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caption: The only surviving photo of the Cambodian genocide from Charles Som Nguyen's family. Pictured are his aunt and uncle. 
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The only surviving photo of the Cambodian genocide from Charles Som Nguyen's family. Pictured are his aunt and uncle.
Credit: Courtesy of Charles Som Nguyen

'I Still Don't Know Where My Family Is': The Terrible Legacy Of The Khmer Rouge

When Charles Som Nguyen was a kid in Oregon, his mom would occasionally tell stories over dinner about her home country of Cambodia. More often than not, she wouldn’t recount happy memories.

Instead, she would tell stories about living in labor camps, of running away while bodies fell and bullets whizzed past her ears, of finding her own sister dead.

“Growing up I thought these stories were pretty terrible," Nguyen said. “But then I thought everyone had parents that went through rough times. So it didn't occur to me that what she was going through was really horrific and and it was really life changing.”

It wasn’t until Nguyen was 12 or 13, when he and his family went to Cambodia for a visit, that he started asking questions about what his mom’s stories meant.

His family visited his grandfather’s village. His mother managed to track down and find two of her brothers who still lived there, and Nguyen got to meet them. He bought a book about the Khmer Rouge. And suddenly, his mom’s story became much clearer.

In April of 1975, the Khmer Rouge took the city Pnomh Penh in Cambodia. Over the next four years, Khmer Rouge officials tried to remake Cambodia into a nationalized agrarian society. In the process, soldiers killed nearly 2 million Cambodians through systematic executions, starvation and exhaustion from overwork at forced labor camps.

Nguyen’ mother and grandmother managed to live through all that, and eventually escape to a refugee camp in Thailand. A few years later, they found sponsors in the United States and were brought to Oregon.

Forty years later, Nguyen sees the legacy of that genocide in the older generation of Cambodians in his community.

“There’s a lot of mental illness in the community that is not diagnosed. There’s a lot of PTSD that’s not diagnosed,” he said. “My mom went to see a psychiatrist for 12 weeks and was able to be diagnosed with PTSD and that wasn’t until a year ago. So she’s been living with this mental illness for a very long time.”

Nguyen cites that undiagnosed PTSD as one reason why so many younger Cambodian Americans don’t know much about the genocide and what their parents and grandparents lived through.

But Nguyen said he wants to know these stories. He thinks it’s important to hear them. At the same time, he feels conflicted about asking his mother about living through the genocide.

“It’s just too painful for them," Nguyen said. “I talk to my mom, and she told me how she always has flashbacks to the genocide and panic attacks."

He’s even more reluctant to ask his grandmother. “She lost so many people who are close to her. I don’t want her to have to live through this experience again.”

Ultimately, though, Nguyen believes that if older generation Cambodians, like his mother and grandmother, share their stories about the genocide, they might start healing from that trauma. And Nguyen also believes he has a responsibility to listen to those stories.

“I'm just trying to preserve whatever history we have so that I can tell my kids and I can tell my grandkids what happened so this event will never happen again," he said.

“The Khmer Rouge tried to eliminate the entire Cambodian culture from society. And I think it’s amazing that Cambodians have preserved that culture to this day. I think that’s a testament to the resilience of the Cambodian people.”