Tuesday, 27 September 2011

Facing past demons

My aunt, Yen Pho, was only nine or ten years old when she was whisked away by the Communists to work on a farm for four years.  Because she was so young, she felt the experience more deeply than my other relatives.  She states that it still pains her to talk about it even after all these years.  With her, I've decided to conduct my interviews in bite-size pieces so she hopefully will not feel too overwhelmed with the memories of the Khmer Rouge regime.  To my surprise, she did not hold back and was open with her answers.

C: As a child, how did you react to the situation of being uprooted and separated from your family and doing grueling work?

Y: Of course I was traumatized.  I didn't know how to do anything so I had to do the scut work and the dirty work.  All the other kids did the same.  One time, I was asleep and a snake crawled on my body!  The lady next to me yelled, "AHH, A SNAKE!"  When I woke up, I saw the snake slither away.  It was poisonous but it didn't bite me.  I also lifted heavy things on my head until my head was almost permanently cocked to the side.  I went back and forth and back and forth with the heavy objects on my head.  When the sun was about to set, I would think about my mom and dad and brother and sisters.  My tears would roll down my cheeks.  I was only nine or ten.

C: How was growing up without a mother or father?

Y: No one took care of me.  If I had a problem, I had to deal with it alone.  I slept alone and cried alone, thinking of them and where they were and when would be the next time I see them.  I would cry by myself.

C: Who did you turn to for support?

Y: Everyone looked out for themselves.  You took care of yourself and you fed yourself.  I sometimes suffered from starvation but I became strong because of it.  If you were sick or if you died, they would throw you out.

C: What were some of the things you've seen at the refugee camp that were cruel or unjustly?

Y: There were mean people there but I distanced myself from them.  It was just me and your mom at the camp.  We went to school to learn Chinese.  Your great aunt would come and give us money.  Most of them were good people.  They went to school and want better lives.  Everyone wanted to get a good education to get out of here.

C: But you and Mom went to separate farms to work.

Y: Yes.  Everyone was together at the refugee camp.  It wasn't that bad.  We ate food and learned to read.

C: Did you see anything on the farm that was cruel and unjust?

Y: Yes, yes.  Once I rested at a tree, and I saw two people drag a man to kill him by hitting him on the head.  The little kids saw.  An older kid who was watching these kids told them, "Don't look!  Don't look!  This is none of your concern!"  We pretended to not see it, but we saw everything.  We saw them kill him and push him away.  Another time, I saw a little boy eat rice off the ground.  The Communists took him outside and killed him too.  They took him far away.  And we never saw him again.  Later on we saw his dead body in a ditch.  He was only picking rice off the ground that someone else spilled.  He just wanted to eat.  And they killed him.

C: What did they kill him with?

Y: A hammer.  Yes, a hammer.


Y: When I was younger, I remember these two kids starved.  They walked until they saw a guava tree. They were drooling at the sight because they could not eat it.  Underneath the tree were a bunch of dead bodies.  They wouldn't go near the tree but they were drooling so much.  They didn't have the nerve.  They walked to the canteen but there was no food left.  By then everyone was washing dishes.  The canteen operators asked where they came from.  The two kids said they came from work.  The canteen operators asked why they came so late.  The kids said they got lost.  There was nothing anyone could do because it was too late and there was no food left.  They didn't eat that night.  The next time they ate was noon the next day.


  1. Your family is so strong!
    I can't imagine going through what they went through.

  2. I just can't imagine living through something like this...