Looking out the airplane's window at the parched, pockmarked countryside, Starla
Au's smile changed into a solemn gaze as the scenery below-Cambodia-brought back
"I was so worried I was going to faint on the plane," she said on arrival
at Pochentong Airport, returning to a country from which she had barely escaped 16
Au-now a resident of San Francisco, California-spent three weeks in Cambodia in a
long-awaited reunion with her remaining family-an opportunity to pay respect to relatives
and friends who have died, and a time to rediscover her roots. It was a time, she
said, to "feel Cambodian again."
"I didn't know how my family would treat me after 16 years," she said.
"It turned out that I was treated like a star!"
Au's trip was also a return to vivid memories of forced labor, starvation, and mine
fields, as well as memories of her rebellious teenage years which had strained relationships
with her family.
In early 1975 the Khmer Rouge was closing in on Phnom Penh, where Au and most of
her family enjoyed a comfortable existence. For Au and millions of other Cambodians,
April 17, 1975-the day the Khmer Rouge tanks and soldiers finally rolled into the
capital-marked the beginning of a long nightmare-the "Pol Pot time."
It was also the day Au's father was executed by his driver, a Khmer Rouge sympathizer.
After marching north for two weeks with little food in pouring rain, Au relocated
to a remote village near Pailin. The clothes she wore on her back would be her only
garments for the next eight months, since she was forced-like the rest of the population
of Phnom Penh-to leave all personal possessions behind. Au's weight dropped drastically
as she watched others all around her-family members and strangers-die of starvation,
torture, and suicide. With little or no food, she was forced to work in the fields
for 18 to 20 hours a day.
"The Khmer Rouge forced us to work like animals," she said. "Instead
of using a water buffalo they used me to pull their plows."
Eight months later, sensing that life under Pol Pot could only get worse, Au decided
to escape to the Thai border with her husband, son, and family members-most of whom
were sick and near death from malnutrition and disease. Travelling at night to avoid
detection, Au bravely walk-ed first along the trails and through the forest so any
land mines would hit her rather than her family members.
Alone one night in the forest, she gave birth to a baby boy, who died the next morning.
Two weeks later, her five-year-old son also died. Because Au and her family were
lost and disoriented from weakness and hunger they spent most of their time walking
in circles. The 17-mile trip to the Thai border ultimately took two months for them
Away from the madness in Cambodia, her situation improved only slightly. Au spent
a year living in a wat across the border in Thailand until a family in Curtis, Nebraska,
arranged for her to emigrate to America.
She eventually made her way to San Francisco, where she found a job as a medical
assistant in the Refugee Clinic at San Francisco General Hospital, helping Cambodian,
Vietnamese, and other recent arrivals.
Au's hospital work includes translation, family counseling, administering medicine,
and helping patients navigate through the public health bureaucracy.
"Helping other refugees relieves some of my pain," she said.
Returning to Phnom Penh this year, Au's western-style haircut and affinity for wearing
shorts caused many Khmer she met to insist that she couldn't be Cambodian. Her outspoken
manner also caused an eyebrow or two to be raised on occasion.
Sreng Khan, a Khmer-American friend who travelled with Au in Cambodia, remembers
a meeting with an official in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, in which Au was the
only woman present.
"Unlike many Khmer women, who would have sat there smiling and nodding, Au waited
for her chance to put her two cents in," Khan said. "She asked the official
what he knew about AIDS, and if the government was doing anything to prevent a potential
Au gave the bemused official a five-minute crash course on AIDS, promising to bring
him several hundred condoms that she had brought from home for the government to
One of Au's biggest surprises was the reunion with her cousin Sophal, whom Au found
through an advertisement she placed on the radio when she arrived.
Unbeknownst to Au, Sophal and her family travelled by boat for two days from Kratie
province to attend a Buddhist funeral ceremony Au prepared for her parents. Since
they had not seen each other for 30 years, it was a touching reminder of how different
their lives had become.
"I wondered why we are so different," said Au. "We went to school
together and everything, and when I took her to my hotel she didn't know how to turn
on the water or turn on the lights. I cried so hard. 'What happened to you?' I said."
Despite the painful memories, Au still feels Cambodia pulling her back. "I know
I will go back in the future," she said upon her return to San Francisco. "This
time to stay. No matter what happens, I am still Cambodian."