Prey Prom, Samrong, Takeo province, Cambodia
Bangkok, Thailand on 24 November 1983
Sydney on 25 November 1983
Westbridge Hostel, nr Leightonfield, south-west Sydney for two months
I stay with my sponsor and other Cambodian families at 49 View St, Sefton in south-west Sydney.
CT Lewis childcare centre at Lurnea, south-west Sydney.
I was born 10 February 1942 in Prey Prom village, Samrong [region] from Takeo province in Cambodia. At that time, it was still French colony. I start learning French in the second year of primary school and when I was eight years old, the monk taught me Cambodian language. I knew about Buddhism since I was young. My grandfather read the Buddhist book and during the night I went to do massage for my grandfather and he told me what he read during the day. So I was brought up in Buddhist way.
Unfortunately when I was only 12 years old, [my mother] passed away. I put the grief aside and concentrate on my exam. When I got the result of primary school certificate, I went to another exam, like a competition, into secondary school. I passed again. So I went to school in the town at 1954. My father hire a place for me to stay because I lived a little bit far from high school. You have a big house and I hire only a small room.
I got the secondary school certificate, went to the capital to continue my study and stayed at my uncle’s place. Then my friend say now we go to study to be teacher. My cousin said, “you can study at home, I can help you”. Then he fall in love with me! I feel like I’m lower than him, because his father was inspector finance in the province. He is high class, rich and so I don’t believe I can be his wife. So I told him I’m ugly, I don’t know how to cook, I’m poor. He say it doesn’t matter. He still loves me! I start working as a teacher in 1960. The first three months they didn’t pay me but my husband worked in the railway service. He helped me to pay for food, for accommodation.
Yes, I feel like I’m in Cambodia when I listen to this music. When I heard that song, I remember my husband. He wants me to learn how to dance. I was too shy. I didn’t want to dance. During a ceremony, the Princess and the Minister for Information, they organise a big gala. When the music start, everyone got up and danced. Only my husband and I sat down. The Minister said to me, “Madam, please come to dance with me?” I felt so embarrassed. Since then, when we came home he put the music on and he asked me, “Come on, get up, we learn how to dance.” I still shy!
Before we got married, he bought me a cook book because I told him I didn’t know to cook. I give you example: stirring fry spicy beef meat. I had to chop lemongrass, put galangal, turmeric in there and my husband helped me to pestle. I cook the peanut, then I put the beef meat, I very thin slice and mix with the garlic, galangal, lemongrass, turmeric and put together [with] a little bit of sugar, salt and fish sauce. The first time I learned how to cook, I read the book and I do that. It was successful. Good! The dish is called char kreung sach ko.
We lived in the capital, Phnom Penh. My husband worked as the leader of finance of the railway service and they gave a big house to live. I have four children at that time, all boys. The fifth one passed away from meningitis and bronchitis when he was only two months old.
We call it Lon Nol regime war and the American with the Vietnamese, bomb into Cambodia. During this war between March 1970 and April 1975, the Khmer Rouge launch the rocket 122 missile. I was so terrified. Terrible. When I heard the noise, I feel like I go to die. Shaking, the rocket just drop around my house. Every time I heard [it], I call my children to hide only one place. If one rocket drop on us, we all die. I don’t want my husband or children stay alive so they suffer, I want to die together. Fortunately, we all survive during the war. Thousands civilians died and wounded from its debris.
When Pol Pot took over on 17th April 1975, the Khmer Rouge invade the capital with military tanks [and] big guns. Around 2pm four soldiers stood outside my front gate, another two by my side gate with their rockets B40 aimed at my family, “Get out, get out of your house, otherwise we’ll kill you”. My husband took some clothes. I took a little bit of rice, a little bit of food. We drove off panicked, terrified.
I thought only a few days and we will be back. After about four days they said, “Go, go, further, further.” You know, [the government] organisation, Angkar. “Up there, up there.” So we just [follow]. The Khmer Rouge always told us the lie. They are liars. Lie all the time.
We displace all the time. I was working hard with my husband for 15 years and suddenly I’d lost everything. So all my brain is spin, spin. Fortunately, I remembered what my grandfather told me. He said all possession is not ours, even our own body is not ours. So I try to calm myself down. Be patient, be patient. In my imagination, to keep my patience, I feel like have a big rock on top of my mind, to forget everything.
The village [leader] asked everybody to fill the form to tell about his life story. My husband wrote down his job in the railway service. When he came back, I got very angry, because I always ask him to put he’s a farmer, only a simple worker. Only two days later, two ox cart came and took him away. Since then I never saw him [again]. They told me, “I take your husband away for [re-]education”. I said to my husband, “Where you stay, send me a letter, tell me where you are”, because I didn’t know that they took him to kill. One day the village leader and his companion laughed and said my husband is dead. I said, “Who killed my husband? He’s very honest man. Who killed him will go to deep hell”. I was not scared and they laughed [again].
My first son they took him to work very hard with the youth club, to carry soil to build a dam. One of his friends told me [he] is very sick. The hospital in Pol Pot regime, no food, no medicine, nothing, no doctor. I asked the village leader, “Please let me go to the hospital to see my son. He’s very sick”. “No, you can’t go there. You are not doctor, you can’t go there.” So I crying and crying, thinking of him. About a month later, his friend came to me again and said, “Now, they transport him to another hospital, he’s in a bad way”. I cried again. I went to the village leader again, “Please let me go to see my son”. “No, no, you can’t go there. Let them look after your son.” Since then, I never see my son again. I don’t know how, where, when he died. I think he really missed me because he used to ask the leader of the youth club [for permission] to see me.
We all starve. My third and fourth [sons] die of starvation in front of me. The third one, he was very sick. We had no bed, the hut very poor. He just lay down there and had nothing to eat. He already passed away. The fourth one say, “Oh Mum, I feel I have stomach pain”. He fell down near the water pot and passed away there on the ground.
The second one, one day he fell unconscious. I thought, “No, no, he’s nearly dead”. A villager killed a hen and covered [it] with some vegetable leaves because she didn’t want anyone to see the hen. I start to feed him. I open his mouth and put it in. He tried to sip a little bit of soup and then I said, “Oh, now he survive”. He’s lucky to be alive.
I was very skinny, just skin and bone. I thought I go to die. I told my son, “you die, I will die after you”. You know, only one week later I will be dead. I knew. But when the Vietnamese invade into Cambodia in January 1979, I try to feed myself because a lot of people ran away, so my son and I get some rice, some fish to cook to eat.
I want to leave and [return] to the capital where my house was. It’s a miracle. One morning I went to have bath in the river. I saw a boat without engine. My son and other people bring timber to put on the boat to sit and we had bamboo sticks to push because we had no engine. Sadly, two seriously ill elderly people passed away [on the boat journey].
The Vietnamese soldiers told people [they] come here to help but I didn’t trust [them] because they were Communists. My son escaped before me. You know, after Pol Pot regime, I had nothing. I was so hopeless. I was not worried about my life. I’d been thinking about my son. At that time he’s about 18. I want him to look for his future. So I try to look for my relative in France. I try everything. My son got out from the capital with my friend’s brother on the 22nd of March 1981. He escaped to Thailand and then he wrote to his aunty and uncle. He arrived in France on the 8th of August 1981.
I wanted to stay in Cambodia, die there. I didn’t want to get out. I was not worried about myself because I was so hopeless. The day I was evacuated by the Khmer Rouge, I suddenly lost all my possessions. Ten months later, my husband was tortured. A year later, I hadn’t heard from my first son. A year later, I lost two more sons within almost a month. The next month my remaining son was nearly dead. How would you feel? I cannot put my feelings into words. It’s very, very hard. Physically, I have never been tortured by the Khmer Rouge. Mentally and psychologically, I tremendously suffer from the loss, the sadness, the grief.
When my son arrived in France, his aunty wrote to me, “Now your son go to school and I would like you to stay with him”. When I got her letter I escaped with my friend’s help, I couldn’t come on my own. So I escaped on the 5th of May 1982 first from the capital to Battambang province by bus, and to the border by motorcycle.
My most frightening experiences are before and during crossing the Cambodia and Thailand border. The images of those policemen and the guards have been printed in my brain forever. The way they caught me, pointed the gun at my head, punished me, threatened me was horrible.
When I got into Thailand, I didn’t know there are two types of camp. The refugee camp along the border and Khao-I-Dang. The guide couldn’t reach Khao-I-Dang because the guard in Cambodia caught him, took all the gold what my friend and me paid so he had nothing to pay for other guide into Khao-I-Dang. So he left me in the camp along the border. Terrible; it’s not international refugee camp. Fortunately, I found my relative there. So I stayed with him for two months. My friends try to get someone to take me into Khao-I-Dang camp.
I arrived in Khao-I-Dang camp on the 14th of August 1982 until August 1983. Better than Pol Pot regime because they gave us rice to eat and some food like fish in tin. Every week they gave us a piece of chicken and when I worked [in a] community of writers, I [was given] a mat to sleep and food like dry noodles, chicken and writing stuff, like aerogramme and material to make clothes. I wrote a letter to my sister in France. They sponsor me. Unfortunately French Embassy in Bangkok didn’t mention my name on the interview list.
I was told by my colleague in Khao-I-Dang [that] Mr and Mrs Srey-Sath help a lot of people to go to Australia. Mr Srey-Sath used to be at primary school with me. So I wrote to them [to] sponsor me to Australia as a teacher.
[They wanted] some books about Cambodian culture. This is Cambodian dictionary. I got from Khao-I-Dang camp, my friend gave me. It helped me with some words I forgot how to spell and some word I forgot the meaning. So it helpful.
You know, before, I never heard about Australia. The first time I arrive, the Cambodian community went [to] the airport to bring the refugees to Westbridge Hostel [in outer south-western Sydney]. In the bus from the airport, I looked around. Australia, there are only small, small house! I thought, “Australia, like this?” I had been to France in 1969 and it was very different there.
I stayed at Westbridge about two months. It’s okay for me as I had no family to take me out. I just stayed there to study English. As I had been through very sad experiences, I was very forgetful. I thought that I wouldn’t be able to speak or understand this new language. I pushed myself harder, concentrating, motivating myself to learn and practice it. That is certificate when I studied English. I knew I’m on my own to live in Australia so had to study English for this country. The first course, it was very hard for me. My teacher Cathy, she say “Sovan, you work so hard. You are brave”.
After the hostel, first I stay with Mr & Mrs Srey-Sath. But as [their] house too small, they have only two bedrooms and three children, so it’s hard for me. I slept on the couch. He asked another Cambodian family to help and I stay in Regents Park with [them] for six months. Then I moved to that lady’s place, the one who escaped from Cambodia with me. She had her family in Fairfield. I stayed with her for more than a year.
I got the first job to work in childcare. The teachers and director said [I was] very motivated. I spoke English just a little bit and I listen to them. I learn from them all the time, pick up the words.
I got married to an Englishman on 12th April 1986. His name Harold Thomas Goldstraw. He has nobody in Australia. I have nobody in Australia and he said he needed a genuine wife. I met him through my friends. He didn’t know anything about Cambodia until he met me. He didn’t know about Khmer Rouge, about Pol Pot regime. Even his family in England, they didn’t know. When he found out that I lost everything, he feel sorry for me, you know. He kept saying to me, keep your Cambodian way, keep your Buddhist way. Don’t follow English way. Because Englishwoman used to tell him off!
He smoked too much. One day he went to work and fell down. They called ambulance for him. The ambulance officer couldn’t revive him. He died of the blood clots in the artery. Very great shock. It took me several months to settle down as he died only four years after our marriage.
My son, Thonnaksar, visited Australia a few times. Neither of us wanted to live in each other’s countries. He said he didn’t want to live in ‘the countryside’ (Australia) and I find winter in France is too cold.
Ramy, an orphan of Pol Pot, calls me ‘Mum’ as she lost her parents and siblings. When Thonnaksar finished study in France, she wrote a long letter to him saying he lives too far from me and that he should come to Australia. He rang me as soon as he received Ramy’s letter saying he decided to live [in this country]. I was so excited and happy. That was in 1999. He is now married with two children.
I live here for 20 years on my own, and include with my husband, 24 years and a half. I feel okay. I feel like home here. Buddhism helped me a lot. It makes me strong. I practise Buddhism all the time.
SOVAN GOLDSTRAW was interviewed on 8 June 2010.
Interview, research, text edit, photography and film production by Andrea Fernandes, NSW Migration Heritage Centre
Film editing by Jessica Tyrrell
Web layout by Annette Loudon, NSW Migration Heritage Centre with support from Sophie Daniel