Life Under the Khmer Rouge

During our time in Cambodia, we met a man who shared the story of his life under the Khmer Rouge. For the purposes of this post, and for his privacy, let’s call him Tet.

Tet grew up in a somewhat affluent lifestyle in Phnom Penh. His father was a military man on the opposing side to the Khmer Rouge. Tet went to private school, could speak fluent French and had many brothers and sisters. He lived a good life. That is, until the Khmer Rouge came into power.

Life Under the Khmer Rouge

Bracelets left in memory of those who died at the Killing Fields.

The family of Tet’s mother were Khmer Rouge. What with his father on the opposite side, you can imagine the difficulties that this created for the children in the family. Citizens were moved out of Phnom Penh and Tet and his siblings were moved to Battambang province. An educated, city boy, his life immediately turned upside down. He and his siblings were forced into manual labour, working the rice fields for fourteen hours a day with less than a cup of food per person to sustain you.

Tet’s eyes changed when he described the constant hunger. It was as though he could still feel the empty ache in his belly all these years later. He and his siblings often argued and fought. Rather than being brought together during this time of hardship, the hunger drove them to frustration, anger and impatience with one another.

“You’re driven crazy, you know?” Tet said, although I would never, thankfully, be able to fully appreciate the pain he’d been through. “Stealing became something that I had to do, just to stay sane. Sure, I could have died for it, but rather die on a full belly than without.”

Life Under the Khmer Rouge

At one point he contracted malaria. Malnourished and exhausted, it’s no wonder his body was susceptible to disease. He spent four glorious months in the hospital, as Tet described it. While he said he wasn’t receiving much more food than normal and the care was pretty brutal, he had a bed to lie in and was able to sleep. Months previous he would shiver on the fields at night, no roof, no blanket, no warmth to comfort him through the night.

When the Khmer Rouge fell, Tet was an orphan. Both of his parents had been killed, and his father killed by his own cousin. The atrocities of war makes monsters of men. Kill or be killed, his cousin was told. Who knows what any of us would do in that god-awful situation. Tet walked all the way back to Phnom Penh. For those who haven’t been to Cambodia, this essentially meant he walked from one end of the country to the other. It took a month. There was nothing left for him in Phnom Penh. He had no family, his friends had been scattered and he had no home.

But Tet started again. This resilient man is a true survivor. He shared his story with us with humour, making light of what I can’t even bring myself to really imagine. I think I’d want to forget, to black out the past, but Tet finds that sharing his story gives others an appreciation for what went on behind the closed borders of Cambodia. It is his hope that he will never again see a country turn on its own people.

I share his hope.

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4 Responses to Life Under the Khmer Rouge

  1. Irma January 26, 2015 at 3:12 pm #

    Wow – great article, Victoria.

    • Victoria Smith January 27, 2015 at 9:57 am #

      Thanks Irma. It was a pretty rough day listening to this man share his stories, but he’s still smiling.

  2. dianacranstoun January 27, 2015 at 4:23 am #

    So powerful. Man’s inhumanity to man is unbelievable.

    • Victoria Smith January 27, 2015 at 9:57 am #

      And yet, in all my travels, I still believe there is more good in the world than bad.

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