Kampong Cham, eastern Cambodia
Bangkok, Thailand in October 1983
Sydney on 20 October 1983
Burnside Orphanage, North Parramatta, western Sydney for 10 months
Burnside organised a rental home for Cambodian kids in Lombard Street, Fairfield West and later I lived in a flat with my younger brother and a friend in Canley Vale – all in south-western Sydney where the Cambodian community was based in the 1980s.
Part-time farmhand in Badgerys Creek area, W Sydney.
Migrant liaison officer for Centrelink; accountant for Sydney Water, commercial sector and now own business – in Sydney CBD, North Sydney and outer north-west Sydney.
I was born in the late 1960s in Kampong Som, near the Gulf of Thailand, but grew up in Kampong Cham, an eastern town of Cambodia so my childhood was marked by war. The Vietnam War was raging so badly. The whole city started to shake every time the napalm bomb came down. I saw dead soldiers everywhere, the sound of gunfire. All these things shaped my early childhood and then a few years later Pol Pot, Khmer Rouge, took over the whole country.
My primary school education had come to a stop. I learned the basic reading and writing of the Cambodian language [but] when Khmer Rouge took over the town in 1975 they ordered everyone to get out of the city and told wherever you came from to go to that village. My father had come from another province near the capital, Phnom Penh, so we walked all the way to Kandal province, about 60 kilometres away. It took us about a month.
We were allowed to stay with [my grandparents] for only nine months because [it was] a Khmer Rouge special zone for privileged people, and because we were ‘New People’ into the area we were not allowed to stay. We were transported to the western part of the country, Battambang province, in about mid-1976.
The Khmer Rouge divided people into two classes; the Old People and the New People. The Old People were better treated in terms of food [and] status because they had served against Cambodian society [and] people under the American government. My father had been a public servant before the Khmer Rouge victory so, like many other people who had lived in towns that were controlled by the [previous] government, were classed as New People.
The country was ordered to cook and eat collectively. Private eating, private property was completely abolished. There was no concept of privacy whatsoever. Not much food was available, people became sick, start to starve, start to die. My mother and father start to get sick too.
About 1977 the political purge becomes so serious, especially in Battambang where Pol Pot send a lot of the New People. They purge doctors, teachers, public servants, government soldiers. My father was among those who got arrested and took to the prison not far away. I presume they killed him there.
The night the Khmer Rouge arrested him, they came back that night ransacking our house. They found a black and white photo hidden in the wall, the picture showed him wearing a tie; I think it was a school celebration or graduation picture. They said, “Gee, this photo looks like someone important”. They think it’s a symbol of middle class.
That night, I saw three soldiers with rifles on their shoulders calling out my father’s name. I knew that was his turn because every other man in the village had been arrested. It was inevitable he would be. You couldn’t escape anywhere because the country was closed off. This is hard to understand to outsiders but the way Pol Pot ran the country it is a closed society, no freedom of movement, no freedom of expression.
You had to be authorised to walk to other village; you couldn’t just go from A to B. The only movement was working. You were allowed to go to work as a group only and you were guarded by the group chief. The whole country was like a prison camp. The only life was to get up in the morning to work in a gang.
My mother had been moved to a women’s working group about 10 kilometres away. My older brother told her my father had been arrested. She was not surprised. She cried quietly while she worked, she tried to hide her tears. She became sick soon after, very sick, she worried a lot. They put her in a Buddhist temple they converted to a hospital. My younger sister, she too was sick and put there.
[I was] about 10 years old. I was always hungry so I stole rice in the field. I started putting some in my pocket and suddenly I got arrested by a Khmer Rouge soldier, guarding prisoners nearby.
I was in prison where my father got locked up three months earlier but as a child they didn’t beat you up. They put me in the big hall where the older prisoners were chained together so they couldn’t move. I went around and looked at their faces one by one. I couldn’t see my father and thought he probably had been killed.
I got locked up for three nights. I had to sleep among the prisoners and in the daytime they would gather all the children and walk them to work at the back, clearing grass around the prison, not far from where they kill prisoners.
The Khmer Rouge wanted to know my fulI name and age. In the village I was well known for stealing food [and] as a child, no way could I lie. If they report to my village chief it would not [be] the first time, so I was scared that they might kill me in the same prison they killed my father. I had to take a chance to escape right now. While many soldiers were guarding prisoners, I just sneak under the barbed wire. I didn’t run away, I tried to walk slowly so it wouldn’t attract their attention. When I got to about 200-300 metres, I pretended to sit down and relieve myself. I look[ed] back and realised the Khmer Rouge soldiers didn’t look at me, only the prisoners were! There was an orange farm about 200 metres away and when I got [there], I just bolted so fast.
I heard there was a lot of food in Battambang city but I got burned on my left foot in an accident, by falling into a bonfire along the way. So I tried to come back to the village and I run into an old lady who said [my] mother [was] seriously sick. I only had one foot to walk, so I limped with one leg about four kilometres. My mother asked, “Are you Buntha?” and hugged me. She thought I was killed by the Khmer Rouge and was a ghost coming back to haunt her. She started crying and hugging me and said, “Ohhhh you are so dear!”
Food ration was so bad in hospital, my sister died from starvation and three months later my mum died too from starvation related diseases like dysentery and beriberi. About a month before she couldn’t walk, totally bedridden. She said to me, “Buntha, my son, the country is not going to be like this forever. One day someone will come and help us out. Maybe some international community will come and help us. When the country is getting better try to find yourself a future, get yourself an education”. Those words have stuck in my head for a long time, forever.
In two years, the Khmer start fighting with the Vietnamese on the border issue – the old clash, traditional historical problem. They start to invade Cambodia and put the Khmer Rouge out of power. It was a very chaotic time. There was no proper government authority [and] people [were] starving again. The UN (United Nations) were trying to ship food into Cambodia but they had problems dealing with the Vietnamese authority so [they] shipped food to the Thai border [in] the west. A lot of people left their village to walk towards Thailand.
I thought there is no future here for me as an orphan [so] I just followed them. I left Cambodia in 1979, a 12 year old child, with my younger brother. The older brother (14 years old) and youngest sister (six years old), I let them go and live with the neighbour. I couldn’t take them with me because I had no food to last the whole trip.
I walked with my younger brother for seven days simply for the hope of food and safety, 100 kilometres away. I remember it being hot during summertime, and jumping into ponds to cool down wearing all I had – dirty shorts and t-shirt.
The border area was packed with refugees and you were excited to see an aid worker help you out. I felt quite a relief. Excited, confused, elated at the same time. There was no question of lack of food in the camp. The UN took care of us refugees quite well and because I was an orphan I was put into an orphanage in the camp. That is where I had the chance to learn some English.
These books are medical terms translated into Cambodian. I tried to learn as many words as possible. I was keen so I learned maths and a bit of electricity at an electrical school in the camp set up by UNHCR (Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees). I went to Cambodian school too [where] I learned how to read and write Cambodian. There’s a Cambodian poetry book written by refugees; the book talks about new life in the camp.
That healthcare card was issued by UNHCR. Every time we went to have our checkup we need to show the card to the camp hospital and they recorded our health history.
I turned 16 in 1982. I started to get depressed because a lot of refugees start to leave for third countries like Australia, Canada, France and I was so anxious. I wanted a real education. After three years stuck in the camp, I wanted to get out. There is very hard, tough life just like another prison, strictly guarded by Thai soldiers. The UN were closing that camp [and] wanted to transport all the refugees back to another camp, Khao-I Dang camp, I had lived in. I said to my carers that I don’t want to go back [and] if I am sent back, I [would] feel so depressed, I don’t want to see that camp twice. So my carer reported to the UNHCR.
One day I come back from school and was told by the carers I got accepted to Canada. I was so excited, I would show off around the camp telling my friends. They took me out to a transit camp.
I was waiting for six months and never heard anything from the Canadian Embassy so I went to complain. They told me they never saw my file so I went to the International Red Cross. They told me, “We didn’t want you to kill yourself so we just lied to you”. I want to go to the US so bad, she [agreed] to send my file to the US Embassy in Bangkok. Then three months had passed and I didn’t hear anything so I went to see her again. I said to her, “Oh come on, how about giving my file to the Australian Embassy?” Two weeks later I got called by an Aussie lady [who taught] English in the camp. She [had] a list of Cambodian orphans that are to go to Australia. On that list was my name and my brother’s.
I didn’t know where Australia was so I wondered what [it] looked like. I was feeling uncertain, excited, happy. I thought the opportunity to return to Cambodia would never arise again and grabbed some Cambodian books the UN printed – which was half of my luggage.
[For the] first time, Australia accepted seven Cambodian orphans. We were to live in an orphanage called Burnside Home in North Parramatta [in western Sydney]. Burnside, along with Department of Immigration staff, waited at Sydney airport [to] greet us.
It was a rainy, cold day. It was so quiet when we got picked up in the minivan and driven to North Parramatta. I thought to myself, “Is this Australia? It’s so quiet, where are the tall buildings?” I was expecting to see big cities everywhere. That was my image.
About an hour, we got to the orphanage at Parramatta. We were nervous on arrival [but] other staff welcome us to make us feel at home. That house [had] at least four or five carers to look after seven kids. We got a bus driver, cooks, we got social workers, we got a secretary, we had a manager. The help we were getting was too much [but] I appreciated that a lot. Not long after, SBS filmed a documentary about us.
We were lonely. We felt isolated because most of the Cambodian community was located in Cabramatta and Fairfield [in south-west Sydney]. In the early 80s the community was very small and everyone was trying to look out for each other. Some Cambodians got the news that there are Cambodian orphans living in North Parramatta so they came to say ‘hello’ to us. I feel more at home with their faces and languages. That is how I made contacts with the outside community with my own people. It helped me feel I was not alone. At the time, a lot of refugees got accepted into Australia from Indochina; we were emerging communities.
In the early years I suffered from loneliness, stress, depression. I think it was post-traumatic stress syndrome, the fact I had gone through so much separation and loss as a child. A lot of bad dreams happened every almost every night, every week. When we were at the orphanage, we got introduced to Dr Marie Bashir, the current Governor of New South Wales. She was a psychiatrist so she would come and visit us quite often. She paid special attention to us.
I stayed there ten months before they relocated us to Lombard Street, Fairfield West for independent living. Burnside rented a place [for us so] other Cambodian kids [can move in]. From the seven of us coming to Australia, probably only my brother and myself have come far in terms of careers and education. I got my School Certificate [at] Ashcroft High School, then I moved to Canley Vale High to do my HSC (Higher School Certificate) two years later. From there I went to uni.
I struggled with the strange Aussie accent and racism was a daily feature in my life in the early-mid 1980s, particularly from schoolkids. Without knowing what it meant, I remember a road worker stuck a finger up at me, but where I came from was far greater hardship. Small things like that was overlooked by me.
In the 80s we teenagers tried to catch up with new life [and] we tried to learn English. Ashcroft High was a special English school [and] at the same time we got into pop music, talking about Boy George, Michael Jackson, Elton John, Stevie Wonder. All the Aussie kids were crazy about these stars and [although] we didn’t understand much, I enjoyed them too. Music was very much a part of our early refugee teenage life. We didn’t have much money to buy tapes so we would copy from each other. I had all those tapes [with] hundreds of songs.
You could still afford some decent clothes. We were entitled to Austudy and because we lived together, we subsidise each other food and rent so we saved money to buy fashion, music, go interstate. The first few years in Australia were very much formative years. I try to know as many places as possible. I would go to Melbourne, to Adelaide, to Queensland and around many places in Sydney. I keep a lot of photos.
When I finished my HSC in ’87, four years into the country, I spent three-and-a-half years doing an accounting commerce degree at Western Sydney Uni. It was very hard; I had to cope with English [on] the course and had no family support at the time. I lived with my younger brother in a flat with another friend at Canley Vale. I studied hard, came back from uni at night, cook my own food.
In my second year at uni in 1989, I found myself wondering what happened to my brother and sister I left behind in Cambodia. I recall it was around the same time as the collapse of the Berlin Wall. I sent an aerogramme to the neighbour who was looking after them ten years prior. Amazingly three months later I received a letter and photo from my sister. I found it difficult to trust it was her and questioned her authenticity but a scar proved she was genuine.
I finished uni in 1991 and went to work at the Water Board and then Centrelink about five years. Then I went into private sector doing accounting jobs in Sydney [CBD], North Sydney. In about 2000 I started to run my own practice; I just wanted to be self-employed. I never wanted to develop into a big firm, I thought it would give me a better lifestyle and it has given me just that. I didn’t like working under a boss; too much pressure, too much deadline.
My mother’s advice had a very lasting impact on me. To be honest, I find it hard to concentrate. I’ve got to try hard because I was not that smart. A lot wouldn’t have the patience or the endurance to go on. She said another thing, “Don’t worry about holding onto each other. Whoever can survive, just survive their own way [and] you will see each other again”. And I did. I sponsored my sister to come here in 1999.
My older brother disappeared and I never know where he is, he is completely gone. Someone told me he had joined the resistance army against the Vietnamese occupying force along the border. I assume he is dead, fighting. There was not one single family that came out of Pol Pot regime intact. Always someone suffer with losing at least one member of their family.
A broken childhood, loss of family, separation from family has made me a humanitarian person. I’ve done a lot of charity work [and] I used to sponsor a boy. I donate money to people in need because I have been living on charity throughout my childhood. I have been active in the local Cambodian communities since I was in high school and that is why two years ago I got awarded the Order of Australia.
I used to feel depressed a lot. I never showed it to friends, to co-workers. It was like a double life, a feeling of suffering inside, post-traumatic stress syndrome. The last 30 years I tried to move on with life. I try to forget about Cambodia, I tried to block off the past but you bottle up in your chest, in your body, in your soul. It doesn’t go away. Inside I feel hurt, I feel the pain. As a result of denial, I had constant recurring nightmares about what happened. In the dream I would often see my dead parents, the gaol where my father got locked up and killed, the same gaol where I got locked too before my escape. I would dream where my mother died.
As a child I only spent about nine tough years in Cambodia. I reflected I don’t know much about my country of birth. I know more about Australia. So after 30 years I start to miss Cambodia, so I tried to catch up with the past. I start to miss the place of birth, my old primary school in Cambodia. I wanted to see where my mum died again, where my father died, the gaol I got locked up in, the same gaol where my father got killed. I just wanted to go back alone; my kids wouldn’t understand. I just want to go alone, soul searching, and I did on the 5th May 2009 for three weeks.
[When] I went back, I reflected on the past. I took a lot of pictures of my old places, places of my childhood. It was still the same, hardly changed. Still looked sad, desolate, deserted forest surrounded by eerie cicada crying. It was like a ghost forest. I stood at the same exact spot where my mum dropped dead. I stood exactly where my sister dropped dead. I pray with the Buddhist monk for their souls.
I went to look at the place where they buried her. Standing there 32 years after, I started to remember what I had done at the time. The night she died, I went back and dug up the grave with my bare hand to see her face again because, you know, I miss her. I just want to touch her and look at her face again. I touch her hair, her eyes, her face before I put the soil back on her face and walk away, slowly, reluctantly.
I went to the gaol where I was imprisoned as a child and my father was sent, never to be seen again. In more recent years, a stupa has been erected to commemorate the dead.
I enjoyed Cambodia [and] as soon as I went, the nightmares seem to stop. I feel a lot of a heavy burden has taken off from my head, from my body. I feel consolation in myself and more into reconciliation as the country [goes] through international trials of the Khmer Rouge leaders. I feel a lot of closure now.
I want to go back to Cambodia a second time, a third time, to stay there longer.
BUNTHA NHEM was interviewed on 22 February 2010.
Interview, research, text edit, photography and film production by Andrea Fernandes, NSW Migration Heritage Centre
Film editing by Linda Kruger
Web layout by Annette Loudon, NSW Migration Heritage Centre
With assistance from Salvation & Cambodian Culture Association of NSW and Phiny Ung