A new book detailing the unique experience of children during the Khmer Rouge was released today, illustrating a regime that purposefully hijacked normal childhood development for its own “revolutionary” purposes.
Kasumi Nakagawa’s book, Children at War,, is appropriately the follow-up to an earlier publication of hers, Motherhood at War.
Nakagawa, a Japanese academic with Cambodia’s Pannasastra University, previously did research on motherhood during the Khmer Rouge era, where she was confronted by countless stories of mothers forcibly separated from their children.
“As a mother myself, I felt strong sympathy for them, and I was curious to find out how those children experienced this separation,” she writes in the book’s foreword. From that curiosity spawned a new project – one that aimed to capture the “stories of stolen childhood”.
The story is told largely chronologically, comparing childhood experiences prior to the violent takeover to experiences during the Khmer Rouge rule, and finally exploring attempts to cope afterwards.
It draws from conversations with 214 survivors, layered with occasional full-length interviews and frequently peppered with quotes and observations from respondents. The typical Khmer Rouge horror stories are on full display here, only this time, the storytellers were on average 12 years old when the regime took power.
“The KR punished me by putting a plastic bag on my face so that I was unable to breathe. Three times they did it and three times I fainted. There were many dead bodies in the prison,” recalled Sok Rem.
“My elder sister was killed by being burned without any reason . . . I cannot ever forget the cries of my sister,” another survivor, Ouk Chhon, said.
But the main focus of Nakagawa’s research is the way the Khmer Rouge attempted to obliterate normal childhood rights and rites of passage in order to replace social constructs with regime rules.
Instead of education, there was “re-education” and brainwashing. Instead of family units, the children lived in communes where they were prohibited from forming friendships; they could only have “comrades”. Instead of cultural morality tales, there were performances warning the children they’d be killed for disobeying the regime.
“The KR had the aim of achieving revolution by dismantling the family and upending previously held traditional and cultural norms,” Nakagawa explains.
“We are the children of Angkar, we have to love Angkar without limit,” was a slogan remembered by Doung Savorn, a survivor who was about 10 years old in 1975. The book is more than just a historical account, though. Compared to her previous book, Nakagawa emphasises that Childhood tackles an ongoing issue.
“Motherhood was meeting with elder women who were looking back to their past,” she said.
“Their struggle of child-rearing is already over and they are free from such stress. On the other hand, Childhood is about people who have to make sure their children can go to school and are properly fed and at the same time they are living with depression and aggravation.”
Nakagawa, who testified at the Khmer Rouge tribunal as an expert on forced marriage, believes these violations of childhood rights constitute a “crime against humanity” and should be treated as such.
The book also contains troubling revelations of latent trauma from a generation that has clearly still not come to terms with the incomprehensible past.
“I try to cope with the past traumatic experiences by trying not to think about it,” said Oum Sorn, a position echoed by many other respondents.
Most alarmingly, Nakagawa believes past traumatic experiences have contributed to a legacy of abuse that has been handed down to the current generation from their childhood-stripped parents.
She notes that a separate study of hers revealed children of Khmer Rouge survivors experienced a significantly higher rate of parental abuse than the national average.
“Sometimes, I want the KR to come back, to help my children understand what happened to me,” one frustrated parent in the book said.
Children at War: Stories of stolen childhood during the Khmer Rouge by Kasumi Nakagawa (self-published, 137 pp, $15) is available at Monument Books.