Since I have been living in Vietnam for two and a half weeks, it is embarrassing how little previous knowledge I had on the history, culture, traditions and struggle of many countries in South Asia. I have been most moved by the tales of Genocide in Cambodia.
A brief history on the Cambodian genocide – in 1975, under Pol Pot’s leadership, the Khmer Rouge embarked on an organised mission: they ruthlessly imposed an extremist programme to reconstruct Cambodia on the communist model of Mao’s China. The population must, they believed, be made to work as labourers in one huge federation of collective farms. Anyone in opposition – and all intellectuals and educated people were assumed to be – must be eliminated, together with all un-communist aspects of traditional Cambodian society. This attempt at the purification of Cambodian society along, racial, social and political lines led to the military and political leaders of the former regime, as well as leaders of industry, journalists, students, doctors, lawyers as well as the Vietnamese and Chinese ethnic groups being purged. Civilian deaths in this period, from executions, disease, exhaustion and starvation, have been estimated at well over 2 million.
One of the only silver linings of terrible atrocities like this is the incredible stories of courage and self-sacrifice. With the use of Oral history, I have stumbled acrss the lives of women who lived through the Khmer Rouge regime and their traumatic stories.
Lieng, a medical doctor tells her story:
“April 17th, 1975 is stamped on my mind because our lives were changed forever after that date. I could have left Cambodia before 1975, but I didn’t consider it because I had no idea the Khmer Rouge would be so cruel. I was in my fifth year of medical school at the time. My father was a surgeon and he wanted one of his children to become a doctor. I agreed because practicing medicine is a service.”
Lieng’s husband was also a medical student and they had 2 young children. The Khmer Rouge ordered them to move into a work camp.
“For four years I lived like a slave. At first my job was to dig out tree stumps, which was very difficult work. Later I was assigned the miserable task of making compost from human feces. In 1976 there were 20 families living in my village. One by one they were killed. By 1977, only four families in our village were left. Terrified that we would be the next to die, we focused solely on our work and never spoke to each other.”
In 1979 the Vietnamese ousted the Khmer Rouge and Lieng returned home.
“As soon as I arrived in Phnom Penh I went directly to my old house hoping to find my relatives, but no one was there. I walked through the empty house and saw that most things were just as we left them, four years ago. Our books on Buddhism were still on the shelf, along with my husband’s class notes. A Vietnamese soldier came in and told me that no one was permitted to live in that area. As I was leaving, I stopped and wrote a message to my family on the front gate saying that I had come looking for them.”
No one read the message. Everyone in Lieng’s family had died including her parents, her husband and her sisters.
“After the Khmer Rouge regime there were only forty doctors left in the country. Nearly all the older doctors had died, so we had no specialists or experts. There wasn’t a single psychiatrist in Cambodia. Only eighteen out of the fifty medical students in my class survived, and I was the only woman. I went back to medical school and graduated in nine months because Cambodia desperately needed doctors. I became director of a hospital’s emergency and recovery rooms. Some of my colleagues worked in Cambodia for a while and then went to live abroad because the conditions here were so terrible…”
“In 1992 I passed the entrance exam to get a postgraduate degree in anesthesiology and went through a three-year program with nine other doctors, studying under a visiting French expert at the University of Phnom Penh. It was more difficult to remember the lessons because I am older. I finished school at age fifty, which is retirement age, but I agreed to work and teach in the medical school for six years.”
Lieng wanted to do this because there was only one trained anesthesiologist in all of Cambodia.
“I don’t worry as much as I used to. I feel satisfied knowing that I chose a good husband for my daughter. My son is studying at the Institute of Agriculture, and he will get a job when he graduates. I just continue to work hard and am patient, because to be human is to always have problems, big or small. People see that I am strong and solid, like a stone, but my heart is very soft.”
Another tale of courage:
Anna was born in Cambodia’s Siem Reap province in 1947 and, at the age of four, her family moved to Phnom Penh.
In 1960, Anna began working as a secretary for a French engineer who helped to bring electrical engineering to Cambodia. From 1970 to 1975, as Cambodia’s political environment began to deteriorate, she began volunteering for the International Women’s Association. There, she coordinated food and medicine distribution and job placement for Cambodia’s internal refugees that were fleeing from the Khmer Rouge, and supported her family by working a morning job with Cambodia’s Society for Imports and Exports.
In 1975, her boss from the Society of Imports and Exports asked her to work in Thailand, but, never dreaming that Cambodia would fall to the Khmer Rouge, she chose to stay and help her country deal with the large amounts of refugees that were arriving in the capital each month.
When asked about her initial feelings toward the Khmer Rouge, Anna said that she was afraid because “they all wore black.” When Phnom Penh fell to the Khmer Rouge, she remembers that thousands of people flocked to the streets to watch them enter the city. At first, the mood was happy, but this soon changed when the Khmer Rouge told everyone that the Americans were about to bomb the city and that everyone would need to go into the countryside for three days. When Anna asked if she could take her boat up the Ton Le Sap River to escape, the soldier told her that, “all things belonged to the Khmer Rouge now.” “They took my boat, and I realized it was over,” she says.
Anna and her family were forced to walk for one week to Kampot Chann province. When she arrived, the Khmer Rouge said that her brother had to leave in order to study the new communist regime. It turned out that this was one of the lies that the Khmer Rouge told to those who would be killed, and Anna’s brother was executed a short time afterward.
Anna was then forced to walk to Kratie province where the Khmer Rouge interviewed people to see whether or not they would be killed. Of course, no one knew this at the time and the soldiers encouraged everyone to be honest when giving their biographies because they were going to be “starting fresh.” Anna remembers that, while not many people were killed in the beginning of this period, after two months had past, people would mysteriously disappear every night.
The Khmer Rouge interviewed Anna and asked her if she could cook. She was afraid to say yes since she knew that cooking was a skill that was mostly learned in upper-class society, and that she might be killed as a result, but she was honest with the interviewer. It turned out that Anna would cook for about 400–500 people each day, for the entire time the Khmer Rouge remained in power. During this time no one heard any news of Phnom Penh or their families because, as Anna says, “In the communist regime, if you are deaf and mute, you have long life. No one talked about anything.”
Anna was allowed to keep her son with her during this three-year period, but her husband was sent to work at a distant farm. He would visit her once a month but they couldn’t talk much because there were spies everywhere—especially the Khmer Rouge children who eavesdropped from underneath the Cambodian stilted houses. Anna and her husband chose to stop seeing each other quite early in this period because they feared that talking to each other would mean they would both be killed.
“If someone knocked at my door at night, then I knew that was it. So I started smoking every night—I used tobacco and paper for smoking—because it would help me stay awake.” Clearly, looking into her eyes as she tells this story shows how utterly dark this time was for her—where life and death hung in the balance every night. She remembers how she would wake up at sunrise each day and be thankful to be alive. “We saw the sun and felt that we had this new life in the morning,” she says.
As Anna’s reputation as a great cook grew, so did her order requests from Khmer Rouge leaders. In fact, some of the generals would get home from their meetings at 11 at night and send for Anna to prepare meals for them. Anna remembers that she started to lose her fear of hearing a knock at the door, because it no longer meant that she would be killed.
In 1979, the Vietnamese brought the Khmer Rouge regime to an end. Pol Pot himself requested that Anna be taken with the soldiers as they retreated to the jungles. Instead, she quickly fled to Phnom Penh in the hopes of finding her freedom and husband again.
She returned to Phnom Penh and was reunited with her husband just as the Vietnamese Army came to kill any Khmer Rouge remaining in the city. Most Khmer Rouge pretended to be ordinary citizens, and this enraged Anna. But she didn’t point these people out to the Vietnamese soldiers. “I kept it all in here,” she says, pointing at her heart. Anna was afraid that she would eventually be killed by the Vietnamese since she worked for the Khmer Rouge, so she hid in one of the many abandoned houses in the city. The Vietnamese found her after four days and three nights but, because she spoke fluent Vietnamese, she convinced them that she had nothing to do with the Khmer Rouge. Shortly after, she worked for the interim Vietnamese puppet government for six months, and began an import business from Saigon until 1990.
There are hundreds of shocking tales of women’s experience of the Pol Pott regime. Cambodian women are still suffering both physical and mental scars from the atrocities they witnessed in the 1970s. I highly recommend to read up on the subject as it is truly harrowing.