Surviving the Killing Fields to tell the Cambodian refugee story

Ty Tim, a Cambodian refugee, in front of several Cambodian artifacts in his Skokie house. Photo by Jessica K. Chou.

Thida Tim Loek has a phobia of getting lost. It’s a phobia that originated in the jungles of Southeast Asia, during her escape from Cambodia to Thailand. The phobia resurfaced as she moved to the United States, stepped foot into her first Kmart, and promptly lost herself among the clothing racks. Today, she cannot travel alone to unfamiliar places without driving in circles for hours, wondering, “Where am I?”

It was the same question she asked herself as a little girl when she woke up one day 34 years ago, packed some clothes per her parents’ orders, and moved out of the city and into the jungle.

“All of the sudden everybody was leaving the city and people were pushing each other, running, carrying things,” Loek says, “The next thing I remember we were living in a jungle. You know, on this hill, forest, water … it wasn’t the city anymore.”

——

Loek was 6 years old, one of thousands of Cambodians who were deported from their city homes during the reign of the brutal regime known as the Khmer Rouge from 1975 to 1979.

The communist regime attempted to run the country through absolute self-sufficiency and wide-spread agricultural reform, but instead caused the deaths of millions of civilians through famine, work camps and arbitrary executions.

As part of agricultural reform efforts, Khmer Rouge officials relocated citizens from urban areas to the countryside to perform manual labor under the supervision of soldiers. These fields gained such infamy that they became known as the Killing Fields. Estimates vary between 1.2 million to 4 million Cambodian lives lost.

Life prior to evacuation was pretty normal for Loek. She lived in a city with a home, food, some toys – comforts all left behind

Thida Tim Loek with a current family photo. Photo by Jessica K. Chou.

that fateful morning. Her family was brought to a tropical hill surrounded by water that reached her parents’ necks. Her father, Ty Tim, made a small shelter from leaves and wood. In the depths of her hazy memory, Leok remembers her new home as dark and wet. That was just the beginning.

As her parents left “home” for long periods of time to work for the regime, Loek’s six-year-old self was forced to grow up and take care of her younger sisters and brother.

“I remember my role,” Loek says. “My mom cooked a big pot of rice [before she left] and she said, ‘Okay you’re the oldest. Take care of your brother and your sisters.’”

But her younger brother and two younger sisters didn’t survive. Harsh weather conditions and the lack of food and shelter took their lives.

“They had nothing to eat, they cannot survive. When they’re too young they stay in jungle, the mosquitoes, the weather,” her father Ty Tim says. “It’s not easy to survive.”

Loek, however, was able to get through those years in the jungle. Eventually, the Khmer Rouge separated Loek from her parents, placing them all in different work camps by gender and age. Loek was forced to work in rice fields, picking up cow dung for fertilizer.

One night, she decided that she had enough – she was going to run away. The first time, she was caught while stealing some coconuts to bring to her mother. The second time, she left everything and ran.

[audio:http://immigrantconnect.medill.northwestern.edu/wp-content/uploads/2010/05/runaway.mp3] Thida Tim Loek recalls walking, praying and getting there.

Loek hid in the jungle. Her mother brought her food at night, and they lived secretly until the Vietnamese soldiers attacked Cambodia in 1978. The remainder of the Tim family reconvened in Phnom Penh, and during that small period of peace, Loek’s mother gave birth to her younger sister.

However, the Tim family still had to get out. The family raised money running a small convenience shop, eventually saving enough to pay two guides to lead them to Thailand. They traveled by night and hid by day in the tropical jungles until they finally reached the first refugee camp.

“The Communists – they kill so many people, so I got to go,” Tim recalls. “If we have a chance, I got to go…we had no choice.”

——

Leon Lim's map. Image courtesy of Leon Lim.

Thirty years after leaving Cambodia, Leon Lim still treasures the map that his uncle traced to direct him to safety. Simple blue ink scribbled onto a small piece of notebook parchment led him away from his home city of Siem Reap to seek sanctuary in a Thai refugee camp.

“He just gave me the main points from this village to that village, from that village to that village.’’ Lim says. “It wasn’t very detailed, but at least it gave me a clue.’’

Then 24-year-old Lim had been a medical student in the capital city of Phnom Penh prior to his enslavement in the Khmer Rouge killing fields for nearly five years. While in the killing fields of northern Cambodia, he survived malaria, sickness, and life-threatening wounds with no medical care. For five years, he worked grueling 12-plus hour days and subsisted on roughly a handful of rice as a daily diet. All without a single possession to his name.

“You can’t even brush your teeth, you can’t let them see you brush your teeth. You can’t even show you have soap when you take baths,” Lim says. “If they see that…they say you don’t sacrifice for the new regime.”

After an invasion by the Vietnamese allowed his release from the fields in 1978, Lim returned home to Siem Reap where he discovered that his entire immediate family had been killed. It was then he decided that there was ”nothing left for [him] in Cambodia -I had no future there.’’ It took about a year to arrange plans to leave the country he called home.

[audio:http://immigrantconnect.medill.northwestern.edu/wp-content/uploads/2010/05/leaving.mp3] Leon Lim recalls it as a one-way ticket to the unknown.

With his rough paper guide and nothing more than the clothes on his back, Lim hid under bushes and avoided mines for nearly 10-days from Siem Reap to the Cambodia-Thailand border.

Once he reached the border, he spent five days in a small Cambodian refugee camp before the UNHCR [United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees] transported him to

Leon Lim, today, with the book "Where There is No Doctor." Photo by Jessica K. Chou.

Thailand where he stayed at camp Khao ‘I’ Dang for the next two years. While conditions at Khao ‘I’ Dang were far more comfortable than in the killing fields, the situation was nothing short of desolate.

”For four, five days, you just sleep on the ground,” he says. ”It’s just the field, in the middle of nowhere, nothing has been built yet – it’s just plain field.”

Eventually, UNHCR brought materials like bamboo to build huts as well as basic necessities like food, water, and some clothing. Underfunded and understaffed, the agency also enlisted Lim as the camp’s sole medic when he divulged his background as a former medical student.

[audio:http://immigrantconnect.medill.northwestern.edu/wp-content/uploads/2010/05/medic.mp3|titles=medic] Leon Lim describes doing the best he could in the hope the morning would come.

Amidst the primitive living conditions, lack of equipment, and daily tragedy, Lim still considered himself lucky. He received

Leon Lim working as a medic at Khao 'I' Dang in 1980. Photo courtesy of Leon Lim.

preferential treatment from UNHCR officials in food rations and health care because of his status as a medic. More importantly, he had a way to pass the time.

“Most people just sit there, nothing to do….it’s just like, you’re a prisoner,’’ he says, as refugees were prohibited by Thai law from leaving the one square mile camp. “It’s so routine – you wake up in the morning and nothing happens. People just waiting for rain to come, waiting for hope to come.’’

For Lim, hope finally came. Distant relatives living in the United States had located him and decided to sponsor his journey to the states.

Upon receiving word that he would be going to the states, Lim describes the prospect of leaving as ‘’like heaven…there was light at the end of the tunnel,” he remembers. ”I would reach my destination.’’

More than three decades later, Lim maintains that his uncle’s small makeshift map brings back memories – both happy and sad – like nothing else he owns.

[audio:http://immigrantconnect.medill.northwestern.edu/wp-content/uploads/2010/06/history.mp3|titles=history] Leon Lim trying to come to terms with what the map means to him.

——

A statue and a photo at Tim's house. Photo by Jessica K. Chou.

Ty Tim’s history is confined within the walls of his cramped Skokie house. Here, Cambodian gods dance to windchimes among oil paintings and family photos – a mish-mash of cultures, of lives. Binders hold photos of Cambodia alongside those of Thida’s wedding, or of a birthday. The 68 year old has four daughters now, he proudly says, and three grandsons.

This is a different Tim family, with only two daughters born in Cambodia. After arriving at the first Thailand camp, the family jumped from one to another. They finally gained sponsorship from a Chicago church couple, and they flew to the United States via the Philippines.

“Most of [the refugees] came here as a broken family,” says Kompha Seth, executive director of the Cambodian Association of Illinois. “Some lost their spouse, some lost their children, some came here by themselves.”

Tim’s family was one of the lucky ones – broken, but not annihilated. Yet as refugees, family was all they had.

“I used to be a high school teacher, I graduated from three universities,” Tim explains. “But I had nothing to prove. You see the problem? When I come here empty handed, nobody knows me.”

Without the proper transcripts, without proof, Tim was directionless in a foreign land. His first adversary in the U.S. was the weather; the second, English. As Tim started looking for jobs in the states, he decided to take a bilingual test to become a teacher – knowing full well his chances of passing were slim.

He spent practically an hour on the written portion, pouring over the multiple choice questions, reading passages over and over again, searching for the answer. Yet as he was taking the test, searching through answers, guessing and re-guessing ‘a’ or ‘b’, he refused to give up.

[audio:http://immigrantconnect.medill.northwestern.edu/wp-content/uploads/2010/06/test.mp3|titles=test] For Ty Tim, the bilingual test was about hope.

To his surprise, he passed the test, got a job teaching and started life again. Most Cambodian refugees in the U.S. came empty and hopeful like Tim, Seth says. Devoid of ID, certificates or diplomas, the refugees had to rebuild their former lives years after the Khmer Rouge demolished them.

“It seemed like we [were] born again but we’re born in the wrong place,” Tim says.

Even now, the Khmer Rouge is still present in their lives. So Loek still wakes up from nightmares of disorienting jungles, and Lim still dreams of soldiers coming after him.

“They are still experiencing so much with the trauma, with the stress and depression,” Seth says. These experiences are indescribable, creating a rift between Tim’s family – those who remember, and those who do not and may never understand.

“We try to tell them here and there about [our] story,” Loek says of her sisters. “Yeah, it seemed foreign to them, even the one who came here about two years old, [she doesn’t] remember anything.”

The Tim family is still learning. Recently, Loek’s sisters visited Cambodia to understand their heritage. And eventually, Ty

Ty Tim's library. Photo by Jessica K. Chou.

Tim’s three grandchildren will grow to know their history as well.

——

Tim’s museum of a house holds more than personal memories – a small library in his basement is filled with binders and

binders of information on the Khmer Rouge, its history and the subsequent tribunal cases. Lim holds onto old prescriptions, books and photos. These remnants of the past help older refugees like Ty Tim and Leon Lim share their history so the human race should never again endure a similar tragedy.

[audio:http://immigrantconnect.medill.northwestern.edu/wp-content/uploads/2010/06/Cambodian-saying.mp3|titles=Cambodian saying] Leon Lim recounts the Cambodian tale of what emerges when two elephants fight.

“I’m happy to tell my story….so that you can learn more about how the war affected innocent people like myself,” Lim says.

Leave a reply