Choeung Chuord and Sarou Vong

Interview by Sophay Duch Ferreira

To the left, my mother, Sopheap Duch, giving me tips on interviewing; at the back the oldest woman in the group, age 80, Vat Nob; Choeung Chuord, center; and to the right, Sambat Oun. They are asking me what I want to know.

I enter a small apartment in Long Beach. A Buddhist shrine is adorned with gold leaf; everything seems to be symmetrically in order. It nicely stands on the right side of the room. Familiar faces and welcoming voices guide me through the room. Although there is furniture in the room, everyone is on the floor, relaxing and chatting away. “This is all I have,” Choeung Chuord (Om Mallee/Auntie Mallee) says as she helps me to sit down on her yellow and red mat. I automatically feel at home, although I am nervous. I hope that the interview will go well. Although I am supposed to be interviewing Om Mallee, there are four other women in the room: Sarou Vong, Sambat Oun, Vat Nobb, and Sopheap Duch, my mother. Cambodian music is playing in the background.

Before we could begin the interview, Om Mallee orders me to sit down, and tells me I must eat before we start. She goes off to the kitchen to make steamed rice for me while a pot of curry boils over the humble stove. “Don’t call me stingy with meat! I love vegetables, and there isn’t going to be a lot of meat,” she says teasingly.

This interview focuses primarily on the stories of two women: Choeung Chuord (Auntie Mallee) and Sarou Vong (Auntie Rru). I address them as “Om”, meaning “Auntie”, the formal ways to address elders in Cambodia, whether or nor they are blood related. In Cambodia and in the Cambodian community in the U.S., you address even strangers respectfully as Aunt, Uncle, Grandma or Grandpa, depending on their age.

 Choeung Chuord (Om Mallee) speaks about her experience in Cambodia and her background.

Choeung Chuord (Om Mallee) was born in Siem Reap, Cambodia to a farming family that grew rice, watercress and potatoes. In 1975, her family suffered under the Khmer Rouge for two to three months before they ran and escaped to a refugee camp in Thailand. Conditions in the camp were difficult. “There was food to eat, but there was not enough.”  Food was distributed on different days of the week. Mondays, rice; Tuesday, meat; Friday, vegetables.

In 1980, after living for five years in the refugee camp in Thailand, she came to San Francisco through the sponsorship of a refugee resettlement organization. She later moved down to Southern California where the Cambodian community was beginning to settle. She was one of the first waves of Cambodians to migrate as refugees to the U.S. At that time there were no Cambodian institutions or communities like there are today.

How was it for you when you came here?

“It was hard. I didn't know much. I had a $50 or $20, and I didn't know how to read the numbers. And [at the store], I would only get a small amount of things, fearing that it would not be enough. Whether it costs $20 dollars or $30 dollars, I wouldn't know. I would just guess. So if I have two bills than I will only buy three things. Because I was afraid it would not be enough. So I would just get a small amount hoping that they will give me change back. And they gave me change and I didn't know how much it was either.”

Sarou Vong (Om Rru) speaks on her experience in her hometown of Siem Riep, Cambodia

Sarou Vong (Om Rru) was born in Cambodia, in the state of Siem Riep, in the city of Salie Snom.  She was also from a farming family that grew “rice, potatoes and everything to provide for life.”  In 1970, when she was fifteen years old, her hometown of Salie Snom was affected by war.  At that time, the secret bombing of Cambodia had already begun by the U.S. military, code named “Operation Menu.”  For Om Rru this meant war and fighting in her town: “It was the Vietnamese, the Vietnamese soldiers and the Khmer Rouge also.”  For safety, she ran to hide in the nearby jungle forest and other villages for a year, until 1971.

“In 1971 and almost 1972, the Khmer Rouge started clearing out my village. Cleared it all out towards the other mountain village. So I ran out from the forest because the village was getting a little better and the Khmer Rouge went back into the forest and the country was a little better. Then in 1975, the Khmer Rouge came into power, all over the entire country.”

What was life like under the Khmer Rouge?

Om Mallee and Om Rru:

“The Khmer Rouge told us to go back to our village. They said they will not allow soldiers or any war to happen again. They declared that we were free and independent. And so we all went back to our villages.  After that the Khmer Rouge started separating people. Soldiers, merchants, the wealthy were separated. They kept us living in the village.

“1975, 1976,1977, these were the hardest times. There was nothing. There were potatoes that grew in the forest, and I would boil down the leaves of the potatoes. There was also some pumpkins that we would eat with snails and other things. They wanted us to produce rice crops of 100 tons.  Now where were we going to find 100 tons? They gave nothing to eat and they wanted us to produce so much.

“There were some years we had water and other years we didn't have water for the rice paddies.  And whatever rice we produced, they took it all and they didn't let us keep any to eat.  They gave us rice based on our family size. But it was never enough, and if you asked for more, they would say that you ate too much.  And it was not enough.  When it was time to eat, they would gather everyone together and we would all eat together. They called it communal eating.”

Escaping Death under the Khmer Rouge

During what is known as the Cambodian Genocide, led by Pol Pot of the Khmer Rouge, more than 1.7 million Cambodians were murdered — 21 percent of the country’s population.  This period lasted from 1975-1979.

Om Rru: “Soldiers, teachers, merchants all lived separately. And the farmers all lived in the villages. Soldiers were sent to be killed. Teachers were sent to be killed. Merchants were sent to be killed. They took them out of the common people. If you were educated, they would take you to another village. This means you would be killed. And so my family was sent to be killed that day, at the end of 1977.

“They took them and tied them up. They were lined up to be killed. So knowing this, my family ran away. They placed me in another spot, a secure place. So they could kill us one by one. They took the males first. Women would be taken later. In that year, the males would be sent to get killed first, the women were kept to be killed five months after. And there was nothing to eat. There was only rice porridge and vegetable and water. No fish, meat or anything. Going into 1977 and 1978, it was the season to work on the rice paddies, and so then they moved the women into another village.

“In 1978, they started to clear us out again. This was the end point and the ditch was already dug. They were prepared to kill me. They said I was a jac com bot, a trader. They didn't know anything; it was accusations. It was all up to them. They just accused. Then, the night before the Vietnamese came in, they had already dug a ditch, and we were all lined up and they hit us behind the neck. They hit me on the back of my head and I fainted. If they hit me again, for sure I would have been dead. All of a sudden, the Vietnamese starting firing. The Red Khmers ran off. So I just ran.

“Then the people that were supposed to be killed at that moment ran towards the sound of the Vietnamese.  The Vietnamese fired upwards and the Khmer fired towards the people. There were about ten boats and everyone ran to it, both young and old. The young kids who were able to swim also went towards the boat. And the Red Khmers kept firing towards people like me and the Vietnamese kept firing up.  I kept running and holding on to my child. It was so hard. I ran towards another village to find my father and mother.”

Om Rru's family had managed to get to a refugee village in Thailand. All of Om Ru's four siblings were killed. In 1979, her family got the news that she was still alive and helped her to escape to Thailand. From the refugee camp in Thailand, Om Rru came to California.

How did your Buddhist faith help you?

Om Rru:

“In the forest in Thailand, I started to pray. I prayed that if I made it out alive, I would shave all my hair and do charity work. This is what I prayed. Khmer Buddhists, when we pray, this what we say. And when you pray, when you say it, you must then do it. So after I shaved off all my hair, and made it to my family, I bought chickens and ducks to do an offering, because this is my Buddhist faith. You cannot see them, but every mountain and every place has a spirit that will guide you to a safe place.”

The interviewer, Sophay Duch Ferreira, as a small child with her grandma Somaly, and her two aunts on the side. Standing outside of their local Buddhist Temple in Cambodia.

How did you become involved in this charity work? Why do you do it?

In 2005, Om Mallee, along with the other women in the room, began to involve themselves in raising money for the poor in Cambodia. A Cambodian Buddhist monk, living in Ohio, invited them and others to help people back in Cambodia.

Om Rru:

“Whatever you have, whether it be $1, $10, $50, or $100. It depends on what you have and what you are willing to give. We would all collect and count it together. After a year, we bring it all to Cambodia.  We give whatever we have. Other people decided to join us. If in one year we have $1,000 dollars, we give it away in Cambodia. It makes us feel really good.”

Om Mallee: “The reason why I started helping people and doing charity work was because I felt for people.  You feel good because you are helping someone eat.”

Om Rru: “You also know how it was to not eat and not have anything. They are so afraid.”

How do you make sense of the genocide?

Om Rru:

Khmers never killed other Khmers. Khmers are honest, but there are people of other races that made Khmers kill each other. There’s no Khmers deciding to kill other Khmers.  Imagine that I am working at the top: what is your race? What they are trying to do is to have Khmers kill each other so they can have our land. And so Khmer people will have a bad reputation of killing each other and the other race will stay clean.

(Sophay: So how do you know of this?)

Om Rru (placing her hands on her heart):  I say this because I feel this is what happened. I don’t know it by someone telling me. I know it from my own feelings. Khmers don’t kill each other. I became very suspicious in how the government was run. I didn’t believe that our people can kill each other like that without some kind of foreign influence. I am almost 60 now and I understand my feelings. If there were not foreign influence, Khmers would not kill other Khmers.”

As a person of faith, when the Khmer Rouge was hurting you, were you angry? At God, or at anyone else?

Om Rru: “I am not mad at anyone, or God. I am not angry at the Khmer Rouge.
Om Mallee: “We cannot see God, but we kept praying.”
Om Rru: “We kept praying, we prayed to everything that we cannot see.”

On Forgiveness

As the first generation after the genocide, I was always angry and grew up angry at everything. I was angry about what happened to my birth country. I was angry about my family’s mental state. And I was FURIOUS that many of the people who led the genocide were still alive and are still on trial. I had to ask the question on anger. Surprisingly, Om Rru said that she has forgiven everyone involved with genocide. When asked about the open trials that are now going on, Om Rru said she is not interested in listening or paying attention to it because she has let it go already. She says it will not bring her dead siblings and all the other people who were murdered back to life. She encourages all of us to move forward and forgive. When witnessing a person who has gone through such tragedies forgive, there is a positive force that moves around. I sensed the power of forgiveness for the first time. All of the women I spoke to told me that they have left the baggage of anger and vengeance behind so I should not carry it for them. Have faith and let go of the things that will damage the soul: this is what I learned from these women. I came away from the interview with a light heart and spirit full of life. I have experienced the power of storytelling. Storytelling speaks to not only the mind but also the soul. I feel very much connected with my roots, feel proud, and have found new faith.