I spent three fairly intense months in Cambodia running around the country with my camera, pen, and paper, interviewing survivors of the genocidal maniacs known as the Khmer Rouge. I walked among many emaciated skeletons poorly disguised as women and children, homeless, crying, and begging for food while tugging at my clothing and my heart. I sat with tribes in the northern part of the country and listened to what they were doing to protect their rainforests from destruction, because their own greedy government officials were selling off the country’s natural resources and pocketing the proceeds, and the darker factions of the Vietnamese were employing deceitful schemes to rape the Cambodian rainforests in order to turn a dime with the Chinese and other countries.
I also spent time with homeless children who had been forced to grow up way too fast. Five to ten-year-old street kids had the wear and tear of forty-year-olds because they had to fend for themselves, scrounging for any food they could find on the dusty Cambodian streets. In my darkest and most soul wrenching moments, I went around with an undercover detective who was busting mostly Western men, sexual predators, who came to Cambodia to extract the life force from these vulnerable children. These demented beasts spilled over the border to Cambodia after Thailand started to clamp down on child sex tourism in their own backyard. Yes, it’s true. There are sick people who travel to underdeveloped countries to have sex with children. These disgusting characters exuded a dank and rotten vibration from the inside out.
Thankfully, some light came with the darkness. My numerous interactions with inspiring Cambodian activists kept my sanity and positivity afloat. The activist who I remember the most is Hant Pipaal. Anna and I had the blessed chance to interview her before leaving Cambodia. She is the head administrator of the office where I worked from in Pnom Penh. When I first met her, she seemed a little tough and almost frightening. She liked things her way in the office and sometimes got a little furious if she didn’t get it, but as time went on and I had more interactions with her, I saw her softer underbelly and we actually developed a friendship. It was a rare gift that she took the time to share the story of her own endurance and strength during the ghastly acts Khmer Rouge.
Anna was born in Cambodia’s Siem Reap province in 1947 and, at the age of four, her family moved to Phnom Penh where she studied French until the age of eighteen.
In 1960, Anna began working as a secretary for a French engineer who helped to bring electrical engineering to Cambodia. From 1970 to 1975, as Cambodia’s political environment began to deteriorate, she began volunteering for the International Women’s Association. There, she coordinated food and medicine distribution and job placement for Cambodia’s internal refugees that were fleeing from the Khmer Rouge, and supported her family by working a morning job with Cambodia’s Society for Imports and Exports.
In 1975, her boss from the Society of Imports and Exports asked her to work in Thailand, but, never dreaming that Cambodia would fall to the Khmer Rouge, she chose to stay and help her country deal with the large amounts of refugees that were arriving in the capital each month.
When asked about her initial feelings toward the Khmer Rouge, Anna said that she was afraid because “they all wore black.” When Phnom Penh fell to the Khmer Rouge, she remembers that thousands of people flocked to the streets to watch them enter the city. At first, the mood was happy, but this soon changed when the Khmer Rouge told everyone that the Americans were about to bomb the city and that everyone would need to go into the countryside for three days. When Anna asked if she could take her boat up the Ton Le Sap River to escape, the soldier told her that, “all things belonged to the Khmer Rouge now.” “They took my boat, and I realized it was over,” she says. Only those who were lucky enough to survive would see the city again, but not for over three years.
Anna and her family—including her husband, son, and brother—were forced to walk for one week to Kampot Chann province. When she arrived, the Khmer Rouge said that her brother had to leave in order to study the new communist regime. It turned out that this was one of the lies that the Khmer Rouge told to those who would be killed, and Anna’s brother was executed a short time afterward.
Anna was then forced to walk to Kratie province where the Khmer Rouge interviewed people to see whether or not they would be killed. Of course, no one knew this at the time and the soldiers encouraged everyone to be honest when giving their biographies because they were going to be “starting fresh.” Anna remembers that, while not many people were killed in the beginning of this period, after two months had past, people would mysteriously disappear every night.
The Khmer Rouge interviewed Anna and asked her if she could cook. She was afraid to say yes since she knew that cooking was a skill that was mostly learned in upper-class society, and that she might be killed as a result, but she was honest with the interviewer. It turned out that Anna would cook for about 400–500 people each day, for the entire time the Khmer Rouge remained in power. This time was exhausting, and she could only sleep for five to six hours per night. During this time no one heard any news of Phnom Penh or their families because, as Anna says, “In the communist regime, if you are deaf and mute, you have long life. No one talked about anything.”
Anna was allowed to keep her son with her during this three-year period, but her husband was sent to work at a distant farm. He would visit her once a month but they couldn’t talk much because there were spies everywhere—especially the Khmer Rouge children who eavesdropped from underneath the Cambodian stilted houses. Anna and her husband chose to stop seeing each other quite early in this period because they feared that talking to each other would mean they would both be killed.
Anna remembers how difficult it was to sleep every night. “If someone knocked at my door at night, then I knew that was it. So I started smoking every night—I used tobacco and paper for smoking—because it would help me stay awake.” Anna knew that, under the Khmer Rouge, death could come at any minute for no particular reason. Clearly, looking into her eyes as she tells this story shows how utterly dark this time was for her—where life and death hung in the balance every night. She remembers how she would wake up at sunrise each day and be thankful to be alive. “We saw the sun and felt that we had this new life in the morning,” she says.
As Anna’s reputation as a great cook grew, so did her order requests from Khmer Rouge leaders. In fact, some of the generals would get home from their meetings at 11 at night and send for Anna to prepare meals for them. Anna remembers that she started to lose her fear of hearing a knock at the door, because it no longer meant that she would be killed.
In 1979, the Vietnamese brought the Khmer Rouge regime to an end. Pol Pot himself requested that Anna be taken with the soldiers as they retreated to the jungles. Instead, she quickly fled to Phnom Penh in the hopes of finding her freedom and husband again.
She returned to Phnom Penh and was reunited with her husband just as the Vietnamese Army came to kill any Khmer Rouge remaining in the city. Most Khmer Rouge pretended to be ordinary citizens, and this enraged Anna. But she didn’t point these people out to the Vietnamese soldiers. “I kept it all in here,” she says, pointing at her heart. Anna was afraid that she would eventually be killed by the Vietnamese since she worked for the Khmer Rouge, so she hid in one of the many abandoned houses in the city. The Vietnamese found her after four days and three nights but, because she spoke fluent Vietnamese, she convinced them that she had nothing to do with the Khmer Rouge. Shortly after, she worked for the interim Vietnamese puppet government for six months, and began an import business from Saigon until 1990.
In 1991, she started to work with the Red Cross where her major responsibility was for the security of expatriate staff members and finished her work there in 2004.
Anna recovered from one of the most deathly and grim events that has ever occurred, and while she sees problems in Cambodia that will take years to solve, her determination, faith, and hope show her greatness. Her amazing resolve is an illustration of what is needed in order to rebuild a country after so many years of destruction and pain.