Cambodia, and the trauma of a nation

By: Louk Vreeswijk

Mar 17 2013


Category: Asia, Cambodia


With the defeat of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge by the Vietnamese in 1979, the survivors of four years of terror could slowly start picking up the bits and pieces of what was left of their lives. With a quarter of the population dead, almost every family had lost several of its loved ones. Some people found themselves completely alone, their whole family fallen victim to execution or starvation.

Since everybody had been forced to live and work in the countryside, former townspeople tried to make their way back to the deserted cities and towns, hoping to find their old family homes still standing, and maybe even some relatives that, like them, had survived the years of horror. However, quite a few of them must have been like the lone, young survivor, who had lost his entire family, grandparents, mother, brothers, sisters, in the preceding years: “I felt I had to return to Phnom Penh to see if any of my cousins or friends had survived Pol Pot. My house was more than one hundred and twenty kilometres from Battambang, and I didn’t know the way. (….) Eventually I arrived in Phnom Penh. As I entered my old neighborhood, my spirit crumbled. My house was burned and my friends’ houses were burned. Everything that had once been so familiar was gone. I knew that my life had changed forever.”

Others had more luck and could take possession again of the houses they had been forced to leave behind in 1975. After the liberation the initial food shortage was gradually overcome, and people could again get hold of other clothes to wear, so they could shed their hated black uniforms at last. Slowly life regained a bit of its earlier colour and diversity.

I visited Cambodia – and took the photo above – twenty years after the collective nightmare of the Pol Pot regime had come to an end. Still then, many survivors were suffering from their individual nightmares that would regularly recur during the night. As one survivor (now living abroad) recounts: “Even today, because of what happened to me, I sometimes feel as if I am again living in the darkness. Still, sometimes when it rains, or when darkness falls, my mind is their prisoner and I struggle to be free.”

“Only one question stays in my mind: Why did Khmer people kill other Khmers in our own motherland, Cambodia?” That, indeed, is a haunting question that cannot easily get a satisfactory answer. And this may be the main reason why Cambodia’s trauma is so difficult to heal. The lifetime of one generation will definitely not be enough.

Quotations from: Children of Cambodia’s Killing Fields: Memoirs by Survivors, compiled by Dith Pran, Yale University Press 1997.

Photo of the week: Battambang, Cambodia, 2000

2 comments on “Cambodia, and the trauma of a nation”

  1. Today that question is asked round the world and always goes back unanswered……I don’t know why so many Indians are killing each other…. will they find their ideal world after all this killing?


  2. And 20 years after, this survivor still looks battered, tense and prepared for the worst – look at her eyes and body language.


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