Life During the Khmer Rouge Rule of Cambodia – A Conversation with My Mom

On September 15, 2017, the Netflix movie “First They Killed My Father,” directed by Angelina Jolie will be released. After seeing the trailer, I couldn’t help but remember the stories my great grandma, grandparents, and mom had told me about their life before and after the Khmer Rouge. The Khmer Rouge (The Communist Party Kampuchea), started in April of 1975, and ended January of 1979. I decided to show my mom the trailer, get her feedback on this upcoming movie, and just have a conversation about her life during those dark times.

When I showed my mom the trailer, I did not tell her what she was about to watch. As she was watching the trailer, she started saying, “what?” “this is….,” and as the trailer was concluding, “this is Cambodia.”
Note: I’m speaking to my mom in English, and my mom is responding in Cambodian, so I am translating my mom’s response to English.

Q: What do you think about the trailer, “First They Killed My Father?”

No movie or TV show can explain what really happened. It can show what happened, but there’s so much more outside of it. The feeling and emotion of what we [people of that time] went through, can never be truly shown on TV. Yes, most of what I saw in the trailer, I went through myself, but there’s just so much more to it. The feelings and pain we felt at the time – I don’t know how to explain it. That time felt like forever. We had no calendar or anything to really keep track of the days that had gone by. We lived in fear, and we kept trying to survive. I don’t even remember my actual birth date. I still remember when I heard on the radio that the war was over – “3 years, 8 months, and 20 days,” but it felt a lot longer than that, a lot longer.

Q: In this trailer, kids were trained to use weapons. Did they really trained kids to use weapons?

Yes! They even trained the kids to kill their own parents! Parents feared their own kids. Everything we do we had to get permission from the communist party. What they tell us to do, we do it. If we resist, we’ll be killed. Also, we couldn’t roam freely. Even the land was dangerous. When I was young, I wandered off. I heard my mom yelling at me to come back. What I didn’t know was that I went to the open areas where there were land mine. Luckily, I didn’t step on one.

Q: How old were you when the war started? And were you also taken away to work?

I was around 11-12 years old. Yes, I was forced to work. My younger siblings were too young (under 5 years old), so they weren’t taken to work.

Q: Can you describe what it was like to work in rice fields?

We spent hours in field. We weren’t given much to eat (watered down rice), and we were always being watched. We had no shelter. Most of the kids were forced to sleep outside on the streets – even when it was pouring rain outside. We would cry sometime, and the communist soldiers would make fun us calling us “frogs that cry-out at night.” They even made us dress the same and cut our hair short.

Q: I noticed in the trailer, the girl’s hair was cut to shoulder length, and all the kids were dressed in the same dark clothes. When I was in middle school you once told me to not wear too many dark colors, especially black, because it reminded my dad of that time. Is that true?

[laughing] Partially. Well, short hair, yes that’s true. You got that haircut when you were younger, and your dad and I joked around about remembering when the Khmer Rouge gave me that haircut. As for dark clothes, that’s partially true. I actually just thought you wore black and grey too much. You need to wear more bright colors! You were like a boy growing up! At least you’re more feminine now. I blame your dad for letting you twins watch too much anime – the one with the yelling and the ninja [referring to Dragon Ball Z and Naruto], and playing too much video games!
(yea. That statement above. I got lectured a bit during this conversation for that because I still like wearing dark color clothes now…sorry, we kinda we off topic.)

Q: As a child you told me that anyone who had an education were taken to be killed? How did your parents avoid that happening to them?

Anyone that has an education was killed. My father was in the military, and we had to keep moving to avoid being caught. I remember them interviewing all the relatives and kids, including myself, “what is your dad’s or brother’s occupation?” My mom whispered into my ears before they came inside that if anyone ask what your dad or brother does, say they’re farmers, so I answered, “they’re farmers.” I thought it was weird but they started asking if we were Thai. My mom and grandma are of Thai descent, and they live in a Cambodian-Thai village. I remember my mom answering, “No. I’m not Thai. I only learned the language because I lived in that village.” At first, I didn’t understand too much of what was going on, I just listened to what my parents told me to say.

Q: Did your family tried to escape?

1978, My father escaped to Thailand first with my older brother, and uncle. But on the way to the border there were many waiting by the border. Waiting to kill anyone who tried to leave Cambodia. I don’t even know if my older brother made it to Thailand. My dad told me when they tried to cross the border, everyone that was crossing kept yelling, “move forward and don’t look back!” He told me all he heard was guns going off, and when my dad and uncle made across, his eldest son is no longer with them. I don’t really know what happened him.
My mom made the decision to leave to another city. During the night of a full moon, my mom with my baby brother in her arms, my sister, and I left to the city where my great grandma resided.

Q: How did you reunited with your dad?

1979 – after the war was over, my dad came back to Cambodia. He brought us all back to Thailand where we stayed with my mom’s Thai relatives, before coming to the US.

Q: Is there anything that sometimes reminds you of the Khmer Rouge? I often hear you and daddy mention certain veggies etc.

OH Yea! During those year we barely had much to eat. A lot of us didn’t eat well. Some of my family health problems was because of the lack of nutrition. It’s funny – the food that I was forced to eat, I use it for some of my cooking still! And you twins, love it! Every time I eat ingredients that was gave to us during the Khmer Rouge, I can’t helped but laugh. At least I can make it tasty now.

Q: Would you watch the movie “First they Killed My Father?”

Maybe, but I don’t really want to see it all again. I know it’s a movie. But what was shown in the trailer is somethings I went through myself. I’ll probably be talking (commenting) the whole time. But you and your sister can watch it and tell me about it [laughing].

Q: Any last thoughts?

You two are very lucky to not be born during those times. You were able to go to school, get an education, learn to use a computer, etc. I wanted to be a doctor as a child but the war shut down every school. No one was allowed to learn. When I went to Thailand after the war, I was helping my parents sell street food. It was hard because I even went to school to sell snacks by the gate as young students come out to buy snacks/lunch during break. How I wish I was one of those students. After coming to the US, I went to Adult School because I was already about 19-20 years old, and I worked full-time to support my family. The movie trailer is pretty accurate, but coming from someone who lived through it, it’s a lot worse. But, I’m happy to be with my family, and was able to have a new life in the US.

Q: Would you ever visit Cambodia again?

Your grandma and your aunt has visited many times, and many times they asked me to go with them. My answer is always, “I don’t have time,” but actually, I don’t want to – I don’t think I can.

– Cindy

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