Cambodian genocide survivor learns to cope with memories of terror


Alicia Tan

Sodany Lam points out her old classmates to her daughter, senior Melody Lam. “The way [Cambodia] is now, I don’t mind going back,” Sodany said. “People are different. That’s why a lot of older generations don’t forget and move on. You can see they don’t speak out much.”

It was 1975. The cities of Cambodia were empty. The rice fields were filled with workers, sweat gleaming on their skin. The heat triggered sore throats and thirst as they worked with weapons pointed at them. They had to do the job right—or else.

Each night, Sodany Lam slept away from her siblings and parents. Sometimes she saw them. Sometimes she didn’t. Her family was torn apart and put into camps according to age group. They stayed in broken shacks, sometimes falling asleep as rain trickled down their faces, mud sloshed beneath their skin and guards stood watch outside in the night.

“You can’t escape,” Sodany said. “You try to sneak out a mile to see your parents, you can’t get away. They hide in every corner. In the middle of the night when you sleep, they can come and get you, they can rape you, they can do whatever they want to do with you. Even if your mom sleeps next to you, you can’t do anything about it.”

It is 2010. Layers of photos are laid out on a table inside a one-story house in Carrollton. The photos are discolored and faded but still conjure memories dating back to the ‘70s. Senior Melody Lam holds a picture in her hand and points to two young women in long skirts, with tan skin and bare feet. It’s her mom and aunt.

Melody, an American-born Cambodian, is the daughter of two survivors of the genocide that struck Cambodia in 1975. Her mother, Sodany, was 14 and her father, Vanna, was 22.

The Khmer Rouge was a Cambodian communist group that wanted to reform the country into a pure peasant community. Sodany was forced to leave her normal life as they evacuated cities, moving people to work in the country. Religion and music were banned, schools were shut down and Cambodian leader Pol Pot wanted to exterminate the educated class, which he saw as a threat to his power. An estimated 1.7 million people died – a death toll equal to population of Nebraska – during the genocide due to starvation, torture and mass murder. Those dead were buried in sites known as “The Killing Fields.”

“Have you seen the movie ‘The Killing Fields’?” Sodany said. “They tell you that’s so bad. That’s wrong. It’s ten times worse. It’s like Hitler.”

They were slaves planting rice from sunrise until as late as midnight. They were slaves of skin and bones and hunger.

“They don’t feed you,” Sodany said. “When we finished working, we didn’t go and relax. In our free time, we went out and found food for ourselves.”

Members of the Khmer Rouge watched their every move. Sodany kept quiet and did what she was told. If work in the field was done incorrectly, whippings or death were their only options.

“That’s how my dad got killed,” Sodany said. “He don’t know anything about the farm work. He never done anything like that in the past. There’s no point for them to keep him.”

Sodany had three brothers and three sisters. Her mother, one brother and two sisters were never to be seen again.

“They send them to work in the field, and you never see them coming back home,” Sodany said. “That means they killed them.”

Sodany watched as children turned into members of the Khmer Rouge, like followers of the Hitler Youth. Children as young as seven were taught to use guns and follow Pol Pot in acts of terror. People and babies were killed right in front of innocent eyes.

“The cold-blooded kids,” Sodany said. “They’d take them and train them how to hate your family. By the time they’re 7 or 8 years old, your son doesn’t recognize you. They don’t care about you, because they’ve been brainwashed.”

The horror has gone, leaving stained memories, but Sodany sits at her kitchen table giving firsthand accounts of her experiences without hesitation. Her husband is at work. He keeps his past bottled up inside, unwilling to tell his stories to strangers. Melody has only heard the basics. This is the first time she’s heard her mother’s personal stories.

“My dad is more quiet,” Melody said. “But I think he doesn’t like telling about it because it still affects him.”

In 1979, the Khmer Rouge was finally thrown from power by an invasion from Vietnam, leaving the starving and broken victims to return freely to their homes.

As she waited for immigration sponsors from the United States, Sodany learned English. She went to Thailand, where she stayed in a refugee camp and took ESL classes. She learned the basic English: “Thank you” and “What’s your name?” Then, she traveled to the Philippines and continued to study English. All of this to come to America.

“You’re free to go back home to where you belong,” Sodany said. “But a lot of people don’t want to go back. Why do you want to go back? Your loved ones already died. There’s no point.”

Sodany was 18 when she and her sister Socheata got sponsors from First Baptist Church in Carrollton. They lived with Ellie and Gene Evans while Sodany went to Newman Smith High School and Socheata worked. Once Sodany was too old for high school, she worked at Mostic and later Quest Medical in order to buy her first car.

Socheata still suffers. She lives with another sister, who came to America at a later time, struggling to find a way to make money. She has hearing disabilities as a result of being beaten by the Khmer Rouge. She can’t speak much English, mumbling phrases, holding a blank expression behind her glasses when she can’t hear. Melody has to repeat short choppy phrases loudly before she gets a response.

“I want to make money not for myself, but for the kids,” Socheata said, pointing to Melody and looking at baby photos of Melody’s older brother, Jonathan.

It’s been 31 years since the Khmer Rouge was overthrown, but Sodany can still recount the events that turned her childhood around. She speaks with wide eyes, unafraid of the memories she relives through words. But not everyone can recover as well as she has.

“A friend of mine, when I went to go back to Cambodia to see her, she’s not a normal person,” Sodany said. “She’s mentally ill because of Khmer Rouge. The Khmer Rouge ruined everything, destroyed everything, destroyed people. Melody’s dad … he’s not happy. He has depression. I don’t know how much the Khmer Rouge hurt him.”

Melody went to Cambodia with her mom last summer and saw the effects of the genocide on today’s survivors and on the country itself. Young orphans run around selling bracelets, scrounging for food and living in straw houses.

“Before, I didn’t care for it,” Melody said. “But now that I’m older, I understand … what my parents went through. Sometimes it makes me want to cry. I feel grateful for all the stuff that I have. My parents came to America and worked really hard to support me and my brother.”

But just because the terror ended years ago, the memories and damage still linger.

“Sometimes it hits me the most when I go back home,” Sodany said. “But I learn to move on. If you sit back and let that destroy your life, you cannot do anything. You have to put everything back and move on.”