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Savuth Sath - Cambodian Genocide

Home » Survivors »Savuth Sath


Cambodia has 181,040 square kilometers, is slightly smaller than Oklahoma, and has borders with Vietnam, Laos and Thailand. The capital is Phnom Penh. The country’s religion is Buddhist.  95% of the population is farmers.  Before the civil war in 1970, the population was more than 7 million and was governed by King Sihanoouk, the head of State.  After he was crowned, he declared Cambodia neutral. He also announced his intention to respect the sovereignty of neighboring countries.   During his reign, the Cambodia people lived in prosperity and happiness.  


The Vietnam War between the North Vietnames Communists and South Vietnam broke out in 1960 and ended on April 30, 1975.  During the war, the North Vietnamese used Cambodia as a sanctuary.  They also used the Ho Chi Minh Trail that ran through part of Cambodia to transport all of their equipment and food to their troops in South Vietnam.  The United States bombed the Ho chi Minh Trail and thousand’s of Cambodian civilians died along the border during the war.  The Khmer Rouge Cambodian Communists were formed during the war.


In 1970 there was a coup and King Sihanouk was overthrown. He later joined the Khmer Rouge in the jungle and fought against the new government that was backed by the United States.  Civil war broke out and spread throughout the country and lasted five years. I remember on April 17, 1975, the Khmer Rouge cadre with black pajamas fiercely marched into Phnom Penh.  Government soldiers took off their clothes, laid down their weapons, and cheered the Khmer Rouge who defeated the government. The people who had fled from the war zone those who lived in Phnom Penh stood along side the road and raised the white flag to great the Khmer Rouge with tears of joy and hope for the peace that would come to Cambodia.  All would share the glory.


But the moment of happiness, excitement and the celebration of the victory quickly turned to tears and fear when the Khmer Rouge ordered everyone to evacuate their homes. We were threatened and warned that any moment the United Stats would bomb Phnom Penh. I witnessed point blank executions of those who refused to leave their homes.  Phnom Penh and other cities were evacuated; hospital beds pushed down the street with the patients still in them.  Those with IV or other fluid transfusions were left behind to die. Schools, businesses, government offices were closed indefinitely.  


I was forced to travel to an uncertain place with little food.  A few days later, I ended up in a village where I stayed there for three months.  One day I was so hungry, I decided to back to go back to my village.  Unfortunately, when I arrived home, I was arrested and lead by a 12 year old Khmer Rouge cadre to a military compound for questioning.  Next day, they sent me to the youth camp nearby the military compound.  It was a young camp with one kitchen for all. We had to share everything.  In a few days my friend and I were assigned to be cooks for the day.  On the way to find wild vegetables for the meal, my friend and I escaped and went back to join my family.  It was not easy with the Khmer Rouge soldiers guarding the people who worked in the rice field.  We decided to walk along the bushes until we reached the river, and we then hid in the bushes near the river bank.  Late in the evening, my friend and I decided to swim across the river with a strong current of flood.


One month later, my family and other villagers were told to pack all of their belongings and go to another province.  After three days, they arrived in Battambang province which is about 200 kilometers from the capital of Phnom Penh.  My family was sent to resettle in one of the villages about five kilometers from the national road.  In the new resettlement site there was no access road and with little food, everyone was forced to work hard in the rice fields.  I ate almost anything that I found along the road.  All of the families stayed together. The Khmer Rouge gave us food rations once a week. If the delivery was late, we had nothing to eat until the next day.  Every morning we left to work in the rice field and returned home in the evening.


One evening when I returned from the rice fields, I was asked by the Khmer Rouge to register my name if I was a soldier.  “Yes” I answered.  They told me that if I was a soldier they would take me to Battambang city to honor King Sihanouk. I was so happy and went to tell my parents that I was going to Battambang to honor King Sihanouk.  I would bring my family to resettle with me later.  I went back to join the group who I registered to go on the trip with and had a good dinner.  This was the first time that I had enough food to in four months.  During dinner, I heard the Khmer Rouge village leader say that if anyone was sick, their solders would carry them.  I wondered since everyone was tired how we could possibly carry people with us.  I refused to go with them that night and the village leader did not force me to go.  The next day I found out that they all had been executed. I was so lucky.


Young children from age five and up were separated from their parents.  The Khmer Rouge sent them to children’s labor camps, declaring that all children under the people’s revolution now belonged to the revolution they called “ANGKA”.  Parents were no longer allowed to take care of or discipline their young.  Children were forced to work in the rice field as adults, picking up wheat or fertilizing the rice field.  At these labor camps, they were brain washed against their parents.  If they found out their parents stole food, they would report them to “ANGKA”.  The Khmer Rouge accused the person who steal, he/she betrayed the “ANGKA”.   I saw many children malnourished later died from starvation and diseases, including my nieces and nephew.  Since they left home, I never saw them returned.


In 1976, I was sent to a youth labor camp with my younger brother.  We were forced to build water reservoirs in the rain and in the mud.  I witnessed the execution of a youth who was beaten with the hoe, and I was forced to bury the body in a rice field.  Others died from starvation and diseases. The sick people were not allowed to eat.  Only those who went to work received a food ration consisting of two to three spoons of rice per meal.  One night, I came home and met a woman who sat alone in a small cottage near the fire.  I asked “Where is everyone?”  She answered “they all died”. I was so frightened and asked her again, “How about my parents, are they still alive?”  She said “yes, they are still alive”.  When I arrived home I saw my parents and felt lucky again.  In October 1976, my father became ill due to lack of food and vitamins and he later died from starvation.  I felt so helpless as I watched him die.  


In 1977, the Khmer Rouge moved people from the eastern part of the country to the northwest of Cambodia.  This movement was called “Re-education”.  Only then did it become clear that they wanted to execute all those whom they suspected of betraying the people’s revolution.


One summer morning in 1977, I got up in early morning.  I saw Khmer Rouge solders surrounding my camp with automatic weapons – AK47’s.  I was so frightened.  I dared not look at their faces.  I pretended not to know anything and worked as normal.  At 9:30 in the morning, I saw the soldier’s bring 35 people, walking in a line.  Later both men and women were asked to put their belongings in one place.  They blindfolded all of them and walked into the bushes near where I was working.  I never saw them return.  I think that they were all executed.  I was so worried about my life.  I did not know when it would be my turn. I heard people whispering that many others were brought to the same place and executed including some of my friends who I know and worked together with.

 

One night, at about 5:00 pm, I saw the Khmer Rouge bring about one hundred people, including children and infants, toward the same place.  Two hours later I heard the screaming voices got out of the execution place.  Everyone in my work place stayed very quiet, scared for their lives.  From that night on, my body felt numb and I thought my life worth nothing.  I waited to die any day any time with no place to escape.  During that time in the labor camp, my aunts, uncles, nieces and nephews died, some were executed and some other from starvation.  


In late 1978, the Vietnamese invaded Cambodia and forced the Khmer Rouge regime back into the jungle who forced many thousands of civilians to go along with them in order to continue the armed struggle against the new government installed by the Vietnamese. At the border camps filled up with refuges.  In the cross fire, many refugees fled into Thailand.  Later the Thai government bused them to the other part of the country and forced them to walk through the mine fields.   Many were killed by land mines and others lost limbs.  The United Nations came to the rescue and later the refugee camp became permanent.  During the armed struggle, many Cambodia fled to Thai-Cambodian border due to the food shortage in their country.  Many thousands of other refugees stayed and joined guerrillas to fight against the newly installed government.  This went on until the 1993 elections.


After I was freed from the Khmer Rouge, my family and I returned to Phnom Penh.  It took me one month to walk from Battambang province (about 200 km).  When I arrived in Phnom Penh, I went to my house but it was already occupied.  I decided to clean up one of the apartments in the city and stayed for a couple of months.  Later, Vietnamese soldiers was forced me to leave the apartment.  I could not have my home back or the empty apartment; where could I go? I asked myself.  I decided to leave and went to live with my surviving uncle in one of the villages about 14 km from Phnom Penh City.  On November 23, 1979, I made the decision to leave my family behind and go to the Thai-Cambodian border.  I hoped that I could find some work and save money and then returned home.  Unfortunately, I was trapped in one of refugee camps on Thai soil.  I could not go anywhere beyond the refugee camp that was surrounded with barb wire.  I felt like small chicks as I waited for food rations each week.


In 1981, I was selected by the U.S. Government to settle in the United States.  I arrived in here on November 10, 1981.  My life started all over again.  I did not speak the language and was not familiar with the new culture, etc.   Even when I resettled in the United States, I had nightmare once or twice a month.  Since leaving Cambodia din not hear any news from my family.  After I became a naturalized American citizen in 1987, I decided to take a trip to visit my family to assure them I was still alive.  They had heard a rumor that I was killed during the trip to the border.  After my first visit, it was hard for me to leave them behind again.


In 1990, I wanted to go back and live very close to them again.  I was offered a job in the refugee camp and later I took another job inside Cambodia until the end of 1998.


October 20, 1999.