2015 will mark the fortieth anniversary; the year Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge regime triumphantly entered the capital Phnom Penh in April 1975. More than two millions innocent Cambodians were systematically executed by the regime and many more died of starvation.
After surviving four years of non-stop labour, intimidation and beatings under the Khmer Rouge regime, I finally escaped to spend life in refugee camps. I had risked my life to cross the Thai-Cambodia borders that were filled with land mines in search for my freedom – a luxury that most people take for granted.
Over the years, I have had many attempts to write the story of my childhood experience, but I was not able to continue beyond a few lines. Every time I sat down in front of a typewriter, I would get weary. A slump of tears choked in my throat because those memories are too painful to even think about them.
In 1996, I was requested to make a speech at the United Nations Association Refugees Committee seminar at The University of Sydney entitled “Why Don’t You Go Back – Refugee Issues and Experience” to bring awareness and support to refugees all around the world. I also agreed to an interview with SBS TV in Australia. But after 10 years later in 2006 when I was trying to write a story about my father’s misfortunes, I suddenly realised that I knew nothing about father’s younger years. Unlike me, my father has no one to talk to about his trauma and so he buries them in his heart. Nowadays he spends his time alone peacefully but refuses to talk about his past. Therefore, I had decided to record my story in a notebook so that someday I may pass it on to my children to read about my experience. I also used the writing as a way to release my anxiety and the pain of my experience and endurance.
Like many survivals of “The Killing Fields”, and perhaps my father as well, I had tried to forget about it. I found it easier to just simply forget about the ordeal. I stopped writing again. I locked away the notebook in a shoe-box along with some old pictures until end of December last year, 2013. When I cleaned up my room, I opened my shoe-box and turnover those pages in notebook again.
As I flipped through those pages, an old friend in London had asked me for almost 10 years for my story. “When are you going to start writing your story?” he often pestered me. When he said to me, a few decades from now future historians may not devote many details to this short chapter of Cambodian genocide. He added, only the first-hand survivors can give a full picture. He encouraged me to write as many details as I can recall of what actually had happened to me. “Writing down my memories for my future generations to read and learn from history,” he reminded me.
I had travelled back to visit my relatives who are still living in Cambodia for a few times. At every visit, I had tried to ask them for more details of their experiences during the Khmer Rouge regime, nobody wanted to talk about it. The survivors of my generation have now grown older but their lack of education means they cannot write their experiences. And soon all will be forgotten. My own absence from schooling in my younger years had also hindered my ability to write my story earlier. I had become emotional every time I picked up a pen and try to write because that one event had stolen the best part of my childhood from me and from many other children.
I was able to flee Cambodia to find sanctuary in Australia, but I have not been able to do anything to help those who stay behind. I was torn between the struggle to settle a new life in a new country and the desire to help rebuild life and give education to the children of Cambodian. School education is a privilege that most people also take for granted. The matter of fact is, for many refugees around the world, resettling in a foreign country would mean that life has to start all over again from zero. I started mine from Year Zero for the third time.
I am very proud and pleased to say that after many, many years of contemplation; I have finally able to share my story and this sad, but yet unforgettable lesson of Cambodian history. You may have already read other Cambodian genocide stories but every survivor of this brutal and ruthless regime has a unique story to tell. This is not a story of self-pity or bitterness. I hope by sharing my story beyond my circle of friends, those who are in a privilege position and future leaders would make this world a better place for everyone. Will human beings ever learn anything from this short and brutal history of Cambodia?