On April 17, 1975, victorious Khmer Rouge forces marched into Cambodia’s capital city of Phnom Penh, officially ending a brutal five year civil war. Most of these men were farmers, and many had never seen Cambodia’s capital. They had spent years feeling overlooked by the government of Lon Nol, who had ruled since March of 1972 with strong backing from the United States. In many ways, Nol was a figurehead for the incursion of the West, coming to power as he did in the wake of Richard Nixon’s Cambodian campaign, which sought to eradicate a small number of North Vietnamese military outposts used for training and resupply. During Operation Menu—conducted over nearly two and a half months—American aircraft released 100,000 tons of explosives on eastern Cambodia, or roughly five times the atom bomb dropped on the Japanese city of Hiroshima.
Hoping for a peaceful transition, Lon Nol’s administration lined the streets of the capital with white flags and banners, but the calm was short lived. In the final broadcast from the defeated government several days later, a Khmer Rouge official announced: “We enter Phnom Penh not for negotiations, but as conquerors.”
Over the next four years, the Khmer Rouge—headed by dictator Pol Pot (who remained the party head until 1997)—embarked on a campaign of sustained terror against their own people. Between 1975 and 1979 an estimated two million Cambodians were slaughtered, many after weeks of torture and deprivation in concentration camps. This was roughly one third of the nation’s population. Urban areas were evacuated and systems of religion and education eradicated.
When the regime did eventually fall, it was at the hands of the Vietnamese, who entered the capital in 1979. Though the Cambodian-Vietnamese War would stretch on for another twelve years, that victory—which forced the Khmer Rouge leadership to take refuge in Thailand—began the long process of healing.
In the face of such unimaginable horror as the Khmer Rouge genocide it is all too easy to ignore the personal stories of survival and triumph while acknowledging the macrocosmic implications of the atrocity. The chance to tell and experience those stories, however, is one of the few redemptive results of such absurd tragedy.
This ethic of reconciliation and healing is at the heart of the story of Sayon Soeun, an ex-child soldier who was inducted into the ranks of the Khmer Rouge. A former Middletown resident, Soeun is also the subject of “Lost Child: Sayon’s Journey,” a documentary produced by the Gardner Documentary Group, airing on Connecticut Public Television later this month. Depicting Sayon’s return to Cambodia, the film tells the story of its subject’s harrowing experience under the Khmer Rouge regime, and his present-day desire to investigate what happened to the family he left behind, since five individuals approach Soeun claiming to be lost relatives.
The Argus sat down with Soeun and his sister-in-law Sopheap Theam (who worked as co-producer on the film, and has participated in numerous other projects to preserve and share the stories of Khmer Rouge survivors). Providing historical insight and unflinchingly honest testimony, Soeun and Sopheap share their thoughts on what it means to live with trauma and how communicating that trauma fits into the healing process.
The Argus: Starting off, what year were you born?
Sayon Soeun: The specific birthday is unknown, but what I have on the record is July 7,1967.
A: Do you have any personal memory of the bombings of Cambodia executed by the American armed forces during Vietnam?
SS: I did not witness any killing, but I did witness the bombs that went off at night. The bomb explosions, those I remember.
A: Based on what I’ve read you were six when you were abducted by the Khmer Rouge and forced into service. Something I’m really interested in, because I have no concept of what was going on at the time, is: was the process of abducting or enlisting of children as soldiers at all normalized? I imagine it would be seen as horrible regardless, but was there an expectation among people that this is something that could very easily happen?
SS: Well, from what I remember, there were a couple of things that my parents always warned me about. In terms of specific abduction I did not have that exact experience, but normally when I went out, my mom always warned me not to go too far from the house, because I would be kidnapped by, in Cambodian terms, what we call “promaht pramonk.” I think it’s almost like the Boogeyman. Like, if I go wander too far from the house, the Boogeyman is going to kidnap me. So I remember when I was being warned by my parents. I also remember that we had a bomb shelter right by our house, for during the times when the bombs were dropped all around the area. I was about maybe six or so during that time.
What happened is that one day my friend and I were walking along in the rice patties, looking for toads or frogs so that we could have them maybe fight each other and amuse ourselves. While the U.S. children would probably watch “Scooby Doo” or play with G.I. Joes or Barbie dolls that’s what we do. And then, on that day, as I was walking along the rice patty, I saw truckloads of children singing. And I was thinking that I did not want to miss any fun. The kids looked all happy on the truck…so I hopped onto the truck. As soon as I jumped on the truck, I knew in my mind that I would home by dawn. But that was wrong. I never returned home, and that was the day that I was actually separated from my parents. Though, if I had not jumped on the truck, I probably would have been forced to get on the truck.
A: What sort of tasks were delegated to child soldiers? Was there a distinction between what a child would be asked to do versus what an adult soldier would be asked to do?
SS: Absolutely. Leading up to becoming a “full” soldier there were lectures and training ongoing [for children] before you were able to take the pledge and were fully armed. They trained us how to use weapons. I was trained how to use an AK-47, M-16, other handguns such as a nine millimeter. And also learning how to use different kinds of grenades. We were also taken through prison camps in the area. I witnessed a lot of unfortunate people being tortured, lack of nutrition, starvation. That was basically the training aspect.
The lecture aspect was they would tell us that we belong to the “Angkar,” and the “Angkar” was basically…. It was a word for government. So, everything that we owned—including our souls—the government always told us that it belonged to them. So, my soul, my body; physically, mentally; it all belonged to the government, and I do not have any personal belongings. You were not allowed to have anything personal, beside your clothes to wear. And they would lecture during training…. They were telling me that my parents and my siblings are now my enemies; my friends are now my enemies. Anyone around me is now my enemy. So, I should not care for anyone. Love is prohibited according to this ongoing lecture.
A: How long were you under the control of the Khmer Rouge? What was the timeline between you jumping on the truck and being transferred to the refugee camp from which you were adopted?
SS: From the time that I jumped on until 1979, when I was about thirteen or maybe twelve. I don’t really know. When I moved to the United States on September 29, 1983 I was already turning fifteen. And I was in the camp for about two years. So, approximately around that age. Approximately seven years.
A: During those seven years, do you have any specific recollections of tasks you were asked or forced to do?
SS: During my training on one of the field trips that we took to the prison camp, I remember that I was giving water to this dying individual and I was caught. So, I was put on a hard labor shift; and that was working ten hours a day with little to no food. Those were the consequences for that. And a lot of people were accused of working with foreigners, so they were tortured at this prison camp. To backtrack a little bit: after training for a number of years, I was now an armed child soldier, which essentially meant I go everywhere with a weapon. I was being assigned to supervise groups. I was also assigned to patrols. I was assigned a patrol in the area of the Elephant Mountains. I was very fortunate because my task was to supervise ten to twelve men, and to take them into the forest where they could collect logs to bring back. They would use the logs for whatever they wanted to do: make rice, make soup, whatever. And I had to make sure that none of them were trying to escape. Once you reach a certain level of authority you decide who to execute, but fortunately none of them tried anything during my patrol.
A: You’ve said that, during your time in the military, if you showed emotion you would be executed. I’m curious if the result of that was that you trained yourself to feign apathy or did you actually bury the feelings. How did that affect your healing process?
SS: As a child, I had no exposure to what you might call an “outside world”…. Over the time I was a soldier, I learned to be immune to the system and I didn’t have a concept of what’s right and what’s wrong. So what they were doing, what they told me in the lectures, I thought was okay. Love was prohibited, and if you should any weaknesses like sympathy or love towards others you were weak and the punishment could be execution. It sort of depended on where you were from in the provinces during that era. Some areas were more harshly treated than others.
A: What led you to the refugee camp? I know that in the late-70s, Vietnam invaded [Cambodia]. Was it the fall of the regime that led you to the camp or was it other circumstances?
SS: In 1979…I believe on January 7…the Vietnamese invaded Phnom Penh. Since the regime had been defeated by the Vietnamese that is what led me to Thailand…to the camp in Thailand.
A: A lot of Western scholars have described the Khmer Rouge as a “Maoist” regime. Was there any understanding among soldiers or citizens of a general or formal philosophy to what was being done? Or do you think that was applied more in hindsight or from a distance? Did you have any sense of what you were supposed to broadly be trying to accomplish?
SS: I was not aware of the ideology or the philosophy behind the Khmer Rouge genocide at that time…. No one really spoke about that. We just were told that the people in the prison camps were our enemies and that the people we fought were our enemies. Sopheap may be able to better answer some of those things, since she is the co-producer.
Sopheap Theam: In a historical context, what the Khmer Rouge was trying to do was to get rid of any foreign philosophy or intervention and to re-date Cambodian back to the golden era, back to the era of the Angkor Wat temples in the 1100s. That was seen to be one of the purest years of Cambodia. There was a desire to get back to a truly agrarian society. For that, they really only needed a third or two thirds of the population. So whatever happened to the other one third of the population, they didn’t care, because they didn’t need them. They especially wanted to start eliminating those who were really influenced by western civilization; those who had studied or were educated under those influences; anybody who looked like they were educated, who wore glasses or participated in arts or culture. Really getting rid of any forms of established institution—religion, education, arts, culture—really just trying to keep the commoners or the “peasants,” the “old” people. In essence, it was extreme Maoist, kind of like the Cultural Revolution in China. But what aided their cause was that during the late 60s and 70s, the war in Vietnam trickled into the outlying countries like Laos and Cambodia, which were being bombed by the United States and other countries with wars in Southeast Asia including China and Russia. That influence on Cambodia made it easier for the Khmer Rouge to sort of build an army of peasants, an army of farmers, to overthrow the government, which at the time was pro-Western and backed by the United States.
A: Sayon, in the transition from the refugee camp to the United States…what was that like? What were your first few years in the United States like?
SS: When I was at the refugee camp in Thailand…well how I got there is that I was working in exchange for food [after the disintegration of the Khmer Rouge regime]. I was alone; I didn’t have anyone I knew. So I would go out looking for logs and one day a log fell on me. The next thing I knew, I woke up at the orphanage in this camp. In the camp, there was a system where every orphan’s name was put into a basket, and they would draw weekly or monthly. So, I was one of the very fortunate ones to be drawn. We would go to this billboard or poster board, and if they listed your name it meant that you had the opportunity to go and to be adopted.
So, when I came to the United States, it was completely strange. Coming from living near monkeys and tigers to this place where you have tall buildings and cars, it all looked very funny. And of course everyone is probably thinking that you look funny too. It was completely…just shock. It was difficult too because where I lived you would never really know what a toilet was or a shower… I would just jump in a lake. So there was a lot of culture shock, and it was a challenge to adapt to the culture.
One thing that helped me a lot, I think, was I came in to live with a family that already had three of their own children. The youngest one was about two and a half years old, and that made it easier for me to communicate with them because they were used to talking with improper nouns and hand signals, really functional communication. Being around that made the transition a little bit easier. But it was still a challenge when I wanted to have some real communication with an adult, or with the family about how I felt and what was going on in my mind…. I came here at about the age of 15, and yet I was learning so much like my two-and-a-half-year-old sister was learning.
A: How long did it take once you came to the United States to begin talking about your experiences in Cambodia? Did it take time before you were comfortable reliving that?
SS: Yeah, it was difficult and I think the first time I really talked was the beginning of 2010, when the other co-producer from New York saw my story in the “More Than a Number” exhibit [curated and organized by Theam]. But until recently not even my wife knew that I had been a child soldier.
A: Sopheap, how did the film come to be? How did it get off the ground?
ST: So, as Sayon just mentioned, there was an exhibit called “More Than a Number,” where I was a coordinator… I designed the exhibit. “More than a Number” was essentially… about refugees coming to America without a passport. In the refugee camps they get an identification number which allows them to travel to their country of asylum, which here was the United States. And all of these numbers, the photos with them, were really reminiscent of mugshots. And we wanted to help teach the younger generations that their parents and their grandparents were…well, they’re not bad guys. In fact, they were heroes because they survived the genocide. And so “More Than a Number” was a collection of Cambodian survivors’ stories of how they survived the genocide and the Khmer Rouge regime. Sayon’s story was featured in this exhibit. My older sister was a co-producer with Janet [Gardner, the director of “Lost Child”] on another film about the near extinction of the Cambodian arts and dance, which we had a screening of during the exhibit. She came and saw Sayon’s story, and when she heard about how he had been contacted by potential relatives, she thought that was an important story for a documentary.
We really got to Cambodia through grassroots funding. We organized a Kickstarter and got a number of donations from families and other survivors.
A: Sayon, what was it like making the film? It must have been very emotional reliving these experiences through this project.
SS: Even today I still occasionally have some flashbacks about the experiences during that time, and it was a challenge in many ways. First of all, it’s very hard to talk about the experience that you’ve gone through because I didn’t know how the current Cambodian government would feel about me sharing these stories. The second difficulty was that I had met with these strange people…the lost relatives of mine…and I didn’t know them; I wasn’t raised with them. It was hard to bond with them. You are related to them, but also you’re not. So sometimes you have to just put on a smiling face, because you don’t want to make them uncomfortable. I didn’t want them to feel like I was stuck up, or to think I disbelieved their story. And the great challenge is, through the movie, when I go back and try to find out who I really am, there are a lot of things that are very contradictory. Not even just my memory but [the potential relatives] themselves contradict themselves, because nobody knows so much. For instance, nobody agrees on my real birthday. Including my uncle and my aunt, and three older brothers. At times I didn’t know if I should trust these people or not. It was a great challenge to go back and feel that.
A: Was this your first time back in Cambodia? What has it been like hearing the stories of other survivors, both during the making of the film and during “More Than a Number?”
SS: Yes, it was my first time back in Cambodia in 35-plus years, from the day I left. From here it was very challenging because when you’ve heard my story, having heard other people’s stories, the feeling hasn’t been easy. There are other people sharing stories about how many people in their families died during the genocide, and here I am a former child soldier. I feel guilty. Even if I wasn’t personally responsible or didn’t want it, I was part of it. I was part of the regime that was responsible for their family’s death. It’s a great challenge. You feel guilty, and that never is an easy feeling, even right now.
I met this young man who always felt hatred for the Khmer Rouge because he’d hear…his parents talking about how horrible it was during the genocide. He hated them generally. But, when he came to listen to my story, he said he had a bit of a change of heart. He said, “Huh; Sayon was a Khmer Rouge, but he’s also a victim of it.” Now, he doesn’t hate me because what I’d gone through was very different than what he thought. He thought none of the child soldiers had gone through the same horrible experience as his parents.
A: My last question for both of you is, just generally, what do you hope the impact of this film, this project, is?
SS: My hope—and this may be different than Sopheap’s because as a producer she may have a different view of the mission—is two things. One: I’m trying to heal myself. I have PTSD. By telling my story, I’m looking to help myself and heal myself and forgive myself. The second mission is, I hope that my movie contributes even in the tiniest way to influencing world leaders to stop the use of child soldiers. Or to have someone in the leadership hold those leaders accountable. You know, they say we use what we learn from the past to create a better future, but I don’t see it that way. There are still a lot of perpetrators using children to do these horrendous acts…like we see with ISIS trying to enlist kids to do these things. I think that my mission is to try to send a message and maybe have people come together and choose to hold the people who decide to do those things, to make children do those things, accountable.
ST: For me, I think the film, this documentary, is able to help other Cambodian Americans and really everyone to hear these individual stories and put a face to the stories that are sometimes overshadowed by these crimes against humanity. When you share any survivor’s story, there’s a little sense of peace you are a factor of. When you share these stories and people hear them and begin to have a deeper understanding of what is going on, they have a better understanding and can be a little more empathetic to survivors of oppression. People are oppressed left and right because we don’t try to understand each other, and we don’t try to learn the past or the history of individuals. I think this can be an important way for the audience to understand where Cambodians come from. Most Americans are very well versed and have a very clear understanding of the Vietnam War, but the effects on other countries like Cambodia and Laos were overshadowed. And those stories are just as important. April 17th [was] 40 years since the beginning of the Cambodian genocide, and outside of Cambodian communities no one is really talking about that. We need to think about it for the sake of history.
“Lost Child: Sayon’s Journey” will air Tuesday, April 28 at 11 p.m. on Connecticut Public Television.