As residents of Phnom Penh, my family was forced to leave their home and take an uncertain journey to their native village in Prey Veng, a province in southeastern Cambodia. Amid fear and confusion, they joined the crowds of evacuees trudging along Monivong Boulevard towards National Road 1 in an attempt to reach their destination. Travelling on foot with their few belongings strapped to a motorbike, they slept wherever they could find a spot when night fell. My mother recalls that one evening, without realising it, the family slept through the night atop dead bodies of evacuees.
Instead of ending their journey in Prey Veng as planned, my family was redirected to Kampong Cham province, where my mother’s family lived and where my family remained throughout the Khmer Rouge regime. Labelled as “new” people or “April 17” people, they were assigned to live with “base” people, those who had previously lived in zones under Khmer Rouge control and who were considered more trustworthy. My family was assigned to work in the fields, growing rice and collecting rubber. My parents were placed in separate work units, while my brothers, ages four and seven, were assigned to a children’s unit.
The violence that engulfed Cambodia during the Khmer Rouge years has had a constant impact on our family and on Cambodian society ever since.
Cambodia endured five years of civil war from 1970 to 1975. The country then fell into the hands of Khmer Rouge revolutionaries, who ruled the country from April 17, 1975, to January 7, 1979. The Khmer Rouge officially renamed the country Democratic Kampuchea (DK) and embarked on policies and practices marked by widespread violence.
Before the Khmer Rouge captured Phnom Penh, the population of the city had swelled to several million, tripling its number of residents in a span of five years. This increase was the result of a flood of refugees from rural provinces to escape armed conflict, aerial bombardment and forced conscription by the Khmer Rouge. When they gained control of the country, the Khmer Rouge evacuated all cities and forced the residents to go to their native villages. Confused and filled with fear of the unknown, the population was evacuated in all directions under the constant surveillance of Khmer Rouge soldiers.
The evacuation of the cities only hinted at the terror to come. Over the ensuing months and years, the Khmer Rouge forced city dwellers to perform hard labour in the countryside. The population was transferred to collective cooperatives and assigned to work on massive agricultural and irrigation projects. To maintain control of the population and of production, the Khmer Rouge created security centres and labour camps throughout the country. Hospitals, schools and temples were closed or transformed into warehouses or prisons; religious practices and money were banned; and all cultural references from the previous regime, including family life and certain languages, were disallowed. This attempt to reconstruct the country according to the ideology of the Khmer Rouge resulted in mass violence and fear, the consequences of which have lingered in Cambodia.
A fundamental characteristic of the DK regime was the constant relocation of its population. People were repeatedly moved from one place to another – from their place of birth to a different zone and from one cooperative to another. Relocations were ordered from the provinces of Kampong Cham, Takeo, Kandal and Prey Veng to Pursat, Battambang, Banteay Meanchey and so on. In general, the movement was from the southeast to the northwest part of the country. The evacuees were terrified, confused and traumatised as they were starved, separated from their family members and forced to journey into the unknown. The train journeys in particular were very traumatic. Evacuees were provided with almost nothing to eat and were separated from their family members at each train stop. The painful losses and trauma of the Cambodian citizens speak directly to the violence committed.
The permanent exhibitions of the Documentation Center of Cambodia titled Forced Transfers, created in collaboration with the Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts, includes survivors’ stories of the evacuations and daily living conditions during DK, as well as recollections of former Khmer Rouge soldiers who participated in the mass relocations of the population. Through striking photographs, survivors’ narratives, maps and folktales, these exhibitions provide a tranquil space for remembering, acknowledging and honouring the suffering of the victims of the Khmer Rouge regime. The educational programs incorporated within the exhibitions will begin at the provincial museums in Battambang and Banteay Meanchey and end in Kampong Thom, Svay Rieng and Takeo.
These programs will help promote meaningful intergenerational discussion about the history and legacy of the Khmer Rouge among Cambodians as well as among international visitors. The education will take place in public and private spaces, including provincial museums, schools, homes and specific sites where the Khmer Rouge committed violent acts. We hope that these exhibitions will provide visitors with a glimpse of the trauma and fear that was omnipresent in the practices of the regime.
As a member of the generation who was born after those traumatic years, the images of the forced evacuations and the pathetic daily living conditions of my family exist only in my imagination. They are never revealed in discussions between my father and me. The silent nature of my father explains everything and nothing at all. His silence forces me to realise how traumatic life was then. It also conceals details of life under the regime behind a shadow of darkness. I sincerely hope the photographs and narratives contained in the exhibitions will inspire people to share memories and learn more about the history of the DK regime.
One person’s story represents only a piece of the larger puzzle, the totality of which will ultimately provide an historical record of Cambodia’s past. Piecing that puzzle together is the process through which we can better understand the violence inflicted upon my family and other Cambodian families as a whole. The impact of that violence is felt by all of us on a daily basis and fuels a desire to restore humanity, dignity and honour to all survivors of the genocide perpetrated by the Democratic Kampuchea regime.