Nightmares in Cambodia – Part Three
By Chhorvy I. Pin
Edited by Vannoroth Imm
We moved to a different camp in early 1981 after my brother and his wife had a baby boy. This time we were transported on a bus, not a dump truck. We stayed in camp #2, Sras Keo, for about a year. I continued my 2nd grade learning Khmer there. In my free time, I liked to go to the library and read books, spend time with friends at the school playground, and visit public gardens.
One day about mid-morning, I was taking my nephew (he must have been about 6 months old) to play on the road nearby our residence. I brought him back after a while to be fed. My sister-in-law’s cousin, who was 5 years older than me, wanted to play with him. I told him that he needed his mom, but my cousin was stubborn and took him from me, telling me that he just want to play with him for a little bit on the road. I returned home. After a little while he returned home too, without the baby. He said the neighbor took the baby and that she’ll bring him back in just a little bit. I stormed out looking for the baby—the baby wasn’t there. The lady told me a soldier walked by and wanted the baby so she gave the baby to him. I ran, following her directions; there was the baby with the soldier walking away.
I was terrified and cried quietly since I was following him and didn’t want him to hear me. I did not know what to do but I followed him until he reached the main gate of the camp. I stood a distance away from the gate and watch him hopelessly. The security guards let him pass through the gate with the baby. I ran back crying and was terrified. I must have stopped by the cafeteria on my way back, which was very close to the gate where my brother works as an assistant manager since he speaks some French and English. I told him where I last saw the soldier take the baby. The cafeteria was there to serve nutritional food for children who are qualified for the program.
My brother’s boss who was from Burma, now Myanmar, took my brother to see the leader of the soldier, who must have been a high rank commander. Luckily, their location was right near the gate. They got on a jeep very quickly and caught up with the soldier—he had just gotten onto the bus. They brought him back to the base inside the camp. My brother and sister-in-law were ordered to stay on the base for further questions. They took me and my cousin in for questioning too. I did not like that place full of soldiers and weapons. The soldier claimed that he bought the baby from my sister-in-law. He was punished after being found guilty. If it weren’t for my brother’s boss getting other people who were not refugees like us involved, we didn’t want to imagine what would have happened.
To show my brother and his wife justice, they were ordered to stay on base for about a week with the baby to witness the punishment. The military tied the soldier up onto a cross in the sun like Jesus, starved him, beat him up until he passed out, and dumped water on him to wake him up. The abuse lasted for almost a week before the guy’s life gave out. My brother and his wife begged them to let him go for all they wanted was their baby back. They wouldn’t even let them come home until the guy’s life ended. It turned out that the guy wasn’t a soldier; he just snuck into the camp and disguised himself as a soldier. My brother his and his wife returned home looking like a wreck. They had lost so much weight because they couldn’t eat the whole time. There were all kinds of bad rumors spreading all over the camp about my brother and his wife; they just closed their eyes and ignored them.
We put in application to come to the U.S. We waited and waited to see our name, which never appeared on the board. However, there was a family related to my sister-in-law and that had already left to France because they got accepted to France first. Their names got qualified to come to the U.S. after they were already gone, so my brother thought that he must figure out some strategy to get us to come to the U.S. Stealing those identities (we had no birth certificates, so no proof of identity was needed) was the only chance we had. There was only one major problem—that family didn’t have a girl my age but a boy my age instead.
My brother’s very best friend from his hometown happened to be in a similar situation. His family had a boy my age, but their problem was that they need a girl my age in order to come. So, a decision was made: I became his friend’s daughter, and his friend’s son became his son temporarily, just until we got to camp #3, Kamput, and closer in our journey to come to the U.S. It was a very tough decision, but my brother trusted my life with his friend; likewise, his friend trusted his son’s life with him.
We left to camp #3 at separate times. I was fine with the exchange and it didn’t scare me, but I think the uncertainty of the plan and the fear of getting caught took away a few years of my brother’s life. Sometime after we got to the new camp, my brother and his friend made a decision to come clean, and went to the U.N to clean our record with our correct identities. They couldn’t send us back at this point and had no choice but to clean our record up so that we could come to the U.S. We stayed at Kamput for almost a year; I continued my 3rd and 4th grade education there. That was the last schooling I learned in Khmer, although I can read at a high school level since I love to read. I can write Khmer as well.
We journeyed to a 4th camp, Karpcheung, where we stayed for a very short period of time waiting to come to the U.S. We took all our physical tests there. My sister-in-law was pregnant so we got held back, while her parents and siblings left to the Philippines to study English for about a year before they came to the U.S. They moved us to the “held-back camp,” which was just across the main road from the previous one but fenced in separately. We stayed there for almost a year until a baby girl was born on April 19, 1983. We were all being taught English while we were waiting. By the middle of July, we were on our way to the U.S.
We were on a Boeing 747 over the Atlantic, I think that was what my brother told me, when we got hit by a nasty storm. The turbulence was very harsh—the plane waivered up and down so violently. I was deep asleep enjoying the bumpy motion of the plane instead of a smooth ride. It soothed me better since I had been throwing up for the last day and a half. Everybody on the plane was crying in panic, thinking that they all will end up at the bottom of the ocean. My brother looked at me sleeping so peacefully and thought out loud, “Poor child, I tore her away from her family just to let her drown and get buried in the bottom of the ocean.” I can’t imagine how guilty he must have felt at that moment. The storm calmed down as we got closer to land. We landed safely and stayed overnight, then continued our trip to our final destination.
We finally arrived in Richmond, Virginia. Our sponsors were waiting for us; my sister-in-law’s family was there, too. They arrived about two weeks before from the Philippines. We only stayed in Virginia for about a month. My brother decided to go to St. Paul, Minnesota since the government there will help him to get an education. He got his Associates degree in Minnesota two years later. We then moved to Lowell, Massachusetts in 1985 since there were more job opportunities. There, he worked as a bilingual teacher at Lowell High School and worked a second full time job at a company as a control technician. He continued going to school part-time later on when he kept only his teaching job, and obtained his Masters degree in Education. I’m so proud of his strength! His wife has been working as a filing clerk at the IRS in Andover ever since they came to Lowell. They have three children; all are grown up and married now. The oldest son is a Computer Engineer; the second daughter got her Bachelors of Science in Biology and is now halfway done with law school. The baby is a Registered Nurse and has been studying to become a Nurse Practitioner. My brother and sister-in-law are very proud of their children. I myself graduated from Lowell High School and continued my studies at Emmanuel College in Boston, obtaining a Bachelors degree in Accounting.
It was very hard psychologically growing up without a mother, father, or sisters to turn to, but I’m always thankful for my beautiful family that I have now. I’m grateful to my brother who was so determined to bring me here for a better life and opportunity, and I’m thankful to his wife for helping to raise me. Am I traumatized by all that has happened in my past? To some extent, it did affect me. Each chapter of my life was quite a challenge, but I think I turned out all right. Every negative thing I faced on my own as a child turned into a learning experience that taught me how to cope and tolerate life better. I raised three fine, beautiful children, so I think I turned out okay. Life is short and complicated, so I like to live it as simply as possible—that way, I can fill it in with the peacefulness of life that I never had growing up.