Who helps the helpers? In Norway, in the case of Khmer Rouge survivors, Gwynyth Marshall Øverland does. She moved to the Scandinavian country from her native US ‘for a man, why else?’ but fell in love with the country, and especially the Cambodian community there, which numbers some 450 people. As a senior adviser at the Regional Trauma Centre in Southern Norway, it is her job to recommend how psychiatrists should approach trauma victims. Her work has brought her into contact with refugees from troubled nations all around the globe, but the question of how Khmer Rouge survivors managed to live new lives has had a particular resonance. Her doctoral thesis, Post-traumatic survival: a study of Cambodian resilience, published by Cambridge Scholars Publishing in June 2013, explores how and why some asylum seekers successfully manage the transition to a new life, while others don’t. Poppy McPherson reports.
How did your research project in Cambodia originally come about?
We have over 450 Cambodians living in Norway. That’s not many compared to other places, but in terms of a population of 5 million, it’s a bit. I worked with refugees and I got to know them, and we became friends.
But then in 1993 the Norwegian government came up with this idea of repatriation for all.
My boss got the clever idea of going to Cambodia with a group of Cambodians and seeing if we could come up with something meaningful for a thesis.
I did my Masters in 1997 and that was a comparison between Cambodians in Cambodia and Cambodians in Norway.
Then, for a doctorate, I had people recommended who were known to have had very severe traumatic experiences and I asked them to tell their life stories. Naturally, they focused on the whole period of the Khmer Rouge
How did Cambodian Khmer Rouge survivors who had resettled in Norway fare compared to those in Cambodia?
In the doctoral thesis, which interviewed only people who had managed remarkably well, there were no notable differences between the two groups in Norway and the group in Cambodia.
I chose people who would have been at least teenagers at the end of the Pol Pot regime so that they would have a consciousness of what had actually been happening.
When I analysed all the histories, everybody talked about holding [each other] together, working as hard as they could and about being responsible for their own outcomes.
So they didn’t place a high emphasis on karma?
Karma was their job, not that somebody else should be punished but that they should be rewarded by doing the right thing themselves.
I realised they had never been asked about how they survived. They are only really asked about the terrible things.
People think that it’s so important for them to talk about their experiences that they focus on the trauma themselves and not on the survival, so I tried to focus on that: asking new arrivals how they managed; what they had learned from their parents; how survival has been done in your family. Because all cultures have these mechanisms for survival.
What sort of stories did your interviewees have? What did they have in common?
There were a lot of similarities. Everybody talked about the march out of Phnom Penh and about being asked where their families originally came from [the city was inundated with refugees from the fighting in the provinces], and they were sent in that direction.
But they had very different traumatic experiences. Each family was different: who died, and how they died. One person said that his sister was sent to get water when she was seven and never came back.
The traumas were very different but the survival strategies were very similar. One that several people used was that while they were in these production units they understood the situation so they were very careful about what they said and what they did, and they kept their heads down.
One man said: ‘They [the Khmer Rouge] would gather us together and they would say: who wants to volunteer for a job. I didn’t volunteer. The people who had volunteered were never seen again.'
What sort of survival strategies did people have?
The same man, called Virak Yenn, had a good story of survival.
He was in the ankle links that they put on a bar. He was a young man and he was sitting on the bar with the others, feet linked. Every night they were taken down to the river to bathe. One night, he was wearing a shirt and in his collar he had these baby teeth which had been carved into Buddhas. He went into a trance, and it was only when he was in the trance that he realised the way he could escape.
You say that many people had spiritual ways of thinking. How so?
The word ‘theodicy’ refers to the way the very different religions explain the problem of evil – if there was, then how could God permit it. In Buddhism there is no god but there is still the problem of evil.
There, the way to follow evil is to do good, be entirely responsible for yourself. You have to know that you’ve tried as well as you could. This was at the core.
They worked very hard and that was also part of it.
Do su – to fight – was used a lot by the Khmer Rouge but that didn’t spoil [the phrase]. Virek said that they were sent out into the jungle and learned to fight.
What did you learn that can be put into practice by trauma therapists?
The basic thought is that instead of asking about their worst experiences with them, ask how they managed and try to remember that they have managed and to look back at the choices they made. I’m a clinical sociologist but I interviewed a number of psychiatrists and one said that he would say to people referred to him: ‘What do you think happened? And he would often use religious explanatory models and ask how they had recovered. Don’t assume that people are traumatised just because they’ve been through a traumatic experience.