Tag Archives: cambodia

Cambodia Revisited

first they killed my fatherI just watched the movie First They Killed My Father directed by Angelina Jolie.  Based on the first person account of a young girl who survived the brutal years of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia it is a moving and almost unbelievable story of survival. Shot entirely in Cambodia and in the Khmer language with English subtitles it features all Cambodian actors.  Sareum Srey Moch the little girl who plays the main character had no acting experience before shooting the film but she does an amazing job of bringing her character to life. 

mom and dad cambodian refugees

My parents attend a wedding for a member of their Cambodian family.

I knew nothing about Cambodia till 1985 when my parents sponsored a family from Cambodia to come to Canada.  I happened to be at home on maternity leave that fall awaiting the birth of my younger son so on weekdays I went to the home of the new arrivals to give them English lessons. My parents’ connection and involvement with the family continued and my eighty-nine year old father is still included in their family celebrations.  

It was that connection with a Cambodian family that prompted me to buy the book First They Killed My Father by Loung Ung when it first came out in 2000.   It was while reading this autobiography of a young girl who had survived the Khmer Rouge regime that I really began to understand what had happened in Cambodia and to have a much greater appreciation for what the family my parents had sponsored had experienced. 

Taking a guided tour of a landmines museum in Cambodia in 2004

When we moved to Asia in 2003 traveling to Cambodia was a high priority on my list of destinations.  In 2004 I made my first trip there and learned first hand how the carpet bombing of Cambodia by the United States led to the rise of the Khmer Rouge regime and how the devastating policies of that regime resulted in the deaths of nearly a quarter of Cambodia’s population. 

Photo I took at the Killing Fields in Cambodia

In 2011 I returned to Cambodia this time with a group of high school students. On my first trip I had only been to Siem Riep but now I visited Phnom Phen as well and together with my students learned so much more about the atrocities of the Khmer Rouge regime, the culpability of the United States in what transpired there and the lasting danger of the landmines that are an ongoing legacy of the war years in Cambodia.

I learned so much from this elementary school principal in Cambodia when I worked at her school

I also spent time with my students working in a local school in Cambodia and as I learned more about the lives of the teaching staff and students I realized how the legacies of the war and Khmer Rouge regime continue to impact people in Cambodia today.  

Watching First They Killed My Father brought back many memories of Cambodia for me.  But most of all it reminded me yet again of the futility of war, the never-ending legacy of war and the way war always has its most devastating effects on children.

First They Killed My Father is available on Netflix. 

Other posts about Cambodia…………

Visiting a Land Mines Museum

Visiting Another Land Mines Museum

 

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Landmines Museum – The First Visit

The news story yesterday morning about three Cambodian boys aged eight and nine who were killed when a landmine exploded brought back vivid memories of my two visits to landmine museums in Cambodia. The first was in 2004. Here’s what I journaled about then. 

 Khom acted as our tour guide at a war museum in Siem Reap, Cambodia. “Museum” might be a bit of a misnomer for the collection of old weapons, faded photographs and rusting military vehicles that have been amassed in a bumpy grassy field surrounded by a concrete fence. Khom is proud of this ragtag display however because it provides a way of informing interested tourists about the devastation that has been caused in his country by land mines.

At age five Khom was traveling to the market with his parents when their ox cart hit a land mine. His mother and father were killed and he lost his arm. Some Buddhist monks took in little Khom and raised him. He was too young to remember his parents’ real names and in a country whose infrastructure had been completely destroyed by years of war and government corruption, there was no way to find his relatives. Khom became an orphan in every sense of the word.

Khom is only one sad statistic when it comes to land mines in Cambodia. Experts estimate that more than 60,000 people have died in Cambodia in the last fifteen years because of them. 30,000 of these were young children playing or working in their family’s fields. After the bloody reign of Pol Pot ended in 1979 there were some 12 million landmines left in Cambodian soil. Initiatives by the international community have resulted in the removal of 6 million of those landmines. Not a day goes by however when three or four people aren’t killed or injured by landmines in Cambodia.

Khom showed me samples of the more than fifty kinds of landmines that lie buried in his country’s soil. Attempts have been made to place warning signs in areas known to be dangerous, however since over half the population of Cambodia is illiterate these signs are not always effective. Most of Cambodia’s educational institutions were destroyed during the Pol Pot regime and 90% of its teachers were murdered. It will be a long time before illiteracy statistics improve in this impoverished country where the majority of children work to support their families rather than attend school.

I asked Khom how he feels about Americans. It was as a backlash to the carpet bombing of Cambodia ordered by Richard Nixon that Pol Phot’s Khmer Rouge army was able to gain strength and overthrow the Cambodian monarchy. “I don’t hate them”, he said. “Many kind Americans have come to Cambodia to try to help us since the war ended.”

I asked Khom how he felt about his fellow countrymen who had joined the Pol Phot forces and participated in the massacre they carried out. “I don’t hate them”, he said. “Many were forced to become part of the Khmer Rouge at gunpoint. Some were starving and had to join the army to eat. I don’t blame them.”

I marveled at how Khom could forgive those who created the conditions in his country that were responsible for his parent’s death and the loss of his arm.  I marveled at his hope for the future.

“I am studying English at the college,” he told me. “I want to be a teacher and open up a school for all the orphan children of Siem Reap. I would also like to become a writer and write books about the civil war in the Khmer language to help school children understand what has happened in their country.”

I hope Khom’s dreams come true.

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