“How could I forgive them?”

By Chanrithy Ya, West Ottawa High School

Did you eat yet? That simple question holds so much weight to a child of immigrant parents.

My parents grew up in Cambodia. They survived the brutal, murderous take over by the Khmer Rouge army, a communist group that took control of Cambodia in the mid 70’s. They began in the countryside by a group ran by Pol Pot and his followers. As the Khmer Rouge won the Cambodian Civil War, that’s when everything went downhill.
When they had already invaded most of the countryside, they began to push people out of big cities like Phnom Penh, where there was successful business and workers. People were forced to leave everything they built in their villages and cities, only bringing what they could carry with them. Doctors, teachers, lawyers, and other professionals were targeted and killed on the spot. The ones who didn’t get killed were forced to walk miles to the countryside and had little time to rest. The Khmer Rouge were merciless, relentlessly killing and torturing anyone they perceived as a potential enemy.
As my mom’s family escaped from their home, their group included her sister and her sister’s newborn baby. My aunt had to choose between between leaving her baby in the forest so she could have a better chance of living or traveling with the baby and risking the unavoidable noise bringing death to them. This decision was impossible, no mother wants to leave her child behind to die. A mother’s love for her children is unlimited. My aunt chose to take her baby with her despite the risks and challenges.
As the people reached the countryside, their items and belongings were taken away. Khmer Rouge forced people into field work and unsafe working conditions in harsh weather. Average summer temperatures in Cambodia are in the mid-80’s.
The Khmer Rouge’s main goal was to make everyone equal. That never happened. Little food was available; people watched their loved ones starve to death.
My dad said, “When we eat, they only gave us an extremely small portion of food. They never fed us enough, they only used us.” In a rare reflective moment, my dad once told me about how he watched his friend at the time, at the age of 7, beat almost to death by the Khmer Rouge for stealing food during the night. My dad ran away as he got hit on his side. He was afraid to end up hurt like his friend.
Pol Pot had his people kill mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, and grandmas. “He didn’t let people have relationships…..he didn’t even want family together.” The Khmer Rouge ripped families apart, leaving children to be looked after by the Khmer Rouge, developing young children into soldiers.
“If you don’t listen to them (Khmer Rouge), they’ll beat you to death and even chop your head off or shoot you in the back of the head,” my dad explained.
“Did you see any dead bodies?”
“Yes, I saw people get killed…after they get murdered, their bodies get piled up.”
“What about kids?”
“They would grab them from their feet, dragging them and pound their heads on rocks and hard floors.”
My dad explained how school during this time was just hard labor. Cleaning up after cows, cutting down palm tree leaves, and killing cows. There was no teacher. Kids were just forced to do harsh labor.
“When I came back from ‘school’ my dad was gone. They killed my dad,” my own father explained.
With pain in his eyes he proceeded. “They killed my two brothers too. I barely got to see my family. The only time I got to see them was at night, but even so, we had to be quiet. They would be listening to hear if we made noises.”
“Would you ever forgive somebody who was part of the Khmer Rouge?”
“No. No way. They killed my father and my brothers. How could I forgive them? I’m angry, they killed innocent people,” my dad said as his voice lowered and broke.

My nephew’s dad had passed, and my sister was on the phone with my mom, who started balling her eyes out. She explained how she knew exactly how her grandchild feels, losing somebody that was a part of you and that you had unconditional love for. My mom lost both her parents during the genocide. She was under the age of 10. She never talks about it, but I know she is scared, only having her sibling to have the courage to live.
My mom mentioned the last thing her mom gave her and her siblings before getting murder was a fish. Something so simple to us but meant so much to my mom. I understand now why she would always feed me and would always get mad if I don’t finish my food. It came from her trauma that Pol Pot put on my mom and family. Now every time my mom makes food with a fish dish on the side, I appreciate it more, because now I know the meaning behind it all.
After four years, Vietnam finally invaded and killed most of the Khmer Rouge. But the horrors didn’t stop there for the people of Cambodia. Vietnam soldiers would sexually violate women and children, leaving some with more scars then they already had.
At least 1.8 million Cambodians lost their lives during this dreadful event. That is nearly a quarter of Cambodia’s population. It has been decades since this genocide happened, but the scars left by Khmer Rouge will forever affect the people of Cambodia. My heart aches for the people who experienced this sickening genocide. And for the ones who lost their lives under Pol Pot leadership, you’re not forgotten. May the afterlife be filled with beautiful things.
And for my parents, I know I never say this but I love you Ma and Pa.
Your stories should be heard.

This story was originally published on The West Ottawan on December 5, 2022.