An Alaska Woman’s Voyage Out of the Killing Fields of Cambodia (KTVA.com exclusive)
CAMBODIA - The communist Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia killed many in just four years.
For the rare survivors, life has never been the same. On April 17, 1975, at just 11 years old, Samantha Bouasri, who now lives in Anchorage, began a journey to save herself and – unlike roughly two million others who set out on the same voyage – live to tell the tale.
“People came screaming through the streets,” Bouasri says, with a stern look on her face. “They yell, ‘The Americans are coming; they are coming to bomb us!’” Cambodians were frightened and upset.
A former colony, Cambodia had only become independent in 1953 when it separated from France. “We celebrated our freedom, we celebrated the help we thought the Khmer Rouge was going to give us,” says Bouasri.
Led by Pol Pot, the Khmer Rouge guerillas began to take over the country in April of 1975. With inspiration from many tribes who resided in deep portions of the jungle, the militia’s hope was to create a communist society without all the in-between steps. They looked to rid the country of Buddhism, wealth and education.
“They [said] they were cleansing the country,” Bouasri says.
In a matter of six hours, on April 17, 1975 the capital city of Phnom Penh was empty – the guerillas had cleared it. “It was nothing more than a ghost town.”
The Khmer Rouge fighters began executing civilians, starting in government buildings, then schools, and then killing the farmers selling vegetables and poultry from wooden carts on the street. The attacks became routine.
The guerrillas would take the groups of people into a field that had already been dug with big trenches that would later become graves – and memorials to all the people lost during the country’s civil war. The Khmer Rouge would line people up up, and shoot them one by one until everybody lay dead on the ground.
The trenches were built big enough to bury 500 corpses. “They would take other people from that village and have them come bury them with a thin layer of soil, but you were not allowed to watch the killing,” says Bouasri. “If you see them kill someone then they kill you. You end up in the pit too.”
Young girls were raped and tortured.
“I was never raped in Cambodia,” Bouasri says. “But if they feel like raping you, they rape you, otherwise they don’t lay a hand on you cause we[’re] disgusting. And they don’t want to produce a new seed with the newcomers. They want pureblood, pure breed, like in Hitler’s time.
“When they rape, it was just for fun.”
Men were forced to watch the Khmer Rouge cut off women’s breasts and burn their hair. The guerrillas would laugh and dare their fellow soldiers to eat various body parts of the innocent, recalls Bouasri, as she looks down at the wooden table in front of her, trying to hold back tears.
“It was hell on earth.”
Her statement triggers memories of one of the roughest nights during the war.
In the village Bouasri was moved to, she began to starve, like many others. She can’t remember the name of the place; she was a stranger to the area and was moved on several occasions.
One large bowl of lukewarm water mixed with bits of rice was the daily meal. As the days passed, the bowl eventually came with only water.
Late in the night, Bouasri decided to take charge. She went searching for food. The Cambodian jungles are home to large mango trees. “It was almost a dare to see who was brave enough to pick because we were not allowed to pick anything, steal anything. If they caught us they torture us, then kill us.”
Once she was within the leaves, Bouasri became hidden from the outside world.
Bouasri crawled in the tall grass until she hit the tree line. She quickly began climbing, as if she were able to enjoy the childhood torn away from her by Pol Pot’s regime. She began pulling ripe mangos from the tree, but her happiness was interrupted by a gunshot.
She moved her hands through the green of the leaves and looked down into one of the infamous killing fields. “They were lined up, and they opened fire.” Bouasri says. She remembers the sound of gunshots, screams, bodies hitting the ground and shovels scraping the dirt.
She began to get restless. She wanted to get down, but she saw a soldier looking into the jungle. She was certain the man – she refers to him as “evil” – had heard her rustling in the treetops. “I climbed higher to make sure I was hidden, then I laid my head down and tried to stay still. I began to sweat, but I was ice cold.”
Eventually the executions faded away; the guerillas simply starved the rest. The Khmer Rouge had no interest in wasting any more ammunition, according to Bouasri.
“They hit people on the head, push them in a pit and bury them alive.”
Death pits were filled to the brim, causing bodies to pile up in school fields, temple yards and street corners.
Bouasri feels confident she knows the fate of her four older adopted siblings. She thinks they were killed behind the school – schools and churches later became popular killing grounds – along with most of the school’s teachers. She credits their death to simply being at the “wrong place at the wrong time.
“They were celebrating. They thought we were getting help fighting the Americans.”
At that time, Bouasri had already become the head of her household. Her mother and father had been taken away by the guerilla fighters. She was left with her only biological sibling, a younger brother who eventually died due to illness, and three adopted siblings.
“They die[d] one by one. They were not healthy children and my brother he was already ill and needed medicine but we couldn’t get it.”
By 1976 there was no one left for Bouasri to care for.
Before that fateful day, April 17, 1975, her home housed six families: her own, and relatives of her parents. Their family farm thrived and neighbors would offer to trade labor, fabrics, blankets and various trinkets for food. Every time the children came home from school they would bring four or five more mouths to feed. “No, it was not always a happy time, but it was happier than any other memory I have in Cambodia.” Bouasri says. “My family did whatever they could to help other people. People did what they could to survive, men would sell their children and sisters for money.”
Bouasri reflects on another painful memory of life in Cambodia. It’s a memory that makes the happiness and joy of her younger years seems like something of a fairy tale.
It is the day she took her turn in the death pit.
“We were to be in line at 3 a.m., if you were not there in time they would beat you and torture you.”
She took her place in line and crowded with other “enemies,” as the Khmer Rouge referred to them, by the brick wall of a local elementary school. Beneath her was a muddy pit awaiting her arrival. “There was a tall man in front of me; he was sobbing,” says Bouasri. “Right before the soldier took his shot, the man grabbed me by the shoulder to try and stop the bullet from hitting him. The next thing I knew I was laying face first in the mud with a 120-pound man over the top of me.”
The bullet had missed her.
“I was in shock.” She remembers laying face-first in the mud “playing dead. I couldn’t believe it – they thought they killed me.” Bouasri says. “So I just laid there until they walked away. I waited ‘til night and escaped.”
At first she remembered being upset with the man but reflecting on it now now she is grateful. “He saved my life.”
Bouasri returned unnoticed – the Khmer Rouge didn’t track who they killed – to the village she’d been living in.
Finally in 1979 Samantha started walking with her grandmother, father and her father’s new wife. The goal was simple: walk until they were in a Thai refugee camp.
At the start of the Cambodian genocide, her mother and father were married. Months later when she was reunited with her father he was remarried with no idea where her mother was.
In years to come Bouasri would find out her mother was forced to remarry and had lived in Vietnam after the war.
Eventually her small group made it to the first refugee camp, after weeks of walking and crawling at night through the long jungle grass. Shortly after arriving, Bouasri fell severely ill. “I was a skeleton and my hair was falling out.”
She suspects her illness was the consequence of living in a chemical storage plant she was forced to stay in under the Khmer Rouge’s power. “Who knows?” she says with a shrug.
Doctors examined her, confused, with no solutions to her problem. She describes the hospital as a tent with only three doctors holding thousands of ill and injured Cambodian refugees.
The doctors suggested she move to the Khao-I-Dang Holding Center. They were promised better doctors and more medicine. Again Bouasri and her family set out on a journey. Khao-I-Dang was the most sufficiently equipped refugee camp on the Thai border. The camp, full of small huts made of bamboo with thatched roofs and a real hospital, became Bouasri’s recovery center for the next few months, as well as the home for roughly 84,800 others.
“I stay in the hospital for a while, but then they tell me I can’t stay anymore,” says Bouasri. “They needed the bed for other people, sick and injured.”
Doctors then directed her to a small tent where her father and grandmother looked after her, walking her back to the hospital on a daily basis. With approximately 1,600 new refugees arriving daily, the camp was forced to close its doors to newcomers looking for food, shelter and medical attention. “They began injecting me with protein shots, and when that seemed to be working they gave me other nutritions, and in three months I was recovered,” Bouasri says with a smile.
In August of 1981 her father made a deal with friends of the family. They would pose as her aunt and uncle, and take Bouasri with them to San Francisco if her father agreed to return to Cambodia to bring more people to Thailand. He agreed – and that would be the last time she saw him until 1984.
By the time she was preparing to leave the refugee camp, she was labeled an orphan. “My father said we would all die if we stayed together so he say we must split up.” The orphanage provided her with shelter and food – commodities that were scarce in camp.
“So I changed my name, lied about my age and was able to come to America with a family that had been very close to mine. I always say, since I have no belongings from Khmer Rouge, that Cambodia took everything, even my name.”
Bouasri asked that KTVA not release her real name. “There are some people that I want to believe I am dead.”
She left Thailand with only the shirt on her back, not even a pair of shoes. After her arrival she struggled significantly.
“I was a slave to that family.” She was forced to sleep in the kitchen and was raped by the husband of the family she came with and his friends. She eventually escaped.
Outside the home, life wasn’t any better. She was constantly under assault, which consisted of racial slurs; people would throw feces and dirty diapers at her.
“People were mean,” Bouasri says. “They told me to go back to where I came from and they [would] chop of parts of my hair. I would ask myself why I came here, and why they [are] doing this to me? What’s the point?”
She told anyone that would listen that she wanted to return to Cambodia.
In February of 1984 Samantha thought there was hope. She had found her father in New York City, but the man she found was mean, angry and a drunk.
“I thought it would be a happy reunion – it wasn’t.” From the moment she stepped off of airplane they fought. She couldn’t recall what started the enmity, but it wouldn’t end until 1985. Until then she watched her stepmother, grandmother, stepsiblings and half-sister suffer beatings from her father. Altogether 13 people lived in their tiny apartment in the Bronx.
Bouasri and her grandmother separated from the family and moved to Massachusetts, where she met her husband.
”I called my dad all the time, but he never want to talk to me.”
Bouasri and her husband moved to Alaska in 1994 searching for work. “They told us that in Alaska you could be your own boss. This was not true.” They picked up odd jobs to support a family that now consists of five.
She didn’t know what happened to her mother. She assumed she was dead.
“The only time I have seen my mom since Khmer Rouge, she was in a coffin,” Bouasri says. “I have four kids and a husband, they never met my mother, and have never met my father.” When she went to Cambodia for her mother’s funeral, in 2009, it was the one and only time she has ever gone back, although she aspires to return.
“When I went back I was happy to be in the place of my birth, but sad because of [the] memories. It was scary going back,” Bouasri says. “I felt like I was being sent back to the slaughterhouse. It was a prison with no walls, no windows and no escape. I need to go back though, put things in order, see the change in the dark days and say goodbye.”
She tries to explain her time in Cambodia to her four children – their ages range from 8 to 20 – but her memories seem unreal.
These days she struggles with the day-to-day issues of raising her immediate family – she says her eldest causes her the most trouble. But lately her thoughts have been focused on family in Cambodia.
Currently she is trying to find a way to financially support extended family members who’ve come across hard times. Young women in her family are being forced into prostitution to support themselves, and others are ill from AIDS.
Cousins are lying dead in an unmarked grave because there was not enough money to do anything else.
The reminders of her early years are everywhere. “I have scars on both sides of my feet from where they put nails in my feet, to keep me from trying to run away. They nearly beat me to death. They hang me by the nails in my feet. I have scars on my back from being stabbed, and I have scars on my knees. I have scars on my hands, they use them like ashtrays,” she says, pulling her hand out of her sleeve showing several round, pale, fading scars.
She is suffering from depression and is now seeing a doctor for post-traumatic stress disorder.
“I try to forget, but all the scars on my body are constant reminders,” Bouasri says.
“Once you smell blood and flesh it never goes away.”
Contact reporter Megan Edge at email@example.com