While visiting Battambang, we hired motorbike drivers for a day to take us through the surrounding countryside. Our day with them yielded an authentic look at Cambodian country life. Our drivers also shared glimpses of their own personal stories with us. Their stories were typical of many Cambodians and serve as a collective memory of a country that lost half its population during the rule of the Khmer Rouge in the late 1970s. While the scores of smiling children we encountered throughout the day still bring smiles to our faces, the day underscored how thankful we are for the fortunate lives we’ve had until now.
Our first major stop of the day was Phnom Sampeau, a hill with Buddhist temples once used by the Khmer Rouge as a prison complex. Excavation of the surrounding caves yielded mountains of bones and human remains, reminders of Khmer Rouge brutality. The temples have since reverted to their original purpose, and groups of monks and older women can be seen praying, lightening incense and making offerings.
We took cover in the shade of a temple as one of our drivers explained the rise of the Khmer Rouge and the techniques it used to gain and keep power. We asked many questions, trying to understand how the Khmer Rouge could win enough support to take over and be responsible for the death of almost half the population (2-3 million people depending upon whom you ask), through direct executions or starvation. After learning what the history books had to say about the Khmer Rouge, we asked our driver about his experiences. He told his story, and in turn, related the story of so many Cambodians.
Our driver, Mr. Leangodom, was separated from his parents and siblings at the age of eight and forced to work in the fields. The Khmer Rouge relied on separation to instill paranoia and fear, keep people on edge and to fan the flames of mistrust in a community. Family members disappeared and mistrust was rife.
While working in the fields, he would see prisoners walk by in a line. He would hear gunshots in the forests and only guards would return. Everyone kept their head down and pretended not to notice. Being too curious resulted in the dreaded knock on the door at night and imminent “relocation”. Those who remained, worked themselves into starvation; the little food that could be grown was used to fuel the Khmer Rouge army.
End of the Khmer Rouge – Refugee Camps
When the Vietnamese invaded Cambodia and overthrew the Khmer Rouge in 1979, he was thirteen and returned home in hopes of finding his family. He waited there for two months. When no one arrived, he went to the refugee camps in Thailand and continued his search. There, names of family members were repeatedly announced on loud speakers. One day, he overhead his mother’s name and was reunited with both her and his sister. The whereabouts of his father and two other siblings were unknown. He spent the next 13 years of his life in the refugee camp, receiving training as a medic in the local hospital.
When the United Nations negotiated a fragile peace and elections were held in 1993, the refugee camps were emptied and Cambodians returned “home.” Leangodom returned to his village with his mother and sister, only to see that their land and house already occupied by others who’d opted to stay. Possession is 99% of the law, so he moved with his family to Battambang to make a new life in the city. Despite his training as a medic and the need for medical staff, he couldn’t get a job in the hospitals because he didn’t have money for the bribes required to secure a position. He started working as a motorbike driver instead.
He continued his search for his father and two other siblings until 2000, at which point he decided to stop. Assuming them dead, he allowed himself to begin the grieving process. He explained that he cannot think about the past too much – “it’s paralyzing.” He lives in the present and future and said that most Cambodians do the same in order to cope and survive.
Looking to the Future
His story is unfortunately very common in Cambodia – separated from his family as a child, surviving the death of multiple family members, enduring slave labor, living in a refugee camp, losing a home, and having to start all over again in hopes that such terrible times will never return. You’ll hear iterations of it repeated by people in different locations and walks of life. But Cambodians show an amazing resilience in the face of their horrific recent history. Instead of dwelling on the past, they are determined to create a better future for their children. Their smiles gave us hope that they are succeeding, slowly and in their own way.