After three generations, seven decades and several countries and continents, civil war and genocide survivor Sideth Niev has fulfilled the dream of his parents and grandparents and lives in peace and security.
“My immediate ancestors had this dream, but none of them experienced it in their lifetimes,” he told The Post.
Since resettling in Minnesota as a refugee in 1981, Sideth had thought about writing a book which documented his family’s struggle, so that people could learn what they – and millions of other Cambodians – went through during the Khmer Rouge years.
Titled Go West! A Memoir for My Sons: Our Family Journey and Khmer Rouge Life Experiences, the book was released in July 2022.
There are many books detailing the Khmer Rouge period in Cambodia, including First They Killed My Father and the lesser-known Lucky Child both by Luong Ung, Survival in the Killing Fields by the late Oscar-winner Haing Ngor, When Broken Glass Floats by Chanrithy Him and Stay Alive, My Son by Pin Yathay, but Sideth believes that everyone should have a chance to tell their story.
An important lesson
People who have no idea what life was like then need to read and hear these stories, and learn from them, he said.
“I also share the pain of these survivors, but I want some life lessons to go along with our family story. What I had learned, and what my family had learned, from those tragedies is what I want to pass on to my children and all of the younger generation,” he added.
Sideth’s family is of Chinese and Khmer Krom background. His grandfather fled China for his life in 1910 after his own father was murdered. Sideth’s father married his mother, who was Khmer Krom.
“Our family were members of a minority group, and the Khmer Rouge treated ethnic minorities very badly. We were scheduled to be executed,” he said.
The agonising thought of the millions who died – including his parents and his younger brother – was the most challenging part of writing the memoir. It took him one year to write and one more to prepare it for print.
“With the world wide pandemic and the lockdowns of early 2020, along with the death of my adopted father, and my three sons getting older, I decided it was the right time to sit down and put our family story on paper,” he told The Post.
Because he was a child during the brutal regime, he had to piece together his recollections through speaking to his siblings and relatives from different countries, and conduct research to check out various sources.
“My sisters and others had to read through it, edit it, and make sure it made sense to them and those who will read it. This took a lot of time,” he said.
Another challenge for him was to include some subtle humour in the writing, because he wanted a few laughs to break up the seriousness and sad tone of the book.
A child during wartime
Like his other 7 siblings, Sideth was born unassisted at home in Tram Kak District in Takeo Province in fall. His guess it was perhaps October, in the Chinese zodiac year of the ram.
Early in his childhood, he recalled hearing his father yelling for the family to run into a bomb shelter that was several feet away in front of their house.
“Our family settled in the new city of Kampong Som sometime in 1973 and we lived there for about two years,” he added.
In Kampong Som, now known as Sihanoukville, there were a significant number of Cambodian Chinese. Sideth remembers seeing colourful paper lanterns adorning houses. Candies and sweets were given as gifts, and my favorite gift was always a small red envelope with money in it.
“Unfortunately, the Chinese and Khmer new years of 1975 were the last happy year for millions of Cambodians. The next four years ahead were the most turbulent years in Cambodia’s history,” he said.
In 1975, his mother had a prophetic dream of a white-haired old man, like a hermit or holy person, appeared and told her to leave the country and “go west” to be safe.
“The civil war between the Khmer Rouge and Lon Nol factions was soon to be decided. She knew that the Khmer Rouge would not treat people well as our family had lived under their influence in Takeo before we escaped there in the early 1970s,” he explained.
By April 17, 1975, when Cambodia fell into the hands of the Khmer Rouge, he guessed that he was about seven years old.
As a young boy, Sideth endured starvation, separation and forced labour for about 44 months of the brutal regime. His worst and unforgettable day happened when he dared to sneak out of the barracks to see his mother, but was unfortunately captured and interrogated.
“For the next several hours, what seemed like a long time to a boy of eight years old, I was left alone, tied up like a prisoner of war, or a criminal. I was then untied and let go after the guards figured that I was not a spy or an enemy of Angkar, the Khmer Rouge’s shadowy ruling organisation” he recalled.
Angkar treated almost all people badly, but the worst treated group was the Vietnamese. The Khmer Rouge hated them with a vengeance, followed by the Chinese, the Chams, and other ethnic groups.
Both of his parents and younger brother died from starvation and sickness.
Not long after, a neighbour revealed to he and his sisters that the village authorities planned to execute them, accusing them of being Vietnamese.
“Three days before the authorities were set to execute my remaining family, Vietnamese forces arrived in Cambodia,”he said.
Sideth always marvels at the thought that his entire family could have been brutally murdered in late 1978, over 40 years ago.
“We will never forget that. Each day is indeed a gift to be thankful for and to cherish for as long as possible,” he explained.
A father’s message to his sons
Therefore, Sideth wrote this memoir for his three sons – aged 20, 17, and 12 – who grew up in the US, so that they might understand what his family went through in Cambodia and their quest for freedom.
“I had told them some of our family stories and what I went through during the Khmer Rouge years, but never in great detail as I did not think they were ready to hear such horrors,” he said.
“I have only let my oldest son read the book. He has been reading it slowly. I am not sure he can grasp the details,” he added.
There are life lessons he wants to share with them and with those who will read this memoir. If one person or two is encouraged and inspired by his family story, then he is content that it was worth writing it.
The author, who currently works for Hennepin County Department of Human Services, has included relatable life lessons in his memoir to share with the readers.
“The simple message is to embrace the challenges and struggles that shape people into who they become. Be forgiving and hopeful no matter how hopeless a situation may seem,” he said.
For almost 23 years Sideth has been helping people in need of cash, food, medical, or emergency assistance, and encourages people to help orphans and the needy whenever they can.
“My family was in a similar position when we first arrived here in the US. I can relate to many of the struggles people go through,” he added.
When he arrived in the US with his five sisters, they were supported by many different people.
Being a mixed Cambodian-Chinese and Khmer Krom has made him very aware that regardless of a person’s heritage, they likely will find themselves in the minority group in many situations.
“Whether you are in the majority or a minority, let your character shine forth so that people will judge you accordingly, and not by your skin colour,” said Sideth.
From his painful experiences through the upheavals of genocide, and the brink of death, Sideth personally believed that political arguments should be avoided.
“However, if you are called to serve in public office, be a public servant. Serve the people and don’t be a politician,” he said.
“Communism (and socialism, a sugarcoated form of Marxism) over the last 100 years has not worked and will not work. It has killed and destroyed millions of lives, including my family and our ancestors,” he added.
Sideth hopes to translate his book into Khmer and he is asking people if they can help.
“If there is an interest in producing the book in other languages, I will look into it,” he said.