People you know may have lived through dark history

January 22, 2014 

Strange how you can see someone weekly for years — maybe someone who works in your neighborhood, or who you see often in your travels — and you might not have the slightest clue about their background.

There are two people I know. One works in the Gig Harbor area. Another works in a café in the San Francisco area, where I’ve been countless times throughout the years while I’ve been there for work.

After a thousand waves and conversations about everyday things, they’ve decided to share their stories.

They both come from Cambodia. Both were young, Chann about 8, Bopha about 15, when they lived there in the 1970s.

Does this place and time sound familiar? Have you seen the move “The Killing Fields?” That period of history is marred by one of the world’s worst human catastrophes.

About 1 million Cambodians were murdered by a communist regime known as the Khmer Rouge, headed by its leader, Pol Pot. He emptied the cities in an attempt to return Cambodian society to a pure agrarian-totalitarian state.

Anyone who demonstrated the slightest education was a target. They could be teachers, journalists and business owners, someone listening to a radio, reading a newspaper, or even wearing glasses.

Chann found himself in a work-concentration camp. Those still alive were at the edge of starvation. He found himself in the position — at 8 years old — of being asked to “inform” on anyone whom he saw exhibiting anti-revolutionary behavior: praying, “shirking work,” etc.

When he told the Khmer Rouge he had no one to inform on, he was punished or starved. He quickly learned if he wanted to survive, he would have to tell them something.

That involved saying things that weren’t true. He watched those he “informed” on be punished or worse.

That’s what an 8-year-old learned to do to stay alive. Chann tells me he still lives with those memories.

Bopha and her parents and brother were driven from where they lived and force-marched into the jungle. They managed to slip away and hide.

They built a lean-to out of tree branches, planted vegetables from seeds they had in their pockets, and snuck into the vicinity of some of the work camps at night to gather produce from the farms that were used to supply Khmer Rouge guards and commanders.

At one time, she and her parents discovered an abandoned village. There were piles of partially decomposed bodies and skeletons, and many families were found shot dead inside their homes.

After several months, Bopha and her family escaped across the border into Thailand and eventually were granted asylum in the United States.

When I asked Bopha and Chann if the movie “The Killing Fields” aptly characterized the situation they lived through, they said it didn’t even begin to represent it.

Now, when I see someone who appears to be Cambodian and looks to be about in their late 40s or older, circumstances permitting, I’ll ask about their history. Sometimes people want to talk, sometimes not, but I’ve been spellbound several times.

The Tacoma area has a significant Cambodian community, and many work in Gig Harbor. So the next time you run into someone you see frequently, delivering your mail on Harborview Drive, behind a cash register at Uptown, or fixing your furnace on Rosedale Street, if they look like they’re from Southeast Asia, ask where they’re from.

If you think you’re sufficiently acquainted, maybe steer the conversation in a different direction. You may be surprised.

Joe Siegel is a former columnist for The Peninsula Gateway. He lives on Fox Island.

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