Cambodia: Boy Sees Ten Of His Family Murdered By The Khmer Rouge.
Above Photo: The Khmer Rouge celebrate the fall of Phnom Penh on April 17, 1975. (© Getty Images)
I recently read an interesting, if shocking, article by Chad Bonham in charismanews.com about a Cambodian emigre in Canada, who’d seen ten of his own family murdered by the Khmer Rouge.
Coincidentally, I read it on the day I visited Pol Pot’s cremation site in the Dangrek Mountains on the Cambodian-Thai border, as I continue my research trip to locations featured in, or relevant to, my novel BACK. In the novel, I bring the horrors of the Khmer Rouge into a 21st Century context, when a group of backpackers end up captured by a Khmer Rouge gang while on a modern-day trek into the jungles of Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam.
I have edited the article below, and added photos for illustration.
By Chad Bonham.
“No one knows the exact number of Cambodians that were executed in the infamous killing fields between 1975 and 1979. Estimates range between 1.7 million and 2.5 million innocent men, women and children who were mercilessly slaughtered at the hands of the Khmer Rouge regime.
But for Reaksa Himm, the only relevant number is 13. That number represents how many family members he personally lost in the killing fields. Among those 13 family members were his father, his mother and nine brothers and sisters. To compound the tragedy, Himm witnessed the brutal murder of 10 of his loved ones just outside a small village called Thlok.
That Himm survived the mass execution is nothing less than a miracle. But no less incredible is long trek he took from revenge to forgiveness.
In 1975, Himm and his family were living a peaceful life in the city of Siem Reap despite an ongoing conflict between the American-installed military junta running Cambodia and the Khmer Communists led by brutal warlord Pol Pot. When the Khmer army defeated the American-backed government, Himm’s world was turned upside down.
After systematically executing all leaders sympathetic to the previous government, the Khmer Rouge began rounding up the Cambodian people and sending them to work camps. They were told they would only be gone three days, but days turned to months, and months turned to years.
For the first two years, Himm’s family tried to conform to the new government’s policies. They never dared say anything against the leadership.
“If you opposed them, they would usually come in the night and tell you they wanted to send you to school so you could change your behavior,” Himm says. “But to be sent to school literally meant execution.”
By the age of 14, Himm was working in the fields tending to cattle and water buffalo, when one day three Khmer soldiers came to the family’s house and arrested Himm’s father. When asked what he had done wrong, one soldier barked these ominous words: “Today we will destroy you! If we keep you, we gain nothing! If we kill you, we lose nothing! You are serving the American government! You are CIA!”
Himm had no idea what “CIA” meant, but he did know what happened to those faced with that accusation.
“That person became dead meat,” he says.
Himm ran back to his house and tried to gather his younger brothers and sisters. Suddenly the soldiers busted through the door, dragging Himm’s father behind them. At first the soldiers put Himm’s hands behind his back, but then they released him so he could carry his 2-year-old brother, and then they took them all to the jungle.
“When we finally arrived, the soldiers began digging graves for us,” Himm says. “For the next 15 minutes, we just stood there and waited for them to kill us. I tried to hug my father, but his arms were behind his back. Then I told him goodbye. My father responded by saying something I will never forget. He said, ‘I love all of you.’ In Cambodian culture, we rarely show affection. That was the first and last time I heard my father say those words.”
Himm stood there as the soldiers made his father kneel down in front of the grave. His father was clubbed from behind and fell into the pit. Then came the screams.
“I saw every single ax fall as they butchered my father,” Himm says. “It was my turn, and I laid my baby brother beside me. Someone clubbed me from behind, and I fell on my father. Then I heard my baby brother scream so loud. Then I heard the chopping and the screaming.”
As the soldiers descended into the grave, they miraculously passed over Himm. When they noticed he was not yet dead, one of the men went back down and hit him again. Blood came through his nose and mouth. Himm began to suffocate and could hardly breathe.
“But no matter what, I didn’t move,” he says.
The soldiers left to find Himm’s mother and older sisters who were working on a farm back at the village. For the next 30 minutes, Himm struggled to climb through the bodies on top of him.
“At that time, I was just beginning to understand what had happened,” he says. “I couldn’t imagine how I could go on with my life. I was just lying there with the dead bodies and waiting for the soldiers to come finish me.”
Somehow he mustered the strength and courage to climb out of the grave. Had he stayed a few more minutes, the soldiers would have found him. Instead, he hid in the weeds and watched them drag his mother and sisters to the grave where they, too, were executed and dumped into the pit.
“After the soldiers left, I crawled back to the grave and knelt down and put my head to the grave,” he says. “I saw my mother’s face. I cried and screamed until I lost consciousness. When I woke up, it was about to become dark. I was by myself in the deep, dark jungle. That night, I decided to climb a tree and hold on to the tree the whole night. I couldn’t close my eyes. I was so scared.”
For the next three days and nights, Himm stayed there and cried. After serious thoughts of going back to the village so the soldiers could put him out of his misery, the traumatized 14-year-old headed away from the gruesome site in search of help.
Over the next two years, Himm migrated among a succession of refugee camps that at times proved anything but safe. He also reunited with the only other surviving members of his immediate family—his older sister Sopheap and her husband, Chhounly. When neighboring Vietnam overthrew the Khmer regime in early 1979, Himm returned to Siem Riep and lived with his aunt.
By 1984, Himm decided to join the police force. His purpose in doing so was simple: It would help him get back to the village where his family was killed so he could “eradicate every single person in that village,” he says, to pay honor to his family.
But when Himm finally had the chance to arrest one of the men who had helped kill his family, he couldn’t go through with it—despite dragging the man into the forest and aiming a gun at the man’s head.
Eventually Himm left Cambodia and arrived as a refugee in Thailand, before immigrating to Canada, and while he had already forgiven the killers of his family from abroad, he knew the time had come for him to take the process one step further and to return to Cambodia to confront what had happened to him and his family.
In Cambodia, Himm eventually located the man who’d killed his father and siblings, the man who’d clubbed him from behind, and the man who had killed his mother and older sisters.
“To say ‘I forgive you’ from Canada to Cambodia was easy,” Himm says. “But to actually travel back and meet those killers and look into their eyes and say, ‘I forgive you,’ that was tremendously difficult.”
Our new film, M.I.A. A Greater Evil. Set in the jungles of Laos and Vietnam, the film deals with the possible fate of US servicemen left behind after the US pulled out of the Vietnam War.
See the trailer for our new film, M.I.A. A Greater Evil.
For POWs left behind in Laos, see also:
Peter Alan Lloyd
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