US Course Shows Life Under Khmer Rouge

Marine on Saint Croix, Minne­sota, USA – In this northern US state, far from the killing fields both in geography and culture, a handful of young Cambodian immigrants spend evenings at a wooded retreat to recreate a terrible period in their motherland’s history for the benefit of people who know nothing about Cambo­dia.

They dress in black clothing and wear the signature red kramas of the Khmer Rouge. They set off flares and firecrackers—to simulate wartime—as they ghost along dimly lighted paths through the trees. They speak in Khmer to their guests, who range in age from school children to corporate executives.

The evening is unscripted, though it usually follows a pattern familiar to anyone who lived in Cambodia during the 1970s.

As the exercise wears on, the Cambodian-Americans turn on their guests, and one by one, single out those with education or money and lead them away from the group.

Those left behind soon learn that to stay with the group they must pretend to be dumb and penniless and, above all, subservient to their hosts.

At the end of the evening, usually three or four hours after they began, everyone meets in a large cabin to talk about what happened. And when everyone has had his say, the Cambodian-Amer­icans, usually numbering five or six, talk about how they themselves relied on finely honed survival instincts to escape the Khmer Rouge 25 years ago.

“People ask a lot of questions like what was it like back then, what was the struggle that we went through?” said Sovatha Oum, one of the Khmers who organizes the simulation of Cambodia’s killing fields.

Sovatha Oum, 37, said he never planned on sharing personal stories, but after the first simulation, held last year, US citizens wanted to know more about his experience.

A Cambodian who fled to the US in 1975, he was one of the first Cambodians to settle in Minne­sota. Today there are 8,000 Cambodians in the US state, one of the coldest in the nation, where snow and ice blanket the countryside for up to six months of every year.

“I had to do something to teach these guys about Cambodia,” he said.

His inspiration came with a new job he took at the Amherst H Wilder Foundation, a nonprofit organization based near St Paul, the capital of Minnesota.

The organization regularly runs simulations of the Under­ground Railroad, a 19th-century human smuggling operation that ferried former slaves out of the US South to freedom in the anti-slavery North.

The Underground Railroad simulation was a success, so Wilder Foundation officials listened when Sovatha Oum suggested a similar exercise to simulate the killing fields.

Since the first night, Sovatha Oum and his Cambodian-Ameri­can colleagues—many of them from the offices of UCAM, a social service agency that serves Cambodians in St Paul—have gone into the woods 18 times to teach people what it was like during the Khmer Rouge years.

Aside from their authentic dress, the actors who play the Khmer Rouge use firecrackers to replicate the sound of machine gun fire, flares and bottle rockets to frighten their guests and a take-no-prisoners attitude that hardens as the night goes on.

Since none of the guests usually understands Khmer, the night begins with a quick lesson of Cambodian history and language. By the time the guests venture into the woods, where they are expected to play the role of Cam­bo­dian families fleeing to Thailand in late 1970s Cambodia, they understand the Khmer words for Stop, Hands Up, Sit and Come Forward.

For Aun Lim, a Cambodian-American plays one of the Khmer Rouge, the night is a way to teach others about her history while remembering her Cambo­dian relatives.

“They think we forgot about them. That’s what we hear from our families who go to visit. We feel guilty for getting out when some people haven’t, but we have not forgotten what it was like,” she said.

The simulation, though unusual, has won plaudits from those who are trying to teach foreigners what happened in Cambodia but feel hampered by the nation’s complex history.

If nothing else, people come away from the night with an appreciation for the survival instinct that Cambodians had to learn to outlast the Khmer Rouge.

“The whole idea of the simulation has been in demand since we started it at the Wilder Foun­dation. It helps people understand the difficulties of other cultures and figure out their struggles,” Wilder official Diane Kleinfelter said.

The Wilder Foundation land is ideal for the simulation: A quiet stretch of secluded Minnesota woodland where the night sky glows with bright stars.

As the Cambodian-American actors readied for the night recently, they talked about their guests, a group of sixth-graders from inner-city schools who were on a three-day stay at the Wilder Foundation Center.

Since the guests were young, the actors agreed to tone down their usual routine. Terri Uy, one of the actors, said the guests would be allowed to start over if they were caught by the Khmer Rouge.

“It’s like a game. After a few times, the survival instinct kicks in,” she said.

The actors also prepared themselves for the talk after the simulation.

“Are we going to cry tonight?” joked Terri Uy, a 30-year-old Cambodian-American who fled when she was 4 years old.

She came to the US after fleeing through the jungles with her family, and for the first few years of her new life in the US she had dreams of tripping over arms and legs.

“I have a memory of someone up ahead of us stepping on a land mine. I was separated from my parents in the panic. A neighbor found me,” she said.

Her father worked in a Khmer Rouge kitchen, but was not allowed to eat.

“Here he was working in the kitchen and people told him if we catch you eating, we will kill you and your daughter. He would go without food so I would be well fed,” Terri Uy said.

The simulation, she said, “is the closest thing we can get to what our parents went through. But it’s so powerful afterwards, talking with everyone, that I learned that my parents really had it rough.”

A few minutes later, as the guests prepared to go into the woods, the reality of the night began to sink in.

“Are they going to kill us?,” Cody Charpentier, 11, asked a friend, excitedly turning to another friend before the first has a chance to answer. “Oh my gosh, I’m going to be freaked. Are you going to kill me? Oh my gosh, this is the real thing.”

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