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Death and guilt in the Cambodian diaspora

By Stephanie Soong | August 3rd, 2009

[This story was published originally on Immigration Here & There in June 2006]

Death can’t seem to touch Seda Douglas, no matter how hard it tries.

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Seda, a survivor of the murderous Khmer Rouge in her native Cambodia, has endured starvation, torture, forced labor and the anguish of losing half of her family in one of the worst genocides of the 20th century. She had succeeded in crossing landmine fields, which stood between her and certain freedom at a Thai refugee camp. And, even after she had started a new life with a husband and career in Melbourne, Australia, she escaped death yet again following her son’s difficult birth.

Guilt, however, seems to touch Seda every day of her life.

“I carry guilt all my life up until now,” she says, leaning her head gently against the wall of a Japanese restaurant in Melbourne, her long black hair falling over her shoulders.

Her eyes are cast downward as she remembers her father and her five younger siblings who perished under the Ultra-Maoist regime during the late 1970s.

“So many of them died. I’m happy here, but sometimes I just want to go back to Cambodia,” she says quietly. “I don’t believe Australia needs me. If I could do more to help others, I would be happy to do it.”

She pauses. Her brown eyes, which have seen too much horror and grief in her 46 years on this earth, mist over, and tears fall into her lap. “Why did I go to Australia?” she asks, her voice cracking. “Why didn’t I stay in Cambodia?”

This guilt is one of the factors that drives Seda, and other refugees lucky enough to escape the Khmer Rouge, to dedicate their lives to Khmer communities both in Cambodia and abroad. As an executive radio producer for the Khmer Service at the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, and as founder of the Save the Cambodian Children Fund, which combats exploitation of Khmer children, Seda does what she can to rebuild the country she left over 20 years ago.

“I feel like I’ve been given a chance to help people who are rotting there and have nothing to eat,” she says of the survivors forced to stay behind to pick up the pieces after the regime fell in 1979. “If I don’t do it, who else would? I wouldn’t expect anyone who hasn’t been through it to understand what suffering means.”

Seda knows the definition of suffering inside and out, and tries her best to help others understand its meaning. She has channeled her personal trauma into positive energy, not only in her work at the station and at the children’s foundation, but also in giving speeches to university students around Australia about her horrific experience.

But by pledging herself to Khmer causes, Seda can’t forget the memories that still haunt her after all these years.

“It’s something that will never disappear,” she says.”You have to carry it with you until your last day.”

“I decided I must survive”

The nightmare began when the Khmer Rouge toppled the pro-American regime and rolled into Phnom Penh on April 17, 1975. Until that point, Seda’s family lived comfortably, with her father as a military officer and her mother as a housewife taking care of seven children. Seda, at age 15, was the eldest.

With a vision of an agrarian utopia, the Khmer Rouge emptied Cambodia’s cities and started executing military officers, professionals and educated people, They ordered city dwellers to the countryside because, they claimed, the Americans were about to bomb Phnom Penh. Millions spilled out onto the streets and started walking.

“They looked at us like we were their enemies,” Seda recalls.

As the dust choked their lungs and the hot sun burned their skin, the family walked east toward her father’s birthplace, but the move was a mistake. Because he was a military officer, Seda’s father lied about his background, saying that he was a taxi driver and his children were illiterate. The ruse was harder to pull off in his hometown, where people knew who he was.

The family trekked to another village in the west, where Seda, who had just turned 16, was taken from her family and forced to work in a mobile labor camp.

Conditions in her camp–and in the rest of the country–were inhumane, as the Khmer Rouge starved their countrymen, giving them only watery gruel. People caught stealing food or catching game for themselves were punished or killed.

“Food became an obsession,” Seda said. “You would trade a diamond for a ball of rice.”

As she toiled in the rice paddies, each of her younger siblings fell ill.

“My mom and dad witnessed the children dying one by one.” Seda says, lowering her eyes.

Five of Seda’s siblings died, and her father disappeared, while her mother struggled to keep herself and her only remaining son alive. Her father, she later learned, died in a prison, a victim of the Khmer Rouge’s medical experimentation program.

The news reached Seda through other people. She was not allowed to visit her mother and brother in the village, and was forced to work without a moment to grieve.

One day, she heard her mother had been bitten by a snake. “Anyone who falls ill never makes it,” Seda explains. “I thought this would be the last chance to see her before she died.”

Seda took a huge risk–sneaking away from her unit at night. She was caught and tied to a tree all night so the Khmer Rouge could make an example of her in the morning.

“They tortured me in front of everyone,” says Seda, wincing at the memory. “They started beating me and kicking me. The crime I committed was trying to see my sick mother.”

Although she was bruised, bleeding and covered in insect bites, she was left tied up for another night before being cut down. Seda begged for water, but her request fell on deaf ears.

She dragged herself to a rice paddy and heard her father’s voice in her head, urging her to stay strong. As she drank the muddy water, her energy returned.

“The agony disappeared,” Seda says. “I decided I must survive.”

“Everything was like paradise”

Sadly, as tragic as Seda’s story is so far, her experiences are shared by millions of Cambodians who fought for survival. While nearly 2 million lost the battle under the iron grip of the Khmer Rouge since that fateful day in Phnom Penh, Seda, her mother and her brother got a second chance at life when the Vietnamese invaded Cambodia in 1979.

“When the Vietnamese came, I decided to break away and return to the village to reunite with my mother and brother,” Seda recalls. “I pretended to be sick as they mobilized to move toward the Thai border. I knew they would leave anyone who couldn’t keep up. So they left me.”

As the labor unit moved away from the Vietnamese shelling, Seda started walking toward it and toward her family. When she finally reached the village, the she found a moment of peace in the midst of chaos.

“When we were reunited, we cried, and laughed,” she says, smiling. “It was the happiest moment for all of us.”

Happiness, however, was short-lived, as it soon gave way to depression and disillusionment whenever they thought of their family members who didn’t make it. “Even though we kept comforting each other, and it was just pure luck that we survived, we still felt guilty. The guilt took over,” Seda says, softly. “So we left that haunted place and made our way to the refugee camp.”

To get to the camp, though, the family faced certain death in the minefields that dotted the Thai-Cambodia border. The trio carefully traced the footprints left by others who managed to cross the fields–and passed by the grisly remains of those who failed.

When they finally reached the Khao-I-Dang camp in Sakeo province, Thailand, they were given santuary by the UN. After spending four long years trying to apply for immigration status in the US, which failed, they were finally accepted into Australia. The family arrived in Melbourne on May 19, 1983. Seda was 23.

“The smell of the fresh air, the smell of freedom…everything was so great” Seda remembers during the bus ride from the airport. “It was so exciting. We slept on a good mattress for the first time in years, and we had clean water. Everything was like paradise for us.”

Seda and her family were living in comfort and safety in their new home, but because of the language barrier and difficulties fitting into Australian culture, the alienation caught up to them.

“After a couple of months, we started getting really depressed,” Seda says. “We felt lost.” They couldn’t shake the memories or the guilt of surviving.

Determined to make the best of it, Seda enrolled in a high-school program for adults and learned English. She went on to earn a bachelor’s degree in multicultural studies at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology University, then became a community healthcare worker. She got a radio job by chance at the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’ in 1992, and works there to this day as executive producer of the Khmer service, which goes on air throughout Southeast Asia. To top it off, Seda got her master’s degree in development studies at Melbourne’s Monash University in 2000.

“I longed to have an education, and I had the opportunity here,” Seda says. “You can’t let it go because time is so precious. I missed so many years I needed to catch up.”

“I was given a chance to restart my life”

Seda leans back in her seat at the restaurant, tired from telling her story. But she is living proof that even the cruelest of political machines can’t crush a dream. She is one of the lucky ones who got a second chance to live in a free land. And because of her good fortune, she, like others who have settled in other countries after the war, feel an obligation to educate others about Cambodia, even if it means having to confront their personal traumas openly.

High-profile Khmer refugees, like Dith Pran, subject of the 1984 movie “The Killing Fields,” Chanrithy Him, author of the memoir “When Broken Glass Floats,” and Loung Eng, author of another memoir, “First They Killed My Father,” all shared their stories for the world to understand how hellish life was under the Khmer Rouge.

“There are a lot of people who were left behind. They went through the same trauma I did,” Seda says. “I was given a chance to restart my life. Perhaps I can use this to do whatever I could to stop this from occuring in the rest of the world.”

She founded the Save the Cambodian Children Fund in 2003, which serves as the fundraising arm of Cambodia’s Health Care Centre for Children, which protects and supports sex trafficking victims and children orphaned by HIV/AIDS. Because of her community work and her position at ABC, Seda is often invited to share her story with university students.

“I try to be strong in front of the crowds. In a way, it’s good therapy,” Seda explains. “But if I keep telling people and people understand, I feel so much more fulfilled.”

Though she is married to an Australian and has an 18-year-old son, her work keeps her out of the house on most occasions. Even a media interview at a Japanese restaurant after work means two more hours away from her family. And even though she knows her efforts are meaningful, she still chides herself for being “selfish” in wanting to relax at home.

“I hardly spend time with my family,” Seda says. “Mostly, I’m out doing a lot of charity work. I have this chance to help other people, and here I am, wanting to be with my family. I need to rest, but I just can’t do that.”

Though she and her husband have discussed what they want in life, Seda feels her heart reaching out to her homeland. Though she doesn’t know if she’ll go back to Cambodia to pursue charity work for good, she knows one thing for sure: that if the Khmer Rouge never happened, she wouldn’t be who she is today.

“If I didn’t go through all that, would I achieve this much? I doubt it. Would I be as strong and tough as I am now? I doubt it,” Seda says with conviction. “I don’t want pity. I want to you understand this horrible thing so you can stop the next one from happening. That’s what I want.”

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