How Did I Survive the Khmer Rouge?





How Did I Survive the Khmer Rouge?


Youk Chhang


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 Cambodia approaches.


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 began evacuating Phnom Penh, 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 ever.


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 jungle.


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 hope.


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.

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April 17, 2005