Frontline World

Cambodia - Pol Pot's Shadow, October, 2002

Synopsis of "Pol Pot's Shadow"

In Search of Justice

Historical Analysis: The U.S. and Cambodia

The Rapper, the Dancer, and the Storyteller

Learn more about Cambodia

Genocide, War Crimes, Politics




Chanrithy Him - The Storyteller
Photo of Him 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 and

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.

Excerpt 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.

Were 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 parasites.

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.

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Photos courtesy of Chanrithy Him and W.W. Norton & Company