Hawaii's Khmer Rouge survivors share stories
|Photo gallery: Cambodia's Trials|
|Video: Remembering Cambodia's killing fields|
By Dan Nakaso
Advertiser Staff Writer
By Dan Nakaso
There was no hope in the killing fields of Cambodia, no protein to eat and — to Patrick Keo — certainly no God.
But there was killing and dying all around and the constant fear that anyone could be next.
"You would lie awake at night and wonder when you would be killed," said Keo, who is now a 49-year-old accountant in Kane'ohe.
"No way there was a God."
The nightmares and flashbacks have long passed for survivors from the bloody, four-year reign of the Khmer Rouge.
But three decades later, a United Nations-backed war crimes tribunal in Cambodia is bringing renewed attention to the atrocities inflicted on people like Keo, whose father and a sister died at the hands of the Communist-backed Khmer Rouge.
Just after the United States evacuated Vietnam in defeat in April 1975, the Khmer Rouge began exterminating at least 1.7 million of its own people — more than the entire 1.2 million population of Hawai'i.
In 2000, Hawai'i was home to 330 people who claimed at least partial Cambodian ancestry — 235 of them on O'ahu, according to state population records.
They found new lives and new hope in Hawai'i, raised families and have become part of the backdrop of Island society.
But even after the 1984 Academy Award-winning movie "The Killing Fields" awakened the Western world to the deaths and murders, Americans for the most part remain unaware of the greatest genocide since the Nazi Holocaust, said Paul Rausch, associate director of the University of Hawai'i's Center for Southeast Asian Studies.
"Most people have no clue what these people went through," Rausch said. "Nobody knows how many Cambodians died. Was it 1 million people? Was it 2 million? It's hard to say. But most Americans have never lived through something like that. Even with the movie, 'The Killing Fields,' I think most people don't know much about Cambodia."
'WE WANT TO TALK'
Cambo Khem, a 63-year-old truck driver who lives in Kunia, is willing to remember those years of fear and hopelessness in the rice fields of Cambodia if it means educating a new generation.
"We want to talk about what happened," Khem said. "I lost 59 relatives in all: father, mother, sister, brother, uncles, nephews. They were all killed."
Hongly Khuy, now 54, was in business school in Phnom Penh in 1975 when the Khmer Rouge surrounded the city and began shelling it, forcing the evacuation of U.S. interests.
"All morning until noon, I saw American helicopters coming in and out," Khuy said. "Then they never come back.
"We were poor, typical Cambodians. We were surrounded and couldn't go back to the country. You don't know what's going to happen next. We were like a fish caught in the net."
Khuy hopped on a scooter looking for a way out of the city and followed another scooter rider, who ignored directions from soldiers and was shot dead on the spot.
"You learn fast to do what you're told to do," Khuy said.
On the forced evacuation to a work camp in Battambang Province in northwest Cambodia, Khuy saw two prisoners arguing by the side of the road. Khmer Rouge soldiers picked out the loudest one and beat him to death with a hoe in front of everyone.
"They don't even want to waste one bullet," Khuy said. "Everybody got silent after that. No more complaining."
The work camps and communal farms set up by the Khmer Rouge had no equivalent in the American experience.
Thousands of prisoners were guarded by far fewer fellow Cambodians who chose to side with the Khmer Rouge.
"People say, 'Why Cambodians kill Cambodians?' " said Than Neuov, 67, who now works at Hardware Hawaii. "We don't know, either."
Many of the camps had no buildings or fences. Discipline was enforced through fear, intimidation and the ever-present paranoia that any prisoner could be an informant.
"They had a saying, 'Communist Party has many eyes, like pineapple,' " Keo said. "Your wife, your children, your best friend — you don't know who to trust. They didn't need physical guards because your brain became your prison.
"They also had another slogan, 'It's no gain to keep you and it's no loss to take you away.' "
Eventually, families were separated and sent to different parts of Cambodia according to gender and age.
People with glasses, fair skin or soft hands were suspected of being intellectuals and often were taken away, never to be seen again, Neuov said. Prisoners with previous military experience were a particular threat.
Khuy was working in a muddy rice field when a prisoner dug up a live grenade and threw it safely away, where it exploded. That night, Khuy was lined up with about 400 other men, including the one who found the grenade.
For safely detonating the grenade, the man was taken away and shot.
"They suspected he was a former soldier," Khuy said.
Many of the prisoners ended up in jungles or open fields and were forced to cultivate the land using tree branches as tools.
With only the occasional bowl of water and a few grains of rice, the prisoners would go for weeks without nourishment and became weak and emaciated, often suffering from malaria at the same time.
"A walking skeleton — that's how you would describe most of us," Khuy said. "Sometimes you don't eat for weeks. At some point, you just don't have any meat on your bones. I was almost dead."
People lucky enough to find a root or a wild potato had to turn it into the authorities or risk getting beaten or killed, he said.
CONFUSION SETS IN
For those who survived the torture and starvation, the end came when Vietnamese soldiers pushed deeper into Cambodia, sending the work camp system into disarray.
Khuy suffered from malaria and was working in a field when he saw thousands of Vietnamese soldiers suddenly appear and begin shooting at the Khmer Rouge.
"The Vietnamese moved in a line right past us and just let us go," Khuy said. "They wanted to fight the Khmer Rouge. So I just walked away."
He headed west toward Thailand and it would take him two months to make it to the border, where thousands of Cambodian refugees were being detained before makeshift camps could be set up by Western aid workers.
"There was no food and there were so many of us," Khuy said. "I didn't know what to expect."
Keo also escaped during the confusion as Vietnamese forces progressed.
He stole a boat along the Mekong Delta and went back to his village looking for family members, with no luck. He then walked back to Phnom Penh, where he also found no word on the fate of his family.
So he took a bike and rode and walked for another two months to get to the Thai border where he received fresh water, rice and much-needed protein in the form of dried fish and canned meats.
In 1986, Keo finally found out that his mother, two brothers and a sister were alive. It took another six years before he learned for certain that another sister had been killed by the Khmer Rouge and his father had died in a camp.
Like other Cambodian refugees, Keo eventually settled in Hawai'i, where people didn't know about the Khmer Rouge and weren't interested in hearing about what happened in Southeast Asia after the Vietnam War.
But as the years passed, greater awareness of the Cambodian genocide gave Keo and others the opportunity to open up about what they had endured.
"It's healing to talk about it," Keo said. "It's helpful to relieve some of the bitterness."
And in coming to Hawai'i, Keo realized there must be a God after all.
"How I survived, I have no clue," Keo said. "To me, it's a miracle. It's a miracle. There must be a God. And he's trying to teach me something."
Reach Dan Nakaso at email@example.com.