Cambodia—Surviving a Nightmare
As told by Khem Sou
FOR many years Cambodia (or, Kampuchea) was at peace. Then, in 1970, Lieutenant General Lon Nol seized power. As a result, communists known as Khmer Rouge, or Red Khmer, rose up in revolt. Lon Nol mobilized everyone he could throughout Cambodia to fight the communists.
At the time, I was studying law and medical science at Phnom Penh University, as well as working as a writer. Actually I wrote my first book, Tears of Orphans, when I was only 15. It was mainly the compilation of diaries that I had kept since I was seven. The book sold very well, and since I didn’t need the money, I donated the royalties to the orphanage.
While at the university, I was well known as an author, songwriter, and singer. Altogether I wrote about 20 books and many songs. My penchant for writing could be due to the influence of my mother, who was a professor of French literature at Phnom Penh University. She wanted me to be a lawyer.
However, when Lon Nol mobilized to fight the communists, I had to discontinue my studies and decide whether to join the military or the police force. Although my stepfather was a top-ranking general, I wanted nothing to do with the military. So I joined the police force, and by 1973, at the age of 22, I had attained the position of first lieutenant.
Yet, while doing police work, my dissatisfaction with life grew. In fact, I was moved to write a book entitled Life Has No Purpose. Sadly, this was my verdict even after having given much thought to Buddhism and a number of French philosophies, as well as pursuing careers as a writer and a policeman.
While very young, I had lived with my grandmother, an uncle, and two aunts—but not with my parents. In time my mother remarried, so when I was 12, I was able at last to live with my mother, my stepfather, and my two sisters.
My grandmother reared me as a Buddhist. At the age of ten I was sent to a monastery for three months to receive religious training. Outside the monastery, I noted, the monks walked about with their heads bowed and appeared to be the very personification of meekness, but inside not a day passed without their quarreling with one another.
At our pagoda, there was a small golden statue of Buddha that from time to time was not in its place. Where was it on those occasions? The monks said that the statue could fly and that it visited various pagodas in the vicinity. After watching carefully, I discovered that a monk would remove the statue and hide it. It distressed me that the monks practiced such a deception. When I told my grandmother, she became very angry with me because she wanted to believe in the flying statue.
Upon leaving the monastery, my disbelief grew. In high school even the religious teacher taught that Buddhism is divided into many schools and that it is nothing but a philosophy. I turned to the teachings of several French philosophers, hoping to obtain answers to my questions about life. But these actually increased my doubts about the existence of God. What was a person to believe? I did not know, but I asked myself repeatedly why I was living.
End of Lon Nol’s Administration
During 1973 and 1974 the turmoil of the war increased, and people in all walks of life became more distressed by the injustices they saw. Since as a policeman there was little I could do about the grievances, I tried to do something as a writer. I wrote a critical social novel, The Sky Is Dark.
That was the last book I ever wrote. I went to prison for it. My sentence was for two years, but thanks to my kinship to both the royal family and one of Cambodia’s ambassadors to a nearby Asian country, I was freed after only a few days. The ambassador used his influence in my behalf.
Obviously, I preferred freedom to imprisonment, but I did not really feel free. The establishment, which tried to impose a certain way of thinking and living on everyone, was almost as repugnant to me as imprisonment. Life in the capital, Phnom Penh, the place of my birth, seemed so unnatural. The corrupt, materialistic, and pleasure-seeking society sickened me, and I wanted to escape. No longer wanting to serve in the police force, I resigned.
Soon afterward I moved to the province of Pailin near the border of Thailand. To earn a living, I began working for a company that mined for precious stones. The country way of life appealed to me a little more, but I could not enjoy it for long. That was because in April 1975 the communist Khmer Rouge marched into Phnom Penh, ousted Lon Nol, and immediately tried to create a completely new society.
To this end, all officials who had served in the former regime had to report so that they could be sent to special camps for retraining purposes. I did not report because I did not want to become a police officer again. This failure to report saved my life. I learned later that “retraining” really meant execution. All who reported were killed.
A Time of Horror
According to estimates, in the months that followed, from one to two million Cambodian people were put to death. I personally witnessed executions, saw mass graves, as well as rivers and lakes literally red with blood and full of dead bodies. Families were torn apart and driven from their homes and land. An unprecedented revolution swept away Cambodian traditions of more than two thousand years. No Cambodian would ever have thought such radical change possible.
Disconcerted and filled with horror, I asked myself if there was any purpose left in living in such an inhuman society. I resolved to flee to a foreign country. The Red Khmer had already been searching for me; I was on their blacklist. Since leaving the police force, I had been living under an assumed name, and this had delayed their finding me. However, since I was well known as a songwriter and author, many people knew who I was and would even call me by my real name. So I realized I was in great danger.
Even so, the decision to flee to Thailand was by no means easy. Whatever the ruling regime, I still loved my home country. Also, I knew that once I left, I could never expect to come back to see my parents, my brother, and my sisters. Besides, there was no way to find routes to Thailand. I couldn’t ask. I had seen the corpse of a man who had been shot and left lying on the ground because it had become known that he was planning to flee the country.
The Flight—and Faith in God
EXACTLY two months after the Red Khmer took power, another man and I attempted to flee. However, we got lost and had to return. But I didn’t give up. A few days later, I set out again with a former police colleague. We were later joined by seven others, including a three-year-old child.
In the jungle, we heard the bloodcurdling roars of tigers. But even more frightening than tigers and poisonous snakes were supporters of the Red Khmer, who were constantly combing the jungles in search of refugees. Sometimes we saw them. The slightest noise would have attracted their attention and meant death. At times fear deprived us of sleep.
On the third day of our flight, we mistakenly thought that we had crossed the border. We were so happy that we cooked and ate up all the rice we had. That was a serious mistake! For the next four days, there was no food available. We were beginning to lose both hope and strength when suddenly we saw a group of monkeys jumping from tree to tree with bunches of bananas. Hungry as we were, we begged the monkeys for their bananas. And believe it or not, one of the monkeys dropped us a banana! Then the others started imitating him, so that altogether they gave us 20 bananas.
Because of the exciting events of the day, I found it hard to sleep that night. I gazed up at the cloudless heavens and saw a full moon poised in the dark-blue velvet sky. Myriads of stars sparkled. It was to become an unforgettable night for me.
My thoughts for quite some time had been occupied with questions regarding the existence of God. When I observed all the wonderful and intricate processes in nature, I wondered why we should not give honor for this to a wise Creator. Now, as I admired the beauty of that night, I felt the urge to pray. Knowing that God must be far above the sky, I looked heavenward, and with the same intimate feeling I would have if I was talking to my own father, I prayed from my heart for the first time in my life. That prayer proved to be an important turning point.
After I had opened the door of my heart to God, things began to fall into place, and I became convinced that (1) God does exist and that (2) life does have a meaning. My reasoning was that all natural processes give evidence of intelligent design. Should not then the Originator of these meaningful laws have put man on the earth to serve a certain purpose?
Next, the question presented itself: Since God evidently possesses the power and wisdom to eliminate human suffering, why has he permitted so much misery until now? I also wanted to know which religion truly worships the living God. The search for answers to these burning questions was to have priority in my life. I could not believe that God would be so unloving as to withhold from man the answers to them.
As we continued our struggle through the jungle, I thought of my mother. She had shown some interest in Christianity. Missionaries from France had been frequent visitors to our home. Sometimes Mother talked to me of that strange religion whose followers did not eat blood. She also spoke of “good news” about righteous, even paradise, conditions that God would bring. In those days I had not believed one word. But now I asked myself: ‘Do I have reasons to disbelieve? Is not my mother an intelligent woman who weighs and examines these things?’ I wanted to find out. But first I would have to get out of Cambodia alive.
I was scantily clad, wearing only a sarong. By this time my bare feet and legs were badly swollen. All of us were exhausted and half starved. We chewed tree leaves to stay alive. On the tenth day of our trek, we had to climb a mountain. From the top we looked down on what we thought was Thailand. Coming down the mountain we came across a shack that stank of rotten meat. Inside was a half-rotten human corpse as well as a skeleton! Around the shack were the telltale footprints of the Red Khmer’s shoes. Terrified, we fled! We were not safe yet. Those corpses must have been victims who had tried to escape from Cambodia.
Farther along in the jungle, we came to a river that we thought was at last the border. But a waterfall was about 30 yards (27 m) downstream! An argument broke out between my friend and me. In view of the risks, he insisted that only adults should attempt to cross. Yet, ignoring him, I waited for darkness, and with the little girl tied to my back, I struck out for the other side. The water was deep and I went under, but I finally made it! All of us were safe!
The next day we came to a small village where there were cornfields. To ease our hunger we helped ourselves, eating the corn raw. Nearby was a small hut, and in it we found a matchbox. The label showed it had been made in Thailand, not Cambodia. Can you imagine how we felt? Here was proof! We were in Thailand!
How beautiful the mountains and rivers looked to us now! Shortly afterward I ran a high fever and became unconscious for three days. Apparently I had contracted malaria in the jungle. Even so, we thought that we must be the happiest people on earth.
Finding the Purpose of Life
IN THE refugee camp in Thailand, we were accommodated with 200 other Cambodians. Here I was able to study the Bible with a member of a Protestant denomination called Children of God. This group perceived my interest in Christianity and wanted to baptize me right then and there. I refused baptism, since I was still lacking in conviction. Many Cambodians were baptized quickly because they were given clothes after being baptized.
From the “Children of God,” I obtained a Bible translation in my mother tongue, the Cambodian language. I learned from this that God has the personal name Jehovah and that this God who revealed himself in a special way to the ancient Jews is also the God of Christians. It was this God that I wanted to get to know more fully.
In December 1975, after I had been five months in Thailand, the International Committee of the Red Cross helped me to emigrate to Austria. First I was put in a refugee camp, where I studied German. After six months I was transferred to Linz, where I began living in an apartment. I continued my German studies by night and worked in a packaging factory by day.
During this period, I became involved with the Evangelical and Catholic churches, but there was no one who could give satisfying answers to questions such as, “What happens after death?” and, “What is God’s Kingdom?” I asked a Catholic priest for the meaning of the “good news” and whether there was something like a “good news religion.” He had no answer. I wondered, ‘What is that good news my mother tried to tell me about?’
Twice, while I was alone at home, I prayed to God, and each time after praying, I found handbills pushed under my door. They were invitations to attend meetings at a place called Kingdom Hall of Jehovah’s Witnesses. The name Jehovah already meant something to me, but who were “Jehovah’s Witnesses”? Of what were they witnesses? Full of questions and curiosity, both times I set out to find the Kingdom Hall. Both times I ended up in churches. The Kingdom Hall was located on a second floor above a disco hall, and I was unable to find it.
A few days after my second attempt, I was visiting the home of a friend from Thailand when two persons identifying themselves as Jehovah’s Witnesses came to his door. As I saw my friend turning them away, I told him that I would like to talk to them. First, I asked them what God’s Kingdom is. They explained from the Bible that it is a heavenly government by Christ to rule over the earth. They again used the Bible to answer my next question concerning the condition of man after death. I was deeply impressed by their logical Bible-based answers and immediately asked for a Bible study. The same day, my friend and I went to the meeting at the Kingdom Hall.
I listened to the talk, although I did not understand the greater part of it as I was still learning German. However, I understood it was about the good news, the good news of God’s Kingdom. By means of Jehovah’s Kingdom, the earth was to be made a paradise where people will no more shed tears of grief and where God will ‘make all things new.’ (Revelation 21:3-5) I recalled that my mother once read these same words to me from the Bible. A world free from all the evils of this world was exactly what I expected from a mighty and righteous God.
Now, however, I wanted to know why Jehovah had not created such a world long ago. These and many other questions were answered to my satisfaction in the course of regular Bible discussions. I rejoiced in having found a religion that was not asking blind belief from me. Moreover, Jesus Christ’s teachings and his way of life appealed to me very much.
In sharp contrast to my experience with the “Children of God,” the Witnesses did not ask me to get baptized after a short time of instruction. I understood that baptism was a Christian requirement, so I asked them if they would baptize me. I expected them to do so before I changed my mind. To my surprise, they wanted me to take time in deciding that I really wanted to take the step. I realized that quality counted with the Witnesses rather than quantity. Finally, after studying the Bible for about seven months in the German language, I was baptized in July 1977, at the Linz convention of Jehovah’s Witnesses.
Realizing the Purpose of Life
At this same convention, a new book was released. Four years before this, I had published my book called Life Has No Purpose. Now Jehovah’s Witnesses were releasing the book, almost like an answer to mine, Life Does Have a Purpose. Recognizing the nonsense that I had written, I welcomed that new book with all my heart.
How I longed to make known this good news to the grief-stricken people of Cambodia! This good news would offer them an unfailing hope and a wonderful goal in life. Since it was not possible to return to that country, I did my best to publish the good news to Cambodians living in Austria. I prayed as Isaiah did, “Here I am! Send me,” hoping that Jehovah would use me to help my fellow countrymen.—Isaiah 6:8.
In 1980 I married a Japanese witness in Vienna. I met her at a wedding of Jehovah’s Witnesses. My wife, too, had found what she was searching for when a fellow Japanese student at the Vienna Academy of Music, one of Jehovah’s Witnesses, helped her to understand the Bible. After our second child was born, my wife had health problems, and it seemed best that she return to Japan. We made the move in 1983 and settled in Tokyo.
My sincere desire to help Cambodian refugees has not changed. There are about 600 of them in Japan, mostly scattered in the suburbs of Tokyo. It brings me great joy to work among them and help them to understand Jehovah’s loving purpose for mankind. I have the great privilege of helping with about a dozen home Bible studies with Cambodians, either conducting studies myself or assisting the Japanese conductors. Twice a month our entire family spends whole days serving only Cambodians. Although this involves driving almost 180 miles (300 km), we receive great encouragement from seeing the steady spiritual progress that some of them are making.
After a long interval without communication with my family in my home country, I received a reply to a letter I wrote in 1981. I learned that my stepfather and a sister had been killed in the civil war. Three of my family, my mother, my brother, and a sister, are still alive. We are able to correspond a few times a year now, but it is hard to tell from their letters just what the religious situation is in Cambodia.
I can say with confidence that my search for the purpose of life has certainly been richly rewarded. Having found life’s true meaning and purpose, I am so very happy to have a loving family united in serving our great God, Jehovah. How I look forward to the day when I can be reunited with my mother, brother, and sister! In the meantime, what a privilege it is to have a share in bringing the good news of God’s Kingdom to the downtrodden and oppressed!
[Maps on page 16]
(For fully formatted text, see publication)
Kampuchea and adjoining countries, with inset of the path of my flight into Thailand
[Picture on page 15]
One of the buildings of the royal palace in Phnom Penh. As a boy, I danced here before the king
[Picture on page 18]
My wife and me, studying with our two children