In this podcast we speak to Var Ashe Houston (née Ashe), a survivor of the Cambodian Genocide. Var is the author of 'From Phomn Pehn to Paradise'. She has lived in the UK since 1979.
You are listening to a podcast by the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust. The views expressed in this podcast are those of the individual contributor and not necessarily those of HMDT.
So Var, can I ask you, what was life like for you in Cambodia, before the Khmer Rouge took power?
Well, before the Khmer Rouge took power, life to me personally, with my family wasn’t very bad. Considering there was lots of poverty around, due to the civil war, due to the high rate of inflation, the salary – could no longer afford people enough to eat. To me, because me and my husband, in order to make ends meet we both had additional jobs on the side. So we were both able to live, not very comfortably, but we were ok – I can say that. It’s quite ironic, because, you know, around you – around me, around us – there’s lots of poverty of refugees from the provinces – they build shacks and little shelters along the road… and they didn’t have anything to eat, and children had no education. And there was already a lot of suffering, a lot of poverty before 1975, before the Khmer Rouge took over.
What was your family life like?
As I said – we were ok, we’re not struggling – as bad, as many other families around us, our day to day life, we kind of had three or four generations in our house. My mother was there with us, because she lived in the province, Bott-Rokar and she escaped to the city, so my auntie was there, and her family and her children, her great-grandchildren, and me and my children were there – so we all crammed in our – well it used to be enough room for us, but now was very cramped house – everybody sleep on the floor and built a little shelter around in the garden. So, me going to work every day, earning the normal salary – because they don’t raise your salary – which can afford probably 10% what we need for our everyday life, that’s the salary.
So what was it like when the Khmer Rouge did take power, were people excited?
When the Khmer Rouge took over, and the people – at that time I wasn’t in my house, we escape even in Phomn Penh itself, my house was in the suburb in Phomn Penh – even then we escape to a town house, an apartment in the middle of the city that belonged to a friend, so we were there when the Khmer Rouge came in with their tanks and everything and people were sort of flying their sheet – white sheet and flying white flags, to welcome the Khmer Rouge – they were really, really happy, not that I, we knew that – what the Khmer Rouge was going to do, what they were like and everything but it’s just that we were so fed up with the old regime, with the hard life, with the corruption and everything and we thought a new – a change would be a new fresh air for us, so we were so happy.
So how did the rest of your family react, were they the same?
Well, we were packing up to go home, and at that time my father, my brother who was a lieutenant in my father’s army – my father was colonel in the army – and he looked after the regiment, the whole fighting outside Phomn Penh. So my brother ran home first, and my father had to stay with the troops – and so we were packing up when the Khmer Rouge came in and said ‘we’re going to be peaceful again’, we were packing up to go home, and my brother who knew the situation better than us, and said ‘don’t go yet, let me go out and assess the situation’, so he would go out, in and out and come back and tell a story, which from bad to worse, saying ‘no, no, no, don’t do anything yet, it doesn’t look as though it is going to be what we all thought’, so we continue to stay, and it’s only the second day that we were told that the Khmer Rouge ordered everybody – on their way in to the capital – to get out of their house, and go into the countryside, and their excuse for that is they need time, they need space, to look for imperialist, capitalist army who could be hiding in our houses, and form a rebel[lion] against them. So my brother kind of said to me, don’t go yet, wait until the dust settle down a little bit. So we were hiding in the house, in the apartment, and because we had enough stock of food, and the running water – still running, so we thought we can survive on that until the second/third days, then we were surprised by the Khmer Rouge who came in through the roof, with guns pointing at us. And that was our first encounter with the Khmer Rouge, and I must say, quite frightening, having guns pointed at you by men in black and just appeared from nowhere. So that was, that was enough, to force us out – not hide anymore –
So did everybody leave together, you all had to move out at the same time?
Yes, we leave together, but because I came from the suburbs – I [had] packed everything in my car, and I just left everything in my car – so we didn’t have to pack a lot. So we only packed food and a bit of dried fish, and went.
So when you’re leaving the city, do you know where you’re going?
Nobody knows – it was complete chaos, we saw people pushing their bicycles, pushing their cars, all over it is complete chaos. At one point the Khmer Rouge decided that they have to just organise it, they just push us in one direction, whatever direction they want us to go. So we went in a direction we didn’t even want to go, we went in there – that was the beginning of our nightmare.
How long did it take to get to wherever it was that you were going?
That is a story in itself – it took us more than a month. Because we were forc[ed] west when we wanted to go south where my mother’s family were, and so we tried, without the Khmer Rouge… we tried to edge my way, our way towards the south instead. But it was when we call… because you wouldn’t believe… if you see the Killing fields, you know, what we call the human traffic jam, because [a] million, two millions of people were forced out of the city and on the road we just… like you go to…you know if you just go to Oxford Street… during or before Christmas, it just like that – packed. Jammed like that. And I call it a nightmare – it’s not just the jam, the human traffic jam, it’s just that it was that you were seeing children lost, their parents got lost – they cry, they scream, and all the people [who] couldn’t walk and cry and some people just carrying their elderly parents on their hammocks, and some women gave birth along the side of the road without help, screaming and calling for help, ‘somebody help me, I’m giving birth,’ and people were forced out the hospitals – stomachs still hanging – stomachs open – not yet sown up, and bleeding and relatives push them in steel – on their hospital beds alongside, and some die there and every now and then we would see corpse, of soldiers who were shot by the Khmer Rouge or of civilian people who were shot by the Khmer Rouge for protesting or for not obeying the order.
And then we had to stop from time to time because – it happened during April – and April is the hottest month of the year, so under the burning heat, people can’t walk very fast, you just walk a few hundred yards and you would find shade to stop and cook whatever you carry with you or find water or whatever it is – and it took us more than a month to reach a little village south of Phomn Penh, where it was the birthplace of my mother, to stop.
It was her decision?
Yes – well we had no – it was her decision, and we all agreed – you had to go to somewhere where you knew the people, rather than somewhere completely new.
And what happened when you got there?
When we got there – you see it’s… we still carry on hoping that they will let us go back because that’s what the Khmer Rouge say to us, they say that ‘it’s only for three days,’ and it’s more than a month already but we still keep hoping that while they try to organise the whole country it takes time, so just hang on there – so as soon as we arrive to the village, the chief of the village, which had – well they were normal people like us – but because the Khmer Rouge took over, you know people outside, before us, months before us, they kind of settle down and they kind of were in a flow, an organisation that the Khmer Rouge formed for us. In the morning they would get up and what they do and [sort] who [was] doing what and everything. So they came and talked to us and tried to brainwash us that – they said that we should be happy with the new revolution – we would be free from the Americans, free from the capitalist people, imperialist people, and now we are all equal, that kind of propaganda. So they would say to us ‘tomorrow you will go and do this, this person will come and get you, and then lead you to the working place.’ Because it’s a dry season, so we are asked to do digging canals, dig the… chop up the rest, making space for growing trees and that kind of thing. So we were ok then, there was no killing at that point.
So how did it develop from there then, were there people from the Khmer Rouge who came in and started organising you?
Yes, from there, I think at that time because they were busy coping with the big scale of trying to organise the whole country, so, they then probably they what they call psychological… they are still trying to win our brains, that they were good and everything, but eventually there must have been… not that I know of… because you don’t know what is going on, but there must have been some people who protested against them and everything, when the Marshall Law started. And then when we heard of the rumour that people were taken away and were killed, and until then, I didn’t know that being a teacher… I was a teacher… being a teacher could get me killed as well. So now from every now and then they would come with a list and they’d do a survey, trying to see how many people live in this village, and they tried to get enough rice to feed us, that kind of thing. So I still put my name on as a teacher, and everything because I never believed for one second that a country could be run without a teacher, without engineers, without doctors, that kind of thing, so I couldn’t believe it! We were lucky, because the village was, as I said, my mother’s birthplace, and my grandmother was born there as well and she was a midwife, and she was well-loved by the villagers. And I think – I don’t know it might not be right – but I think due to that, that I was spared. Because… not due to that, but another thing as well, I do what they ask me to do, and I was very enthusiastic about things, there wasn’t a moment when I would say ‘no! I’m not going to do it! I’m not used to it, I’m a teacher, I belong[ed] to a middle class family in the past so…’ And this is why I say it is due to my mother, because of her village, her relatives there must have whispered to her, secretly that this is the way to survive. Because they experience that before us: the Khmer Rouge took over their village before they go in from the outside. And because my mother’s wise and encouraging, that’s how we put up with hard working, and say nothing and just [keep our] heads down and work hard – that’s how we survived I think.
So did you witness people being taken away from the village then?
Not then. Not then. But eventually, yes. Not then, but we heard of it.
Was it important for you to forget that you’d been a teacher?
Oh yes! I was told, I was told by the relatives there. Again, they didn’t say it right out because they were afraid for their life as well, they would just say well, ‘I think it’s safer that you forget your old identity, because there’s no turning back now.’ They do really, truly believe that. So, it’s only two classes now, in Cambodia, working class and Angkar. That’s it. Angkar is our leader and we are working now, that’s it. I didn’t give up hope then, but to survive, I do what I was advised to do.
So that’s the beginning really, the first, what, six months?
You might wonder well, why didn’t they kill you if you told them honestly that I was a teacher, I didn’t even have to tell them, they know who we were – so why [did] we survive then? But again, I repeat myself again, due to my mother’s encouragement and wise… we were treated as slightly different from other people, because of my mother’s and my grandmother’s reputation… and family there and everything. But from then on, I was warned, and so I behave accordingly – what they want me to behave [like], not only did I survive – I nearly got killed twice, but… it was a blessing in disguise… because of that I was very careful, and I survived then. But I think then, had I continued to stay in that village I would have been killed eventually, because the Angkar – Angkar is the body of the Khmer Rouge, we call it Angkar – the authority, I learn afterwards, they keep changing the Khmer Rouge body of the body, they keep changing it, change people – even the Khmer Rouge they don’t trust themselves, among themselves, they keep changing the Khmer Rouge in this village to go to the other, and another came. And had I stayed on I would have been killed anyway, because my name as a teacher was on the list in that village. Anyway, because of their policy, they keep moving people from one village to another – we were called New People, they kept moving New People from one town to another – and they split us half to this village and half to this village and the other half here, and the other half come back here.
So they just keep breaking our group so we wouldn’t trust each other, we wouldn’t be able to form anything against them, so my family were evacuated, from the south of Cambodia, to the north of Cambodia, and we had another thing – a story in itself, we were put on a train, and it’s only about 500 kilometres from where we are to where they want us to be, but it took us three days. The train was packed like sardines, in order to save the fuel, in order to… [have] security – in order to be able to have full control on us, they put us all in one train. I don’t know how many cars, how many carriages in that, but it was altogether 3,000 of us in one train. And it took three days and there were… that was a nightmare in itself. People die on the train, and they wouldn’t stop for us to bury the dead, eventually they started to smell and we had to through them through the window of the train. Babies, elderly people mostly. And then we was… we stopped twice for us to get out along the side of the train – to cook whatever we have. One of the days they gave us a French baguette – that’s all we were given, no water nothing, and so you can imagine how hard it was – people died from dehydration, from diseases, from tiring… we were like sardines for three days! Nobody… you can’t lie down, or sleep, standing sleeping, or leaning against each other. So anyway eventually, we arrive to the place – and then [that’s] when I was able to change my identity.
But even so – I nearly got caught once. We were queued up for their survey, and I spotted my husband’s friend – who was the official there. And I was so happy… that they might take me on and give me my teacher’s job back – and I great him and he – in a very off-handed way, said ‘oh ok, hello… er what’s your name?’ So I told him again, my identity, and I was told after that, they were looking for me. But after queuing up, like everybody else, you scatter into little groups to try to find firewood to cook rice – because they give us rice, raw rice to cook and eat, so we had to find any shelter, because it was so hot remember. It was hot, any shelter to cook… and they couldn’t find me. And I was so disappointed that they couldn’t find me! Because I was so adamant that friend, who was a very close friend of my husband, would try to find me to help me. But no – just as well!
So, when you’re up there now in the north, so are you put back to work?
And is that where you spent the rest of the period?
Yes – we were still moved around, from one village to another, but still in the north, we were eventually moved to the jungle. Because… I was in a province, in a town, in quite a decent sized town, and where there was authority, we had enough… well, when I say enough to eat, it was enough to survive – they give us enough. And then we were allowed to go out and dig all the roots and do a little fishing and find some little shrimp, little frog or whatever, crickets or whatever, we ate anything – when you’re hungry you eat anything, you know people might not understand, you know ‘how could you eat?’ But we eat anything. And some people even got killed because the rations – the rice that they give us, it’s just so small, it’s not enough. And when have to work so hard, you spend a lot of calories, and then you need more, but you don’t… and so people [were] getting thinner, getting paler and paler, girls don’t have any periods anymore, because you just – your body just has enough to keep you going, and so some people pick leaves that they don’t know, and they got poisoned and died just from that. So, life was so cheap under the Khmer Rouge. Because, because I was ill at one point, I was really, really, really ill, and my family, because I was – with my brother being killed, and all the teenagers were sent away, because they split the family, to begin with they split the group, and then eventually they split the family, all the people who’ve got children stay in the village – teenagers, girls, split to one side, teenagers, boys got split, and then grown-up men to one side – so I was there with my mother, who was blind, and my two young daughters… two little daughters… and because I was ill, I wasn’t useful to them anymore, so they evacuated me and my mother to a village, quite remote in the jungle, you see nothing, there’s no track we were… the transport that we had to go there on is [an] oxcart. And I nearly die… and my mother being blind, can’t walk, so they put my mother next to me, and I was so quiet, according to my mother I was in and out of consciousness, and my mother… had it not been for my mother, I would have died… Covering me, keep shaking me, asking me whether I’m all right, giving me water, that sort of thing. And the journey took more than a day, well we started at about five o’clock in the morning, and then we wouldn’t arrive until after midnight… in the dark. And by the time I was there I had to be carried out of the oxcart to the house – they already have a house – there’s nothing organised like you [have] here, when you go they would call at one of the houses ‘have you got somebody… New People yet?’ I was the last one to find a house, because nobody wanted – you know I’m nearly dead – nobody wanted me to die in their house. That’s why.
So, I survived that time as well, thanks to my mother. Every now and then we would have a young man, young boy, whatever, tied, blindfolded, and they would march them, one Khmer Rouge one at the front, one at the back both holding machete, you know, big knife like that, parade the boy in every single little pathway in the village. And we all sort of watch in horror. And they do that as – they did that as a warning for us… if you dare to run away, or you dare [to] not obey our orders – that’s what’ll happen to you – and that happened very often in the village. Because the village… I didn’t know exactly, but it’s close to the border, and there were many people who run, try to escape and would escape past the village, and that is why we saw it often. And during the dry season, we were asked to go into the forest to cut some kind of hay, to make thatch, for the roof, because there’s not roofs like this – roofs were made from the thatch roof, and during the dry season, people would go into the forest and cut the thatch, dry it, and then make it into a sort of like a sheet. And we were asked – and we encounter an open mass grave, because to begin with we were attracted by the smell, and people said there must be someone who got killed here and we walked and we saw mass grave with – full of corpse – rotten away there. That was horrible, horrible, and you just collapse on your feet, because the emotion was just so high – so high or so bad, that you just ‘oh God!’ And so nobody – we were just all speechless – looked at each other, walked back with a deep, deep sad feeling in our hearts. And just continued working.
And I stayed in that village for more than a year… a lot has happened, but eventually they evacuated us again to another place, and then when the Vietnamese were invading the country, and then when the Khmer Rouge were themselves running into the forest, into the mountain and everything and that was the beginning of my escape, because in the village nearby, there was a man, because you know I find out later that it’s only about 10-15 miles from the village to the Thai border, so then in the olden time, people crossing the border, the Thai crossing and the Khmer people cross the border to Thailand – they do trade, and there’s a Khmer man there who used to – he has a house – he had a house in Thailand near the border, but he came in and out to see his family and everything. And then during the Khmer Rouge time he got stuck there, but at one point when the Khmer Rouge was out of control, he came in and tried to get his family, and he was known to people in Thailand to have taken people out of the country, and then someone who was a former pilot, asks him – pays him money, and ask him to find their family. And he came in, and of course he gets his family to look for the lady. His family happens to be someone who’s like me – because the man has got a picture, she looked like me, different name of course, two daughters the same age as/ similar age as my daughters – and she’s got an auntie, who is blind. And he came, the family came to me and said look, your husband asked my brother to try and get you out of here to Thailand. And I didn’t believe it, I said ‘look, my name is not that, and my children are not that, and my mother who’s blind is not my auntie.’ I was totally honest, and they say ‘yeah we know, everybody change their names, everybody change their identity, and you don’t have to be worried, we are honest, we are real.’ And I still don’t believe them. And I told my mother, and my mother thinks, and she says ‘look at it this way, if they were Khmer Rouge, if they want to kill you – nothing stops them to come and take you and kill [you].’ And now the Khmer Rouge – this is another long story, of my association with the Vietnamese, because I speak French, I speak Vietnamese , so I was able to talk to the Vietnamese people and ask for medicine for my mother, and ask for food. So the villagers were jealous, and they report it to the Khmer Rouge, and although the Khmer Rouge were out of the control – they were in and out of the village at night-time, and they were told about me – they were looking for me to be killed. And my mother said, because they said I was a spy of the Vietnamese – my mother said ‘you better go, because if you stay here you have more chance of being killed by the Khmer Rouge, and if you go, and I don’t think it was the Khmer Rouge – who’d trick you, they’d kill you, they now know at least where you are, they’ll kill you anyway.’ So because of that I decided to follow them and that was my escape. And the escape took more than a day, looking back I don’t know how I would have survived that.
We went to Thailand – and then we were – he disappeared, leave us some few tips – if people, the authorities, the Thai authorities come to you, just say that you can’t leave and you were tortured, whatever, whatever is happening, and you can’t be there anymore, that is why you are here. So when we were there, we were taken to another, in the army truck to a camp, a refugee camp near the border, and unfortunately for us at that time, the Thai decided – the Thai authorities decided they don’t take any more refugees, and so they consider us as illegal refugees. So they gathered all the people who came during that period of time – I don’t know, started from when… [but] I was one of them, to send back. And they send back truck-full, of people of that group, back to Cambodia. And the way they did it – they put people in army trucks and they went to the highest point at the border – the cliff, and they just tilt the truck. And the people just fell down there…
It was just like they tilted rubbish. Needless to say, children and older people die. If they don’t die then, then they will die later – you know from wild animals, from thirst, from [hunger] from getting lost in the forest. Only very few made their way back. And one of the few was my ex-brother-in-law. He’s now in Australia. Now. I escape, again. And this is due to my illness. Before the escape – I’m going backward now, before leaving Cambodia – there was a dead cow – die and people were hungry, so they pull it in and I don’t know how many people… and they just get a bit of meat out of the cow, and cook meat. I was one of them, and because I was so weak, I was not very strong, I was not very clever, like skilful, like other people – I cut my hand. And I was one of the two people out of… I don’t know, a hundred people, who did that, who got illness. Because by cutting that… the whatever bacteria or the germs, whatever, from the cow went into my bloodstream, and that was happening a few days before my escape through the jungle. And I already had a very high fever before escaping. During the escape, I was feeling terrible because of the fever, but the adrenaline was so high – the fear of being left behind in the jungle, you had to follow the crowd and that sort of thing, and two daughters to look after, and everything you know… you just went on through the adrenaline, not just through your own physical strength, and as soon as I got to the camp, I was really, really ill. And this hand was swollen, and they had to cut the sleeve, in order to… and because of that – one of the young British relief workers, took me out of the camp, because that camp was quite a makeshift camp, so there was no medical facility – he actually asked the authority – the Thai authority, who was a very good friend of his ‘can I save her, because otherwise she will die.’ And then he said ‘yes you can. Take her but bring her back because she needs to be sent back.’ So I was taken out of that camp to the other camp, and when they came to take people to send back, they missed me because I was in another camp. You see, I was very lucky.
Were your daughters with you?
Oh yes, oh yes. Yes, you know, I was sure that they were with me. And then they even took me to the… because I was in a coma for – I think for three days – and so they took me from the camp to the Thai real hospital, in a very isolated room – because I was now diagnosed with having [blood infection] and I was on a heavy dose of penicillin and everything, so they decided – the Thai people, they don’t care – you know I was a refugee – in order to save their room, the places, the work of their doctors and everything, they decided to chop – amputate my hand. That young British man who eventually became my husband, Robert Ashe – felt sorry for me, said ‘well don’t do anything yet,’ so he took in an American doctor, who was working for another charity organisation, and he decided to do this and do that, and I don’t know, I must have gone unconscious because I was really, really ill. And somebody in the camp, helped looking after the girls, so I was by myself in the hospital and everything. So eventually, because of that American doctor – I don’t know what he gave me, they told me when my condition’s better, they would send me back to the camp. And I was hiding all the time, and at that time although I was accepted, because people know about new International Relief Organisations – many of them knew about my situation, because so many hundred die from insect bite, so they were helping me, they were – tried to get me out of the camp, but they just couldn’t. I was accepted to go to France, because I speak French – I was accepted to Australia, I was accepted to go to America, you know, you speak the language it’s easier, but no one can take me out of the camp legally, because my name wasn’t on the legal list, as [a] legal refugee, I was an illegal refugee, nobody can take me out, that was the problem.
I prayed, and prayed and prayed and Robert was trying to help, Robert was English, so at that time – the British people – never took any Cambodian refugees. They took boat people, Vietnamese refugees, but never, not one Cambodian refugee came to England. British people don’t want any refugees from Cambodia. Robert contacted his father, and his father contacted television companies, they went out and interviewed me. At that time Kurt Waldheim who was the General Secretary heard about the people – hundreds of people were being killed [when they were] sent back in my group – went to the camp where I was. Went to the camp where I was to visit, to highlight things, to stop the Thai people sending the refugees back, to be killed. At that time, my daughter, my little daughter who was five or six years old at the time, didn’t know what was going on – saw somebody and with lots of security guards around, with the high official around, she went in, through peoples’ legs, and people couldn’t see her because she was so small, went into Kurt Waldheim and held onto his hand: ‘hello, hello.’ He pick her up, carry her and the whole of all the press got that picture, and she was – I’ve got the clipping somewhere – my daughter ‘one of the refugees, who were to be sent back to Cambodia,’ that changed everything! My Robert – talked to his friend, the Thai official, and he said ‘don’t talk to me, you do what you can do for that family, ‘cause it’s not my business,’ because his business is to send us back. So Robert, one night – his people in the camps said ‘we have to escape you now, because we just can’t get you through legal routes.’ So they took me out – there’s a big plan about that, we had to sneak out – we had to do the rehearsal, sort of mental rehearsal. We were so aware behind the camp where the barbed wire was – they even cut the barbed wire to make enough room for me to crawl out – and then they dig the soil – a plan was made for me to crawl out there, and then somebody would [be] waiting for me outside, in which house, in the camp which we can see far away, and then take me to [the] train station and the children had to be given sleeping pills so they wouldn’t talk. If they talk in Khmer – the Thai people, it would give the game away. From where we were, from the Thai border, Thai-Cambodian border to Bangkok, which was a long way, and it was – stopped many times. The train stopped at many – every station. And at every station we would see the guard, we would see police people, and my heard would jump. And I tried to pretend to sleep, and that kind of thing. However, eventually we reach Bangkok where Robert was waiting. He took us straight away, before any other people – to the immigration office. So we were there as illegal immigrants, and what the Thai authorities need to do is deport us. So they choose their road. By that time, Robert already the television company to persuade the Home Office to accept us. So what we need to do is to try to get me deported, as an illegal immigrant, and then the British people give us a visa. And that’s how we’re here.
When you came to the UK, how did you feel people reacted to you? Did you find that when you were here that you felt very much like a refugee, did you integrate, and did people around you know that’s why you were a refugee?
Well, it’s a mixed feeling. Some people were really kind to us, they helped us – they give us food, they gave us clothes. Robert’s organisation were looking after us – so that side – we have things to eat, we have a roof over us, we have a warm bed to be in, although we were, the four of us – me, my two daughters and my sister – were in one room, because they don’t have enough space for another. We were safe, we felt safe physically, but we received mixed reception from people. Some people understand it, maybe because I have two kids, two little kids, but some don’t. I remember going, in order to try to get a job, because I didn’t have any qualification over here, and I didn’t know what to do – so I said to the people who look after me ‘look I want to gain some kind of skill, in order to look for a job eventually,’ so we decided that I should go and learn to sew, so I can do curtains, sewing, alterations, while looking after the kids at the same time. So I went to do a sewing courses at the adult education [centre]. And one lady keeps staring at me, day after day, and one day she plucked up the courage I think, to come, look at me very sternly and say to me, ‘look, you should go back where you come from. England is so small to receive people like you here.’ I don’t know what to say, I didn’t know what to say to reply back, I just [had] a lump in my throat, just burst out crying, and I just walk out. Couldn’t talk! So I told my teacher about what’s going on and she… and I said ‘I don’t want to be here, if I could, I would feel happier to be in my country, but this [is] why I’m here.’ I told her. So she kind of passed on the message, and I think from then on, nobody said anything to me, but it had kind of created a self-consciousness in me. I look at people, although I persuaded myself that there are kind people, but there’s still people who are quite – resent me being here. Resented me being here. So I was self-conscious all the time. And that spoiled it for me. I lost my confidence, I lost my vibrancy toward life, to me, half of me I live for my children, and the other half, because me being a positive person – I’ve always been a positive person – ‘look you know, forget about it! You’re here, you know, concentrate on the good, concentrate on the kind people, and make the most of life.’ But the other side of me can’t help but think that I’m odd, I’m different, but at the same time, at the same time, I try my best to be a good citizen of this country. I study to have a qualification; I went out to work, rather than let people see that I am a burden to the country, being on the dole and that kind of thing. And I managed – I succeeded.
What do you do now?
I am an office manager for an IT organisation, company, and my two daughters – one is a GP and one a Law graduate, she is in Brussels right now, and I eventually married Robert, and we had a son together, and he’s now, one of the Vice-Presidents for Barclay Capital Investment Bank in the Docklands. I think you pass on your values to your children, you can’t help it, but you can pass it on – the only thing that gives you a better life is hard-working, aiming… you know, live your dream, dreams one day can come true.
Do you have anything that you would like to learn from your story?
You know, life to me, until now, that life problems, and suffering are part of life, and suffering makes you strong. Problems make you more creative, and me being a Christian – everything happens for a purpose. Through my experience, you encounter suffering, solve it as much as you can, and carry on, and the way to find strength, to carry on is to have faith in yourself in whatever you believe in, in my case, I have faith in God. My survival, through the ordeal in Cambodia, under the Khmer Rouge, is owed to God’s love and protection. You have to have faith. That’s all my message for people. Life has never been perfect, everybody has problems. You know when you have problems – you think ‘oh dear why me!’ No – you’re not the only one in this world who has problems, but people try to solve it one way or another. It’s hard to tell you the story because it brings back suffering, sadness, the feeling of helplessness, frustration and the horrible feeling of being killed – but I’m prepared to do it, for one reason only, is to help people understand the way political people in order to get their sense of satisfaction or their aim – they don’t mind creating suffering for innocent people like me. And people all over the world need to know in order to avoid that genocide from happening again. And that is why I think your organisation is the best organisation, to let the world know – so people are prepared, people know, and try to avoid it so it won’t happen again to other people in the world. Because Cambodia is not the only country that genocide like that happened.