KHAO-I-DANG CAMP, Thailand -- In one recent drawing, a youth sits under a tree by a river in a seemingly peaceful, idyllic scene. But his thoughts carry him back to Cambodia where, with ribs showing and a sad expression on his face, he sits forlornly before an empty rice pail.
Other drawings are more graphic.
They depict executions, torture and starvation at the hands of the Communist Khmer Rouge who formerly ruled Cambodia.
Several show people tied to trees and being stabbed or shot by figures clad in black. Others portray mass graves, emaciated people working in fields, pregnant women being disemboweled.
This is the troubled art of Cambodian children. But even more troubling than the art itself is that the drawings are not of the imagination. Rather, they are memories of scenes witnessed or experienced by the children themselves, children who have been orphaned and in some cases saw their parents’ executions.
More than four years after the Khmer Rouge were driven from power, the Cambodian children still suffer from painful memories. Many are still tormented by sights of the brutal deaths of parents and siblings, and many are still struggling to work out their anguish. You can see the trauma in the pictures they draw, in the periodic nightmares and bouts of depression they suffer, in the faces that cloud over when distressful memories intrude.
More than other Cambodian refugees, these “unaccompanied minors”--so called because all may not actually be orphans but may have relatives they do not know are still alive--are living reminders of the horrors of the Khmer Rouge.
These horrors tend to fade into abstraction as new violence and upheaval disrupt the lives of Cambodians and as the Khmer Rouge seemingly gain international acceptance, if not respectability, as part of a coalition of Cambodian “resistance” groups opposing the Vietnamese occupation of their country. But the horrors refuse to fade from the memories of those who suffered.
The memories are important not only because the children could grow up to affect the future of Cambodia. They also underscore the complications of the search for a settlement in Cambodia and illustrate why that remains one of the world’s most intractable problems.
The horror of life under the Khmer Rouge “will always be with the children, no matter how old they get or where they go,” said a western social worker at this refugee camp. “They can’t erase it.”
When the guerrillas led by Pol Pot took power in April 1975, they began a brutal experiment in social engineering designed to destroy the old Cambodia and reshape a radical new Communist society from scratch.
Many children were separated from their families as the Khmer Rouge took them away to work in “mobile teams” far from their homes. They lived in groups of up to 100 other children and worked “incredibly long hours,” said the social worker, who did not want to be named.
“They were forced to dig ditches, build roads and plow fields,” she said. Often they were beaten to make them work harder or as punishment for minor offenses. Many died.
Most of the children ranged in age from 8 to their teens, but some were as young as 6. “Quite often siblings were also separated,” she said.
“They were only fed at most watery rice twice a day, sometimes with vegetables,” the social worker said. “They never had enough to eat.”
When the Vietnamese invaded in December 1978 and routed the Pol Pot regime the following month, many of the children were forced to flee along with the Khmer Rouge guerrillas. In addition to the deaths at the hands of the Khmer Rouge, they now also saw people killed by the advancing Vietnamese, who often would shell the retreating columns of refugees and Khmer Rouge soldiers.
When the children arrived at the Thai-Cambodian border, many were among the most malnourished of the skeletal figures with bloated stomachs who managed to make it that far.
As refugee workers began to sort them out, 3,500 Cambodian children who arrived without parents were placed in holding centers inside Thailand. Over the next three years, 1,500 off them were reunited with relatives in Thailand, in camps on the border or in western resettlement countries.
Thousands of other parentless children joined nonrelated families, were forced into Khmer Rouge-controlled camps or enlisted in the noncommunist Cambodian resistance factions battling the Vietnamese.
Reliable figures are impossible to come by, but it is estimated that tens of thousands of children may have been orphaned after 1975 as their parents were executed or died of illness, starvation or overwork under the Khmer Rouge. In all, the terrible Khmer Rouge experiment is believed to have cost the lives of 1 million to 2 million Cambodians.
Of the children who made it to the Thai camps, hundreds were sent abroad over the years to begin new lives with foster families. Now, according to the Bangkok office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, there are fewer than 700 unaccompanied minors in two camps, including 270 in this sprawling refugee holding center about 18 miles north of the Thai border town of Aranyaprathet.
Under a new policy, the U.S. government is about to expand its processing of unaccompanied minors from Indochina for emigration to the United States, according to American officials in Bangkok. In addition to Cambodian children, minors in Thai camps from Vietnam and Laos also will be given special consideration under the new guidelines, officials said.
Despite periods of depression or anxiety, refugee workers say, the Cambodian children generally show what one called “remarkable resilience.” By and large, they do not seem to harbor feelings of revenge as it is understood in the west. Rather, many are imbued with a burning desire to succeed, to make good their lives.
An example is a 15-year-old boy from Siem Reap whom refugee workers called Than. He is determined to be a doctor and wants to go to a western country to study. He has told social workers he wants to go back to Cambodia eventually when he has gained the knowledge to help his people.
Currently the unaccompanied minors get a “degree of priority” in processing for resettlement in the United States, an American refugee official said. But once they reach the age of 18 they are no longer eligible for special consideration and become, in the eyes of immigration officials, part of the general Khao-i-Dang camp population of 58,000. If the youth has brothers or sisters, they too are no longer considered unaccompanied minors since they now are under the care of a relative of legal age.
Thus the inevitable process of growing up works against the children’s chances to begin a new life, no matter what they may have been through as minors.
A case in point is the story of a boy called San. As the Khmer Rouge were being routed in 1979, he left his mobile team to find his family. Arriving home, he found that his father and elder brother had been killed, his mother disemboweled, and a sister raped and thrown in jail, where she died. San was 14.
He then managed to locate two younger brothers aged 9 and 13 and two sisters aged 11 and 12. He brought the four of them plus a friend from his native Battambang Province to the Thai border. At the border he saw his friend blown up and killed when he stepped on a land mine.
According to refugee workers, San has looked after his younger brothers and sisters ever since. But now he is over 18 and no longer qualifies as an unaccompanied minor. He has a fiancee in the United States, from whom he has been separated for over a year.
Indeed, refugee workers say, separations are especially painful when the youths are split up by resettlement.
“Because the children don’t have families, friendships are very strong,” one refugee worker said. She told of one 15-year-old boy who cried every night for six weeks when his two best friends left Khao-i-Dang. She said that when the boys lose hope and become depressed, they often threaten to return to the border and become soldiers.
Many become depressed for long periods and unable to work or study, she said. For some, the grief is compounded by frustration at being confined to Khao-i-Dang.
One 19-year-old girl ran away to the border in January. She is believed to have gone to Nong Chan, a refugee camp that was overrun by the Vietnamese in early February. She left behind a 12-year-old brother, Peuth, and a 10-year-old sister, Pov. Their parents died of starvation in 1979, but the children managed to recover from severe malnutrition when they arrived at the border in December of that year. Now in their fourth year at Khao-i-Dang, they wait together for an opportunity to leave.
Another who wants to leave is an 11-year-old girl named Ra, who saw her mother killed by a Vietnamese shell as the Khmer Rouge were herding refugees toward the border. She says she does not like Khao-i-Dang anymore, but will not say why. She also avoids answering a question about whether she wants to return to Cambodia.
Likewise, many of the children still cannot talk about their experiences in Cambodia. For some, it is only their art that allows them to express themselves.
According to Neil Boothby, a child psychologist who worked at Khao-i-Dang from July 1981 to February 1982, Jewish children freed from Nazi concentration camps behaved much like the Cambodians, spending hours making repetitive drawings of their past. Unlike adults, he wrote, the children often do not talk about their fears until they are put down on paper.
Even then, the trauma sometimes may still be too great. A Time magazine report last year described a girl at Khao-i-Dang who drew a picture of a mysterious circular device when she arrived at the camp at age 8. Two years went by before she explained the device: it was a portable guillotine, and the children of her work group were forced to use it on each other.