Everyone has his or her own bitter and sweet memories. The ones that are most memorable are those that have scared us the most.
In the hearts of Cambodian people who suffered from the tragic history and lived through the three years, eight months and 20 days, such horrific memory still haunts them to this very day. Each day under the brutal regime they prayed for the day to pass quickly and hoped to see sunlight the next day.
Such bitter memories bring victims to tears and causes them trauma and psychological disorders. Some people are finding ways to forget their past memory under the Khmer Rouge regime, but I doubt that they could ever do so and forgetting the past doesn’t mean they can run away from it.
In my perspective, they are less likely to forget the memories from the KR regime. As part of my job at the Documentation Center of Cambodia (DC-Cam), one of my many tasks is to document the trial proceedings at the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC) dating back to 2007.
I have captured trial video footage, photos of the parties in the court and produced video clips of people’s reactions to the trials. From people’s reactions I can tell they can never forget the past.
The losses of their loved ones and the time they spent together are rooted very deeply in their hearts.
My father, Sa Math, once told me that he cannot forget the memory of his parents who were brutally killed under the KR. Every time my father sees pickled cucumber, it always reminds him of his mother, who always packed his school lunch with a pickled cucumber.
The regime separated people from their families and moved my father from his parents. The regime took at least one life from each Cambodian family, and mine was no exception. The regime took the lives of a number of our immediate and extended family who were accused of participating in a Cham rebellion in late 1975.
In the village where my family resided, almost 100 families were killed. They killed my grandfather and his younger brother by binding their bodies and dropping them into water, drowning them.
My grandmother died because there was no medicine to treat her illness. My father survived because he had to work hard and hide his identity, being a former Lon Nol soldier. One day, he was accused of being a Lon Nol soldier.
He tried to convince the cadres that he was only a farmer who cannot read or write, but five cadres came to his house at night and took him away with some other villagers. They got on a boat and crossed the river to an island.
There, my father thought his identity was discovered and he was going to be killed. While walking, the KR cadres clubbed the head of a villager and he fell down. When my father saw that, he fell down on his knees and, in shock, was unable to move.
The KR cadres told my father to get up and move. My father was so afraid as if his soul was no longer with him. The cadres threatened to kill my father if he told anyone. And he did not tell anyone.
Eight years after the collapse of the KR regime, I was born and grew up unaware of the history of my family and country. Through my work, I began to learn about the atrocities that had befallen the country.
After two years with DC-Cam, I was chosen to do an internship in the Shoah Foundation Institute at the University of Southern California. I met many Holocaust survivors who came to share their experiences.
Also, I interviewed many Khmer-American survivors who would never return to the country they love, fearing the emotional trauma when facing the memories of lost family and friends. After my return, I was determined to interview my father for his stories, starting on June 30, 2009.
Now it has been four years and I still don’t have the whole story. He could not hold back his tears talking about his family under the brutal regime. Now he is sick and hospitalised.
I always keep him up-to-date on the Khmer Rouge tribunal because he is interested. My father told me that the survivors and the accused are getting too old and are dying one after another.
He hopes that the verdict would come before the survivors and the accused all die. A day in prison before the death of the Khmer Rouge leaders would be adequate for him and his loved ones.
Since it is impossible to forget the past, memorialising their memory can give them the strength to move on. I believe that such an act would contribute to preventing brutal acts such as those of the KR regime in the future.
Survivors have been passing their memories on to their children and grandchildren and by doing so it allows young people to be aware of their family’s and the country’s history.
Younger generations can benefit from the experience of their elders and use these lessons to move to a better future. I believe that memory plays a very important role in uniting people and helping Cambodians to move beyond being victims of this tragic history.
Cham Identity Project
Documentation Center of Cambodia