Forgiveness won't come easy for Cambodians


December 04, 1991|By Joe Nawrozki | Joe Nawrozki,Evening Sun Staff

"I will never be forgiven by my memories." -- Haing Ngor, Cambodian doctor and Oscar winner in "The Killing Fields" A steady December rain hits the windows of Chavi and Seavhoa Heng's tidy townhouse in Essex. They sit with visitors sipping fine Chinese tea from glasses bearing the seal of the National Football League.

On the walls, there are color magazine pictures of Asian models, bountiful rice harvests and smiling peasant women. A picture dominating the wall shows the front of the great temples of Angkor Wat, symbol of Cambodian civilization.

In the large mix of the Great American Melting Pot, the Hengs are gentle, hard-working people starting near the bottom of their new country's economic ladder. They're among 2,900 Cambodians who live in Maryland and 116,000 across the country. Seavhoa, 22, commutes in his red pickup to his job as chef in a Havre de Grace restaurant. Chavi, 19, works as a waitress in Towson and studies nursing at Towson State University.

In their minds, however, their Holocaust is always fresh, yesterday's and tomorrow's unrelenting nightmare. Their childhood was stolen from them during one of history's most brutal revolutions. By most accounts, more than 1 million Cambodians died at the hands of the Khmer Rouge between 1975 and 1979. More killings came at the hands of the invading Vietnamese Communists.

Of that number, Chavi and Seavhoa lost 13 members of their families -- a father, brothers and sisters, grandparents.

So it is with great passion that the Hengs follow the events unfolding these days in their homeland, a place once rich with silks and incense and brilliant flowers and peace.

Yesterday, Khmer Rouge leader Khieu Samphan said he will return to the Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh after he was attacked and nearly lynched by an angry mob last week. He had hinted he would like about 800 United Nations troops there to "help bring about political neutrality" in the embattled country, not to mention ensuring his safety.

The violent treatment of Samphan underscored Cambodia's deep hatred of the Khmer Rouge, one of four factions included in the Supreme National Council. The council is a reconciliation body composed of the nation's four most powerful political and military factions seeking peace and supervised elections under the eye of the U.N. Transitional Authority.

The council is headed by Prince Norodom Sihanouk, the country's former god-king who returned to Cambodia last month after a lengthy exile. Sihanouk's chariot from the airport to the ornate Royal Palace was a white 1963 Chevrolet Impala.

"Everything is unstable," said Seavhoa. "Again unstable. Pol Pot [the Khmer Rouge leader] is like the devil and I would like to kill him myself. Others like me feel the same way."

Chavi, whose father was taken one night by a squad of Khmer Rouge soldiers, shares her husband's feelings.

"I want to kill Pol Pot, too," she said. "I don't want to think about it, the past. I want to forget about it but I can't. I will never see my father again. My wish is he would somehow show up one day on my door step again. But. . . ."

Pol Pot has been reported to be hiding in the jungles along the Thai-Cambodia border.

Chavi was born in the capital. Her mother was a pharmacist, hefather a math teacher. When the Khmer Rouge overthrew the U.S.-backed Lon Nol regime in 1975, Chavi's father was one of the first to be spirited away. He was an intellectual and "poison" to Pol Pot's new order.

"We were moved to the forest when I was very little," she said. "My mother told me my father was gone. I never saw him again after that day. We were fair-skinned, so the Khmer Rouge saw us as ones who lived in luxury. They also took my grandparents then, although I don't remember that. I never saw them again either, although I later heard my grandfather died of disease from no food."

From the jungle, Chavi was separated from her family and placed in a work orphanage. "I did work as a child but I would sneak away and try to find my mother at a work camp," she said. "They would hit you if you got caught. I always lied and told them my parents were farmers so they wouldn't be so hard on me."

At that time, her 2-year-old brother died of starvation. In moves of absolute courage, she would sneak away and try to find her mother, who was in a labor camp on the other side of the Mekong River. She eventually found her and learned that her two youngest aunts and uncles were starved to death.

Another uncle would die at the hands of Pol Pot's soldiers before she would be reunited with her mother and wend her way to a refugee camp in Thailand in 1979. She came to the United States two years later. She married Seavhoa last June.

"Now, we try to make our new life in a new country," she said. "We try our best not be be outcasts, but living in two cultures is difficult."

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