My family has an amazing story. My mother, her 6 siblings and their mother stand out when compared to many families from their home country. Because they all survived.
My family is from Cambodia. They were there when Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge took over the country in 1975. Their family was torn apart. Most of the children were taken from home and placed in different labour camps across the Battambang province. My grandfather was taken away and never heard from again. My grandmother was left in a village with no money, no food, no support and her 2 youngest children.
Every regular Cambodian family has the same kind of story. Their country, their villages, their homes were decimated. The Khmer Rouge stopped regular life, work, destroyed basic infrastructure and turned the country into a system of agrarian labour camps. During their 4 years in power they brutally murdered or caused the death (from starvation or disease) of 1.2 to 2 million of their countrymen (approximately 1/3rd of the population).
Sometimes it feels like a genocide that the world doesn’t remember. But my family remembers. They remember being dragged away from their home. They remember working as children (my mother was 10 years old) in rice fields, water up to their necks at times, sun-up to sun-down. They remember being scared, starved, beaten. They remember watching the Khmer Rouge leave, and running away from the camps. They remember escaping to refugee camps, finding some family members and not others. They remember going back for each other. They remember walking, crawling across land-mine fields, sneaking across borders. They remember everything.
I’m writing a book of their stories, and that’s what this blog is about.
I’ll be writing 3 types of posts. I’ll write about the process of writing these stories – the research I do/find, the interviews and so on. As I start to compose actual stories, I’ll post snippets and excerpts. As well, I will post interesting information I find about Cambodia as a place – both its past and current state of affairs.
I don’t know how long this will take. I don’t know how it will affect me or my family.
I’m a history lover who has never deeply explored my family’s past, my Cambodian heritage and the horrendous genocide that defines every Cambodian today.
When I was 11 years old I read one of the few novels on the genocide. I finished it in a day or two. When I read the final page and closed the book, I felt as if I couldn’t breathe. You know those memories from childhood that just stand out? I vividly remember where I was sitting in the house, what I was feeling and what I was thinking about. I was picturing my mom, my age, in a camp. I was picturing the stories she occasionally told us. About pulling leaches from her body and eating rats to survive the hunger one more day. And working so hard to please the camp wardens, they allowed her to run the one hour trip to her dad’s prison camp, for a glimpse of him through the barbed wire. How one day he just wasn’t there anymore.
Writing these words makes me feel exactly like I did the day I finished reading that book. Helpless. Knowing I can never make it better, and never take away the horror from one of the people I love most in the world. I’ve avoided that feeling by avoiding the history, the stories. But I want those stories. I want them written down and saved for my family for generations to come. Because my mom and my aunt and uncles and grandmother are my heroes. They fought for their lives, they fought for each other and they are the best people I know.