Memoir Extract: Mother and the Tiger
The following is an excerpt from new book, Mother and the Tiger.
My story began as a jumbled collection of early memories. Events and images floated in and out of my mind as faces and places were recalled: some vivid and sharp, others dim and almost forgotten. I have tried to sort through these glimpses of my past so that they flow together into a coherent timeline. With encouragement from my loved ones I have found it therapeutic and rewarding to write about my experiences under the Khmer Rouge regime. I have always had a fear of confronting the past. There was a possibility that dredging up old terrors would have a negative effect on what is now a happy and fulfilling life.
There are millions of Cambodian people suffering from the emotional and psychological trauma inflicted by years of conflict and repression. Most of them cope with no psychological support. To protect myself I tried hard not to think about what had happened for a long time. I avoided anything that might remind me of the Khmer Rouge, and I lost my trust in people. The trauma had damaged my ability to relate to others socially and I doubted that I would ever completely trust anyone or anything again. Thirty years later, the experiences of the Cambodian people during that time still represent their most important and long lasting memories. Most people lost at least one family member, usually in horrific circumstances. This legacy of loss has never been dealt with properly, and in fact Cambodian culture does not permit people to openly talk about their emotions outside the family and little enough within it. Distress, grief and pain are buried deeply and the bearer assumes a mask of composure. As a result, problems go untreated because any medical diagnosis of mental illness, no matter how legitimate, would bring humiliation.
The past is something that I had tried to leave on the road behind me. Most of my mental scars were well hidden for a long time, set aside in my battle first for survival, then for academic success and financial security. I never needed to watch war movies to gain an understanding of what people had suffered in the past, for I had lived through it myself. All I needed to do was to close my eyes and my own wartime experiences and memories would come back uninvited: the horror, the screams and the stench. In these memoirs I have tried to use words to exorcise the past, and in doing so, healing myself.
I was able to recognise the sounds of war by the age of two, when the spread of the Vietnamese conflict began to intrude into my homeland. B-52 bombers from the United States made at least 3500 secret bombing raids over Cambodia in a fourteen-month period beginning in March 1969. Of course it was no secret to us. The sound and effect of a 1000-pound bomb was unmistakable.
My hometown of Kratie was one of the first areas to fall to Khmer Rouge control in the summer of 1973. The ‘liberation’ would not have occurred without the US economic and military destabilisation of Cambodia. The rise of the Khmer Rouge began in 1966 after the American escalation in Vietnam. It peaked in 1969–73 after the carpet-bombing of Cambodia’s countryside by American B-52s. This was probably the single most important factor in the Khmer Rouge’s takeover.
At the age of six I was forced from the family home that my parents had spent their life savings to build. We left Kratie city in north-eastern Cambodia and were sent to work in labour camps, along with thousands of other children who had been separated from their parents and siblings by the Khmer Rouge. Angkar, the Cambodian name of the new regime, became our father and mother.
From April 1975 until January 1979, the Khmer Rouge communists targeted what they saw as bourgeoisie principles by killing Cambodia’s educated people, anyone they perceived as a threat, and indeed anyone at all if it served as an example. Intellectuals, the ethnic Chinese, the ethnic Vietnamese and anyone thought to be influential, such as actors, singers and leaders were targeted. Soldiers were sent to hunt down and execute these people and their families. They obliterated all infrastructure and education, seeking to reset the country to ‘Year Zero’. They wanted to create a society in which people lived off the land in a farming utopia that mimicked a pastoral ideal that had never actually existed. It was meant to be the glorious beginning of a new nation that could apparently only be achieved after the murder of two million people, approximately one quarter of the country’s population. This was accomplished through starvation, forced labour, execution, disease and occasionally suicide.
For four years the freedom of the press, of movement, worship, organisation, association and discussion utterly disappeared. The whole nation was kidnapped and then besieged from within. The borders were closed, foreign embassies and press agencies expelled, newspapers and television stations shut down, radios confiscated, mail and telephone use suppressed. Opposition of any kind was met with brutal death.
I am just one of thousands of sons and daughters of the killing fields. War is inevitable when insane leaders are permitted to take power, and when those who could make a difference choose to look the other way. I would like to share my story with others to encourage them to persevere in the face of adversity. I urge my countrymen to discuss their experiences, or set down their own stories, so that they are not lost forever. They serve as a warning to people of all nations and races to be wary of the danger that can occur when ideology is not subjected to reason. My story is not intended to evoke sympathy or sadness, but to open the reader’s mind to what the Cambodian people suffered. Cambodia played host to a million tales of triumph and tragedy, one for each person who lived or died during those terrible years. I hope that the reader will come to the conclusion that even in the darkest of times, hope can endure.
Mother and the Tiger will be available to order from www.odysseybooks.com.au, Amazon, and all good bookstores.