Jessie’s Khmer Rouge Interview

We’re preparing for a weekend trip to the south coast of Cambodia, where we will observe, analyze, and immerse ourselves in the Natural World components of the SST experience. Before that, though, we wanted to hear from another student’s perspective, this time from Jessie, who wrote in her journal about her experience with interviewing her host father about his time in the Khmer Rouge period.

From Jessie’s journal (with permission):

My (host) father taught me more about the Khmer Rouge Regime history, and his own personal history. I was about to take a shower when my dad said that after I shower he will tell me about the Khmer Rouge. I brought my notebook in to take notes, but it seemed rude to me to stop hm and take notes while he was telling his personal story. He told me that his daughters learn about the Khmer Rouge on the internet, and he will only tell them his story if they ask.

He told me that when the Khmer Rouge invaded Phnom Penh [April 17, 1975], people had been going about their daily lives. There was no preparation or warning of the invasion. The Khmer Rouge told people on the west side to travel west out of the city and people on the east side to travel east out of the city. That day children had school and their parents could not pick them up and they were separated. The Khmer Rouge called themselves the Angkar and were cruel.

People who evacuated the city lived in the countryside. As people evacuated the city, mice and rats began to invade because there was no one to scare them off. My dad lived in the countryside. Every morning a bell would ring at 4 a.m. and everyone had to get up to work. They used a torch to light the way to the fields. For a meal one pot of rice and a little bit of milk fed 30 people.

Husbands and wives could not see each other and parents could not see their children. Everyone was divided up into groups of age and gender. The Khmer Rouge used the potato root to tie up people in order to kill them. My dad saw with his eyes people being buried alive. He had to close his eyes and not say a word as his brother was killed. He said the Khmer Rouge soldiers would walk around at night and kill anyone who was talking badly about the Khmer Rouge.

All possessions were lost. My dad gave up his watch to a soldier. Anyone who refused to hand over their possessions was shot. My dad says that it makes his heart hurt and his brain throb when he tells the stories. He does not have words to describe the pain.

He does not support the Khmer Rouge trials because he believes they are useless. The people on trial are too old.

I feel honored that my dad trusted me enough to tell me more about his personal experience during the Khmer Rouge time. I do not know the pain he went through, and I know he cannot describe it in words. I have not heard anyone tell me a tragedy like this — to lose a family member while not being able to say anything about it. Some of our Khmer lecturers have talked about how passive the Cambodian culture is, but I would like to add how strong and courageous they are to face every day after experiencing a horrible past. I see strength in my dad’s survival story.


  1. Barb Smucker says

    Thank you for sharing this post. It was an incredibly moving story. I see courage here too and so much graciousness as they have chosen to host an American student, saying YES to life, when it would be so easy to say no. May this conversation bring a blessing. We are so proud of you Jess and so happy that you are having this incredible opportunity. Keith, Ann and family….We devour the posts and photos. Many many thanks for all you are doing. You and all the SSTers are in our prayers.

  2. Sheri Smucker says

    Hi Jessie, what a powerful story! I am so glad you are getting to have this experience. Surviving great tragedy can cause people to become silent – seemingly passive. But you are right that it actually shows great strength and perseverance in the face unspeakable evil.

  3. Marlyn Yungk says

    Jessie, What a moving story. We, in the west, cannot imagine such horror. It was good of your host to share these painful experiences. Gram

  4. Nancy Ross-Zimmerman says

    Thank you, Jessie, for sharing such a horrific story of courage, heartbreak and loss. The Cambodian people are indeed strong and humble at the same time. I pray that your time among these brothers and sisters will be a blessing to you, as you are, no doubt, being to them. ‘hope this birthday always stands out as the beginning of an amazing year! Happy birthday, Jessie!!

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