It’s been three decades since the Khmer Rouge killing fields, and Sochanny Meng still has nightmares. Meng, 49, came to the United States as a refugee from Cambodia, where between 1975 and 1979 the brutal Khmer Rouge regime killed 1.7 million people – one-fifth of the country’s population – through overwork, starvation, torture and execution.
“Why my people killed my people like that … I don’t understand that,” says Meng, whose mother was executed by the Khmer Rouge. “I still don’t understand.”
In April, Meng will sit down in front of a camera for an interview about his past. What happened to him in Cambodia? What did he see? How did he survive? His questioners won’t be historians, reporters or documentarians but his American-born sons, 20 year-old twins Kenny and Jimmy.
The family is part of an oral history documentary project organized by the Cambodian-American Community of Oregon (CACO). With $60,000 in grants from the Northwest Health Foundation and Vision into Action, CACO is training Cambodian-American youths to interview their own parents and grandparents about their experiences under the Khmer Rouge. The interviews will be filmed and compiled into a 20-minute documentary, which will screen for the community and the public in August.
CACO President Mardine Mao says many of the community’s elders have rarely – if ever – spoken about their history before. Instead, they try their hardest to bury the painful memories.
“We feel like our younger generation don’t know much (about what happened), because their parents don’t tell them,” Mao says. “We’re asking them, basically, to open up a can of worms.”
The Khmer Rouge rose to power in Cambodia after years of guerilla warfare, aggravated by spillover from the U.S. campaign in Vietnam. Led by Pol Pot, the totalitarian regime imposed a radical system of agrarian communism, forcing millions of people out of cities and into farm labor camps. Children were separated from their families to be indoctrinated, put to work and sometimes trained as child soldiers. People who were educated, in ethnic minorities, religious or accused of disagreeing with the ruling party were tortured and killed.
Oregon and Southwest Washington are home to an estimated 5,000 to 10,000 Cambodian-Americans, many of whom lived through the Khmer Rouge years and came here as refugees in the early 1980s. Mao says many people in the community are still plagued by nightmares and post-traumatic stress – they may have stomachaches they can’t explain, or mistake celebratory fireworks for wartime bombs.
Between wariness of Western doctors and the stigma associated with mental health issues, many Cambodian-Americans are reluctant to seek treatment, according to Leakhena Nou, a sociology professor at California State University in Long Beach. Nou has studied Cambodian populations in both the U.S. and Cambodia.
Instead, emotional distress often manifests in other ways. Nou says Cambodian-Americans have high rates of diabetes and stroke, as well as problems with drug addiction, alcoholism and family violence.
“There are lingering effects of this trauma,” Nou says. “When you cut yourself, a deep cut, and there’s a scar – no matter what you try to do, the scar remains. That’s how I see the state of mind for the Cambodians.”
Mao hopes the oral history project will accomplish three things: raise public awareness of the Khmer Rouge atrocities, help Cambodian-American youth understand where their families came from, and give Khmer Rouge survivors some catharsis so the community can begin to mend.
“The process of talking itself, the process of hearing the story – it’s a healing process,” Mao says.
Of course, remembering can be traumatic in itself. Nou says that some refugees are afraid to tell their stories, especially in public forums, because “there is still a real fear that the Khmer Rouge will come back and harm them.”