Rith was only six years old when he was taken from his parents and sent by the Khmer Rouge to the fields to work as a laborer. He wouldn’t see them again until he was 11. He was moved to eastern Cambodia to live in a Communist stronghold. The potholes he saw along the way were from U.S. bombings, he was told. In actuality, the Khmer Rouge was behind them.
Eventually, Rith landed 600 kilometers from his home in Phnom Penh; his brother was sent to a different area entirely. Rith wasn’t tortured, at least not outright—he worked in the jungles daily, where all the people were starving, though. He lived in a hut under a tree, in the same conditions as the soldiers. The laborers stayed a week or two at each site, building irrigation systems for rice fields. All the children from ages six to 10 were in similar scenarios, separated from their families and destined to a life in the fields.
One man was behind this all: a dictator by the name of Pol Pot. Fueled by Vietnam’s Communist movement, Pol Pot—meaning “Political Potential”—wanted to create a regime without rich or poor. He started dividing people into groups and sought to cleanse the cities of the rich. They were sent to the fields to work; these doctors, professors and other city people became the slaves and prisoners.
Originally, the Khmer Rouge followed Vietnam, but then began to get paranoid that the Vietnamese would rise to power and take over. And so, Pol Pot aimed to kill anyone who followed Vietnam and keep anyone who was loyal to China. In the end, it was the Vietnamese who would run the Khmer Rouge out of the capital in 1979, though they maintained a presence in western Cambodia near the Thai border until the party dissolved for good in December 1999.
What’s even more interesting is that nobody knew who Pol Pot was until the Khmer Rouge had fallen; his identity didn’t come out until after the war. Around 2.5 million people died under his watch, not just from torture but from disease, starvation, overwork and political repression. The population of Cambodia at the time was just 8 million.
The rich and those with careers were sent to the “re-education centers” by Pol Pot and were not so “lucky;” they were tortured, for a myriad of reasons: Because they were educated, because they had had big bellies, because they wore glasses. The justifications were endless.
The Khmer Rouge sought out some educated people to work for them—such as engineers to build bridges—giving them a glimmer of hope that they might live…and then killed them once they had served their purpose because they “knew too much.” Out of the 17,000 educated souls the Khmer Rouge brought in, only seven lived. Pol Pot himself died in 1998; he was never put on trial. In fact, after his party fell, he went back to his hometown to become a high school teacher.
Rith’s parents were educated members of society, but they lied about their professions for their lives. His mom, a teacher, said she was a seller, and his dad, who worked at the palace, told them he was a farmer.
When the Khmer Rouge first came to collect Rith, they told him he was leaving the city for three days for his own safety and that he would be back home soon. After three weeks separated from his family, he realized he might never see them again. “My friends were dying daily from malaria, starvation and dengue fever,” he recalls. “Every time I wanted to see my parents, I tried to refresh my mind to preserve the memory of them. I tried to describe to my friends the city [Phnom Penh], but I couldn’t remember the words.”
The Khmer Rouge continued with their brainwashing of Cambodia’s youth.
“They told me we didn’t have enough food because the enemy—the Americans and the Vietnamese—destroyed the country. I had no idea the bad and the good. The Khmer Rouge were like my parents. They gave me food, they fed me. I had no idea about the world—I just knew the enemies, and the enemies were who they told me. I believed them how bad the world was, the Americans and the Vietnamese.”
The Khmer Rouge also told the children that parents were not important for girls and boys. Working in the fields was their school; that was their books. After the regime ended in 1979, many of the survivors went to real school—many for the first time. “We hadn’t learned to read, we hadn’t learned to write. Everyone had to start from the beginning,” Rith says.
Rith’s earliest memories were the sounds of bombing. “You had to be strong and keep away from the fighting.” Survival was more a mental game than anything.
When he was 11, Rith returned to Phnom Penh in search of his family. He arrived at his house to find it destroyed. There was, however, a glimmer of hope left behind: His dad had pinned a note on the wall. “I am still alive. Wait here.” It also had his name on it. But back then in Cambodia, the children didn’t know their names. They were taken at such young ages and renamed by the Khmer Rouge.
On a leap of faith, Rith waited. And he returned every day, until eventually his dad came back, too. They were reunited, but his mom was still missing. There was a local community center where the people would come to get food daily and also read out the names of the survivors who had returned in search of their families. After months of searching for his wife, Rith’s father got up one day and spoke over the loudspeaker. Rith’s mom, who was present, heard the announcement and recognized his voice. The family finally was reunited after five harsh years.
Still, today—more than three decades later—many have not been reunited with their families as they didn’t know their family-given name to respond when they were called over the loud speaker.
For me the most interesting part of visiting Cambodia was not the temples at Angkor, but rather learning about the ramifications of the Pol Pot regime. It’s the epitome of dark tourism, but it’s also a glimpse of living history. In the U.S. education system, we learn so little about what has happened over time outside of our own borders—not the Vel’ d’Hiv in France and most definitely not the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia—that it’s disgraceful, not to mention disrespectful.
Rith, who is now nearing 40, just happened to be our tour guide on our Semester at Sea trip and was open to discussing his own childhood experiences with me and one of the other students, Jordan. I can’t imagine having a job like his where you relive your harrowing past every day of your life.
Many of the famous sites in Cambodia pay homage to those affected by the Khmer Rouge. In Phnom Penh, you’ll find the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum (also called S-21), which offers a brutal and realistic image of the cells and torture chambers were thousands were kept and killed.
The Killing Fields, scattered throughout the Cambodian countryside, are even more disturbing: The 20,000 mass graves hold more than one million bodies. 8,995 skulls tower inside a central memorial at Choeung Ek. In Siem Reap, the Landmine Museum is a collection of decommissioned mines, bombs and other explosive remnants of the war.