Tag Archives: Cambodia

Cambodia: 1979

“In early 1979, after living under the murderous Pol Pot regime for nearly four years, my family and I returned to our destroyed village, finding nothing but the ashes of our home and fallow fields where there had once been prosperous rice paddies. Life seemed hopeless, yet we were determined to try to plant the seeds that give hope for the future. Day by day, life seemed to be getting better. To earn money for food, my mother joined a group of men smuggling goods between Thailand and Cambodia, knowing my sister and I, though only fifteen and sixteen, could take care of my two younger sisters and three brothers while she was away. Then one day in 1979, my mother packed some of our family belongings and told the children to go to sleep early. The previous week, she had planned an escape route to the border camps with a Cambodian soldier who knew the safest way to Thailand by foot. In return, my mother gave him a gold necklace. They decided that my family would leave that following week.

“I don’t remember if I had the feeling of being in any great danger during our escape. Maybe I was unconsciously thinking of living in a peaceful Thailand. In any case, it wasn’t long before we reached Thai soil, where we were arrested by Thai soldiers in a village called Tapriya. I remember very clearly what my mother said to these soldiers who, perhaps rightly, did not want us to stay in their country: ‘You can kill me right now if you want, but don’t tell me to go back to Cambodia.’ After pleading with them again and again, the soldiers finally pointed their bayonets, directing us to a nearby army barracks. Fortunately, the soldiers treated us well, and the next day we went to our first camp, the Sakaeo Refugee Camp. From there we would go to Mairut Camp. My family and I were in different camps in Thailand according to our changing refugee status. This was when I learned the word ‘refugee’ (chun pia kluen) for the first time. My instincts told me that we had left Cambodia for good. Yet I never asked my mother why we had left our country. And she never explained to any of her children why we had to leave.”  . . . .

—Sovann-Thida Loeung, from the Foreword to Fractured Identities: Cambodia’s Children of War by James Higgins and Joan Ross, with contributions by Tuyet-Lan Pho and George Chigas (Loom Press, 1997). This book, unfortunately, is out of print, but there is a plan to make a digital version available.

Fractured Identities

‘The Way I Want to Remember My Cambodia’ by Chath PierSath (1997)

Writer and painter Chath PierSath, a former Lowell resident who still lives in the region, crossed the Thai-Cambodian border in 1979 with members of his family on the way to Aranyaprathet Refugee Camp. With the help of his brother and aunt, he and his sister came to America in 1981, and lived first in Boulder, Colorado. He is a graduate of the World College West in California, with a degree in international service and development. He earned a master’s degree in community social psychology from UMass Lowell. He has worked in Cambodia as a volunteer for the Cambodian American National Development Organization. His poem “A Letter to My Mother” appears in Children of Cambodia’s Killing Fields: Memoirs of Survivors, compiled by Dith Pran and edited by Kim DePaul (Yale University Press, 1997) and he is the author of a collection of poetry, “After” (Abington Square Press) and a children’s book, “Sinat and the Instrument” (Soundprints).–PM

The Way I Want to Remember My Cambodia

I want to remember how I was free to run in the field
eyeing the sky—my handmade kite flying high,
loving the wind, loving the clear white cloud.

I want to remember how I was free to run in the sun,
free to own and roam the fields, free to walk and sing
to myself or to God of the hills full of trees, to the green
rice paddies, to the pink lotus in my pond, and to the black
muddy swamp, to the white crystal tune of an overflowing
river, to the rainbow of my felicity and the wild dogs’ red
mating call.

I want to feel the flirtatious air caressing my naked body
in childhood innocence wrapped in the arms of my brothers,
free of hate, free of war.

I want to remember the shrilling cry of crickets hidden
under broken planks, the way I went earring for them
in the mist of dawn to capture them in my jar. My chase
after dragonflies, my sling pebbles passing birds, how I
spent day after day fishing, netting grasshoppers in the sun,
and in its burning heat, how I went searching for beetles in
cow manure while herding cattle and water buffalo
away from home.

I recall my mother’s cooking fire, her salted fish grilled
on burning charcoal, the smell of her boiling stew, her
sharp knife drumming the cutting board. In her outdoor
kitchen, the smoke of her art hissed out of her wok, moving
into the air like a cobra shedding its skin on our fence.

I want to feel my dark Cambodian skin crack from playing
with earth, my boyish brown eyes to stare again at the green
bamboo, leaning to soak in the fragrance of the yellow, flowered
hills. I want the serenity of the blue ponds and the white river of
childhood and to feel the winds wiping away the dewdrops,
still clinging to my naked body.

I want my peasant home, to still be in that village among
the surviving people on that laboring earth where I was born
into my Cambodia.

My Cambodia, tell me again the stories of how the old
ghosts take possession of human souls, how monsters
shape the art of death. I want to hear how the Goddesses
turn what is ugly into what is beautiful.

Make me part of that secret. Let me dance in your sun.


Chath PierSath, © 1997 (reprinted from The Bridge Review: Merrimack Valley Culture, www.ecommunity.uml.edu/bridge)


Cambodian Officials Want Precious Art Returned by NY Museum

Cultural afffairs officials in Cambodia want the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City to return two sandstone sculptures that are believed to have been taken out of the country illegally around 1970. The statues, called “Kneeling Attendants,” date from the 10th century and are known to have been part of the Prasat Chen temple at Koh Ker in the region north of Phnom Pehn. Read Tom Mashberg and Ralph Blumenthal’s article in the NYTimes, and get the Times if you want more of this kind of reporting.

Web photo courtesy of Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Khmer Rouge Trials Continue in Cambodia

Today’s NYTimes includes a report by Seth Mydans about the latest developments in the Khmer Rouge trials in Cambodia. This is part of our history in Lowell because many of our neighbors from that nation came to the U.S. because of the Khmer Rouge’s epic crime against humanity. These neighbors carry personal stories of the genocide and resulting refugee experience. Read the article here, and get the NYT on your porch or online if you want more.

Chath pierSath’s New Book of Poems: ‘After’


“After” is a book of letters in the form of poems that poignantly describes the author’s life and experiences as a child before, during and after the Khmer Rouge. It traces the author’s journey out of Cambodia to the United States and the experiences he had thereafter, through loss of and separation from family members. A kind of unity emerges as each poem addresses the author’s yearning to make sense of one of the greatest tragedies of our world.

Many of us know Chath, a poet, community activist, and more, with strong ties to Lowell. He is a graduate of the master’s program in Community Social Psychology at UMass Lowell.  He has a new book of poems from Abingdon Square Publishing Co. that can be ordered via amazon.com here.

Amazon.com reviewer Stan Sesser wrote:  “Chath pierSath, a Cambodian-American who grew up witnessing the horrors of the Khmer Rouge, has come to grips with his traumas through profound poetry and art. Arriving in the U.S. as a penniless refugee who spoke no English, he’s had an astonishing career, earning advanced degrees, helping impoverished Cambodians in the U.S., and returning to Cambodia to spearhead all sorts of educational, artistic and social work projects. His poetry captures this extraordinary life in words that are moving and inspirational. It’s brilliant; I can’t recommend it highly enough.”

Visiting the Disabled in Cambodia: ‘Globe’ Passport Report

The Globe and boston.com include an occasional feature about travels called  ”Passport” that is written by people in the Boston area, a kind of citizen journalism feature. This article by young student Akshan deAlwis describes a recent trip to Cambodia. The focus is a visit to the Angkor Association of the Disabled. “According to the Asian Development Bank, close to 10 percent of the Cambodian adult population is disabled due to malnutrition, violence, and land mines,” writes deAlwis. Read the travel account here, and consider subscribing to the Globe.

Three Poems from ‘Chanthy’s Garden’ by George Chigas

The Visit


When I saw her gnarled fingers,

shaved head, eyes like knots of wood,

I didn’t say anything.

He waved her out of the room,

asked us to sit down,

served iced drinks.

He talked about ’75

when he worked security

at the embassy in Phnom Penh

and helped U.S. Marines load helicopters

when there was no time.

Said he could have got out then too,

but his mother wouldn’t go;

when the Khmer Rouge came

she waved and threw flowers.

. . . . .

From Cambodia


She’s from Cambodia

and eats hot noodle soup for breakfast,

that much I know.

But it’s not enough

in the middle of the night

when the flashbacks come

and the best I can do

is hide her in my arms and wait

until they pass

and she looks out

at the glassy calm.

. . . . .

Waiting for E.S.L. Class


On cold mornings they huddle in the doorway waiting for English class. They hunch in big coats, smoke; news of the apartment fire stirs up blue air. Soeun catches a ride with a friend who works first shift or walks an hour across town, up Middlesex and Appleton to Church Street past Zayre’s. He kicks snow off his boots,  shakes a cigarette out of the pack, whistles a Cambodian folk tune he’s known for thirty years. I think of the song Chathy sings in bed before turning out the light about the boy who goes away to school promising his parents he’ll come home when it’s time to harvest rice.


—George Chigas (c) 1986, from “Chanthy’s Garden” (Loom Press)

Khmer Rouge Jailer Sentenced

From BBC news online here’s a report on yesterday’s sentencing of Khmer Rouge prison overseer Kaing Guek Eav or “Comrade Duch” to 35 years in jail. He may, however, only be required to serve 19 years. The public response in Cambodia was mixed, with some people saying they had expected a more severe sentence. Read the BBC report here.

Khmer Rouge Prison Chief “Comrade Duch” (photo: thefirstpost.co.uk)