We spoke with Sokphal Din, a survivor of the Cambodian Genocide, about his experiences.
In the four years that the Khmer Rouge ruled Cambodia, the savage regime claimed the lives of up to two million people. The Khmer Rouge stated that through their extremist methods, they were aiming to create the ‘Year Zero’. The Khmer Rouge wanted Cambodia to revert back to the ‘Golden Age’: a classless society by simply just eliminating all social classes.
Sokphal Din is a survivor of the genocide in Cambodia. He was forced to leave his home on the 17th April 1975 by the Khmer Rouge at the age of just 17. Sokphal went from living comfortably with his mother, father and three younger siblings in Phnom Penh to having to endure hard labour in the Killing Fields, residing in a refugee camp and being abandoned in a jungle. He was forced by the Khmer Rouge to become a soldier. Then, he was captured by the Vietnamese Army which held him in a brick oven. His story is a horrific example of how inhumane humanity can be…
Sokphal and his family were forced to leave their home when his father was at work. They were threatened by a soldier with a gun who stated that he would shoot them if they did not get out of the city and leave their home. The family “didn’t ask why, didn’t lock the door… didn’t think to do anything else… didn’t take anything with” them, they just obeyed the soldier and left their home. Sokphal’s father was at work, wearing military uniform and had to change as the Khmer Rouge were killing anyone associated with the existing military in Cambodia.
Sokphal, his family and extended family were eventually taken to a labour camp. Sokphal had to work seven days a week in farms, fields, rice paddies all while being underneath the scolding sun. He only was allowed to eat three spoonsful of rice a day. Anyone who didn’t follow through with their orders were either beaten and tortured or killed. This was the bleak reality of what many had to go through, which thousands did not sur- vive. As his father used to work for the old Cambodian military, he was sent back to Phnom Penh to be ‘re-educated’ for three months away from his family. The family waited for weeks but received no news.
The Khmer Rouge told Sokphal and his family they were finally going to leave the monstrous labour camp to be reunited with their family. However, this was all a lie.
The family were abandoned in a forest, where Sokphal’s grandmother sadly passed away. After Sokphal was taken back to work in a labour camp, his 6-year-old brother died from malaria.
‘The Khmer Rouge told Sokphal and his family they were finally going to leave the monstrous labour camp to be reunited with their family. However, this was all a lie. ‘
Sokphal was forced to train as a soldier for the Khmer Rouge, then was captured by the Vietnamese army who thought he’d trained as a soldier by his own free will. He was then taken to a brick oven, where Sokphal thought he was going to be burnt alive, but later he was moved to a prison in Siem Reap. In this prison he was tortured and interrogated for many months. Finally, another prisoner fortunately managed to negotiate Sokphal and his own release.
While Sokphal was in the prison, his mother asked for him and journeyed to Siem Reap. The family were then reunited and desperately tried to escape Cambodia. Eventually, the family made it to a refugee camp at the Thai border, where they waited to be allowed access to another country. The family was able to get in contact with a cousin in England, who sponsored them through the Red Cross. Sokphal and his family arrived in England on the 4th August 1987.
Our thought: Our country has helped before, we should be doing more now to raise awareness of genocides currently happening around the world.
An interview with Sokphal
Sokphal’s story began like any other, he studied and observed the victory of the Khmer Rouge who alongside North Vietnam fought the Khmer Republic, Viet Cong and the Mao Zedong Communist party in the Cambodian Civil War. The party quickly began to take the actions necessary to enforce their ideology on a national scale. This was when, on the 17th April 1975, Sokphal and his family were forcefully removed from their home and made to work in one of the many labour camps across the country. Sokphal faced a multitude of horrors such as working in the Killing Fields, facing abandonment in the jungle, witnessing the death of his grandmother, and the guilt faced due to his absence during his brother’s death in the labour camp where he had previously been stationed.
Q: Prior to the genocide were there any warning signs of what was to come?
Sokphal replied that there were no warning signs. During our conversation he spoke fondly of his childhood and even expressed that prior to the genocide he was just a normal student like us and that he was planning on becoming a doctor. He had great ambitions which were stripped away from him by a heartless, discriminatory regime. That is why it is so important to raise awareness of genocides as there are not any really warning signs before a genocide is committed.
Q: Why do you think it is important to raise awareness on the issue of genocide?
Sokphal expressed joy in the interest we took in his experience. He was more than happy to share his story with us, which was inspirational. The reason he was so prepared to share his story was his desire to raise awareness, and to educate younger people, who perhaps had never even previously heard of the genocide in Cambodia. He stated to us how his life had previously been very much normal, and in many ways similar to the lives we live today, and it changed drastically in a matter of hours – the most striking element of his story was his age, which was very close to ours. It was something which really gave us a perspective, and allowed us to reflect on our own lives, and how we often take things for granted and we forget to appreciate the safety and security we have, which is exactly what Sokphal wanted. He shares his story hoping it will prevent something so tragic from happening again, but also to inspire younger generations who live in a secure environment.
Q: How does your work reflect the memory of your family?
Sokphal explained that by showing awareness to the wider society he would also be sharing the loss of his family and by doing this he would be honouring their memory. Throughout his experience he explained that not only did he lose his family, but he also lost his home, his schooling, and his friends. In this he shared that he felt alone and didn’t know what to do after losing them, “Tears in my eye, I imagined my home.” Although he had to go through this tough experience alone, he continues to share his experience so that people, mainly the younger generation, can learn to appreciate their family and show kindness and respect towards them, as they are the most important people we have in our lives.
His story taught us just how important it is to raise awareness for genocide, especially as it is ever present in our world today. However, these issues are still very much overlooked, and it is tragic that we live in a society where these travesties still happen. It is also astonish- ing just how little knowledge young people such as ourselves have about it. The first thing people think of at the mention of the word “genocide” is the Holocaust. Which, whilst still a significant event, is far from being the only genocide to occur, and Sokphal’s story is proof of this. The opportunity to interview Sokphal allowed us to gain a new perspective; we learnt about an event which, admittedly, we had no previous knowledge about, and it opened our eyes to the first-hand trauma experienced by the survivors of genocides. Survivors such as Sokphal are very brave to have experienced these events and manage to live a normal, peaceful life, and go on to edu- cate younger people, such as our group.
A poem for Sokphal
It was early one morning as the sun stretched across the room, When a knock on the door disturbed our peace
a solider entered pointing his gun at us
His patriotic colours shone so clear
And his words which still linger in my head
“get out or I will shoot you”
Education was their treasure
They promised Phom Penh for study and promised people came back They promised us hope and everything in between
So my father left, with a with a vow
To care for my family and wear his necklace proud
They promised me my father but I never got him back
They tricked us into thinking we would all
but day and night in a deserted jungle
With no water, no food, no hope, no place to call home That’s when I knew I would never see my father again we hope and hoped for the impossible
But it never came
They let Grandma starve until one morning she left us too After hard days of labour and toil
They separated me from my family once more
Leaving my promise to my father broken
I can hear my brother screaming, crying out for me
You took my brother away from me
You took my family away from me
You took normality away from me