How Did I Survive the
In the ten years that
Iíve been working at the Documentation Center of Cambodia, reporters have asked
me this question more than any other. I have been thinking a lot about the
answer as the 30th anniversary of the Khmer Rouge takeover of
On April 17, 1975, I
was a boy of 14. My father was an architect and was later drafted into the Lon
Nol Army. Although we were better off than many people during the early 1970s,
prices were going up every day and we had to be careful with my fatherís small
salary. Plus, many of our relatives had moved into our house in Phnom Penh to
avoid the fighting in the countryside. Every banana, every grain of rice was
rationed in our home. My parents were also constantly worried that bad things
would happen to my sisters, and devoted much of their attention to protecting
them. And my school closed down almost every week. As a result of all these
things, I learned to do a lot for myself (like making my own kites from
newspaper) and to be by myself. In some ways, becoming independent helped
prepare me for life under the Khmer Rouge.
When the Khmer Rouge
I was home alone; my mother and another family member had left for a safer
location the day before, telling me they would come back for me. But the road
was blocked and on April 18th, the Khmer Rouge told me that I had to
leave. I went outside, but I had no idea of where to go because our neighborhood
was completely deserted. So I started walking. Along the way, I heard people
saying they were going to their home villages, so I decided to go to my motherís
home in Takeo province. Because I had no food with me, I asked the Khmer Rouge
soldiers for some, and they gave me round palm sugar cakes. After some weeks of
walking I arrived at the village. In the meantime, my mother had tried to cross
the border into Vietnam, but was blocked. About four months later, she too came
to her village and we were reunited.
My family was evacuated
to Battambang province next. After we were there for a few months, I was
separated from them and put in a teenagersí mobile unit to dig canals. For about
a year, I was able to sneak home at night to visit my family, but later our unit
began working too far away. I was alone more and more, and grew more lonely than
As a city kid, I didnít
have many survival skills, but hunger can make you learn a lot of things. I
taught myself how to swim, for example, so that I could dive down and cut the
sweet sugarcane growing in the flooded rice fields. And I learned how to steal
food, how to kill and eat snakes and rats, and how to find edible leaves in the
Food became my god
during the regime. I dreamed about all kinds of food all the time. It would help
me fall asleep and gave me the strength I needed to return to the fields to work
each day. Even today, when I see hungry children in the streets, it upsets me.
I wonder why they cannot have enough to eat now that we no longer live under the
Khmer Rouge. I see myself in their hungry faces.
I was angry, too, and
this got me into trouble with the village and unit chiefs. But I was saved from
being killed by many people and their small acts of kindness. Once the Khmer
Rouge put me in the subdistrict security office, where I was beaten and
tortured. A man who had grown up in my motherís village went to the subdistrict
chief, telling him that I was still very young and begging him to have me
released. Two weeks later, I was let out of this prison. This man was later
accused of having relatives in enemy areas and has not been seen again. And
another base person named Touk gave our family food when we needed it most.
Trapeang Veng, the village where we stayed in
Battambang, had a chief who came from the West Zone; her name was Comrade Aun
and she was only 12 years old. My mother begged her not to send me out to the
fields to work, and gave Aun her shiny scissors from China as a favor. My mother
treasured these scissors because they had been a gift from her youngest brother,
but she sacrificed them for me. The scissors saved me for a few days until
Angkar ordered Aun to send me away with the mobile unit.
At the end of 1978,
rumors started flying around Cambodia about the large numbers of people dying (Trapeang
Veng once had 1,200 families, but only 12 survived Democratic Kampuchea), and
people began stealing and taking many other chances. A base person told my uncle
at that time that he should run away to Thailand because he had worked for the
National Bank of Cambodia and would be certainly be killed if he stayed. My
brother-in-law left a little later. After he walked for a few days, my
brother-in-law turned back because he missed his wife. And I was told not to
escape. I agreed, which may have prevented me from meeting the fate of my uncle.
He continued walking to Thailand, but was never seen again. I suspect that he
stepped on a mine.
These acts by members
of my family and even total strangers may have saved my life more than one time.
These were people who saw the value of life and did their best to assert their
humanity during a time when it was difficult to do so. They gave me a reason to
Reporters and others
also ask me if I still have any nightmares about the Khmer Rouge. My life then
was a living nightmare, but I do not dream about the regime today. My mother had
a dream about me, though. I was sitting on the Buddhaís Eye Mountain, looking
far away. She said this was a sign that I would survive, and it gave me hope.
So I never thought of
dying, even once, during Democratic Kampuchea. Instead, I hoped that I would
have a good nightís sleep and enough to eat one day. This hope was always with
me and encouraged me to fight for life.
The Khmer Rouge changed
my life forever. The need to find answers to why I endured so much pain and lost
so many members of my family during the regime brought me to my profession of
researching Democratic Kampuchea. I wanted to know why my sister was murdered,
why I was jailed and tortured when I tried to find vegetables for one of my
sisters who was pregnant and starving, and why my mother could not help me when
I was being tortured. And I wanted revenge, too.
Although I am still
seeking answers to these and other questions, I no longer have a strong desire
for revenge. Visiting the home where I grew up has been a comfort to me; it
renews the hopes I had for education as a child, and it keeps the memories of
my friends and loved ones alive. I grew flowers at my house when I was young:
orchids, and thunderstorm, fingernail, and winter Tuesday plants. I grow the
same flowers today at DC-Cam. They remind me
of where Iíve been
and where Iím going now.
Youk Chhang is Director of the Documentation
Center of Cambodia.
email@example.com ; Home page:
April 17, 2005