Chanrithy Him lost her parents, brothers, sisters, aunts and uncles
in the killing fields of Cambodia -- where she was forced to work
in child labor camps, where she endured disease and starvation,
and where she witnessed torture and executions. As a refugee in
Oregon, she began to work with the Khmer Adolescent Project, a
study of post-traumatic stress disorder among Cambodian youth.
(For a directory of programs that assist torture survivors and
refugees from violence, see http://www.pacinfo.com/eugene/tsnet/DSPHospitals.html
Listening to their stories, Chanrithy Him decided that her duty
as a survivor was to tell her story and give voice "to children,
... to my deceased parents, sisters, brothers and family members,
and to those whose remains are in unmarked mass graves scattered
throughout Cambodia." Her award-winning 2000 memoir, When Broken Glass
Floats, was called "astonishing" and "heartbreaking" by
the Boston Globe. She lives in Eugene, Oregon.
From When Broken Glass Floats, by Chanrithy Him
As a researcher, my job was to be a cultural voyeur. I was to
use my knowledge of Cambodian customs, culture and my own wartime
experiences to establish a common ground with other refugees.
In theory, they would be more comfortable talking to someone
who knew what they had endured. It was a strange role for me.
In conducting psychiatric interviews, I was both the insider,
who knew their trauma, and the outsider, the dispassionate,
clinical researcher. There I sat, efficiently recording details
that jogged so many of my own harsh memories ... .
Sitting in Room C in Gaines Hall, I am interviewing a woman,
the mother of a subject. In the interest of reliability, I interview
her about her daughter's experience as well as her own. The
woman weeps when asked about her family's separation. She studies
the tabletop as if the answers were projected there like a movie.
While sitting only a few feet across from me, she is distant.
For her, as for many subjects and their parents, this was the
first time since leaving Cambodia that she could turn and face
the brutality she had left behind.
you ever tortured by Khmer Rouge soldiers? Did you ever witness
others being killed during this time? Did you ever see corpses
during this time? Did you lose your mother or father during
the Pol Pot time? Did you lose any siblings during this time?
Did you ever witness the executions of family members? Did you
suffer from not having enough to eat so you looked thin, had
swollen legs or a puffy stomach? Were you ever forced to do
things by the Khmer Rouge soldiers against your will?
These questions are sharp triggers. As soon as they leave my
mouth, I too search for answers. I watch as suffering is released
through the ragged sounds of sobbing. It is all I can do to
offer Kleenex while I fight back my own tears. There is recognition.
The woman's red, flooded eyes look briefly into mine -- a directness
unusual in Cambodia. She apologizes for interrupting the interview,
a mark of the Cambodian courtesy that survived the years of
brutality. I am always amazed that some bit of humanity outlived
Angka ["the organization"] and is more powerful than
the wheel of history.
Often the subjects meet with me in medical offices, but sometimes
I am invited into their homes. I am braced for their reactions
when I call them to arrange for interviews ... . Sometimes they're
angry or paranoid. I try to fight it with familiarity. "Oh,
I'm Sam's cousin," I tell them. "You know Sam?" Sometimes they
are open, surprised that I'm interested to ask, referring me
to other families, unwilling to let our conversation end. Sometimes
they are suspicious. ... Pockets of the Khmer Rouge still fight.
And we refugees are well aware of their deceptions. Orwell's
words aptly describe the Khmer Rouge: "Big Brother is watching
you." Even on the streets of Portland I look over my shoulder.
And here I am, on these survivors' doorstep, asking them to
reveal difficult memories. The Khmer Rouge are a continent away,
and yet they are not. Psychologically, they are parasites, like
tapeworms that slumber within you, living passively until something
stirs them to life. I was asking these subjects to wake those
The woman is crying so hard that the interview stops. In the
past she had made up stories when her daughter asked, "Where's
Pa?" She could never bring herself to say that the child's father
had been executed by the Khmer Rouge. "He went away, he'll be
back soon," she would say. All that was left of her husband
was pain, which was only compounded by the questions posed by
her daughter and, now, me ... .
I am reminded of the Buddhist doctrine Mean rrup mean tok,
which means, "With a body comes suffering." I heard a monk say
these words once and immediately thought them overly grim. But
to survive Pol Pot is to accept this doctrine as readily as
you might accept the change of the seasons, the death of winter
and the rebirth of spring.
After a few hours of interviews, I am exhausted. My fingers
work, recording hellish images in exquisite detail. The memory
of crude execution -- seeing a pregnant woman beaten to death
with a metal spade. Makeshift hospitals filled with feces; flies
and rats hungry for food, human corpses, anything -- everything.
The memory of bodies swollen with edema. Cheeks and temples
sunken with starvation. As I note it all, my body and soul
are drained. Inside these four walls I am flung back to Cambodia
... . I step out into the sunshine, the rolling green campus of
Oregon Health Sciences University. I squint to get my bearings.
I have escaped from Cambodia again.
As a survivor, I want to be worthy of the suffering that I endured
as a child. I don't want to let that pain count for nothing,
nor do I want others to endure it ... . Throughout a childhood
dominated by war, I learned to survive. In a country faced with
drastic changes, the core of my soul was determined to never
let the horrific situations take away the better part of me.
I mentally resisted forces I could only recognize as evil by
being a human recorder, quietly observing my surroundings, making
mental notes of the things around me. There would come a day
to share them.
From When Broken Glass Floats: Growing
Up Under the Khmer Rouge, A Memoir by Chanrithy Him. Copyright © 2000 by Chanrithy Him. Used by
permission of W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. This selection may not be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means without the prior written permission of the publisher.
an Interview with Chanrithy Him
courtesy of Chanrithy Him and W.W. Norton & Company