Wednesday, 28 March 2012

Surviving the Killing Fields

If you only ever read one blog post of ours, then read this one. It is one man’s story that represents a country’s history, and explains its present ails.

Dara is our language teacher. He was born in 1960 and his father was an officer in the Cambodian army when General Lon Nol was in power from 1970-1975. In 1975, the Khmer Rouge overthrew Lon Nol after a long civil war that claimed 500,000 lives.

Dara - our teacher and survivor of Khmer Rouge
Dara’s father, like most of the nation, welcomed the Khmer Rouge believing they would bring peace. As such, Dara’s parents called their newly born baby “Peace” but there would be no peace for decades.

For four years, the Khmer Rouge divided families, drove people from their homes and worked them to death in labour camps. People survived on a few grains of rice and whatever grass, tree bark and fruit they could find without guards seeing them. One of Dara’s brothers did not survive the starvation and his father who was separated was never seen again.

Dara was moved from his work camp to a prison where he was blindfolded and marched out into fields. He felt the grass beneath his feet and knew that he was entering ‘the killing fields’.  However, his walk continued so that instead of feeling a rifle pressed against his head, he felt stones under his feet and he was back in prison.

He was alive but knew he would be dead soon unless he escaped. So he jumped a barbed wire fence, dodged bullets and didn’t stop running until he found his way back to his mother.

There he was forced to work in camps and did so until Vietnam began their invasion to defeat the Khmer Rouge. Dara fought the Khmer Rouge for three months seeing three of his friends blown up by a mine just a few yards in front of him.

In less than the four years of Khmer Rouge rule, before they were overthrown in 1979, approximately 2million had died – more than a quarter of the entire population.

And still there was no peace as civil war continued throughout the 1980s between rival factions.

First, Dara lived in a camp near the Thai border where he walked 60km each way to take 15kg of food back to his mother and brothers. This was until the civil war forced Dara and his family to become refugees living in a refugee camp of 350,000 people just over the Thai border.

Even there Dara was not safe. There were three refugee camps and each one was controlled by one of the factions fighting in Cambodia. Under a pseudonym, he started a petition calling for neutral control of the refugee camps but, in 1990, his real name and photo were published by Western journalists covering the story.

Dara had to flee for his life. And the only place he could run to was back to Phnom Penh and the heart of the civil war. Family and friends would not hide him as refugees from the border were thought of as enemies by authorities. He turned himself in and after days of imprisonment and questioning he was let go.

For twenty years Dara’s life had been the war and death that engulfed Cambodia. He began working as a teacher in the 1990s and Cambodia began to find peace. But this was not quite peace as we know it – there were still tanks being blown up in cities, rockets and guns being fired, and too many people dying.

Looking at Dara and Cambodia today, you may never know their history. The pain and loss are not immediately apparent meaning their effects can be un-noticed.

Dara with us at a thank you lunch - happier times
But I am learning it affects everything. I once scolded myself for asking a man of my age what his parents did - it was highly likely they had died under the Khmer Rouge. But more importantly, it affects the rules of this society, how people behave and how they work. Death literally touched every family in this country and that will take a long time to heal.



  1. Another interesting, educational and this time, thought-provoking blog from you guys. Another bit of history I had no idea about and will now go and educate myself. Great to hear from you guys.

    1. Don't educate yourself too much - there may be more educational blogs to come! Just as soon as we manage to figure things out :)

  2. A powerful story that should humble any of us who've never had to endure such a life.

    1. Hi Peggy (Gordon here by the way), I think the thing that surprised me was that I knew about the Khmer Rouge and the war between 1975 and 1979, but I had no idea about the civil war that continued until stability finally arrived in 1997. Was just totally ignorant of it all. I try not to admit that too much here...