Cambodia: Interview with refugee Diane Kaav

Cambodia: Interview with refugee Diane Kaav

by Esty Dinur

A Wish for Cambodia: The Khmer Rouge takeover of Cambodia spelled an end to the good life and the beginning of what is now known as “the Cambodian holocaust”

As Diane Kaav watches events in Cambodia, she laments the failure of the August 1989 Paris conference about the fate of that country.

Formerly known as Young Kha, Kaav was hoping that the conference would resolve the ongoing conflict in Cambodia and spell a new stage of recovery for its long-suffering people.

The talks failed due to Chinese and western insistence that the Khmer Rouge be included in an interim Cambodian government. Like other expatriates, Kaav is angered by the attempt to impose on Cambodia the regime under which an estimated three million people, including members of her family, were killed. Like her better known compatriot, Dith Pran, star of “The Killing Fields”, she asks the world to stop aiding the Khmer Rouge and start helping the Cambodian people recover from their terrible past.

“When I was growingup,” says Kaav, “everything was nice. There were many fruit trees everywhere, plenty of rice and vegetables. My family was free, we could go anywhere. I never worried about food or money or anything else.”

Her mother was a farmer, raising rice and farm animals. Diane lived in the city with her physician uncle, who trained her as a nurse. In 1968 she married and subsequently had two children. She owned a pawn shop and her husband was also employed. Life was good, she says.

Around that time, rumors started arriving about the Khmer Rouge. An uncle in the military told Diane about the small group, which was kidnapping and killing civilians. In a few years, Khmer Rouge takeover of the country spelled an end to the good life, and the beginning of what is now known as “the Cambodian holocaust.”

Diane Kaav, Cambodian survivor, speaks out against the Khmer Rouge.

In late 1975, on the second day of the Cambodian New Year, the Khmer Rouge took over Boipet, the town in which Kaav and her family lived. The next day, her family (“My baby was two months and 10 days old,” she recalls) was taken away by the Khmer Rouge with many other families. They were accused of a variety of things: Being intellectuals, students, government workers, medical or business people.

“They killed me first,” she says, pointing out a big scar on the top of her head. She explains that the Khmer Rouge would first kill a mother or a child, forcing the rest of the family to watch. Usually, other family members would be killed in ensuing days.

But Kaav did not die. She woke up to find her family walking in a long column of people under Khmer Rouge guard. Her husband was too scared to tell her what had happened. She rested for three days under a tree without medication or medical attention and was then forced to walk. There was very little rice and no rest. Women lay in ditches to give birth and died. Those who could not endure the walk dropped down and were killed. “The rivers turned brown with blood. The water was so full of bodies, we couldn’t drink it any more,” she says.

After 10 days, the Khmer Rouge told those who survived the march to stay in an area marked by tall grass and trees. They were told that their task was to grow rice for the soldiers. Seeds were distributed but tools were not and the people had to work with their bare hands. They constructed huts for themselves from grass and tree branches, drank rain water and ate grass. They were made to work from 4 a.m. to 2 a.m.; mothers with babies were allowed to stop working at 1 a.m. Women had to carry sacks with 100 pounds of rice. Those who could not were publicly executed; whole families were forced to watch as the Khmer Rouge killed them, telling the survivors, “Don’t be like this lazy person who does not obey the Khmer Rouge law.” Those who cried or tried to plead with the soldiers were murdered too. “You had to keep smiling and say You are good people,'” says Kaav.

Kaav’s son was placed in a special area where children over the age of five were taught to work and “obey the law.”

Of the 2500 families who arrived in 1975, only 270 survived after a year, Kaav recalls. Starvation, disease, exhaustion and executions killed the rest.

Kaav tells of other atrocities she witnessed: Babies thrown in the air and caught on soldiers’ bayonets. Old people beaten, their hands tied and plastic bags placed over their heads, suffocating them. Women thrown over a cliff to their death, men tied to chairs and cut open, their internal organs pulled from their bodies by the Khmer Rouge.

In 1978, she and her husband heard that Hun Sen, now Cambodia’s Prime Minister, entered the country with the Vietnamese, and that together they were fighting the Khmer Rouge. Although they tried to escape the camp, their first attempt failed. In the second attempt, Kaav succeeded. She and her – son escaped but her husband was captured and she never saw him again. Later, an eyewitness told her that the soldiers took him, along with a number of other men, to a hut where they poured gasoline and burned them to death.

Kaav took her emaciated children, including a baby who was born in the camp, on a days-long trek to what used to be her mother’s farm. People in the countryside gave them a little rice, but there were many people like her and insufficient food to go around. “Everybody was poor and hungry and looking for their relatives,” she says.

She and her children stayed with her mother for a while, hoping against hope that her husband would join them. The Khmer Rouge kept attacking and bombing the region. In one of these attacks, Kaav’s mother, sister and uncle disappeared. She waited several days for them to return, then decided to leave for Thailand with her brother. Both hoped to find food for her children – to say nothing of safety.

The little rice they had did not last for the eight-day walk and their tattered clothes did not defend them against the cold. Kaav’s breast milk dried up and her baby died.

When the first refugee camp was opened in Thailand, Kaav’s brother urged her to go there. He then went back to Cambodia to look for their family and was subsequently killed by the Khmer Rouge. Her surviving daughter, weakened and emaciated, got sick. “She couldn’t open her eyes or eat or drink,” says Kaav, “and I suddenly lost my mind. I couldn’t hear people talking to me, I didn’t know what was happening. Then I woke up and realized I had to save my daughter.” She then went to the camp, where her daughter got better.

After a year in the refugee camp and another nine months in the Philippines, Kaav arrived in the United States as a refugee. She has been in Madison, WI since 1984 and has been working for United Refugee Services since 1987.

Kaav now counsels and helps other Cambodian refugees, and says that the atrocities witnessed by practically every Cambodian during those years have left psychological and emotional scars beyond comprehension for the average American. On top of dealing with their recent past, Kaav’s clients, who were mostly rice farmers, have to adapt to living in an unfamiliar city and learning a new language. This is not easy, she says. “Most refugees suffer from emotional problems, nightmares, loss of memory and depression. Many are mentally retarded or have learning disabilities.”

Despite the horrors of her life, Kaav is actually one of the luckier Cambodians. A recent visitor to her homeland found Kaav’s mother alive and doing relatively well. She has also heard that her husband may be alive and in Paris, that he escaped from the burning hut and was rescued by the Red Cross. She hopes to verify this.

Despite the victory of Hun Sen and the Vietnamese over the Khmer Rouge, many Cambodians are still suffering. Of the 300,000 people still in refugee camps in Thailand, 100,000 are estimated to live in camps run by the Khmer Rouge, and these camps are not open to United Nations inspection. As a result, rumors abound and some say that food and other resources, which are distributed to the camps by international relief organizations, do not reach their inhabitants but are given instead to Khmer Rouge soldiers or traded for military equipment. Aid workers say they have received reports of widespread malaria and respiratory diseases in the camps. Individuals who fled tell of forced labor, torture and public executions. The men are made to fight and, if they escape, their families are tortured and executed.

The Khmer Rouge is estimated to have an army of 40,000 troops, and is the strongest partner in the Cambodian resistance alliance. Other members of the alliance include a faction headed by Prince Norodom Sihanouk, who ruled Cambodia until he was deposed in 1970, and the faction of Son Sann, who helped depose the Prince and who, in turn, was deposed by the Khmer Rouge. Sihanouk, who was later kept under house arrest by the Khmer Rouge for a year and-a-half, serves as the figurehead leader of the coalition.

This places the Khmer Rouge in an influential position regarding the future of Cambodia. It also causes the refugees to be classified by the UN as Displaced Persons, limiting the aid to which they are entitled. In addition, UN aid is stopped from reaching Cambodia, slowing down its recovery process. As one aid worker said, 200 of every 1000 Cambodians die before their first birthday because of conditions such as contaminated water. UN development aid could clean the water, but it doesn’t.

In addition, in July, 1989, the U.S. Senate approved military aid to the other two resistance factions. Observers fear that this funding will provide weapons which will find their way to Khmer Rouge camps. It was also revealed in the Thai press in 1988 that $3.5 million of the $12 million in U.S. foreign aid to Thailand was channeled to the Khmer Rouge.

“Pol Pot and other Khmer Rouge leaders should be tried in the International Court of Justice for genocide,” says Kaav. “Instead, they are given more weapons. The United States should stop sending arms to Sihanouk because he cooperates with the Khmer Rouge.”

The situation in Cambodia under Hun Sen has improved in recent years despite the lack of western and UN aid. Peasants have been encouraged to buy land and return to the traditional style of private farming. The agricultural incentives brought about a good national rice crop. In the cities, housing construction is going full scale. The government is conducting a national literacy campaign which is said to be going well. In April, 1989, economic policy changes were made, aimed at boosting the private sector by encouraging small business development. Kaav’s friend observed during her visit to Cambodia that the markets had enough food and clothing as well as other consumer goods. Businesses were springing up, but the countryside still lacked machinery and health care.

Encouraged by the changing political climate in the country, increasing numbers of refugees are returning to Cambodia from camps in Thailand.

An aid official in one camp said that an average of 100 people leave every night to return to their country. The government is giving land and other incentives to returning refugees.

The Vietnamese, who entered Cambodia 10 years ago, withdrew from the country in September, 1989. “The Cambodian people have a long history with Vietnam,” says Kaav, referring to a history of racial tensions and strife, “but the Cambodians are grateful to the Vietnamese who saved them from the Khmer Rouge which butchered people, raped little girls and ruined the country.”

Vietnam’s withdrawal, the changes in the country and the relaxing international climate, brought about the August, 1989 Paris conference in which 19 countries participated. Despite the failure of every previous Indo-Chinese conference since 1954, hopes were high for a peaceful settlement. These proved baseless as China, the United States and Sihanouk demanded that the Khmer Rouge take part in an interim government. Sihanouk also demanded that references to genocide and extermination be deleted from the conference’s final resolution. Both Khmer Rouge and Sihanouk factions warned that they are preparing for battle and that they are well armed.

Actions followed words and fierce fighting erupted between resistance and government troops along the Thai Cambodian border. Reports from numerous sources point to the presence of American and British military advisors in resistance camps, some training elite anti-government commandos. Despite doubts that the resistance is strong enough to fight an all-out war, fears for the future exist. In an appeal to the world, Dith Pran, who portrayed some of the horrors of the Cambodian holocaust in the movie “The Killing Fields”, said “Please don’t force back on the Cambodian people the organization, army and leader responsible for the genocide of millions during the reign of terror…The world should try to respect the freedom of choice of the Cambodian people to decide where they want to go.”

Diane Kaav echoes his words. Most Cambodians, she maintains, appreciate Hun Sen for saving the country and for getting it back on its feet. Cambodians want peace and deserve long-withheld help from the West. Hun Sen’s government – not the Khmer Rouge – should hold the Cambodian seat in the United Nations and receive its aid.

“Write this down” she says, “I want you to ask: Who saved the Cambodian people? How can you say that Hun Sen didn’t do the right thing? How can you go on helping those who killed the people and their supporters?”

Esty Dinur is the coordinator of the Madison, WI based People’s News Service and a free-lance writer. She has written extensively for local and national publications.