Last week on April 17th marked the 40th year anniversary of the Khmer Rouge genocide, an era that would last only 4 years, but would leave its bloody, traumatic mark in Cambodia in the following four decades since. An estimated 2 million Cambodians lost their lives during that period through imprisonment, harsh labor, starvation, diseases, and execution. My father was among the survivors as he escaped with a few others as all of them risked certain death through the treacherous countryside filled with the presence of Khmer soldiers and land mines nearby to reach Thailand. My dad’s survival ensured that he would be given another lease on life. He eventually moved to the US, and a few years later, meet my mom. I was born and my brothers soon thereafter. My dad’s life continues, but so does the trauma.
In the days leading up to the anniversary, I was consumed with finding a way to convey my sadness, remembrance, introspection, and somehow reflect a hopeful tone that the Cambodian community, both in Cambodia and elsewhere, will continue to persevere, achieve healing, and reclaim its cultural identity that was taken away during the regime. As each day got closer to April 17th, I think about some of the stories that my dad would share with me in confidentiality, or the survivors who I’ve been privileged to talk to, or the sounds of classic Khmer music that would breathe life into the family living room, or at family parties, but also, of how it’s now been 2+ years since I’ve last been in touch with my father.
The day finally arrived. I felt the sorrow permeating through my veins, and at certain moments, reaching through the optic nerves of my eyes. I come across articles and Facebook posts about the genocide. I saw haunting pictures of human skulls that were once occupied by helpless, terrified Khmer souls lying in a glass case in the infamous Tuol Sleng prison staring at the living. I thought about some of my relatives that I would never get to meet because they were taken away too soon, and wondered how their presence in my life could have potentially benefited me. I think about Cambodia, and what it could have been.
I came home later that night after attending a writer-support group, and got my thoughts on a Facebook status. Since the beginning of this year, I’ve been looking into documenting my dad’s survival, and the intergenerational trauma that’s been carried on that has impacted our father-son relationship. So far, I’ve encountered more mental roadblocks than a Chicago construction season. Writing, as my friend Stephanie would put it, is like giving light to some of the darker surfaces that we are afraid to see. There are many moments in my relationship with my dad that I would rather not revisit, yet at the same time, I found better understanding in being able to reflect on these experiences, and that by doing so, I can start the healing process for myself and for my family. I also have a sense of purpose in making sure that more light is given on Cambodia’s dark history to the young generations of Khmers, and for many others, both whom are surprisingly unaware of the existence of the Cambodian genocide, and the structural / psychological impact it carries for our current and future generations.
2015 not only marks the year of the Khmer Rouge “Killing Fields”, but it also marks the 70 year anniversary of the Holocaust liberation, the 100 year anniversary of the Armenian genocide which happened today as we speak, the 40 year anniversary of the “Fall of Saigon” which also affected my family, and countless other acts of crimes against humanity that we unfortunately have to remember and revisit.
With the 4/17 date having now passed, I can only know that for many Cambodians, this date has not changed.
© 2015 Randy Kim All Rights Reserved
Uncredited photo used for story