Escaping Genocide, Finding Trauma

Sep. 20, 2011 / By

Written by Sophinarath Cheang, Voicewaves Youth Journalist.

Roth Prum at a workshop conducted by the Applied Social Research Institute of Cambodia.

It’s been almost 30 years since Roth Prum, 65, saw Cambodia.  She is just one, of many, of the third wave of Khmer Rouge survivors who came to the United States in 1983.  Living alone in Long Beach, a city home to many other Khmer Rouge survivors, she struggles with trauma after the brutal genocide.

Roth lost 17 family members during the Khmer Rouge regime.  “I live alone in Long Beach. I have two sisters but they live in Pomona,” she says.  From 1975 to 1979, Cambodia became known as the “Killing Fields” as a result of the horrific murders committed by Khmer Rouge leaders and soldiers.  Although it’s been a little more than 30 years since, it has left victims grappling with difficult psychological pain.

According to Khmer Health Advocates, an organization in Connecticut focusing on health disparities in the Cambodian community, treatment of victims of torture, and development of the Cambodian American Medical Home Program, Cambodian refugees have suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder and depression that link to other health consequences such as diabetes and cardiovascular disease.

“I feel stressed sometimes.  I still dream about what I saw during the Pol Pot regime,” Roth says.  “People are dying and being killed.  I was tortured and forced to work as an ox to plow the rice field.  I am a human being but I was used as an animal.  I worked since the early morning until late at night.”  During the regime Prum became ill and thought that she would not be able to survive.  She explains further,  “There wasn’t any kind of medication whatsoever.  They gave you ach tonsay [rabbit’s feces] medicine.  We didn’t know what it was made of exactly.”  This lack of proper medical treatment resulted in Roth Prum’s eye inflammation, unaffected by ach tonsay, which was not cured until she arrived in the U.S. years later.

There are many reasons that lead to this trauma.

For over a decade leading into the Killing Fields, Cambodians suffered from a ceaseless onslaught of wars.  During the Khmer Rouge alone, two million people were killed, 90% of whom were doctors, professors, and skilled professionals.  People were starved, tortured and killed.  Families were separated and children were brainwashed to turn away from the family.

Escaping the Khmer Rouge to the border of Thailand was a truly nightmare.  Roth remembers walking day and night without food while chased by the Vietnamese soldiers.  “I walked without a clear sense of a destination. I didn’t know what way I should walk so I followed others,” she says.  “People were dying from stepping on land mines, starving, and diseases.  Some had to leave their family behind to save their own lives.  Mothers so sick that they could not walk were abandoned by their families, who would otherwise risk capture by the Vietnamese or Thai soldiers.”

Over a million people lived in the refugee camps along the border of Thailand and Cambodia, hoping to enter the “third countries,” like the United States.  There were 190,000 Khmer Rouge survivors who fled to the United States.  Prior to entering the new third countries, they suffered from many tragedies.  According to Khmer Health Advocates, “Forty-eight percent of Cambodians came to the United States as refugees and spent an average of four years in refugee camps.”  In addition to undernourishment during the Khmer Rouge, refugees faced more tragedy: lack of food, medication, shelter, and sexual abuses on women.

Difficult situations didn’t end after the refugees arrived in the U.S.

Roth Prum recalls feeling so lost.  She remembers being hungry with no place to go.  “They told me to go to a place where food would be offered.  I went there and I signed up.  I sat down and waited for my name to be called.  I didn’t hear my name and everyone was gone.  I felt so lost and very hungry, so I cried.”  She didn’t give up and went there the next day.  But it was the same; her name was not called.  “I finally asked them why my name was not called, and I realized that I hadn’t understood when they called my name.  They said my name incorrectly,” she explains.  On that second day, she could no longer hold the hunger.  “I ended up digging for food in the trash. I cried.  I was helpless,” she adds.

Roth Prum’s story is just one example of the tragedies that many Cambodians faced during wartime Cambodia.  Human beings can only adjust to a certain level of trauma, and after so much, problems with mental and physical health inevitably result.  Mary Scully, program director at Khmer Health Advocates, says, “Cambodians have an average of 15 major trauma events in their lives.  A recent study showed that at 15 events, only few people do not have Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.  A link has been made between PTSD and depression, diabetes and cardiovascular disease.”

Khmer Health Advocates recently started a program, called Long Beach Legacy Coalition, with the United Cambodian Community and three other organizations that focus on “issues of diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and mental health,” according to Scully.  The project will provide members of the Cambodian community the opportunity to speak about their needs.  “It will give Cambodians a strong voice by developing community-based programs and advocacy,” said Mary Scully.

Khmer Health Advocates is also asking Congress for a hearing on Cambodian health issues.  “Cambodians have complex health problems and although they have access to health care, this does not include Khmer-speaking problem solvers that are essential to improving health outcomes for the community,” Mary Scully explained. “Currently we are working with Congresswoman Judy Chu’s office and the Congressional Asian and Pacific American Caucus.”

In Cambodia, the top five Khmer Rouge leaders are being prosecuted in the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia.  Pol Pot, leader of the radical communists, died before the trial opened. Kaing Guek Ev, known as Comrade Duch, head of the S21 prison known for extreme torture, was sentenced to jail for 35 years in prison.

To Roth Prum, justice goes beyond just the imprisonment of the top leaders.  She wants this to be part of the education.  “I want all the young generation to know that this is a true story; that this really existed.  I want justice and the truth and want the top leaders to face the trial and speak the truth,” she said.  The court is now investigating Case 002 that prosecutes the four other top leaders, Khieu Samphan, Nuon Chea, Ieng Sary and Ieng Thirith for crimes against humanity, genocide, and war crimes.

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