Far From the Enormous Past: Under the Khmer Rouge We Were the Water Buffalo

Teacher Sath Yem, principal Sokan Sar, teacher Sopheap Cheam
  • Teacher Sath Yem, principal Sokan Sar, teacher Sopheap Cheam
  • Image by Joe Klein

In the dark Sopheap Cheam, ten, puts his foot through a body. A rotting, maggot-filled stomach, up to his calf. He yanks it out with a shudder. Grabs at the nearest leaves and starts frantically wiping away at his leg, flicking the maggots off, almost gagging at the smell.

Sopheap Cheam: “You! Do you realize how lucky you are? You only have to do schoolwork. When I was your age, I didn’t even know what school was! I fought for my life every day."

Sopheap Cheam: “You! Do you realize how lucky you are? You only have to do schoolwork. When I was your age, I didn’t even know what school was! I fought for my life every day."

It is midnight. The half-starved little boy is on a desperate mission to find his parents. He has escaped from a Khmer Rouge work camp for boys, has swum a river with a current almost strong enough to sweep his undernourished body away, and now, in the dark of night, creeps along a few yards from the patrolled footpaths through the bushes and trees toward his old family village.

He wipes his leg and starts off again, padding, padding. At least it wasn’t a land mine.

The moment flashes back as Sopheap Cheam stands in front of his Magic Marker board at the Cambodian temple school on 47th Street, writing the words “Phnom Penh” in the curlicue Cambodian script he’s teaching. Anger brought it back. Hearing his pupils behind him whisper excitedly to each other as the lesson nears its end. They should be concentrating, writing.

He whips around. Bangs his hand on the desk. “You! Do you realize how lucky you are? You only have to do schoolwork. When I was your age, I didn’t even know what school was! I fought for my life every day."

The children are suddenly quiet. Sopheap Cheam stands rigid. In the silence, through the bamboo curtain you can hear the monks chanting in the temple next door. For his pupils at times like these he is an old man, representing the far-distant past.

Souk So: “The Pol Pot time was bad. Really bad.”

Souk So: “The Pol Pot time was bad. Really bad.”

Old? Sopheap Cheam is 26. Never mind; 26 is old enough to have lived. Then. During the nightmare that brought them all to this unheard-of American town called San Diego, where a different kind of struggle would be waged to preserve their way of life.

Like the old people praying next door in the temple this Saturday morning, as the three golden-robed monks chant their offerings in Pali-Sanskrit, the ancient religious language of the East, Sopheap Cheam and these children know they are fighting upstream against the cultural tide, trying to maintain a world that the blithe hamburger culture of San Diego is ripping away from them, day by day, thread by thread.

David Tan: "Back home they would work six months in the year, then take it easy for six months. That’s what they are used to"

David Tan: "Back home they would work six months in the year, then take it easy for six months. That’s what they are used to"

Sopheap Cheam returns to writing on the board, long curled horizontal Ss below the letters to modify their pronunciation. But his mind is still in that other time and place.

That night, those many nights he escaped the Khmer Rouge labor camp for the desperate five-mile journey to see his parents, he never thought he would live more than a few months, let alone grow up and escape to another country and another life. All he knew was that he wanted to be with his mother and father. Whatever the consequences. When he finally sneaked into their hut about two o’clock that night, they greeted him with fright. “They had been warned by the Khmer Rouge. If I was caught with them again they would he punished. But I needed to see them so much. When the Khmer Rouge came for me in the morning, they had to tear me away from them, screaming. I hung on to my mother’s legs till they ripped me away. When they got me back, they tied me to the post like an animal.”

Hassina Lor: "My mother railed against the Khmer Rouge for “treating everybody like animals. Nobody did that and lived."

Hassina Lor: "My mother railed against the Khmer Rouge for “treating everybody like animals. Nobody did that and lived."

It’s not just the suffering. There’s conscience too that keeps coming back and making you sick with survivor’s guilt. Cheam and his best friend, also ten, the boy who sleeps next to him on the wallless floor of the labor camp, are returning from the day’s second trip up the mountain to bring back rocks to be crushed to make roads. They are weak and exhausted. They have to carry the rocks back across that river. Sopheap Cheam is a better swimmer, perhaps because of all his escapes. Halfway across, his friend stumbles. He is too afraid of being punished to let go of his rock. He goes under. Sopheap Cheam drops his rock, grabs him. The boy grabs back in a death grip. They are both pulled under. Sopheap Cheam suddenly fights to free himself. He thrusts his friend away, then lunges to the bank to find a vine to throw to him. But it is too late.

Over some of the OBS graffiti, the letters OKB have been scrawled in white chalk. “That’s the Oriental Killer Boys, mostly Lao. They’re the main enemy.”

Over some of the OBS graffiti, the letters OKB have been scrawled in white chalk. “That’s the Oriental Killer Boys, mostly Lao. They’re the main enemy.”

Back at the camp the leaders say, “So? He was stupid to fall. Stupid to drown. It was just one boy.”

When Cheam finally comes to America and sees TV shows like Rescue 911, he can’t believe that a nation could care so much about human life.

Sopheap Cheam looks straight at his class. All 34 of them, dressed in the Cambodian way, white shirts and blouses, girls with long, deep-blue skirts, boys with sandy-colored trousers, sitting erect at their desks in this carport-turned-classroom. “Do you realize how good your lives are?” he says. “When I was your age I never saw a pencil. I never saw a book. Your only problem is to do your schoolwork. You only need to study and you will have a good life. Nobody will kill you if you become educated, like they killed us. You don’t even have to get involved with the dirty life on the street like me. You can become lawyers and doctors.”

Monks chant at Precepts Day, when the faithful bring their sins for cleansing.

Monks chant at Precepts Day, when the faithful bring their sins for cleansing.

As always, he is making his mark. The faces are serious. The children are not throwing crumpled paper at each other as they do in the regular high school down the street. This is the reason Sopheap Cheam, San Diego Police Department community services officer, gives up his Saturdays and Sundays. To give some point to everything his generation and the generation before him went through, to give it meaning.

Officer Cheam is one of about 15,000 Cambodians currently living in San Diego. Each has a story, a hundred stories, of living and dying through the madness that took over their country between 1975 and 1979, when the Khmer Rouge came to power, when leader Pol Pot set the brutal tone.

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