Seattle, WA, May 2010
From 1975 to 1981, Saroeun Eav fought for her life and the lives of her children as she suffered under the rule of the Khmer Rouge in her native country of Cambodia. In this excerpt from her life history, Saroeun tells of death-defying escapes, bearing children in labor camps, and, eventually, her escape to the United States where she joined the Church and raised her children in the gospel.
I was born in Battambang, Cambodia, in 1952. As a child, toys that kept me entertained were coconut shells, the soil on the ground, banana leaves, and animals such as dogs and cats.
I started school in the 1959. I was seven years old. My parents lived on a farm, which was 3½ miles from my school. My older brother took me to school on his bicycle with him. The first day of school my mom gave me a red skirt to wear. I was so excited to wear it.
My family was very poor. We could not afford to buy chalk in the stores to write with in school, instead we went to the pond and gathered the topsoil and made that into chalk. The soil was smooth and soft. We rolled it in the shape of chalk. This was used as my chalk at school, but the color was gray instead of white. My parents made most of my school supplies such as the board, which I used to write with. My parents never had extra money to give to their children, nor to spend for school supplies. We never ate breakfast. We brought snacks to school to carry us through lunch. For snacks, my mom made small pieces of rice balls which were sprinkled with salt and wrapped in banana leaves. My brother and I would take them to school for snack time.
I learned to work very hard at a young age. My parents were farmers and grew their own rice, fruits, and vegetables. I carried buckets of water with a yoke on my shoulder from a nearby river, which was ¼ of a mile from our home. I used this to water all of our plants. When our fruits and vegetables were ripe, I would help my parents pick the fruits and vegetables to sell at a public market nearby.
My life was busy and difficult when I was young. I did not have much fun. When I had free time from work, I read a book so I could learn by myself. It was so hard for me to ask my parents if I could go out with my friends. They would usually not allow me to go. The only fun activity my parents allowed me to do with my friends was to jump off bridges into the water to clean ourselves off. That was why they would let us do that.
In 1966 I was forced to drop out of school. My parents could not afford to have four children in school so they had me quit school and work with my older sister. The money we earned helped my other siblings continue in school. Leaving school was hard for me. I cried every day at work for the first week. I loved school and I wanted to go back so I could learn more, but I knew I couldn’t. My parents supported me so that I could go to school through my seven grades. I am grateful to them for that. Even though I didn’t have much of a chance to receive all of the knowledge that I wished for, I will never forget the kindness that my parents gave to me.
In the middle of 1969, Leang Eav, who had been teaching school and living at Pursat City, came to teach school in my town. After he had lived in our town for one year, he came to rent my parent’s house. Leang and I became good friends. After he knew me better, he told his father that he was in love with me and he wanted to become engaged to me. When I was told that, I felt a little confused and embarrassed. Leang and I were good friends. We were like brother and sister especially because we had dinner at my parents’ house so often.
It was so hard for me to decide about Leang. From then on I was kind of afraid to talk much to him like I use to do. I told my Mom and my older sister that I would think about marrying him. It was very hard for me to change my mind quickly from thinking of him as friend to thinking of him as a husband. While we were engaged we could not go anywhere alone. We needed to have a chaperon with us. For thirteen months before we were married, we had a chaperon whenever we were together.
In February 1973 I gave birth to a cute baby boy who we named Alain. We loved him very much. After Alain was born, our life was filled with blessing and gratefulness. But this happiness did not last long. The Khmer Rouge destroyed our happiness.
In March of 1975, the Khmer Rouge defeated General Lon Noll who was the Cambodian President. During this time, the Khmer Rouge sent all government employees, business people and school teachers including my family to work on the farms. Transportation was not available. To get to the farm we had to walk and if we resisted in any way, we were killed.
After they took over Cambodia, the Khmer Rouge played their new national anthem over the loud speakers throughout the city. It was April 17, 1975 around 9:00 am. At 2:30 pm that same day, they drove their car with loud speakers and told all the people to attend a meeting the next morning at 9:00 am. All former government teachers, soldiers and doctors were supposed to go to the elementary school near the lake.
Most of them were killed right away. The Khmer Rouge had tricked them. My family had a meeting with another group of teachers and business people, and so we were not killed. One of Khmer Rouge leaders made an announcement: He ordered us to pack and told us that we were leaving town for three days. We were to pack only the important things that we needed during the three days. They said that no one was to be in their house at 4:30 pm. The meeting wasn’t long, maybe about 30 minutes. People left the meeting very quiet and in great sadness, including my family.
We watched the road fill up with people trying to find the exit to get out. But along the sides of the road, from north to south and east to west were Khmer Rouge soldiers. There was no way to escape. People were confused and concerned. There were children crying and calling out, looking for their parents. Most of the families were separated from their husbands, wives, brothers, sisters, parents, and grandparents.
The Khmer Rouge forced their authority cruelly on the people of Cambodia. It was so sad for me to see all the suffering. I couldn’t believe how mean they were treating all of us. It was so hot on that day. We sweat so much we became dehydrated. We were so lucky that we were able to sneak past the Khmer Rouge guards to walk toward the north where there was busy traffic with many cars, motorcycles, bicycles and pedestrians. All I heard was crying, praying, people calling each other’s names, and distraught voices all around me. On that hot day, the dust blew all over. It was in the air and all over the road. It was very hard to breathe, especially for the children. Alain was fussy because it was so hot and our day had been so long. Alain was not able to take a nap and was so tired.
This trip was so difficult and miserable for my family. My husband and his brother pushed the handcart through the water, mud and on the rough road. I carried Alain and tried to follow them. I tried many ways of carrying him to make Alain and myself comfortable, but it didn’t work. Alain was so uncomfortable. He was crying and fussing all day long. That year, we often took many difficult and sad trips by force. I felt so sorry for my baby. He was having such a difficult time and I didn’t know what to do. I was crying inside my heart because I didn’t want Alain to know that I was crying. I was so sad at that time and then I heard my husband’s voice say, “Push, and push harder”. I knew they were stuck in the mud. I put Alain down on the ground, I told Alain, “You stay here and mom me is going to help your dad and your uncle”. Alain stood up on the ground and said, “Go mom, go”. I gained more energy after I heard my baby’s voice. He had understood. My husband and my brother-in-law were smiling at Alain and said “Don’t move Alain, we will make it because of your help.” Finally we got out of the deep mud.
We were forced into a labor camp. We worked extremely hard to survive. We woke up at 4:00 am every morning to be ready to work at 5:30 am. We worked all day until 7:00 pm without complaint. We dug the roots of trees in the water to make a space to plant the rice. Even though the water would splash and get us wet, we had to work in wet clothes all day. It is too hard to describe how difficult and miserable it was.
We lived in that place around six months. I remember being so tired and dizzy and sometimes without any appetite. I worried that if I wasn’t able to work, the Khmer Rouge might kill me. So I always forced myself to do it. We finished all of the work by the end of the season to grow rice and vegetables.
The Khmer Rouge had moved and split our group into groups of 6-8 families. Each group lived in a different village. I still don’t know what happened to the people in my first group. I was very concerned for my husband. The Khmer Rouge wanted to destroy all of those who were educated, businessmen, teachers, and those who had ever served in the former government. I was so frightened that I had no energy to pack, but I forced myself to do so.
We left that village at the end of October 1975. We walked pushing the handcart through the mud, rain, and wind. We had a very hard time on this trip because it rained so much. We got to the next village on the same day around 3:30 pm. They gave us an empty old house to stay in and in the late evening, the Khmer Rouge would come to tell us what and where to work the next day.
I was worried about myself because I didn’t feel good and I was so tired all the time. I tried to force myself to work hard though because I was afraid the Khmer Rouge would kill me. The Khmer Rouge didn’t care whether people were sick or healthy. Honest people didn’t even matter to them. They just cared about those who had the ability to work.
In this new village, they gave me the job of braiding thatches with the group of ladies. They used them to cover up the roof or wall of people’s houses. I didn’t like the sitting-down jobs because I was pregnant with my second child. I had a hard time to sitting on the ground while I was a pregnant. But to survive, I had to fight for it.
In March 1976 I gave birth to my beautiful baby girl. We named her Rachna. Two weeks after Rachna was born they sent my husband back to work. This time was a very difficult time for me living with two kids just two weeks after labor. It was a bad situation but I had no choice. I prayed to God to help lead and guide us, to take good care of us, and to keep my family from harm.
They sent me back to work 1½ months after Rachna was born to continue working at the same job that I had left. A month later, they changed me to another job of grinding rice. It was a hard job with a newborn baby. I worked the grinding rice job for one month. Both of my arms trembled and were weak. I didn’t have any sensation in my arms. I had a very hard time nursing, giving my baby a bath and carrying her when she needed me.
In January of 1978 we were moved to another labor camp. I was worried and sad because I was thinking that all my family would die that day. I prayed to whoever had the most power in the world to please help my family and please save us from the harm. After I prayed I felt sad, but at the same time I felt happy because we going to die together rather than apart.
We were into the third year of life under the Khmer Rouge, which was miserable and bitter. We worked very hard but there was still not enough food to eat. My husband worked the same job he had had for the last month, making roof tile. My job was to harvest rice. Sometimes I took Alain and Rachna with me to work and other times I left them at home. When Rachna stayed home with Alain, on my lunch break I would have to run home to nurse Rachna and run back to work. My husband would come to check on them too while he was on his lunch break. We would take turns to check on our children when they were home by themselves.
I was so happy about my kids that I forgot about my hard work, suffering and hunger. Everyday my husband and I would run back from work to home to check on our kids during our lunch break. I told my husband about them. We were so lucky to have them. We both agreed that our life was so blessed because of them, and we both thanked God for the blessing that we received.
We did not want our kids to stay with the baby sitters because most of the babysitters would steal the food from the kids to feed themselves. Everyone in the whole farm was starving to death. One cup of rice soup had about 15 to 20 grains of rice. One evening Rachna was eating her food and one grain of rice with some liquid dropped from her spoon and fell onto the wood floor. She tried to pick it up many times but she couldn’t and then she laid herself down close to the wood floor and licked it up with her tongue. As I turned around to get another spoon for Alain, I saw her but I didn’t know what she was doing until I heard she say, “I got it. I got it mom.” I felt sad because I knew she was so hungry that even if a grain of rice dropped on the floor she would try to get it.
We did not leave our kids in the house everyday. Some days there was no rain so I took them with me. Alain and Rachna liked to play in the field. Alain liked to catch insects like grasshoppers, crickets and baby frogs. He would cook them in the fire when it was cooking time. He shared them with his sister. Often he tried to share some with me. I thanked him for being nice and thinking about me, and then I told him not worry about mom and to give it to his sister if he wanted to or to eat it for himself. He would say to me, “Mom I want you to taste it, it has a good taste and it will give you energy, mom.” I would eat it to make Alain happy. I just couldn’t believe that my hungry son who was not even five years old would try to feed his mom a baby frog’s leg.
One night I couldn’t sleep at all because I was so confused and worried about the future. I had a thought in my mind and it seemed like someone whispered to me, “Stop worrying about everything. You will get worse if you keep worrying. Depression and stress will destroy your life before Khmer Rouge can kill you. Your kids will live a miserable life without you.” After that, I tried to forget all the troubles that I had. I had to try to be strong for my children and my husband.
In January of 1979, Vietnamese communist troops took over Cambodia which was previously controlled by the Khmer Rouge. We thought it would be a good time to escape our work camp with all the chaos, so we thought about escaping from the countryside and going back to our home city. I was afraid: If the Khmer Rouge saw us on the way back to our town they would kill us. I didn’t know if we could go through with it. There was a dark cloud in my head.
Before I got into bed, I knelt down and started to pray to ask for help. I said, “Whoever has the most power on earth and in the heavens, please help and bless our family to get through these problems as you know my family’s life is miserable right now. Please bless my family and give us a sign to know where to live. Please let us know if my family’s life would be better here than my hometown and if so please keep us here. If living there would be better, please send us there right away.” I was so tired that I lay down and put my arms on my chest and quickly fell a sleep. The next night and following two nights, I repeated my prayer using the same words.
Two days later, we all escaped from where we were living, Village Baray. We left Baray at 6:00am around the time people leave home to work. We tried to pretend that we were going to work like usual. We walked and ran on our bare feet. We carried my daughter and my niece on our shoulders by putting them inside a big square cloth, which we tied up and hanging them on a long stick of bamboo, which was 2 yards long. We then put that on our shoulders and tried to balance ourselves as we walked. My husband and I took turns carrying them and carrying Alain.
Sometimes Alain wanted to walk by himself. Sometimes he walked and sometimes he ran. He enjoyed this trip because he didn’t know whether we were in trouble or not. My older sister carried our food supply and old clothes, which were heavy for her. My Dad walked with a cane. We walked for more than 4 hours not stopping because we were afraid the Khmer Rouge would see us and kill us.
In November of 1979, my family escaped from Cambodia to Thailand. We escaped because the Vietnamese communists and the Khmer Rouge had similar ideologies and we feared what our lives would become. This was our second escape. The first was from the work camp to our home city, and this journey was from our hometown to a refugee camp in Thailand. We were so afraid because many families who attempted to escape were robbed and killed by Vietnamese and Khmer Rouge soldiers and Thai robbers.
We lived in a United Nations refugee camp in Thailand for 18 months. My third child, Mithona, was born in that camp. The Yeakleys, who were an Latter-day Saint family in Washington State, sponsored us to come to the United States.
When we were in the United Nations camp my husband was the one that studied English so he knew how to ask the flight attendant for what the children needed when we were on the plane to the United States. I did not know any English at all at that time.
I was so happy when I saw the Seattle/Tacoma airport and the people, but I became scared when I heard them talking. I didn’t understand them and so I started to worry. The first thing that made me so excited was getting off the airplane and to know we were in the United States. The exit door from the airport went around and around and made me dizzy. On the way home from the airport, I was sick because I didn’t like the food on the airplane. I didn’t eat anything except water and I was so tired and also getting out of the parking garage of the airport made me dizzy.
On July 1st we moved to an apartment in Redmond, WA. At 10:00pm on the Fourth of July we were frightened from the sounds of the fireworks. I started to pack some clothes for all of my kids with shaking hands. I had nowhere to go, but it was what I was used to when we were in Cambodia. I was desperate. Living in United States was supposed to be a safe place for our children to live. Yet, I heard the fireworks, which sounded like very loud gunfire. Then my husband snuck over to the window and opened the curtain to see what exactly was going on outside. After he opened the curtain, I asked him right away, “What do you see?” He told me that he saw the people standing up in groups seeming to be having fun. They were not scared. I then took a look for myself. I saw children and adults burning the fireworks in the stick and I realized that it was fireworks.
I decided to be baptized in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints on August 14, 1982 in Bellevue, WA Stake Center – the same place that my husband and my older son were baptized. I couldn’t be baptized the same time with them on December 26, 1981 because I was pregnant and I had a morning sickness every day. I couldn’t concentrate to follow up all the lessons that the missionaries were teaching me. Four months after Michael was born, I went to janitor training and got a certificate. After I was baptized I realized that we needed to strengthen and protect each other by teaching and living the Gospel in our home.
Our family was sealed in the Seattle Temple in 1984. My first son Alain served in the Washington D.C. South mission. My youngest son Michael served his mission in Tokyo Japan North. All four of our children are married and have graduated from Brigham Young University.
We have been so blessed to have twelve grandchildren – seven girls and five boys. When we first came to the United States on May 28, 1981 we had five people in our family, but now our family has grown to 22. My children have grown up, got married and have kids of their own. Our lives have been blessed since we became members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. We have also been blessed to grow up with the righteous people because they show us their great love and support. They are the best example to our family and we have learned a lot from them. Our family has been greatly blessed from living the gospel truths together, learning, praying, and obeying God’s commandments. I’m grateful for my children having strong spirits in the Church, and for their loving and supporting each other. I am so thankful for the brother and sister who taught my family and who did not give up on my family and for their love and support. I am grateful to Heavenly Father and His Son Jesus Christ for leading, guiding, protecting, and comforting my family’s lives. I am so grateful for the many blessings that I have received.
Interview produced by Neylan McBaine, with assistance of Mithona Eav Nielsen. Photos used with permission.
At A Glance