Friday, February 1, 2013

Interview With A Genocide Survivor

Interview 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 youth.

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 Zero.

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 Thailand. 

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 re-occurrence.

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 scarred.

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, self-interest. 

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 followers.

I can understand that the human mind is very sensitive and easy to manipulate.   

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 happening.

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 values.

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 about. 

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 power.

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by Warren Adler

Brian Feinblum’s views, opinions, and ideas expressed in this blog are his alone and not that of his employer, the nation’s largest book promoter. You can follow him on Twitter @theprexpert and email him at He feels more important when discussed in the third-person. This blog is copyrighted material by BookMarketingBuzzBlog 2013 ©

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