Everyone has a story. Some of us have funny stories. Others sad stories. And then there are a few who mostly stay quiet, go about their business, and politely smile when we make our overstated complaints about the trivial things of life. On the surface one would never know, because they don’t show it, but deep inside they hold a secret of horrors that they have experienced, things they have seen and kept to themselves. They blend into their social surroundings, making themselves almost invisible. They would never casually just discuss the things they hold deep in their memories. Often they have gone to great troubles to suppress these memories. But every now and then, when the moment seems right, and the questions are genuine…they share.
Having just decided to make a big career change, I have recently moved back to my home town and, to make some dollars on the side while I search for my next big job, have started working in a relatively small machine shop. Its a blue-collar type job, mainly filled with a bunch of guys that would be fun to go get a beer with. Additionally, in some of the lower skilled areas of the shop, there is a significant immigrant population, mainly consisting of Vietnamese workers. Encouraged not to speak for productivity reasons, we all just go about our jobs, politely saying hi and speaking only when it is necessary for the work.
Having just started and still being acquainted with the work, today I was told to join someone from the shipping team out on their deliveries so I could get a feel for the different contractors we work with and where we send the metal. As luck would have it, I was partnered with Steve, a Cambodian man in his late 40s who has only been working there for 4 weeks. Getting into the truck, we got to casual chit-chat, me being thankful that Steve was so easy to talk to considering we were going to be on the road for the next few hours together.
After casually talking shop (literally in this case), our conversations started becoming more personal, with each of us asking questions about our history, where we came from, etc. I found out that Steve has lived in my hometown actually longer than I have. He went over the different types of jobs he had held over the years and eventually how he had come to work for the machine shop we were both employed at. Based off of his relatively heavy accent, I knew Steve wasn’t originally from the United States. A world traveler myself and greatly interested in foreign countries and cultures, I asked Steve about where he was originally born and when he had immigrated to the United States. He told me that he was originally from Cambodia and that he had immigrated to the US in the early 1980s. Roughly knowing his age and my world history I came to a subtle realization: Steve had lived in Cambodia during the reign of the Khmer Rouge.
For those who don’t, the Khmer Rouge was an extremely oppressive Communist government that ruled Cambodia from 1975-1979. During that period, the Khmer Rouge government turned Cambodia into a virtual slave state. Absolutely against any kind of dissent, the Khmer Rouge government was brutal to its own people, inflicting what many would refer to as genocide against its own population. Estimates put the death toll of Cambodians as a result of the Khmer Rouge between 1.4 and 2.2 million during their brief reign of power. The period was marked by terror, death, and starvation.
Moved by curiosity, I gently asked Steve if he remembered what it was like living during the Khmer Rouge. Receiving a yes, I asked Steve if he would be willing to tell me about it. This is what he shared:
The oldest of his 5 siblings, Steve was approximately 10 years old when the Khmer Rouge took power. As part of the government’s attempt at agricultural reform, Steve and his family were forced out of their home outside of Phnom Penh and moved out to the country to become farm workers. Working 12 hour+ days and given barely any food, Steve and his family began to starve. To survive, Steve would sneak out of his village and go into the jungle to capture fish and frogs. He would eat them raw. Unfortunately his siblings were not so fortunate. At some point during their enslavement in the farms, Steve watched three of his younger brothers and sisters succumb to the hunger and die. Steve told me he was thankful that his father had passed away from disease the year before the Khmer Rouge took power, that he was spared from watching his family go through this. Steve’s mother would sometimes venture into a neighboring village to find food, something that was strictly against the law. He recalled that on one occasion his mother was caught by the junta on her return from one such strip. Though normally they would just shoot the person, for some reason they let his mother go, he told.
In 1979, the Vietnamese invaded Cambodia to take out the Khmer Rouge. Steve and what remained of his family fled and ended up becoming refugees in Thailand. However, after a time, the Thai military kicked them out of the country and forced them back into Cambodia. He told me about the day when the Thai military took them to the border. Up on a mountain, half laying in Thailand and half in Cambodia, the soldiers commanded the first group of refugees down the mountain. Unknown to the refugees, the mountain was mined and over the course of their descent 80% were killed from the mines exploding. Steve and his family were in the second group that was to go. Seeing the slaughter their fellow Cambodians had just gone through, their group refused to go down the mountain. It was at this point that the Thai military opened up with their machine guns, strafing the refugees indiscriminately. Machine gun fire on one side and mines on the other, Steve and his family took off running for their lives, risking the mines to escape the gun fire as countless people around them were either mowed down by the fire or blown to pieces from the mines. Through a miracle Steve and his family made it safely to the base of the mountain. He recalled sleeping that night curled up on a rock, on either side of him piles of dead people stacked 25 feet tall, the casualties of the day’s massacre.
For an unknown amount of time Steve, his family, and the other refugees wandered through Cambodia looking for safety. On one particular night their camp was caught in the cross fire between mountain rebels and remaining Khmer Rouge soldiers. Steve told me that he sunk down and hid by a tree while machine gun fire and explosions ripped apart people in the camp. Running refugees, attempting to escape, fell into pits with sharpened bamboo poles call punji sticks, impaling themselves in a horrific death. Soldiers wandered through the camp, killing and raping whoever they wanted.
Eventually Steve and his family went to the Philippines as refugees before being given permission to live in the United States. Around 1983 Steve immigrated to Hawaii, then Florida, and finally settled in California. A scared teenage in a strange land, not knowing the language, Steve was picked on in school. But like he had his whole life…he survived. I thought to myself what it must have been like to be picked on for being different, his tormentors having no idea what this kid who was “different” had gone through. The thought was appalling.
Steve is still surviving. Working in the shipping department of a machine shop is respectable but not enviable. The work is tedious and I am sure the pay isn’t great. But Steve told me how thankful he was for the chance to work, for his freedom. He told me that one day he wants to retire to Cambodia. He said it is so cheap there. And of course, the beaches are beautiful. I have no doubt that one day Steve will achieve his dream. He is a survivor and that’s what they do. They have a vision of a better life and they fight for it, not letting anything get in their way until they have it.
As I get ready for bed tonight I am thankful for my job, for my life, for all the opportunities God has blessed me with. I hope to one day work in a capacity to prevent atrocities like those Steve has been through. But for now I work in the machine shop and I must say…I look forward to tomorrow.