One of the core reasons I decided to apply to this program is Cambodia’s rich history. I was extremely interested in learning about the genocide and the nation’s recovery from it because much of this isn’t mentioned in US textbooks and schools. I didn’t really know how I would learn about it when here but assumed we would simply visit museums and memorials. Yesterday, we sat down with two survivors of the Khmer Rouge to hear about their stories.
We first heard from a woman, now 65 years old, living on Koh Ksach Tunlea, the island we’ve been staying on for our homestay. When the Khmer Rouge gained control, she was almost finished with her secondary school exams. But, as it did with all people living in the nation at the time, the Khmer Rouge completely changed her life. She worked at an all female camp where each girl was given 3 scoops of rice to eat. Due to the lack of toilets, waste sat in the pond where the girls bathed and collected water to drink and cook. Her daily routine was exhausting, and her hair began to fall out. After turning a year older, she was transferred to another camp to build a road. At this point, the Khmer Rouge paired couples together and forced them to get married, but many women instead committed suicide. She, however, complied, and married a man. Soon after, she became pregnant with her first child. Due to the hectic work days and the rule that women had to work until in labor, the baby passed away two hours after being born. She and her husband stayed together until his death in 1996 when she was left to care for their 5 children alone.
The second story we heard is that of Thul, age 54. He is the father of Thavry, the woman with whom Dragons has worked with in the past and during the homestays on Koh Ksach Tunlea, the island of her home village. The night before the panel, I read the chapter of Thavry’s book narrating her father’s experience during the Khmer Rouge, but having already heard it didn’t make it any less shocking. When he was 9 years old, he was put in a labor camp not very far from his home. At the time, the Khmer Rouge was fighting at the Vietnam border. He eventually volunteered to be a child soldier in hopes of being fed more. His job was carrying rice to the front line and was extremely physically taxing for a young boy. When Vietnam invaded, his group fled across the country for 3 months, only eating what they could find around them. In Pursat Province, the group was captured and Thul ended up with a foster family. Eventually, he was able to return home to his family, where he was considered one of the lucky ones to have survived.
I am extremely grateful to have had the opportunity to hear these stories in person and decided to do my Independent Study Project on stories and memories of the Khmer Rouge. At home, I want to spread awareness of this mass genocide as well as stories of the survivors. I’m really excited to explore more of this country’s history in Phnom Penh and the next locations.