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How we celebrated when the bombs fell

Stephanie Ip talked to history professor Dr Sombo Manara at the Royal University of Phnom Penh about celebrating Christmas in the years before the Khmer Rouge.

“During Christmas in the early 1970s in Phnom Penh there were trees everywhere, just like in New York. We would play the guitar and sing songs. It was a happy time. Mostly foreigners like American officials and Christian people celebrated Christmas in Phnom Penh but local Khmer people who were Christian also celebrated, and they did not keep the parties for only Christian people. Many young Cambodian people also celebrated.

“My Christian friends, they celebrated not only in their homes, but also sometimes at the church. They invited all the students from their high school and the classmates, all the Christians and the Buddhists, would go to the parties to enjoy each other’s company. We had a potluck, and I brought things like bread, sausage, and drinks. My classmates and I shared the food.

“Outside Phnom Penh people were at war. I joined my Christian friends’ Christmas parties in 1972 and 1973, but not afterwards because I was afraid to join.

After 1973 though, all around Cambodia, there were grenade bombs. In 1974 and 1975, the situation got really bad and we could see the attacks. But even so, even when people were afraid, they celebrated. But not in 1975, not only was Christmas gone, everything was gone, including the culture.

“I don’t have photographs of our Christmas parties in the 1970s anymore. Everything was destroyed after 1975. I had to burn those photographs. If they had known I was a student during that time, they would kill me.

“Of course Christmas today is better than before. People have their own freedom, not like back in the day. They are free to celebrate, and believe in what they want. They do not live under bad times anymore. They have peace in their minds. People nowadays, especially the young people, can celebrate well, much better.”?

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