Interview With Sim

Mrs Sim discusses her hardships under the Khmer Rouge, and her spiritual experiences during and after the regime.

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Born in 1943, Mrs Sim was a farmer, and sold traditional Khmer medicine with her husband, until the Khmer Rouge took power in 1975. They were then separated and assigned to work in different units. Her husband was grouped with other men and made to build dykes and dams at O’Kraing Bol, and tasked to gather palm juice. A year later, he was allowed to bring his wife and children over to live with him. 

    As Mrs Sim was pregnant, she was assigned to make roof tiles from palm leaves. 7 months into her pregnancy, she was rotated into kitchen duties. Even as a cook, she  received the same meager portions as her peers, and suffered chronic starvation despite her pregnancy. Later, she was deployed into an agricultural unit, often having to report for work as early as 1 or 2am. She was tasked to plant rice in the rainy season, with strict daily targets for each member. However, as she was barely recovering from her pregnancy, she was often unable to meet the quotas, and was secretly assisted by her colleagues, to prevent her from being killed. On one occasion, their seedlings were destroyed by birds, and her unit had to quickly re-plant the same plot of land by 4pm the next day. Yet, citizens could not complain, or risked being put to death. It was only on special occasions that they received the traditional delicacy, Num Ansom.

    The regime  also mistreated women and children. Her teenage daughter was deployed into an arts unit, where she was taught to sing revolutionary songs, which her family could not object to. Mrs Sim highlights the blatant hypocrisy of the regime, as the songs espoused moral righteousness such as refraining from adultery, but officials themselves made advances towards married women. She recounts how her husband’s friend, a unit chief, pressed false charges against the husband of a lady he fancied and had him killed. Similarly, she and her husband were reprimanded for “pampering” their son when they tried to shade him from the sun when their family was assigned to plant rice in the fields. She and her husband also witnessed Khmer Rouge agents killing and throwing children as young as five years old into mass graves. Though she never requested additional portions of food for herself for fear of being killed, she did ask for more food to feed her sick children, which was denied. Eventually, she lost two of her eight children due to malnutrition under the regime.

    As Buddhism was outlawed, she was unable to hold proper funerals, and could not even properly clothe the bodies of her late children due to her poverty. Unbeknownst to anyone else, she retrieved their bodies from the mass grave to bury them properly. The authorities also repurposed clothing from the corpses of victims, redistributing them to citizens. Though she objected to accepting those clothes, her husband instructed her to take them, and that night, she claims to have seen the ghost of the lady who had owned those clothes. Khmer Rouge troops also used Buddha statues to block dams, and destroyed Buddhist sculptures and places of worship. When a stupa holding the remains of aged and child Cambodians was burnt down with explosives Mrs Sim dreamt of a large group of elderly people and children leaving a religious procession complaining of heat; which she interpreted as the souls of the departed reacting to the destruction of their remains.

    Towards the end of the regime in 1979, she experienced many close shaves from being killed in rocket and air bomb strikes. She even had to hide around cow dung, and lost some of her farm animals in the attacks. By then, she had no wealth and had to travel on foot to her hometown amidst combat between Khmer Rouge and Vietnamese troops, carrying rice on her oxcart. Noticing that she was pregnant and starving, Vietnamese soldiers offered her 3 rice cakes. She describes that journey as a “real-life hell.”

    After the regime, Buddhism was restored in Cambodia, and religious ceremonies were held to commemorate the deceased victims of the Khmer Rouge. Mrs Sim now dedicates herself to her spiritual practice, praying for the peace of her departed family members. However, despite being a staunch Buddhist, she is unable to forgive the now-deceased leaders who prevented her from having enough rice to save her two children. She shares that her community did not experience any revenge killings of former Khmer Rouge leaders, as those leaders did not dare return to their homes after 1979. Reflecting on the suffering she endured under the regime, she feels that the issue of reparations is best left to the state, and that while future generations could learn Khmer Rouge history, she does not wish for them to focus on the regime’s violent atrocities. Instead, she hopes for young Cambodians to learn new things to build a better future without war.

Mrs. Sim in Kampong Speu Province


Q: How old are you, Auntie? A: I’m now 78 years old. 

Q: What is your job?

A: I just stay at home, taking care of my grandchildren. 

Q: Before the Khmer Rouge regime, what was your job? A: I was just a farmer cultivating rice. Sometimes, I also sold Khmer herbal medicine to earn a living. 

Q: Did you sell it with your husband?

A: Yes, you are right. But my husband passed away after liberation day. Under the Khmer Rouge, he was sent to a collective camp. He passed away once he returned home.

Q: How many children do you have?

A: I had 8 children. Now, only 4 are alive; the other 4 passed away. 

Q: Do you still remember the day when Khmer Rouge forces first came to your village?   

A: Yes, I still remember it well. Q: Can you describe what happened? A: Yes, I will share what I remember. The Khmer Rouge came into my village and called us for a meeting. They forced the men to labor at O’ Kraing Bol, constructing dams and dykes etc. After my husband had worked at the construction site for some time, he came to the village and took my children and me to stay with him at O’ Kraing Bol. 

Q: Where is O’ Kraing Bol? A: It is in Kampong Speu province. There, we were given a small house for each family. In the late evening, we were called to join a meeting. We were given rice and drinking water based on the size of our family. Only women joined the meeting because the men were working in the field, in different collective sectors. I was pregnant at the time, and was tasked to a make roof tiles from palm leaves. And when I was around 7 months pregnant, I was tasked to cook. At the time, it was called the “economy sector.” My husband was assigned to gather palm juice. It was required that he gathered juice from at least 10 palm trees. The Khmer Rouge really forced him to work hard. There were groups of nannies tasked to process palm leaves to be used as roof tiles. 

Q: Were you tasked to cook only? Or did you need to find ingredients yourself? A: No, I just cooked. The ingredients and materials were already available. I cooked rice with corn or bamboo shoot in the same pot. I also cooked stews. We almost always ate the same boring foods, but we had no choice. Q: Was the food enough? A: Not at all. I received only two spoons of rice for each meal. Imagine how miserable it was! We just ate for the sake of eating because our stomachs were empty. I just ate. If we said we were tired, the Khmer Rouge charged us for laziness and irresponsibility. 

Q: You were a cook. Did you eat enough food?

A: No, I did not. There were people who looked over me. They were like kitchen managers making sure food was distributed according to the rules. I was a cook, but it did not mean that I was allowed to eat sufficient food. I was pregnant, but I received the same insufficient portions as the others. Newborn children and their mothers were treated poorly. We faced the same conditions. 

Q: How was the healthcare system at the time? A: As Uncle said, only traditional medicine made from tree roots was provided. It was called rabbit dirt tablet because it looked similar to rabbit dirt. It was similar to charcoal. Q: Can you talk about giving birth? A: I just delivered my child at the collective hall rather than at a hospital or healthcare center. There was an old woman who knew traditional midwifery. At the time, I gave birth to Lim Heang. 

Q: How long did you stay at O’ Kraing Bol?

A: 3 years. I was forced to move to O’ Kraing Bol during the early evacuation conducted by the Khmer Rouge forces. 

Q: How about your other children? How were their lives? A: My daughter Taing was in a child unit. She was specifically taught to sing for Angkar. Then, she was assigned to the nursing sector at Chaing Thnal dam area, where people were tasked to make dam and bridges. At the time, I had five children. 

Q: How about your other children? A: I can hardly say anything (crying). I lost two children. It was very painful, you know. My daughter was 8 years old, and my son was 5 years old. I lost them in just a month. When reminded of this, I feel very hurt (crying). I asked for some rice for my children, but the kitchen head did not give me any. “My children are human beings, not chicks!” I couldn’t do anything except feel hurt and sad. They were my third and fourth children, after Taing and Ka, who are the first and second. They died of starvation. When I asked for some rice for my children, kitchen manager said “We don’t care about your personal matter. We serve the public interest only. Just eat the rice we gave you”. You know, my son and daughter were lovely. I loved them so much. The Khmer Rouge took their bodies and threw them away without allowing me to hold funerals at all. I really pitied them. Then, I was forced to move to Thnol Toteung. One day, my son, Lim Heang, was in the field with my husband and me. It was so hot at the time. My husband used palm leaves to shade our son from the sunlight. You know, the head of our working brigade reprimanded us. He said “Why do you need to take care of your son like that? Don’t you see the other families? Do they pamper their children as you do?” We were powerless, and death was waiting for us all the time. I was very angry. 

We worked so hard. We had to arrive at the field for work at 6am, and worked until 10 pm at night. We were not allowed to be late. If we were late, it meant we were lazy and against Angkar. It was too harsh. Taing was sent to the healthcare sector while my little children stayed with me at home. They forced us to do almost everything, and I tried to follow as much as I could. It was the best way to survive. I have never complained about the hardship before them. I did not speak out about my suffering at all. I just hid it in my heart. Speaking out about hardship and suffering or complaining was dangerous. Words spread rapidly. Those who dared to complain or spoke about their hardship were killed. I was hungry all the time, but I did not speak out. You know, members in my working brigade were taken away to be killed due their complaints about getting insufficient food. They were requested to move to another working brigade, and that meant they were taken away for killing. That was their way of killing people. Like my colleague Phan, she was requested by the head of our working brigade to move to another one for planting Chinese green mustard. She was very industrious actually. I thought someone might have spoken ill of her and reported her to superiors who ordered the killing. 

Q: Have you witnessed any killings? A: Yes, of course I have. At Krang Kdep, the village I stayed, the Khmer Rouge killed many children. It was in the afternoon around 2 pm when people finished lunch. My husband and I saw a truck loaded with many children around 5 to 8 years old. They were killed and dumped into the ditch, around 5 meters deep. I saw their bodies in the ditch, some were beheaded. Some heads were hung on the trees nearby. It was the most terrible scene I have ever seen in my life. I just cried because I really pitied those children. I witnessed young Khmer Rouge security officers sticking the heads of those children on the trees playfully. It was an old ditch made by a B52 rocket explosion during the war. The Khmer Rouge just dug it more to make it bigger. I guess there were more than 100 children killed. My husband and I saw that killing but we couldn’t do anything. My husband saw a small boy who was still alive. He took him home. The boy said that he lived in Chbar Ampov Leur area. The truck took the children to the ditch and there was an explosion, said the boy. He pointed to me and said that I was the spouse of a Khmer Rouge member. My husband was seriously concerned that he would be killed after that. However, as luck would have it, he was not killed. 

I have another story related to killing to tell you. One day, the Khmer Rouge called up my husband “Comrade, come and get some clothes!” You know, the Khmer Rouge striped clothes off bodies and gave them to my husband and me. I suspected that those clothes belonged to the dead. I responded “No, don’t take the clothes. They belong to the dead bodies.” He said “It is okay. Just take it”. I received them and hung them on the wall of the house. At night, I saw a ghost. She was a cook who was killed. She appeared before me and said, “Why did you take my trousers? Don’t you see I am naked now”? I said nothing and just got shocked, panicked, and cried. In the morning, I kept what had happened at night secret. If I had said something, I would have been punished. The Khmer Rouge would have killed me. Q: Did that happen at O’ Kraing Bol? A: No. Someone told me that I would be sent to O Kraing Bol to serve as roborng (fence, possibly refers to guarding) of Zone 33. The southern part was called zone 33 while the northern part was called zone 32. Later on, I asked for permission to join the funeral ceremony of my mother’s relative, but I was denied. At the time, my husband was appointed as a group leader. He was offered the position of head, of either unit 50 or unit 100, but he did not take either. He did not want to be head of any units. He only accepted the position of a group leader. This is because working as a group leader would not lead him to committing serious mistakes. When he was offered a second time, he could not deny it. If he had, he would have been killed. We were too afraid to say anything. At night, security forces with rifles conducted constant surveillance to check if we secretly cooked rice, ate food, or talked against Angkar. Let me tell you further about unit 50. My husband, your uncle, was sent to Spean Lvea to build a dam, not far from my place. Our lives were extremely miserable. One day, there was a man who tried to rape my neighbor. He was the head of unit 50. The woman’s husband went to work outside as usual. When my husband returned home, he saw the incident. The head of unit 50 falsified charges against her husband and asked the security forces to bring him away for killing. The head of unit 50 was evil. He raped the woman and made up charges against her husband, who did not commit any mistake. He asked the security forces to bring the victim cigarettes before killing him. My husband went to meet the head of unit 50 personally and told him, “Comrade, we are all Khmer. We should not hurt one another”. You know, my husband and the head of unit 50 were very close friends. Then, the head of unit 50 told my husband “Don’t bring cigarettes for the man. He is our enemy. This was to signal that my husband should not have intervened in this matter. Then, my husband just left the place. We went to the dam construction site. When we had a break, an old man told me that he really wanted to eat palm sugar. I told him “I can’t help you with this because I am not in the logistics sector. I worked for the logistics division before, but now I don’t. I dare not ask for it. I am very afraid that I would be charged with a felony. I have tried hard to keep my life. I have lost my children.” Then, the man said ‘Hem…, I have no palm sugar to eat.” I told him “No, you would not get any.” You know, a few days later I heard the Khmer Rouge talking during their meal. They said that they don’t feel good about having this meal. From this, I knew that Phnom Penh would be liberated soon. I also overheard the heads of units 50 and 100 talking about the situation in Phnom Penh. I understood it more clearly. One day, in June maybe, I was forced to cultivate rice at Kraing Chek dam. When we were planting rice in the field, someone opened the dam water gate. There was so much water in the one-hectare rice field. This made us very concerned. The water level increased very fast. We were a group of 7 planting rice. We worked so hard to finish growing all the rice. We were very worried that we would not finish it by 4 PM. You know, when we finished our work, birds ruined all the rice paddy that we planted; they came to play in the water and looked for food in our rice field. In the morning, the head of unit 50 came and saw the situation. I was so shocked, I almost fainted in that rice field. I could not accept it. Then, the water was pumped out and the field was re-plowed. The next day, we were tasked to plant rice again in that same plot. The 7 of us had to finish the assigned task by 4 PM. My life was so terrible, you know. Many times, I was on the verge of death.  

Q: How about food at the time? A: Fish was abundant and various. However, we dared not catch them. Everything belonged to Angkar. When we ate delicious and sufficient food, we were accused of over-possession. It means we possessed too much property. In fact, we possessed nothing. We would have been charged without legal recourse, and being killed was the only punishment. 

Q: Have you ever stolen any food because you were too hungry?

A: Never. As I told you earlier, I lost two children under the Khmer Rouge because they were starving. I didn’t steal food, but I just asked for some cooked rice to feed them. It ended up that I had insufficient food to feed my children and they died. I just wanted to return to my hometown. 

Q: Can you tell me about the situation after the liberation of Phnom Penh in 1979?

A: I forgot when it happened. One day, I was traveling halfway to my homeland and there was armed combat between Khmer Rouge troops and the liberation army at Boeng Veal Chheu Teas. However, the Khmer Rouge troops were dispersing and seriously lost control. I was starving. I told myself that I might be dying. I was extremely tired. On the way, I brought some rice. I met Vietnamese soldiers. Speaking broken Khmer, they gave me three cakes because they pitied me, a pregnant woman. They said, “Eat these cakes, so that you do not faint”. My cows were big, but the cart was partially broken, so they loaded their rice in my ox cart. So, my ox cart looked overloaded. We kept moving until we arrived at Oudong. where I saw no more armed combat. I think that was the real-world hell. I was so fatigued, being pregnant while traveling to my hometown amidst armed combat between Vietnamese and Khmer Rouge troops. We were so scared of both sides.  

Q: Did Vietnamese forces harm you?

A: No, they didn’t. They told us to go to Oudong.

Q: How was your life after the collapse of the Khmer Rouge regime?

A: After the collapse of the Khmer Rouge, I had nothing except my bare hands. Before I had 4 cows: 2 male and 2 female. But they did not have offspring yet. I also had a big male pig. Under the Khmer Rouge, the pig was hit by an air bomb. It chopped off its head. I could see its body but not its head. So, we shared that pork with people.  Q: Did you feel hope when you saw the Vietnamese forces?

A: I was so delighted to learn that the Vietnamese had come to liberate us. I am so very grateful to Hun Sen. He saved us from death. Now, he even feeds us. However, most of the time I feel very sad over the loss of my son and daughter. When I recall this, I tear. I can’t hide my sadness. You know, the boy was 5 years old, and the girl was 8 years old. They were diligent. The 8-year-old girl was forced by the Khmer Rouge to herd cows and find crabs in the rice field for food. Q: Recalling this suffering, hardship etc., are you angry?

A: Yes, of course I am so angry, but I cannot do anything. I can only cry to ease my pain in my heart. Q: If you meet the Khmer Rouge officials who hurt you and made your children die, what would you do? A: I swear to God, if I were a man, I would kill him. I am not afraid if they were a group of 4 or 5, I will kill them. I will kill the men who governed us at O Kraing Bol. I know them clearly. They are Mr. Kras and Mr. Yim. They have passed away. Mr. Yim’s wife has passed away too. 

Q: Where did they live? A: They lived in Taing Por. It is much farther than my place. All the leaders have passed away. 

Q: Have you ever dreamt of your departed children?

A: Yes, I’ve dream about them (shedding tears). On Pchum Ben days, I go to the pagoda to pray to them and call their souls to accept the offerings and merit that I dedicate. I dreamt that both of them came to me. Both of them died within 1 month. I don’t know the Latin date, only the Khmer calendar date. Therefore, I forget the name of month of their passing. Q: Do you go to the pagoda to pray for their souls? A: Yes, I often go to the pagoda to pray for the peace of departed souls, including my children, my mother, your mother and everyone. 

Q: How do you feel when you go to the pagoda and pray to their souls?

A: I feel peaceful. I believe that my prayers reach them. It is said that if we follow the ritual properly, our prayers will reach them. 

Q: Have you ever thought of the Khmer Rouge times?

A: I don’t often think of it. Because it was the most terrible experience in my life. I don’t want to see it happening again. Like COVID-19, it was very dangerous. No one wants to see it. I just want to focus on making money to feed my stomach. I do my best to make my children happy, taking care of them as best I can. I am in the last stage of my life, you know. I don’t know how long I can live. Maybe, I could die tomorrow. Life is not guaranteed.  Nowadays, I am thankful to Samdech Hun Sen. He saved our lives from Thmil (a most evil person who commits very heinous crimes). He is very nice, saving our lives and giving us rice and food. It is because he fed us, that we can continue breathing to live.  

Q: So, you don’t want to talk about Khmer Rouge history? A: No, I don’t want to. I hate it so much. 

Q: After 1979, have you ever joined any ritual ceremonies?

A: Yes, I joined a ceremony that the villagers invited Buddhist monks to preside over at the bone storing hut/stupa. Bones were collected from surrounding places. Q: Is the hut still there?

A: I am not sure. Maybe, all the bones were moved to pagodas nearby. 

Q: Was the ceremony held immediately after 1979?

A: Yes, it was. You know, it is called “Bangskol”. It was dedicated to those killed under the Khmer Rouge. In some cases, after the regime, people found the bones when they were plowing in the rice fields.  Sometimes, they even found mass graves when plowing. The ceremony was held at home and then they kept the bones and skulls at the hut. It was a few years after 1979. There are two huts storing bones. One is in my village and the other is in another village. We can’t identify whose bones and skulls they were.

Q: What is the essence of the ceremony? A: It was commemorated to remember and honor those who were killed atrociously. Their lives were very miserable. We hope the ceremony makes their afterlives better, peaceful, with enough food to eat. We hope their lives now are not like they were under the Khmer Rouge.

Q: Have you ever been interviewed before? A: No. 

Q: Have you ever told Khmer Rouge stories to your family?

A: Yes, I have. Like your grandmother, she often talks about Khmer Rouge history. Life then was too much suffering. We recall our hardship. Our lives were never easy. When we got sick, they said that we were lazy and hypocritical. We couldn’t say anything. We couldn’t do anything. We grew and harvested much rice, but were not given enough for meals. Where did all that harvested rice go? We were too hungry, so we got sick. If they didn’t want us to get sick, why did they not give us enough food? We got very small amounts of rice and had to eat the leaves of trees we found along the way. When people talk about this, I don’t want to hear it. I hate it so much. All those Khmer Rouge members have died. 

Q: Are you Buddhist? A: Yes, I am. I believe in no one but the Lord Buddha. Every day of my life is for the Buddha, Dhamma, and Sangha. I don’t want to hear about the Khmer Rouge anymore. I only want to focus on the Buddha, Dhamma, and Sangha - the triple germs for me. You know, the Khmer Rouge were very cruel. They used Buddha statues to block waterways and then they ran over it. The statute was completely destroyed. You see how cruel they are. Those Khmer Rouge members died poor. Their bodies, bones and skulls were eaten by wolves. This is because of their Karma. We can clearly see the effect of karma on their lives in this current life, not the afterlife. The Buddha said, “What goes around comes around. Don’t tell lies. Just tell the truth”. Some said that they used to celebrate Kathin few times, but in fact, they never held Kathin at all. I am poor, but I hold Kathin from my deep compassion. My ancestors left me nothing but Buddha, Dhamma and Sangha. As you know, when I visit our family in Phnom Penh, they give me money and I get 500,000-600,000 Riels. I used it to join Kathin without planning. I asked my daughter to buy Kathin materials. I was blessed and I always pray for them to be blessed too. 

Q: Do you think Buddhism makes you peaceful? A: Every evening before going to bed, I pray to Lord Buddha. I always have good dreams. I see people with nice clothes, they talk to me happily and disappear. Every time I go to the pagoda, I also dream like that. It makes me peaceful. I am blessed with my merit making. Buddhism plays a very important part in making me peaceful. Before, your grandmother gave me many clothes and scarves, and I distributed some to other old people. They were so happy to receive it. They used the scarf when listening to Dhamma talks. You know, this is a blessing for us. It is merit making. The merit making can reach your late grandmother and others as well. The layman at the pagoda said “Your distribution of clothes and scarf to the old people in the pagoda is like holding Kathin”. 

Q: What do you think about “hatred can’t be stopped by hatred”? 

A: I don’t know a lot about this. What I can say is that evil people who torture or kill others can’t avoid their karma. They might not be killed in revenge. However, they will be killed by others. They cut off innocent people’s throat. They took us away for killing. At the end, they were killed at the foot of the mountain, you know. I mean the Khmer Rouge officials. I personally try to release myself from bad actions and thoughts. I don’t care about their bad actions. When praying, I don’t remember those bad guys, but my family and relatives. 

Q: Do you want justice?

A: I am getting older. I have nothing. I focus on making merit. In the morning, I cook food and bring some to the pagoda to offer to the Buddhist monks. That is what I can do. 

Q: I mean justice from the Khmer Rouge. A: For me, I am getting older. I don’t want to care about it anymore. Let the government take charge of this. Let’s leave it to the government. I don’t care whether they are trialed or not. 

Q: How about Khmer Rouge history? Do you want the next generation to learn of it?

A: No, I don’t want younger people to learn about Khmer Rouge history at all. It is very miserable. I want the younger generation to learn about other things and get good jobs. Life under the Khmer Rouge was too bitter and hard. 

Q: So, when the older people pass away, younger generation should not learn of Khmer Rouge history?

A: They can still learn about Khmer Rouge history. Some foreigners have documentary videos. They can learn from these. These days, I encourage my grandchildren to learn the English language and others. But I don’t want them to learn about Khmer Rouge atrocities like mass graves, trenches etc. It is too painful. There is no point in learning about these.

Q: In your village or surrounding community, are there any living former Khmer Rouge members?

A: No, they have died. After the collapse of the Khmer Rouge, they were alive but now they got old and passed away. 

Q: After the collapse of the regime, were there any revenge killings of those former Khmer Rouge members?

A: No, there weren’t. They were not brave enough to return home; they lived at other places faraway, where no one knew their background under the Khmer Rouge. They were afraid of people who might take revenge against them. There was a case where the head of a children’s unit treated children badly. Now, she has passed away. The children of others are like my own children, you know. I always shed tears, remembering my children passing away. I had no proper clothes to put on them, only a set of dirty clothes to cover their bodies. 

Q: Sorry to ask. What was their sickness? A: First, he got a fever. I brought him to a doctor, but his condition remained the same. He was very skinny. What we could see was his big eyes. We had no good food to feed him. We could not take good care of them. We couldn’t feed him good food. It was Khmer Rouge policy that if people couldn’t tolerate the conditions, just let them die. Those who could overcome the hardship would live. The Khmer Rouge regarded my children as useless remaining alive. 

Q: Did you have a chance to hold funerals for them? A: No, I had no chance to hold proper funerals for them. I was at O’ Klaing Bol. I took the bodies of my children, that were thrown away and buried them properly. Even my husband did not know this. He was sent to Spean Lvea dam. He was sent there for 1 year, making construction equipment like soil carrier, hoe etc. Sometimes, he was tasked to find sweet cassava for Angkar.

Q: Now, how do you feel about your late children? A: Yes, I still remember them. It seems like it just happened yesterday. It is still with me. I can never go back to that time. It was a very tragic, painful life experience. War was everywhere. The bullets were like raindrops falling from the sky. I lay on cow dung to escape the bullets. I know it is disgusting but saving my life was important. I saw the military carrying bodies on bloody hammocks. I think they were Vietnamese soldiers. My ear drums were almost damaged due to the loud sound of bombing and firing, including B52 rockets. Q: Was there air bombing? A: There was a lot of bomb attacks on my village. I told you earlier that my pig’s head was ripped off in an attack. The bomb was very big. In my village, villagers used the shell of those bombs to plant garlic and shallot. There was some bomb shrapnel in my well. 

Q: Are you afraid that the war will occur again? A: I don’t want war to happen again. It was more than enough. Khmer Rouge revolutionary songs tell people not to commit bad deeds, such as sexual intercourse with the wives of other men. But they themselves committed it. I don’t believe them. They had parties and ate good meals amongst themselves. They wore nice black uniforms. They sang revolutionary songs. They enjoyed it. We were not allowed to join them. My children were forced to join an art unit. They were taught to sing songs. If they did not join the unit, the regime would charge them as traitors. My daughter Taing was a teenager, and was forced to join the art unit. She learnt to sing and to perform shows. If we refused to join any activities, we were called enemies or spies. If someone was called s spy, s/he would end up being killed. I hardly said anything, but I was so depressed. I am so angry now. If I had a chance to cut off his throat, I will do it. Even if they are in group 4 or 5, I still want to take revenge. I lost two children. They passed away not due to being shot, but sickness and malnutrition. We did not have proper food to feed them. When they got sick, there was no medical treatment provided. I personally experienced such a bitter life. At 1 or 2 am, I woke up to go to the field to grow rice. I was so tired and sleepy. But if I gave up, I would be killed.  

Q: Was that only occasionally?

A: No, it was not occasional. It lasted the whole rainy season. Each person was assigned to work towards a set target, which was too much for us. Sometimes I could not reach the target, so my comrades kindly helped me in secret. We kept our work output separate so that we could show it to our working brigade head. If we put it together, we would have been accused as traitors who did not follow orders. 

Q: So you mean your completed tasks were tracked separately?

A: Yes, that is right. 

Q: So, you were very sleepy, weren’t you? A: Of course, I was very sleepy. However, I had to focus on work. We were not allowed to eat. 

Q: How did you communicate with your husband? A: By asking people to pass messages. We dared not write letters. If we did, we would have been killed. They would have accused me of sending something prohibited by Angkar. Saying nothing was best. 

Q: How about pagodas at the time?

A: All pagodas were completely destroyed. 

Q: How were New Year celebrations or Pchum Ben ceremonies?

A: On Pchum Ben day, they asked old grandmas to cook a cauldron of Num Ansom. They distributed a small piece of Num Ansom to us. At Rolaing Kampoul pagoda near Prey Pdao, the Khmer Rouge destroyed the Buddhist stupa (chedei). It was a huge chedei. They had tried to destroy it many times. At the time, I was growing rice and the Khmer Rouge told us not to go anywhere around 8 or 9 am. You know, I heard loud sounds of something collapsing. I went to see what was happening. You know, the Khmer Rouge used explosives to destroy the huge chedei. The explosion killed one commander- in-chief immediately at the scene. Then, at night, I had a dream that there were many people celebrating a Kathin procession. A few old people left the procession with their grandchildren, saying “It is very hot. We cannot stay” and went to stay under the mango tree by the lake in the pagoda. I interpreted my dream as follows. It was hot because the chedei where their bones were kept was burned down due to the explosion. Then, in my dream, I went to take water from that lake to cook rice. Since that dream, I began to believe that balon (religious stuff prepared for a person who is about to die) is very important for the person who is departing from our world. I asked a woman where she is going. She said “Grandma, now my house was burned down, and my body was burned too. I have no place to live. I clearly dreamt about this. So, I believe that before a person dies, we must prepare balon for him/her, putting some rice in a balon. When he/she passes away, he/she can eat that rice. I believe that.            

Interviewer: Soeung Bunly

Interviewee: Sim

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Transcript Notes

  1. Num Ansom is traditional glutinous rice wrapped in banana leaves.

  2. The Tod Kathin Ceremony is an annual religious event where Buddhists present monks with new yellow robes and make merit.

  1.  To what extent was Cambodia’s Cold War part of a larger global conflict, and to what extent was it based on local tensions, given Mrs Sim’s testimony?

  2. Consider how the experience of pregnancy and motherhood shaped Mrs Sim’s experiences of the Cold War in Cambodia. Discuss the importance of gendered narratives of the Khmer Rouge regime.

  3. How did belief in an afterlife influence Cambodian society’s navigation of the Cold War and its aftermath?

  4. Assess the role of religion in Cambodian society during and after the Cold War, and how it shapes survivors’ memories of the civil war.