Surviving Cambodia's Darkest Hour

On April 17, 1975, the face of Cambodia would forever be changed.  As Khmer Rouge soldiers marched into the capital city of Phnom Penh, the unsuspecting people of Cambodia had little idea they would be forced into a living nightmare for nearly four years.


Rain Falls From Earth is a story of courage, a story of survival, and a story of eventual triumph over the Communist regime that was responsible for the deaths of over 2 million people.  The voices of many Cambodians are heard as they convey their thoughts, ideas and emotions - the very things they were forced to abandon in the "killing fields" of Cambodia.  Their stories are an eyewitness account to genocide.


For Monirith Chhea, the painful memories of Cambodia are enough to fill an endless canvas. His powerful paintings create an outlet for expression and a chance for healing. Bold red and orange colors symbolize the blood shed at the hands of Khmer Rouge soldiers. Long, dark shadows cast demon-like images—a reminder of the helplessness he felt as a child. Yet, behind the ugliness and brutality, an immense blue sky conveys evidence of hope and peace. Monirith’s work speaks of the starvation, sickness and death he witnessed first-hand in Cambodia, but also expresses the beauty of the homeland he left behind.


On April 17th, 1975, after years of fighting a brutal civil war, Khmer Rouge soldiers marched into the capital city of Phnom Penh and declared the day as Tchap Pdum Pee Saun or, “Year Zero”. Their goal, under leader Pol Pot, was to delete the past and restart the clock—to eradicate the entire capitalist society. Thida Mam recalls the “Khmer Rouge looked really scary, harsh and their eyes were red. I felt weak when they stared at me.” The Khmer Rouge forcibly evacuated all of Cambodia’s cities, giving people little or no time to pack their belongings. “They say you have to leave now. I felt like I’m not gonna see my home again….my pillows…my blankets” remembers Sophie Stagg. Unsure of the fate that awaited the ones he loved, Monirith recalls feeling as if they were “walking into a lion’s cage, waiting to take their last breath”.


Evacuation of the cities quickly turned to chaos. Hospitals were emptied. Elderly died from exhaustion and lack of water. Piles of bodies lay on the side of the road. “When I saw a lot of the dead bodies on the street, at first I thought, ‘this is what happened to people going through the war’. But I never thought what happened if these people were executed purposely”, recalls Monirith.


A new way of life was now forced upon the people of Cambodia. The educated, including doctors, lawyers, teachers and students were sought out and killed for their ability to “think”.. Even wearing eyeglasses could mean death because the Khmer Rouge thought that glasses represented education. Thida remembers, “I was very confused. I grew up in a household where love is plenty and that’s the first time that I saw bad things.”


Human life became expendable and rice production was the number one importance under Pol Pot’s plan to turn Cambodia into a self-sufficient land of farmers. Cambodians were forced to work 12-14 hour days in the fields, rewarded only with a small amount of food to eat each day. Em Chem, a former Khmer Rouge leader, explains “the policy was that everybody had equal rights. No rich. No poor. Everyone learns to farm.” “They blasted with loudspeakers, ‘You go to a farm and produce rice. Rice is everything.’ That was the phrase I lived with everyday”, remembers Thida.


Pol Pot ruled Cambodia under constant paranoia, always fearing the “enemies” of Angkar, or the higher organization. The identity of the enemies, however, remained in question. “Most were lazy and because they are lazy, they are against the policy, making them an enemy of Angkar” tells former Khmer Rouge leader, Em Chem. “Who is the enemy is not clear and I can’t answer”, recalls Yieu Sann, another former Khmer Rouge leader. “If they say you are the enemy, then you are the enemy”.


Disease and malnutrition flourished. Bunhap Prak learned how to kill almost everything that was eatable. “We were eating whatever we could find. If you had rice to eat, you’re lucky.” The constant workload and lack of food eventually took its toll. Sophie remembers seeing “a lot of people starving to death, screaming until they don’t scream anymore.”


After years of harsh treatment by the Khmer Rouge, the feeling of hopelessness began to set in. Monirith thought, “If I’m gonna die, at least I’ll die with my family in the same grave”. Thida shared similar feelings, “I was just sitting there, knowing my time would come. Life didn’t mean very much.” “From the colorful you see everyday to pitch black, that’s how I describe my days”, recalls Sophie.


In 1979, Cambodia’s neighbor and long-time enemy, Vietnam overthrew the Khmer Rouge regime. Hope spread throughout the country for the first time in almost four years. “Someone started hitting a drum and we all started singing. All of us looked like ghosts, but the spirit was high”, recalls Thida. Refugees poured into Thailand by the thousands, in hopes of starting a new life. “This is the last time I said good-bye to the country I once loved and to the Cambodian people my parents taught me to respect. I never wanted to see the country again”, recalls Monirith. Like Monirith and many others, Vollevann Kaylor was sponsored to live in the United States. “It was scary, but at the same time it was a new world. As long as we had food in our stomachs, that’s all we cared about.”


Now, almost thirty years later, the healing continues. For Monirith, his artwork helps mend the emotional scars of a haunted past. For others, though, closure is still forthcoming, as they await a decision to bring former Khmer Rouge leaders to trial. Still, amongst all of the survivors, there remains a common goal: to educate and help others learn from the mistakes of the past. It’s said that every Cambodian alive today has lost at least one family member to the Khmer Rouge. “It deserves a lot more exposure. If we keep our mouths quiet, then all of those people died for nothing”, tells Sophie, who was fortunate enough to survive the Khmer Rouge regime. Two million others, however, weren’t so lucky.


steve mcclure - writer/director

stevemcclure (at) comcast (dot) net

© ghost 2 eleven entertainment.