Facing the Khmer Rouge
A Cambodian Journey
Publication Year: 2011
As a child growing up in Cambodia, Ronnie Yimsut played among the ruins of the Angkor Wat temples, surrounded by a close-knit community. As the Khmer Rouge gained power and began its genocidal reign of terror, his life became a nightmare. In this stunning memoir, Yimsut describes how, in the wake of death and destruction, he decides to live.
Escaping the turmoil of Cambodia, he makes a perilous journey through the jungle into Thailand, only to be sent to a notorious Thai prison. Fortunately, he is able to reach a refugee camp and ultimately migrate to the United States, where he attended the University of Oregon and became an influential leader in the community of Cambodian immigrants. Facing the Khmer Rouge shows Ronnie Yimsut’s personal quest to rehabilitate himself, make a new life in America, and then return to Cambodia to help rebuild the land of his birth.
Published by: Rutgers University Press
Title Page, Copyright, Dedication
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Ronnie Yimsut’s absorbing and passionate memoir deals with his life before, during, and after the Khmer Rouge era (1975–1979). It fits neatly into a genre of survivor narratives that have emerged from Cambodian authors since the 1970s, but it surpasses many of them in terms of its breadth of focus, its depth...
Preface: Between Worlds
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When Americans or Cambodians ask me, “Where are you from?” or “What nationality are you?” their insistent curiosity is demanding, like an interrogation, a test of loyalty. My answers are prefaced with hesitation perhaps because I want the best answer but I’m unsure what it is...
Acknowledgments: A Book is Born
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Family Tree of Ranachith ("Ronnie") Yimsut
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1. Childhood Idyll: Siem Reap
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Early one September morning, I woke to the sound of dripping water. The first monsoon rains had come in the night. Outside my bedroom window, water rolled off the bright flowers and green leaves. The subtle aroma of dewy jasmine flowers enveloped me, and I imagined little jasmine buds in our garden, ready to unfold their petals. My three roosters—the pride of my collection—crowed...
2. Bamboo in the Wind: Regime Change in Siem Reap
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An early breeze that swayed the bamboos carried a gecko’s morning cry.
Droplets of dew shimmered on spider webs. The bell rang once again for us to
hurry to the schoolyard and gather around the flag pole of the Sala Komrou.
The morning of March 18, 1970, began just like any other day, except for the...
3. An Uncivil War: Heavy Shelling in Siem Reap
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From miles away, strong gusts of wind gathered the monsoon clouds into dark
masses. The winds died and warm air rose to meet the cold front. Eardrums
popped as air pressures dropped, rose, and fell again.
Flocks of birds scattered at the tremendous sound of thunder. Solid sheets of rain came down and flooded the streets. The monsoon floods had come to...
4. Shocks and Surprises: Angkor Wat and Domdek
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A massive rainstorm came and refreshed everything. Afterward, the sun returned with a heat so strong that rainwater evaporated into a thick fog blanket that covered Siem Reap. A humid breeze riffled the coconut and banana trees. Through the early morning haze, a rainbow glowed in the distance...
5. A Time of Plenty: Back Home in Siem Reap
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The relentless cold had dried up the small ponds and streams. As the waters receded, ducks, sand cranes, and other waterfowl feasted on freshwater fish, snails, crab, and shrimp. The ending months of 1970 were also a season filled with death and destruction...
6. An Era Is Ended: Siem Reap under Siege
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The mighty Siem Reap River turned into a trickle. Neither wind nor breeze
came to relieve the deadening heat of April. It was only a tiny bit cooler in the
shade. The temperatures remained high in the dry season of 1975.
The Khmer New Year was fast approaching, so the cease-fire was a welcome relief. Although there would be no more offensives, everyone was tense because...
7. An Empty Village: Krobey Riel and Siem Reap
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Afierce April sun burned the sky. Dust devils chased dust clouds in the shimmering
heat. At the peak of the tinder-dry season, Cambodia lay on the brink of
anarchy, complete and total chaos.
Everyone waited to see what the new regime, the Khmer Rouge, would do next. One of the many wild rumors going around was that the new regime would...
8. A Great Leap Backward: Keo Poeur, Kok Poh, and Kork Putrea
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Toward the end of June 1975, cool air came down from the northern Dong Rek mountain range and began to blow the suffocating heat away. The bright blue of the sky turned into cooler shades of gray. Column after column of clouds rolled in and gathered above the Tonle Sap Lake until the sun was hidden away...
9. The Death of Dogs: Tapang
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Chilly air chased the monsoon clouds on the strong air currents that riffled the leaves. The weeping, high-pitched kek-kek-kek sounds of thousands of tadpoles echoed in the distance and sent chills up the spine. The beautiful Cambodian countryside hid a heart that was bleeding severely...
10. Miracle at the Temple: Wat Yieng
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Very long before man had called this cold time of the year “winter,” Himalayan
currents blew a chill air over the Angkor plains. They did so once again, and so
humans and their beasts stayed around warm fires in these early mornings.
In the daylight, the endless green of rice fields surrendered to the relentless brisk air and turned golden yellow. Where humans were too slow, birds by the...
11. Dead Weight: Ta Source Hill and the Massacre Site
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The winds from the Himalayas in the north had died down enough for me to
feel warm as my family and I huddled together that winter morning in early 1977.
Mother clung to me at the crack of dawn when the soldiers started kicking us
awake and barking orders.
“I have to join my group, Mae,” I said. It was daylight. I was fifteen. I didn’t want to be seen cuddled by my mother...
12. Kill or Be Killed: Krobey Riel, Dorn Swar, and Prey Roniem
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Up in the branches, a flock of long-tailed macaques screamed in the calm
January morning. Light danced through the leaves to the wet floor of the Prey
Roniem, the flooded forest of the north estuary of the Tonle Sap Lake.
I looked up as the monkeys screeched loudly. Did they want me out of their turf or were they warning each other of danger? Did they see a snake or my...
13. Barefoot Escape: Srae Noy, Resin Mountain, andthe Deep Northern Jungle
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Aloud explosion awoke me to flying debris, scattering birds, and the sight of Moeun, Doeum, and Sek running through the burning forest. After a moment of panic, I gathered my stuff together and ran easily through the thickets. Safe in the moist, dense growth of trees and brush, I sat and waited for my larger companions. Moeun and the others had to crouch to get through. They found me...
14. Alien Worlds: Din Daeng, Sisaketh, Buriram, and Aranya Prathet
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We woke up under a midday sun filtering through the forest canopy. A gentle wind shook the giant branches, scattered the light, and sent leaves and seeds spiraling to the earth. For ages, these ancient trees must have sheltered beasts and men like us, but perhaps few as exhausted or starving...
15. Urban Jungle: Washington, D.C., Seattle, and Oregon State
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Loudspeakers echoed through the cavernous airport. It was midnight.
Last calls reverberated into a jumble of words and tones I couldn’t
understand. Masses of people went in all directions with the weary walk of
Exhausted after my first trip across the Pacific, I fell asleep in a plastic chair, holding a plastic tag printed with my native name Ranachith and my refugee...
16. Back to the Past: Oregon State, Siem Reap, and Phnom Penh
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The news sent arctic chills down my spine. A miraculous peace deal in Paris was to be followed by another miracle: Cambodia would have a democratic election that would install a parliament. If the news was true, then decades of warfare, genocide, and economic ruin were about to end for Cambodia and its...
17. Back in Time: Oregon State and Phnom Penh
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I was driving home to Bend, Oregon. Thavy and I were talking about the great
Thanksgiving weekend we had just had with family and friends in Portland.
The snowfall continued but we were nice and warm inside our 4x4 Nissan Pathfinder. Samantha, now two years old, dozed in her car seat in the back, next to the terrier Itchiewawa, who was a year older than she was. I glanced at the dark...
18. Turning Point: Elections in Phnom Penh
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My mornings started with a light breakfast, usually a bowl of steamy hot Phnom Penh noodle soup and fresh fruit. A slice of tree-ripened papaya, a banana, a steamed sweet rice cake, or a roasted banana cake with a glass of cold water held me together until lunchtime...
19. Facing the Khmer Rouge: Siem Reap, Ta Source Hill, the Massacre Site, and Pailin
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There’s nothing like a morning in Siem Reap. It’s the most peaceful time of the day. Tree leaves drip dew and the moist soil releases a delicate fragrance I find hard to describe. The taste of mornings in my old hometown is a magical mix of smells, of sounds and sights. I feel a sense of belonging here, but my memories...
20. Lights: Siem Reap and Phnom Penh
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One breezy morning late in 1994, Cousin Thie introduced me to the owner of
a 2.4-acre plot of land near National Highway 6 and the Siem Reap international
airport. The lot was about fifteen minutes away by slow motorcycle from my old
home in Siem Reap.
It was a flooded area filled with wild grass and rice stock. In the center was a large hole 6 feet deep, where people had carted away soil to raise their houses...
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Our life’s journey never ends. It is like a rushing stream fed by the annual monsoon water or the melting water from the great glaciers. Even during the driest of seasons, the stream continues to run. Only when we die does our life’s journey come to an end...
Afterword: The Healing and Reconciling Process
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It has been my good fortune to have worked with the Cambodian community since 1991, when I accepted my first job after training in psychiatry. My first position, as a volunteer psychiatrist at the Site II camp on the Thai-Cambodian border, opened my eyes to the plight of the Cambodian community. Though sometimes disturbing and stressful, this work taught me a lot about how people...
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About the Author
Page Count: 270
Illustrations: 1 family tree, 2 maps
Publication Year: 2011