want nothing more than to see this country prosper and united in peace.
Some people were forced to collect themselves and moved on with life. But no one was excluded from pain; those survived the pain swallowed it. One of the legacies of war and armed conflict in my time is the proportion of the population who lost one or more of their siblings. Further, most of them did not leave home voluntarily and died in terrible and never fully-explained circumstances.
My mother turned 81 years old this year; she is physically and emotionally exhausted. Her voice is faltering and her eyes blurring. She sat listening patiently and looking at the pictures of her children - most of who died miserably - and of the places she once lived. I'm sure that all these pictures aroused both good and bad memories of her experiences. I realized that she is trying to come to terms with all her losses and tragedies, and I know that she is halfway there.
In Kampong Cham, the details of how my two sisters were murdered remain hidden. The questions are endless and will forever remain unanswered. People claimed to have heard loud revolutionary music played in Kampong Cham when executions were carried out.
Everyone's life is a story in itself. And every one of those stories tells of constant changes. My own life is no exception. As a Cambodian, I'm trying to understand Cambodia, which always seemed lost and remains obscure for the most part. After decades of living in America, it is still a comfort when I'm thinking of those stories and read them to remind me of my past and my future, which is now shaped by it.
During my years in the US, I have been working on a book project. I started writing it for my family. Most of it draws heavily on my memories; they are so personal that I often can't finish a paragraph for days. In many ways, it afflicts my life. I think best with paper and pen, and then the Laptop came along As my work progresses, I think of others, like those died without having their voices heard and stories told. In certain ways, they had much less freedom.
Writing this book about Cambodia is a unique challenge to both the heart and mind. You can read it in the way you understand life. For those who lived through Cambodia's conflicts and endured the Khmer Rouge, it can help remind us now and then to tell the world of what had occurred and not to repeat this act. I have narrowed the title of this book to "The Bare-Hands Doctrine, 1975 The Odd Year." It may be controversial, but it focuses essentially on all Cambodians living globally as one.
In 1984, while I was living in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, I firmed up my goal to write this book. By 1998 I was in Kirkland, Washington, where I began the project by gathering notes and collecting memories. For years, I put these thoughts into words on scraps of paper and shared them with no one! Those notes have been the primary sources for this book. This work cannot be easily accomplished in days or months; it will take years to recollect my lost and obscured memories.
As I write, those notes and memories constantly remind me what I need to remember, including the possibility that those who committed the killings might someday read my book. Putting into words the lives of people who are engraved indelibly in the archives of my memory will be a long journey with many obstacles and uncertainties. But I am not in any hurry and I desperately hope that all my fellow Cambodians are following the same path.
I continued writing and sharing my stories with others, especially the survivors, people with different lives, backgrounds, and experiences. In many ways, I discovered that when we're all sharing and in search for peace and love, we receive love in return. So gradually, this book became filled with conversations, arguments, and revelations from Cambodians, so that now, it is more than just my story. It contains the very private thoughts of my people, and I hope to show my gratitude to them by reflecting their thoughts in the book. It seems that the book is a story without an end.
But there is a purpose for writing it. The stories it contains are not simply about names; they are the memories that are still alive our hearts.
It is not my intent write an autobiography. Instead, I want to focus on the recent past: on my generation at the beginning of what the Khmer Rouge called "Year-Zero": Thursday April 17, 1975. The old way of life ceased to exist, and the Khmer Rouge began their quest to fulfill their revolution. I write about this not in the spirit of vengeance, but in an attempt to convey the reality of that era.
The story begins where the human spirit ends. It will tell of the struggle of living in Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge. As the author, I am not consciously seeking fame and glory. For the sake of literature, I wish to write a good story about Cambodia for future generations, and for those who have touched my life and given it meaning.
The Khmer Rouge era was extraordinary. It was not an ordinary time for Cambodians to remember; it marked a time when ideology took a collision course toward self-annihilation. After it ended Cambodia became known to the outside world by such terms as auto-genocide, Asian Auschwitz, Pol Pot, an Asian Hitler, Asian Holocaust, Echo of Auschwitz, Murder, the Nazi Style, Tuol Sleng, and as the Vietnamese publicly proclaimed: "A land of blood and tears, hell on earth" before its invasion in 1978.
In a May 9, 2003 interview on National Public Radio, actor John Malkovich (who was in the film The Killing Fields) called Cambodia a "hollow proposition." Former US President Jimmy Carter characterized the regime as "the world's worst violators of human rights." British Prime Minister Winston Churchill once called genocide "the crime without name." That's Cambodia! Public opinion surveys paint a similar picture about Cambodia. Perhaps this book will help remind us of what actually happened.
History does repeat itself. The world stood by silently as the genocide of World War II reoccurred 30 years later in Cambodia. How did the world allow this to happen? The Nazi Germans and the Khmer Rouge were both were capable of brutal acts that altered the nature of trust and honesty in people. Ironically, Oscar Schindler (Germany) and cadre Koeuth (Cambodia) were two good people among many bad ones, and saved many lives.
Three decades later, the decision to prosecute a few aging Khmer Rouge leaders remains more controversial, especially if we are considering a post-World War II Nuremberg-style tribunal.
As for me, I read and reread the notes from my book. There is much that I have worked hard to forget, and recalling the Khmer Rouge regime is painful. I read my notes as though they could save me. And they probably did, in a way. My sister remembered little of what happened. In many ways, she is trying to forget and move on with her life.
The dam where the Mong and Chrey Rivers meet will serve as a constant reminder of the past and the future. It will stand as a solemn testimony for those who built it under the Bare-Hands Doctrine.
The world has changed in the 60 years since the Nuremburg trials. With the Khmer Rouge tribunal now in place, I can only hope that justice will find its place and a new chapter can open. My visit to Chrey helped me recall happy times, and above all, it preserves the voices and faces of my family who I dearly love. Writing helps me bring back those I lost.