The only tokens Chhet Bon-Her has left from the beginning of his life are memories — no mementos, no photographs. Everything he owns now, from the rusty car underneath his raised house to the cow grazing nearby, is a glimpse into the last few decades of his life. Even the pictures lining the walls only tell stories of recent years. Everything else was lost when the Khmer Rouge took over his small Cambodian village of Dak Pour in 1972, a few years before the official beginning of the genocide that crippled the country.
Before I meet Chhet, he is just another name, one more person who survived starvation, overwork and torture at the hands of his own countrymen. He is one from a list of about 20 survivors that two other Yale students, our translator and I are given when we arrive to record villagers’ accounts of their years under the Khmer Rouge. The goal of the trip, organized by the founder of Khmer Legacies — a non-profit documenting the genocide — and World Fellow, Socheata Poeuv, is to preserve the village’s history and make the younger generation more aware.
I have always taken these stories for granted — the descriptions of long hours in the field, the details of scavenging for food. Chhet’s history, I am sure, is like all the others’ survival tales. I have grown up on narratives like these. My dad — another survivor — tucked me into bed with memories from his teenage years under the regime, and I fell asleep to images of him climbing coconut trees and plodding through murky rice fields. Alongside those stories, I have read about the horrific years in textbooks, where dates and descriptions black out any real emotion I have about the genocide.
I meet Chhet for the first time in the last week of June. His back bends forward, and his skin is tanned and wrinkled. The folds on his face droop from years of squinting in the sun, and when he looks over at me, I notice his eyes are cloudy and blue — cataracts. Over the course of two days, Chhet tells the four of us a condensed version of his life story: eighty years from his childhood to the present-day.
We sit outside his home on a wooden bamboo bed he has pulled out for us, and he begins to tell of the genocide. Chhet doesn’t just speak. He is an actor in his stories, miming and twisting, motioning with his hands and adding crescendos to his voice. At one point, he hunches over, digging at the bamboo bed beneath him. When he finds whatever invisible objects he has been looking for, he wipes at them with his hands and hurriedly motions towards his mouth. All the while, his eyes stay wide open.
At first, I can’t understand what Chhet is saying because he’s speaking in Khmer. I wish I could, but the only Khmer I know are the very basics — a “hello” here, a “thank you” there. It is through the translator that I learn that the years he remembers most vividly are the seven he lost when Khmer Rouge soldiers overtook Dak Pour. Because he lived in the countryside, he felt the effects of their policies years before the regime took control of the whole of Cambodia in 1975 with the capture of Phnom Penh. “Before the Khmer Rouge came to the village, the village was peaceful,” Chhet says while peering at us through his gold-rimmed glasses.
As I look around, I can’t imagine it being anything but the place it is now. How could these roads have been filled with the ring of gunshots as soldiers thrust rifles in the air and herded families into crowded streets? I can’t imagine the place as a wasteland, empty of all its inhabitants who were sent to work long days in nearby fields. As Chhet talks, the village bustles with activity as motos speed along the dirt roads, children ride their bicycles and people chatter at the roadside stall down the way.
“If we uprooted a tree and found yams, we would eat the yams with dirty soil on them because we were so hungry,” he says. “We had to survive. There was no water to clean them, we could only sweep off the dirt and eat. People had no food to eat so their bodies would swell like the dead.”
Swell like the dead. The thought is so morbid I almost wish he hadn’t said it — the image doesn’t go away. Starvation was how Chhet lost his father. “My father died while he slept. I heard this from other people — I did not see him. They say that before he died, he wanted [something] to eat … I heard that and just cried.” On paper, this seems common, tame even. Everyone dealt with loss. Chhet lost his father, and, I find out later, two siblings, his wife, and countless others. Then again, so did many Cambodians, their family members reduced to tallies among the two million thought to have lost their lives.
When I listen, I can’t help but think of my own dad and the way he sat beside me, painting pictures of a life I could never imagine. And that is the difference, looking at Chhet sitting there just a few feet away, this man who threads his words together so I don’t just see statistics and meaningless numbers. I hear his story, not just one that has been told a thousand times over so that it becomes flattened and devoid of all human connection.
His is one I take as a token of my own.