Twenty-seven years ago, Im Vin and his family were herded into a Cambodian schoolhouse
to face certain execution. That night, he took a decision that he can't forget for
as long as he lives
PORTLAND, Oregon - Driving through sheets of rain, past technology parks and suburban
eateries like Krispy Kreme and Chang's Mongolian Grill, senior computer programmer
Im Vin, his wife and their 20-year-old daughter talk about school, life in Portland
and, most importantly, the directions to a downtown Thai restaurant. Up ahead, the
couple's two other daughters are travelling in another car.
A typical Saturday night in America, a typical family. Yet for all the warmth of
his family life, Vin's happiness is tinged with a profound sadness. Twenty-seven
years ago, on another night in another country, he took the hardest decision of his
On that night in June 1977, Vin, his first wife, their three surviving children and
about 200 others were herded by Khmer Rouge fighters into a schoolhouse in eastern
Cambodia. Vin knew what was about to happen. Patting his children on the head, he
told them that they were all about to die. The eldest two said nothing. Vin's eyes
fill with tears as he recalls his youngest daughter, Peo, asking him: "Daddy,
who will dig the hole for us?" Facing certain death, Vin's wife urged her husband
to take his chances and-against all the odds-try to escape. He did. He lived. His
Vin wasn't the only one to escape. His cousin, Chhoeng Sokhom Theavy, also fled with
him from the village, Chambak Ti Muoy, 40 kilometres southwest of Kratie. Unlike
Vin, Sokhom couldn't find the courage to tell his doomed family he was going to try
to flee. He later resettled in France, where he is now a successful restaurateur
and has three children from a second marriage.
Armed with graphic details from villagers about the massacre, the two cousins have
returned to Cambodia in recent years to search for remains. The Yale Genocide Programme,
which documents 520 burial sites around Cambodia, mentions 50 bodies in a cemented-over
well in the grounds of a Buddhist temple where the murders took place. But there
is no record of another site nearby that is believed to contain most of the victims
- beaten to death with axes and clubs - of the two-day massacre.
Even today, Vin is afraid to spend more than a few hours in Chambak. The former Khmer
Rouge leader whom he believes marked his family for execution still lives there.
Vin's own sister served the Khmer Rouge as a teacher and also lives in Cham-bak,
as do his father and mother. All knew what was about to befall Vin's family, but
could do nothing to help him. Yet, as Cambodia continues to grapple with the legacy
of a regime responsible for 1.7 million deaths, Vin finds it hard to remain bitter,
and says only the top leaders should go on trial. "The cycle of killing has
to stop," he says.
I first met Vin and Sokhom in a dusty refugee camp in Ubon Ratchathani in northeastern
Thailand about five months after their escape, in November 1977. It had taken them
36 days to walk the arduous 300-kilometre route to the Thai border, dodging Khmer
Rouge soldiers and subsisting on wild fruit and roots.
The last time I saw him was early the following year, just before he was accepted
for resettlement in the United States. Indeed, even after tracking him down five
years ago, it wasn't until December that I found myself walking up the path to his
comfortable home in a Portland suburb. We agreed we never would have recognized each
other in the street, but over the next few hours the years fell away and we talked
as if we'd known each other all our lives.
In many ways the reunion served to bring my 35 years of reporting Asia full circle.
It wasn't a breaking story. It wasn't anything new or earth-shattering by Cambodia's
brutal standards. But for reasons I can't fully explain, it was a warm, intensely
personal experience - one of the small rewards Asia offers from time to time for
those of us who have followed its fortunes. I think Vin, a dignified, soft-spoken
man, felt the same way. But for him it was also painful.
Of the tens of thousands of Cambodians who fled their homeland, Vin and Sokhom were
among the few to emerge from the area between the Mekong River and the Vietnamese
border that was the cradle of Pol Pot's revolution. Blessed with more plentiful supplies
of food, life there was better than in many other parts of Cambodia. That is, until
June 1977, when Vin realized with terrifying certainty that he and his family were
about to die.
In reality, Vin wouldn't have survived a day if the Khmer Rouge leaders had found
out about his earlier work as an interpreter for U.S. special forces in Vietnam.
All they knew was that he had once been a teacher in Kampong Speu, west of Phnom
Penh, where he had met his first wife, Seng Sy, in 1965, with whom he had five children.
But even that was enough to mark him out as a member of the pracheachon thmey, or
"new population." These mostly educated Cambodians were forced out of Phnom
Penh and other towns when the Khmer Rouge took over in April 1975. Shunted from one
place to another, they lived under the constant threat of execution - if disease
and starvation didn't get them first.
After the evacuation of Phnom Penh, Vin and his family were moved to a rubber plantation
near the Vietnamese border and later to a dam construction site in Kam-pong Cham.
Along the way, two of their children died. In February 1976, the family was finally
allowed to settle in Chambak, where Vin had been born.
More than a year went by, but people had begun to disappear, including some Khmer
Rouge officials, and Vin kept his back door open in case his family needed to make
its escape. Then in June 1977, he returned home to be greeted with the news that
they were on a list of 60 families due to be relocated to a plantation downstream
from his home. "I knew it was our time," he says.
Directed to assemble at the schoolhouse, few of the families realized what was about
to happen. But Vin did. His wife had seen trucks taking people from a nearby village
to a Buddhist temple two kilometres to the east, the opposite direction from where
Khmer Rouge soldiers told them they would be going.
Should he have left his family to die? "That's a question I always ask myself,"
he says softly. "I didn't think we would make it to Thailand. It was another
way of choosing the manner of my death. I thought it would be better to die in the
jungle." Vin wishes he could have taken one of his sons, but without footwear,
he says, the boy would never have made the arduous journey.
Vin met his second wife, Kam Chary, 47, when he was helping to translate for U.S.
officials at the Trat refugee camp in eastern Thailand. They were later reunited
in Oregon, where her family settled. She remembers that during the first year of
their marriage, Vin cried almost every night. "There have been times when I
spent almost the entire night crying, just to get some relief," he says.
Vin was later to learn that only the men were killed on that first night when he
slipped away into the darkness. The women and children were butchered on the second
night. His wife, he has been told, was among the last to die, still begging her executioners
to spare her children.
Vin knows some people don't believe he asked his wife to escape with him. He also
knows they consider him a coward. He doesn't blame them. It is a pain he alone must
bear. "I told my mother during my first visit to Cambodia of my regrets,"
he says, "and that I thought of myself as a coward." He adds: "It
was a lose-lose situation. I could not find any better solution in that situation
at that time."
Dusk is descending as Vin ends his story. It has taken up much of the afternoon,
but before we step out to dinner he wants to show me a videotape Sokhom sent him
after his first visit to Chambak in 1997. Set to haunting Cambodian music, it shows
a tearful Sokhom retracing the steps of his family from the schoolhouse to the temple.
Walking with him are some of his relatives.
As they reach the well in the temple grounds Sokhom falls to his knees, crying hysterically.
He has brought nothing as a traditional Buddhist offering to the dead, so he tears
off his white shirt, sets it alight and drops it into the well. The tape ends and
we walk out into the night. Twenty-seven years may have passed, but for those who
survived, the Cambodian tragedy lives on.
Re-printed with the permission of the Far Eastern Economic Review.