A Past Resurfaced: Memories of Survival and Escape from the Khmer Rouge

In the summer of 2014, my grandma began digging into the old pile of long-forgotten photographs she hoarded in our backyard shack and placed them into old, reused picture frames. Within the following year, she gradually filled and decorated her bedroom walls with the photos. As soon as we thought she was done displaying old photos, we would be surprised to discover the endless amount of photos she had tucked away for all of these years. The series of pictures displayed on her bedroom wall appears to be the first time in decades that our old family photos had resurfaced since we arrived in the United States after escaping the Khmer Rouge‘s genocidal regime.

When my grandpa passed away in the winter of 2014, our old family photographs became the most resonating objects between my grandma and my grandpa, explaining her sudden desire to display the photos that summer. He was her lifelong lover and partner through the experience of genocide, overseas migration, and resettlement in America.  Shortly after our grandpa passed away, my grandma’s sense of self-pity and sorrow that were once attached to the photos changed into a sense of appreciation and commemoration for her deceased husband.

Despite the few surviving photos, our family was still considered lucky to have any family photographs survive what they went through under Pol Pot’s Democratic Kampuchea of 1975-1979. During the period of 1975-1979, any photograph taken prior to the Vietnam Conflict was not likely to survive from the war that expanded into the Cambodian borders. Although most of the surviving photos that came with our family to America were taken during migration after the Khmer Rouge Regime, there was one picture in particular that made it through the uncertain years.[1]

This photo was the picture of my great grandmother Pong. The photograph was taken in the French Protectorate Era of 1950 at a photo studio in the province of Battambang.[2] My great grandmother was 35 years old with nine children when the photo was taken. Of nine kids, there were two that Pong was especially proud of in her lifetime: the oldest, Oum Preang, was a village chief, and the second oldest, Oum Poung, was a teacher in the capital city of Phnom Penh. Like most Cambodian families, for Pong her kid’s achievement became her glory, so it would be safe to say that she lived a fulfilling life. My great grandmother Pong and my great grandfather Ta Phom were both working-class farmers. Pong was 15 years old when she married Phom who, at the time, was 35 years old. They were both born, raised, and died in Battambang, Cambodia. Pong passed away at age 53 from natural causes, just like her husband Phom who passed away at age 60.

Under Pol Pot’s Democratic Kampuchea, Cambodia lost a quarter of its population to execution, starvation, disease, and forced labor. Pol Pot led an ultra-agrarian socialist revolution that called for the contamination of Western influence. This era became known as the “killing fields” and “year zero.” During these years, some of the largest Cambodian provinces, such as the country’s capital Phnom Penh, was taken over by the Khmer Rouge on April 17, 1975. Another large province that was increasingly controlled by the Khmer Rouge was Battambang, the country’s second largest province located in the northwestern parts of Cambodia. Farming villages like the one my family came from were eventually seized by the Khmer Rouge cadres within the following months. When the cadres came into these farming villages, they demanded that our family leave their home and everything they owned behind, and in most cases, even burning down their material possessions such as pictures. The Khmer Rouge wanted to ensure that all traces of the past would cease to exist.[3]

Nauk family member 2

When the Khmer Rouge entered the inner cities and villages of Battambang, rumors of homes and material possessions getting destroyed quickly spread throughout the province. A few people, like my grandma’s fourth oldest sister Prounh, immediately took extreme measures to hide away valuable possessions before they could be destroyed.  Prounh buried the photograph of her mother in hopes of returning to retrieve the photograph someday. Once the Khmer Rouge reached their village, my grandma, her sister Prounh, and the rest of our family became captives of the Khmer Rouge and were forced to become indentured servants to the homicidal regime.

 

In 1979, Vietnamese forces dominated the Khmer Rouge forces and captured Phnom Penh. Vietnamese leaders installed the People’s Republic of Kampuchea with two objectives: to liberate Cambodia and to stop the Khmer Rouge offenses on the Cambodian-Vietnamese borders. During the Vietnamese invasion of 1978, Cambodia was in a state of rapid instability. Many Khmer Rouge captives, like my family, took advantage of the invasion and used this brief period to escape from the fragmenting regime.[4]

Unfortunately, not all of my grandma’s relatives made it through the murderous regime that lasted for four intense years, but she and her sister Prounh did. Prounh went back to our family’s raided home in Battambang only to find that there was nothing left but the picture of her mother Pong that she buried before she was captured by the regime. Rumors swirled around Cambodia of a promised land called America, so my family had  a quick decision to make before they no longer had the opportunity to escaping. Prounh decided to stay behind in Cambodia in case things got better, and my grandma decided to leave with her husband and their kids to Thailand to find refuge. After spending four years in refugee camp in Thailand and two years in the Philippines, our family finally resettled in Rochester, Minnesota in 1985.

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Consequently, only after my grandpa was gone did my grandma find the courage to accept the past and start sharing the photos and their stories with her remaining family members. Sharing the photos turned into a form of healing for her, as opposed to before, when talking about the photos would have been too sorrowful to discuss in depth. Now her mother’s photograph is hanging on her bedroom wall right above her bed where she sleeps at night. For many years, my grandmother only hung a replica of her mother’s photograph that was drawn by her second youngest son Knor, but today, both the replica and the original picture hang on the wall, side by side.

Vanna Nauk is a writing tutor at Fresno City College and an undergraduate student of History at California State University, Fresno, where he is the Student Coordinator for the Asian Pacific Islander Programs and Services. This piece is part of our Unofficial Archives series.

References

[1] Eric Tang, Unsettled: Cambodian Refugees in the New York City Hyperghetto (United States: Temple University Press, 2015).

[2] D.R. SarDesai, Southeast Asia: Past and Present, 7th ed. (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 2013).

[3] Tang, 2-3.

[4] Tang, 2-3.

 

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