Logo Click BACK to return to Basecamp
Lost Teachers
Search Info
White beveled edge

Meet Stephanie

Stephanie Archive



The Cambodian Holocaust: A Survivor Speaks Out

Stephanie and Nick pose before the magical Angkor Watt
Their motto said it all: "To keep you is no benefit. To destroy you is no loss."

With that ruthless agenda, a communist guerrilla group called the Khmer Rouge committed one of the worst atrocities the world has ever known: The Cambodian Holocaust. Between 1975 and 1979, they murdered nearly 2 million Cambodians for crimes ranging from being "too educated" to "not revolutionary enough." Victims were often forced to kneel in front of trenches before being bludgeoned to death with a shovel. Many were tortured or raped before they were killed, and a few were actually eaten afterward.

How could this happen? How could Cambodians exterminate their own people, and why did it take so long for someone to intervene? Where were the "Peace-keepers of the West" in all of this?


Sophal Speaks Out

The answers to these questions are complex - and chilling. As it turns out, the West does have a history of involvement in Cambodia. None of it has been pretty. The French brutally colonized the Cambodians until they won their independence in 1953. The throne was reinstated, and King Norodom Sihanouk's reign lasted for the next quarter of a century.

The United States took an interest in Cambodia when its neighbor, Vietnam, divided into two factions: The Communist North and the Colonial South. Fearing that Cambodia might be the next domino to fall into the communist pot, the United States kept an eye on the country. They soon learned that the Vietcong was launching guerrilla attacks on South Vietnam from hidden bases inside Cambodia. At first they let it slide, but as the Vietnam War intensified, the U.S. decided to attack those bases. Four years of secret bombing raids ensued that killed untold thousands of Cambodian civilians, and wreaked havoc on their countryside.

Cambodians often construct Buddhist altars in their homes and businesses
By this point, many Cambodians were fed up with the Northern Vietnamese and started protesting. King Sihanouk tried to keep the peace by maintaining a neutral position between the U.S. and Vietnam, but only succeeded in frustrating everyone. The American government grew so impatient, it sponsored a coup and had Sihanouk replaced with a general named Lon Nol. The shelling of Cambodia continued - some 540,000 tons of bombs in all. Temples were commonly targeted, devastating the intensely religious populace. Associating Lon Nol with this needless destruction, many Cambodians searched for their former King. They found him in the Khmer Rouge and threw their support behind him. Sadly, they didn't realize King Sihanouk wasn't the true leader of the Khmer Rouge. That title belonged to Pol Pot -- a man who would soon prove to be one of the cruelest murderers in history.

A bloody civil war was thus waged between Lon Nol's American-approved army and Pol Pot's communist Khmer Rouge. It's hard to say which was worse. Both sent boys who were barely in their teens to the frontlines to commit horrific crimes against humanity. In the end, however, the Khmer Rouge proved to have the upper hand. Lon Nol and the entire US Embassy fled the country as the communists seized the nation's capital (Phnom Penh) on April 17, 1975.

More altars
Cambodian Thida Mam was 15 years old at the time. She was relieved the war was over and excited about her country's future. To many people her age, the Khmer Rouge symbolized an end to the corruption that had plagued her homeland for years. Perhaps the group could turn Cambodia into a more prosperous, democratic nation.

Her hopes were quickly dashed when the Khmer Rouge ordered every man, woman and child to evacuate the capital at once. Every single school, library, theater, bank, hospital and temple in the nation was shut down as Cambodians headed to the countryside at gunpoint. For the next four years, they would be forced to do hard labor in the fields with no pay and little food for 12 hours a day, seven days a week. The goal was to turn Cambodia into a revolutionary powerhouse. Nearly a third of the population died of torture, starvation or execution in the process - including Thida's father. As the saying went: "To keep you is no benefit. To destroy you is no loss."

Stephanie takes the lotus position
These ruthless killings didn't stop until the Vietnamese invaded in 1979. As hard as it was for Thida and many other Cambodians to believe, the Vietnamese turned out to be their savior. The West was nowhere to be seen (The United States actually threw its support behind the Khmer Rouge instead of the Vietnamese liberators, even though they knew what Pol Pot had done!).

Thida Mam was one of the lucky ones: She made it out alive. After the Vietnamese invasion, she began a 15-month odyssey that took her from the villages of Cambodia to a prison in Thailand to Davis, California, where her sister lived. Her story is so amazing, it's been turned into a book called "To destroy you is no loss" by Jo An Dewey Criddle. Today, she is a mother of two and a computer software engineer in Silicon Valley. Nick and I had the great fortune of spending an evening with Thida. The following are the highlights of our three-hour chat.

Beginning of Interview

Stephanie: Tell us about the day the Khmer Rouge evacuated Phnom Penh.

Thida: They ordered everyone to leave for their ancestral villages immediately. Everyone. At that time, there were two million people living in the streets with their chickens and pigs because of the Civil War. We all had to leave. The Khmer Rouge even went into surgery rooms with their guns and told everyone to get out. Patients were being pushed through the streets in their hospital beds with their IVs hanging from their arms. Women were giving birth in the streets. Fortunately, my family lived several streets away from the main road, so we had a little more time to pack than most. We killed all of our chickens and salted the meat. Everything went in our cars and then we pushed the cars down the street. We couldn't drive because there were too many people. My grandmother sat in the car while the rest of us pushed. My dad told me never to take my hand off the car, or else I'd get lost. There were many children crying out for their parents because they'd gotten separated. But we couldn't help them. We couldn't turn down a side street and stop for a rest. We had to keep going. We could see inside houses that people who protested the Khmer Rouge had been killed. They meant it when they said they would shoot us.

Long Beach in Los Angeles is a hub for Cambodians
Along the road to get out of the city, we passed by my school. It was completely looted. The library was gone. All those beautiful, colorful books were gone. They were either burned or used for toilet paper. That's because the Khmer Rouge believed that the only way to change things was to erase everything. Their idea was to get rid of the old system, the class system, and to kill anyone who remembered it. Rumor was they wanted to start the society from scratch, age 12 and up. If they could have burned people's brains, they would have. But they couldn't. So they punished everyone who remembered.

Stephanie: What happened once you made it out of the city?

Thida: We got to a river and before we were allowed to cross on the boat, we had to fill out paperwork about who we were and what we did for a living. That's when they discovered my father was a politician. He was a Congressman in the old government. When we got to the other side of the river, the Khmer Rouge took my dad away. We never saw him again. I could go to Cambodia and find out what happened to him, but I am afraid. I'm afraid to know what they did to him.

Stephanie contemplates her next sarong
My mother aged 20 years that month. She went from chubby to skinny, and her hair turned completely white. I lost the protection of my dad and my mom that same month, and I immediately grew up. I was aware that if I didn't take care of myself, I would die.

Stephanie: What was your new life like in the village?

Thida: We had no medicine because the Khmer Rouge erased all Western goods. So we went back to roots and leaves. We had no food, because the Khmer Rouge exported it all. There was no money either, because the Khmer Rouge abolished it. The only professions allowed were to farm rice, work on a plantation or build a dam. I had to spray poison in the plantations. It was so gross. I used to get covered with worms. We had to work seven days a week, from sunrise to sunset. If there was moonlight, we had to work at night too.

I lived in a hut with a ground floor. I made it myself. It was wooden, with coconut tree leaves for walls. The roof leaked. Before, my family lived in a three-story house. But that part doesn't bother me as much as the injustices. If that was what it would take to get my country in good shape, I would have done it gladly. But that's not what the Khmer Rouge was trying to do. We knew that in a matter of time, we would all be killed.

Stephanie and Nick sample some local cuisine
I was close to committing suicide several times. In 1978, I was working in the cotton plantations. For a while, I was ordered to sleep in a house with some village girls and eat in the their communal kitchen. For three months, I slept next to the same girl. She became my good friend. Then one day she was taken to the fields to be killed. I later found out she had been raped until she died. She had been raped by at least 40 men. After that, I said, okay. That was it. I didn't want to live. I was not afraid of death, but I was afraid of being hurt before I died. I couldn't take it anymore, so I stole some poison and kept it in my pocket. It gave me the strength to go on, because I knew that I could kill myself before anyone killed me.

Stephanie: Tell us about the Vietnamese invasion in 1979.

Thida: All my life I had been taught to discriminate against the Vietnamese. Our countries had a long history of war and had lost a huge amount of territory to them. But when I saw them coming in with trucks, it was the most welcome sight of my life. My whole family packed up and started walking to the Thailand border. All 40 of us. We had two uncles who rode ahead on bicycles to see what was going on. If there was a battle, we would wait for the Vietnamese to win and open the road, then we'd walk some more. We'd catch fish and pick fruit for food. We slept in trees. It was the happiest time in my life. All I wanted was to get to Thailand and be hired somewhere as a farmer and get paid enough so that I could eat. That was the ultimate for me. That was enough to risk my life for. I never thought I would come to America to be a software engineer in Silicon Valley. My dream was just for a small piece of land, a hut and a fruit tree.

Thida Mam tells her incredible story
Stephanie: What happened once you made it to Thailand?

Thida: We all had big stomachs from malnutrition and yellow, skinny arms from jaundice. But we were so happy. We would drum and clap and sing songs. It felt so great to be free.

Then the Thais asked the United Nations for money so they could take in all us refugees. When they didn't get any, they pushed 40,000 of us back across the border to a side full of Khmer Rouge and land mines. We were trapped. Some people sacrificed their lives by walking across the fields and exploding the landmines. My family walked back to Thailand on the backs of dead bodies.

Yet, once again, it was the Vietnamese soldiers who came in and guided us to safety. They saved my life twice. All of this was very conflicting. People who were supposed to be good tried to kill us, and those who were bad tried to help us. When I talk about genocide, it hurts me so much, because it was my own people who killed my people. I witnessed my own uncle order his own niece to the killing fields. If there were language differences or color differences between us, I could understand. But your own people?

Stephanie: What is the situation like in your country today?

Thida: Although the Khmer Rouge was ousted from power 20 years ago, their destruction still affects people very deeply. They completely destroyed the country and the human spirit. The trust between people is gone. There are cases where brothers don't trust brothers. There is also a lot of violence in my country. If a thief steals a motorbike, a mob will surround him and kill him.

What really hurts me is that after all of that destruction, the people who committed the crimes are still living free. We want to prosecute them in an international tribunal, but the Chinese and the Vietnamese and the Thais won't let it happen. They are afraid they'll be embarrassed for their role in it. We are so weak; we can't prosecute the people who killed our own parents. And that hurts me. Pol Pot died from natural causes, and that hurts me. The former Khmer Rouge are living fat, comfortable, happy lives. They are protected by our government. It is so sick.

Stephanie: What lessons can we learn from the Cambodian Holocaust?

Thida: You have to pay attention to what your government does, even when you're young. You have to know what is going on. A number of Cambodians didn't know what was going on, and that is what got us hurt. It is your duty to participate in democracy and vote and keep the country in check. Otherwise, it can hurt you and your children and your country.


Please email me at: stephanie@ustrek.org


Links to Other Dispatches

Rebecca – Bayonets and pencils just don’t mix
Irene – The Vietnam War Part 1
Irene – The Vietnam War Part 2
Nick – Bucking the draft
Jennifer – When the going gets rough, the tough go underground
Teddy – DNC: Don’t Count on Civility
Jennifer – Students united can never be divided
Making A Difference – Bombs, oil, sanctions, and a decision we all have to make: The US and Iraq