From the Killing Fields, a Painful Lesson of Life
In Los Angeles today are tens of thousands of refugees who fled war and poverty in their home countries to build new lives in the United States. Many endured extraordinary cruelties along the way but have survived and even prospered. Some are able to relate their stories with a simplicity bordering on eloquence.
One of them is 19-year-old Michael Schreiber, a freshman at Pitzer College in Claremont. His given first name was Chhouet, and when he arrived in the United States from Cambodia in 1981, he did not speak English. He still doesn’t know his birth family’s name.
Today he is the adopted son of Dr. Larry and Carol Schreiber of San Cristobal, N.M. He wrote the following essay, printed just as he submitted it, as part of an autobiography required in his application for admission to Pitzer.
Originally I come from a war-torn country. I was born in Phnom Penh capital of Cambodia, nowadays no longer standing! Twelve years ago I lived with my family in Phnom Penh. I was the youngest one in the family out of seven children.
When the war broke out in April 1975, my family and I was forced to leave our home by the Khmer Rouges or known as Pol Pots. Days and nights, the Khmer Rouges kept forcing us to move on. From that day on, I knew that my parents no longer could live and take care of me and struggle to survive at the same time.
About two to three months later my father died from starvation, lack of sleep, no water to drink. I recall one time we drank out of buffalo’s puddles. I couldn’t help him, neither my brothers and sisters or my mother could help him from dying.
Couple weeks later my brother vanished from our camp. I never saw him again for the rest of my life! Eventually I heard that he been sent to a hard working labor camp and has been killed.
One morning I awaken up in a new camp. I found my mother and brother both lie beside me stiff as a rock. The night before, she sat herself against the pole with hunger. Tears ran from her eyes. I seen my sister as only skeleton, what were left of her and the skin that attached to the bones. Finally she gave up on me too.
I find myself as the only child in the family, lonely in the hut, cry without a drop of tears. I sat there watch my family being starved to death. I want to reach out my hands and help them, give them my love but I couldn’t move one inch. I remember myself as thin as a scarecrow. Sometime we didn’t get anything to eat for days. If we hunt for our own foods, the Khmer Rouges would blow our head off like a coconut.
For 3 1/2 years I went through many hardships. Go to sleep with an empty stomach. We worked in the rice field from dawn to sunset, without anything to eat. They forced us to do hard labor work. Sometime we walked for miles with bare foot to get to work.
I was about 6 or 7 years old then. Not even a day of education. For all this year I lived in the jungle with many children among my age. They all suffered like me. I have seen people line up and the Pol Pots would shoot them like slaughter cows and pigs. They would kill me if they saw me watching them.
I remember, several times I got very high fever from malaria. They never gave me any medicines or treatments. Although I thought I never able to survive and continue to live to see this New World.
So many time I thought I would disintegrate from this planet. I recall one kid was beaten and they dropped a rock over his chest because he stole a few corns from our orphanage. For weeks he suffocated painfully before he died.
I remember they put me in the big dark cell, at least a hundred people in it. In there are babies, adults, even old age people. No air from the outside could enter. We were shoulder to shoulder like in the slave ship. Each day, they would let us out to work in the mine.
I escaped on my way to work one day. I survived in the jungle all by myself, learned to hunt and eat what the monkeys ate. I saw many dead bodies everywhere. When the night time came I slept anywhere, under the brushes or covered myself with leaves.
Couple weeks later I came into a new village. I told everybody I was lost, so they wouldn’t send me back to where I belong. They were countryside people or farmers known as Old People, that what the Pol Pots called them.
I stayed with this group for about a year or so. I went from family to family for shelters, and worked my life off for foods. They punished me when I done something mistaken. They put me upon the red ants pile, tied me against the tree for days without food to eat. The Old People forced me carry heavy loads, even though I was as thin as bamboo stick.
Sometime in 1978, the Vietnamese started to invade Cambodia. The Khmer Rouges kept forcing us to move on farther and farther to the jungle. The jungle seem never ending to me. Night time we could see the red sky bobbled with fireworks. We never knew who fighting against who, only hoped that some day I will free from Khmers who murdered his own people!
It became truth. One morning the Vietnamese took over the entire camp ground. I ran toward the Vietnamese and some ran opposite of me. The bullets flew across my ears. I don’t know who they are aiming at. I ran for life and death; never knew what was ahead of me.
Just following the crowd, some people were too weak to run and others got blown off for no reason. People lay dead everywhere like dogs and cats that were ran over by the car. The earth boiled like mad when each grenade hit the camp ground.
Finally I able to find a place to settle down. All the sudden, I felt the pain rush through my body, blood dripping down from my knees. My body shaking like mad dog and I sat there watching my knees bleed from the cuts. Try to speak but not a word come out of my mouth.
For a year, I lived by begging off from other people for foods. I recall, one time I begged the Vietnamese soldiers for rice, they threaten to blow my head off instead of giving me rice to eat! I ate anything that I could lay my hands on. I went from towns to cities looking for better life, but the city became jungle and the buildings were leveled to the ground. Nothing were left, and cities turned to battlefields!
I never know which direction I was heading to. Wander from place to place, like a lost puppy looking for his mother. I heard about people went to Thailand border and came back with many goods.
I decided to follow those people to the Thai’s border. Whoever were in front of the line told everybody to quiet down and others passed it down the line like kids playing telephone. I saw many dead bodies lying along the trail. Others’ parts are being dragged off by wild animals. The next second, I heard the machine gun fire at us. I tried to run but the water on those rice paddies slow me down. I still struggled through that deep water without knowing that I am still alive or dead, only emotionless feeling.
It took us all day to reach the camp ground near the border. Once again, I reach out my hands and asked for food. It is the only way that kept me alive until today. Although, the people don’t have a whole lot to share; a handful of rice is enough to keep me from starving to death. I stayed there for several months.
Each day I would go around and around like dog sniffing for foods. Someone told me to go to the orphanage to beg for foods. They gave me foods and asked questions about me and they did accept me as their orphan. During the night, the Khmer Rouges and sometime the Vietnamese would attack nearby campgrounds. Sometime we have to run out of the huts and hide in the brushes. That happened so many times.
The Thais’ trucks came to take us into the Thailand border camps where the United Nation built many campgrounds. I was afraid to go with them because I had heard that they dumped thousands of Cambodians at Phanom Dang Raek mountains jungle and fire at people. I got into Thailand in late 1979, and I was still with the orphanage for almost two years. They try to teach us how to read and write Khmer and English. But I couldn’t learn a thing, my mind was still scattering and helter skelter all over the place. I cry almost every night and have nightmares about seeing dead people. I never did learn how to write in Khmer at all, but I do speak the language.
I met Dr. Larry Schreiber in a hospital. For a year, they tried to adopt me because I needed medical care, to repair my cleft lip and palate here in the U.S. While they were waiting for me to come to the U.S., I been transferred to five different camps in Thailand. It frighten me, every time they transferred us.
When I first arrived in the United States, I did not know any English at all. My foster family try to speak to me in English but I couldn’t understand a word. I thought I was the most mentally retarded child that ever lived.
It was very difficult for me to learn English, but I managed to transform everything into my brain. During that summer of 1981, my foster mother taught me how to read and write. For my first day of school, I was lost and full of confusion. They sent me to a private tutor. It did not take me very long to learn English.
Ever since I came to United States, I got so much to learn from American people. The Americans think and behave much different than Cambodians. I am living here in American life style, culture and advance technology.
It makes me think a lot about my dead parents and the people suffering in Cambodia. I am one of the many people that survived in the war that bear many painful memories. But, I am still challenging for my own future that lies ahead of me.