When the Khmer Rouge began evacuating Phnom Penh, I was home alone; my mother and another family members 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.
As a city kid, I didn’t 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.
So I never thought of dying, even once, during Democratic Kampuchea. Instead, I hoped that I would have a good night’s 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 I’ve been and where I’m going now. Searching for the Truth.
Comments excerpted from Youk Chhang’s speech prefacing a photo exhibition at Rutger’s University.