In mid 1975, Saloth Sar (later renamed by himself, Pol Pot) became the leader of Cambodia.
Pol Pot was the head of the Khmer Rouge, a socialist rebel group who had taken control of Cambodia. He set out to “cleanse” Cambodia and enforce a strict agrarian socialism (empty the cities and make everyone work in the fields) and ultimately was responsible for the deaths of 21% of the Cambodian population. Estimates vary on the exact number of deaths – anywhere from 750,000 to 3 million. Many of these, were marched out into the fields and forced to dig their own mass graves. They were then beaten to death or buried alive as the directive was that “bullets were not to be wasted.” This led to the naming of the Cambodian fields, “The Killing Fields.” (There’s a 1984 movie by that name, which details the story of the Khmer Rouge and the horrors that followed.)
These mass killings – I remember it being called “genocide” – was the first of this kind of thing I learned about in my life.
The reason was that when I was almost 8 years old, my parents sponsored a group of Cambodians to come to the United States and live with us. Fauy Long, his wife Muy Kear, two kids roughly the same ages as my sister and me, Sok Im and Mov Song and Fauy Long and Muy Kear’s baby girl named Ov Mouy.
They had fled the Khemer Rouge in 1978, just before Vietnamese troops overthrew the Khmer Rouge in 1979 and plunged the country into a decades-long occupation and war.
The Cambodian family my parents helped bring to the states lived with us for the better part of a year. They started from scratch. While the adults learned and worked, the two kids became a built in brother and sister, went to school with us, played sports with us and did just about everything else with us.
I didn’t quite get it all, the sacrifice my parents were making, but others did. A local TV show came and did an episode on us called, People Helping People, and profiled my parents and how one family could help the plight of another family by simply caring enough to help.
I asked my dad the other day about our time sponsoring the Chov family. The paragraph below is a part of what he wrote back:
The most memorable moment was the day after they arrived, Fauy Long sat down at our Kitchen table and wrote a long letter to me in English using the Cambodian Lexicon we got from the library. He spoke of the horrible conditions in Cambodia, Khmer Rouge killings, hunger, people eating people, etc…then he asked me to help him find a job, that he wanted to learn English and start a new life in America. Two pages outlining where they came from and where they wanted to go with their lives.
Walking around today and learning first-hand about Cambodia reminded me of my past, the example my parents set and of the simple truth that refugees, today just like 30 years ago, need people to care enough to help.
I’m still processing that feeling in my gut, but I certainly hope I can set an example with my life like my parents did for me.
Anyway, here’s a picture my dad sent from Halloween 1979. That’s me with the silly Superman outfit, my sister and Sok Im and Mov Song.