Chicagoans Remember the Cambodian Genocide

February 10, 2009

Download Story
Chicago's Albany Park neighborhood is home to the only Cambodian genocide memorial outside of Cambodia.The Killing Fields Memorial is located in Chicago's Albany Park neighborhood on the northside. Worldview Producer Nissa Rhee visited the memorial to see how Chicagoans are remembering the genocide.

When the Khmer Rouge overthrew the government of Lon Nol in 1975, Cambodians were war weary. With the help of the U.S., they had been fighting both the Communist Khmer Rouge insurgents in the northwest and Viet Cong soldiers on their border for several years.

Kompha Seth was a sergeant in the Cambodian army.  He had just finished attending a U.S. military training in Thailand when the Khmer Rouge took power.

Because of his connections with Americans and the previous anti-Communist government, Kompha feared for his life. He was given the choice to stay in Cambodia or go to the United States.

SETH: Pretty, pretty hard to make a choice in those time, you know, because my family lived at home and pretty hard to make a choice. So, I don't know why but I'm still not understand how I made the decision at that time. So I forced myself to come to the U.S. with my pain, by myself.  I left my family back home. It's pretty hard for me.

Kompha left his two sons—age 8 and 2—behind with his wife. They were all killed. 

He thought that his brother's family died as well, but his sister-in-law contacted him after the genocide. She showed him some family mementos she had buried near her house for safekeeping before the Khmer Rouge soldiers came. After the genocide, she returned home and dug them up.  He showed me a picture of him as an 18-year old taped to his office wall. 

SETH: This is my picture. She told me that she you know hide it in the ground with a plastic bag. When the events over she go back and then she pulled all of the evidence you know, my letter, my picture, everything.  So that's why I believe that it's real. 

His sister-in-law told Kompha that the Khmer Rouge forced them to walk many miles to an agricultural labor camp. Many people died from starvation and disease. Others were executed and thrown in mass graves, called killing fields. 

RHEE: Was she able to tell you how your wife or your children died?
SETH: Oh yeah, yeah. She…I don't want to describe. You know, it was so much painful. When I talk. She still cries when she talks with me by phone.  She's crying.

Out of their 25 member extended family, only Kompha and his sister-in-law are left.  Kompha has dedicated his life to making sure that what happened during the genocide is not forgotten. He is now the Executive Director of the Cambodian Association of Illinois, the organization that houses the Killing Fields memorial. 

SETH: Among the unluckiest, I'm the luckiest. That's why we work hard to create this memorial, you know, to honor those who cannot make it. It's the place where people come to heal the past, and also the place to honor those who cannot survive.

ambi: "Cambodian Dream" song played by Master Song San

The memorial is in the Association's Heritage Museum, behind an exhibit on the renewal of Cambodian culture after the genocide. Its black granite walls are a solemn contrast to the colorful weavings and intricate wooden sculptures that fill the front of the museum.

Charles Daas is the Museum Director.

DAAS: What you see essentially are 80 glass panels that are back-lit.  And each of these panels represents 25,000 people that perished during the Killing Fields period.
RHEE: And I see a white flower, and it says “We continue our journey with compassion, understanding and wisdom.”
DAAS: The phrase signifies the way in which the Cambodian people have approached having lived through a genocide. It's also a window into their Buddhist beliefs which is this concept of unconditional love and compassion.  That they move on from this tragic period in history and they continue to live and to thrive. The flower itself is a sacred flower in Cambodia. But it was also chosen to represent the life after this dark chapter in Cambodian history. 

The museum is a gathering place for Cambodian-Americans searching for their heritage.

ambi: Kong Toch instrument

EAP: This instrument needs a lot of coordination. You have to use a lot of flexibility from one side to the next to the other side. You really need to have great body control with this.

On Sundays, young Cambodian-Americans like Kimsour Eap gather in the museum to practice traditional Khmer music. The music classes are one part of the Association's mission to renew Cambodian culture, much of which was destroyed in the genocide. 

Kimsour is practicing the Kong Toch. He sits on a pillow in the middle of the instrument – a circular series of small gongs. He comes to the music class to reconnect with his Cambodian culture. 

EAP: It's meaningful for all young people, like us, like me actually.  To see what it's like to be a part of Cambodian civilization, to be a Cambodian person period. To come here to see all of this museum, to see this display.  To think about back in time what's going on in Cambodia. It's great. 

Kimsour was born in Cambodia six years after the Khmer Rouge was ousted from power. And his family's history during the genocide remains a mystery to him. 

EAP: You know what, I don't really know much about it. They don't really want to talk about it, ‘cause it's so much painful to even think about. 

That reticence of Cambodians to discuss the genocide is one of the biggest obstacles the Association faces. 

DAAS: Even though we have this museum, even though we have the memorial, I think that most people continue to be unaware of what really happened in Cambodia. 

Again, Museum director Charles Daas. 

DAAS: What is most disheartening for me is that genocide actually has a pattern. That this isn't just something that happens. That one genocide occurs and people actually mimic or learn from that. And so I think one of the difficulties for me is that even though we have this wonderful facility and this beautiful memorial, which again while it's a memorial to the Cambodian people, it's a memorial to anyone who's been victim to war to torture and to genocide. I think the hardest thing for me is that there are so many people who don't know that this happened and how important it is for them to understand this. 

Cambodians celebrated the 30th anniversary of the end of the Khmer Rouge regime last month.  But as the Cambodian Association of Illinois will tell you, the genocide still is a dark shadow on the lives of Cambodian-Americans.  It will take a long time before the wounds heal.  And until then, the Cambodian community will keep renewing, and keep remembering. 

Listen to a tradional Khmer song performed by Master Song San at the Cambodian American Heritage Museum in Chicago.