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Friday, February 1, 2013
Interview With A Genocide Survivor
With The Author Of: Bamboo Promise:
Prison Without Walls, Vicheara Houn
1. Vicheara, what inspired you to write your book? One day, more than ten years after settling in America and
struggling every day to begin a new life, I sat alone by a window watching a
beautiful little bird pick up a tiny twig in his beak and fly away. I wondered
how far that bird had to fly with those twigs, one by one, to make a nest. How
remarkable that this bird would be so devoted to his family. The miracle of
family, family devotion and sacrifice was symbolized to me by that little bird
and his labors.
Although I had lived many years with painful memories, I was
suddenly overwhelmed with grief for the loss of my father in the Cambodian
genocide.. Though he had died years before, I felt his spirit still around me.
I longed to tell him once more that I loved him and honored him. I wanted him
to know how much I missed him. I cried aloud for him and asked God why I was
left alone without him.
This book began as a letter to my father asking for the answers
to the many problems in my life. I wanted to tell him I had tried many ways to
keep myself as strong as he wanted me to be, but now I had become physically
and emotionally exhausted. I needed new hope.
My letter began as just a few little scratches. Then, as I
wrote, many memories – so long suppressed – returned. My scratches became forty
pages, then one hundred, then more and more. My letter to Papa had become
“Bamboo Promise”, the story of my life and my journey through the Cambodian
genocide and its aftermath. Writing it has helped me to restore my soul.
2.What exactly happened to you? A:
I was raised as the sheltered and privileged only child of a prominent
Cambodian family. I had little knowledge of hardships endured by my
country’s poor or the dangerous political movements afoot in the Cambodia of my
When I was a young bride, the political
tensions in Cambodia were reaching a breaking point. My father, who had risen
through the government ranks to the position of a senior diplomat, was in the
forefront of negotiations with the communist insurgents. All our
family trusted his political knowledge but this trust was a naïve and terrible
mistake. When the KR took over the city and we joined the mass of humanity
being expelled to the countryside, it became very apparent that my father never
really understood the Khmer Rouge or what Pol Pot had planned for Cambodia as
the monstrous KR leader tried to turn back time and return Cambodia to the Year
In April 17, 1975 at 7
AM, a day after Cambodian New Year, Phnom Penh fell to the Communists and within
24 hours the entire population of the capitol was forced to leave the city with
no destination, no future, no hope. Those who survived the forced expulsion
were murdered or spent the next years as slave laborers, slowly starving to
death or dying of disease. Nearly two million perished, including everyone in
my immediate family. I alone survived.
Pol Pot transformed Cambodia, the country of his birth, into a
Prison Without Walls. This extreme form of radical communism eliminated
religion, culture, currency, personal property, hospitals, schools, the banking
system, and every other vestige of modern urban life. Pol Pot’s followers were
radical anti-intellectuals who believed that only agricultural labor deserved
respect. They committed class genocide against Cambodian’s educated urban
citizens through starvation, execution, and forced labor.
I lost my parents, grandparents, my
grandaunt, uncle, servant and her child. My young husband was murdered without
ever having a chance to say good bye. Many, many other extended
family members also lost their lives.
I emerged from the genocide as an orphan with no belongings, no
support and only my determination to honor my promises to my father. I rebuilt
myself in a war ravaged country. Struggling with the ideals of a traditional
Cambodian woman’s role in a broken society, I began to develop my own
identity. I informed myself through education and experience. I
eventually made the heartbreaking decision to leave my homeland and seek a new
life. I escaped over the rugged, dangerous mountains to a refugee camp in
3.What did you witness? I watched my young husband led to his
death. I watched every member of my immediate family starve to
death. I watched my neighbors turn on their parents and children for a can of
rice. I saw my fellow workers beaten and abused. I
saw those around me suffer and die from malaria even as I was helpless with
malarial fever and delirium. They died usually in the morning.
I saw bodies floating by in the river and abandoned along the
roadside. They had been eviscerated and their stomachs filled with grass.
I was abused by child soldiers, as young as ten. They
had been taught that city people were allied with Americans who had killed
their families and friends through bombing raids. They told us that we had been
poisoned by western society and were so worthless that they would kill us with
an axe on the back of our neck without wasting any bullets. I remember their
most common insult: “Keeping you won’t benefit us; destroying you won’t cost us
anything”. The KR brainwashed these young kids to reject their
family and believe that they were children of the KR organization called
Angkar. They trained the kids to spy on their own parents and report to Angkar
if they believed their parents violated Angkar’s rules. Sound
familiar? Just like the Hitler Youth in Nazi Germany.
The Khmer Rouge regime separated us, the urbanites, from the
peasants and farmers. There was no equality in work assignments or in food
rations. We were called “New people” or “Refugees” or “People of April 17th” and
the rural people were the “Old People”. Old people had power over us, the new
people. They monitored our work and spied on us. They ate full meals with meat
and dessert. They used bamboo sticks to force us to work harder and beat us if
they felt we were unproductive.
I watched as the Khmer Rouge first murdered us - the
city dwellers. Later, as their organization began to crumble from
within, they slaughtered their own. At first only the refugees were
starved but soon the villagers who had supported the KR also starved as all the
rice went to China to repay war debts.
The KR had a code of for murder – “re-education”. People became
aware of this meaning when their family and friends were sent to be re-educated
and were never heard from again. My husband disappeared from my sight for this
reason. He was accused of having a military background, when he did not. This
was just an excuse to murder people. Sociopaths and psychopaths had free
reign over helpless victims and tortured them mercilessly.
In 1979, when we were all liberated from the killing fields, we
were subjugated to a new phase of communism under the Vietnamese. I was
obligated to attend three months of re-education before I could work in the new
society. Their method was not terror but coercion and deceit. We were told to
tell the uneducated Khmer peasant survivors that the Vietnamese were our
saviors and we had to pay respect to them. Learning the Vietnamese language was
mandatory in my University pharmacy program. Western people have
very little knowledge of the abuses of the Vietnamese Communists in
Cambodia. Hun Sen is their puppet.
4.What are you hoping the reader will take away from your story? A: My hope is that young Cambodians and Cambodians in the
diaspora will read this, and more erudite texts, to learn more about what
happened to their country and its people. I hope all who read will understand
how a radical, violent political movement bent on death and destruction, was
able to consume nearly two million innocent souls, while the world stood by. It
is only when you know why something has happened that you can prevent its
It is important that the world learns how Cambodians, my family
and I included, lived and died through four years of Hell on earth. Nearly two
million Cambodians were executed, starved, and tortured to death. All who
survived, both victims and victimizers, have been traumatized and permanently
I also hope that, in some small way, my book will help
Cambodians remember the history of their country and not let history repeat
itself. I hope it will make young Cambodians more sensitive to the trauma that
their parents and grandparents endured.
Also, my book shows how naïve many of the most privileged were
to believe that nothing so horrible could happen to our country. My father, who
had promised me that nothing would happen to us or to Cambodia, is my best
example of this blindness. In our case, genocide was the price we paid for
ignoring the signs, and assuming that something cannot happen simply because
you can’t imagine it.
The weaknesses in Cambodian society, in particular our sometimes
blind and unquestioning obedience to our leaders; our failure to educate all
our citizens; and our acceptance of a society based upon class distinctions
rather than the value of all people, paved the road for Pol Pot and his angry
and vengeful followers. Our neighboring countries and the rest of the world
allowed it to happen for a variety of reasons – primarily, of course,
5.How can we prevent or stop genocide from happening elsewhere? Genocide can target any group that a leader can identify
as different and dangerous. Hitler singled out the Jews as scapegoats. Pol Pot
made educated and “westernized” people the enemy. Genocide is a tool
practiced by a leader to satisfy his need for power and his own
self-interest. It appeals to fear and self interest in the
I can understand that the human mind is very sensitive and easy
The strategy for the Cambodian genocide was to convince the poor
and ignorant that the well-off people in the cities had adopted corrupt western
values and had supported a government (Lon Nol’s) that had caused great harm to
the poor. This created feelings of hate, a desire for revenge and a sense that
the corrupt city people were a danger to them. It is very important to know
that the KR leaders had the support of King Sihanook who had been deposed by
the Lon Nol government and the King wanted to regain his power at any
cost. The “Old People” revered the King and many KR followers
believed they were fighting for him – not for communism.
It was not only the poor and ignorant who joined the KR. To the
educated, the Khmer Rouge promised power in the new society and protection for
themselves and their families when the KR took power. The “join me now or
never” threat was effective.
Then there is another huge question: why did the rest
of the world turn a blind eye to genocide in Cambodia? When the
United States abandoned the war in Vietnam, an unintended
consequence was that Cambodia was left to the mercy of the radical
communists. The American people, weary of war and having suffered
the loss of tens of thousands of soldiers, may not have realized what would
happen to Cambodia, but the politicians in Washington and the leaders in the
United Nations surely did. As a consequence, Cambodians lived in the
darkness of Hell for almost four years. Where was the world? Where
was the outrage? Why didn’t the United Nations do something?
Genocide is still occurring in the world today and will continue
as long as it is allowed by the family of nations. The United
Nations was created to prevent such horror but has never been strong enough. The
UN needs to have a policy of immediate action when genocide is
reported. Leaders must understand that swift action will be taken to
protect victims. The western powers must assume leadership in this
basic protection of human rights. In the modern era of instant
worldwide communication, there is no excuse for not knowing genocide is
Prevention will require a different tactic. It
requires that we instill a value for human life in all societies around the
globe. There is an old Cambodian proverb that says to bend the bamboo when it
is young. That means that the way to create the kind of human
behavior that you want is to instill the proper values in the young.
Compassion, morality, love and respect for all life are the values that can
change the world. All the efforts of the United Nations should promote these
Schools and colleges around the globe should be encouraged to
support genocide studies – including hearing from survivors whose personal
experiences create reality from theory. Genocide books should be collected from
all countries and be translated and available in libraries.
The genocide in Cambodia was auto-genocide in which the leader
killed his own people and devastated his own country, just like what is happening
in Syria today. World leaders must come together to stop this. Individual
citizens must call upon their leaders to stop this.
6.Too often rape is used as a tool to instill fear and
repression . Why do men see sex as a weapon?
Rape is a devastating act of
domination and power. Its consequences are emotional, physical,
psychological and long lasting. It disrupts society at its most
basic level – the family. That makes it a very powerful weapon.
The individual rapist needs to assert
his power over a female because of his own inadequacies – however they came
The use of rape as a tool of war
leaves behind not just a defeated population but a shattered one. It
is immensely powerful to savage, debase, humiliate and impregnate women and
girls. It is immensely powerful to demonstrate to men that they
cannot protect their families. Destroying the enemy’s family
structure and stability - the very source of their strength –
works. That’s why rape is an effective tool.
The evil genius of terrorists is to
strike the innocents. Manuals on terrorism encourage attacks on
schools, for example. Terror is a powerful weapon. Terrorist
leaders understand this well and use it to increase their power.
We should treat rape the same as
genocide for it is genocide of the spirit. Rape violates not just
the woman but all who love her. The physical damage may heal but the
emotional damage remains for life. It is one of the vilest abuses of