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A Return From France, 1976: A Nightmare

  • Brian Calvert
  • VOA Khmer

If you were a Cambodian living abroad as the Khmer Rouge took over the country, would you dare go back? One woman did: VOA Khmer's Neou Sarem. A teacher in France at the onset of Year Zero, Neou Sarem understood the Khmer Rouge were dangerous, but she couldn't bear the separation of her family. VOA Khmer presents "A Return From France, 1975," the story of Neou Sarem's journey back in search of her family. Part one of an occasional oral history series.

I went back to Cambodia in 1976 because I didn't want to be separated from my family. Before the birth of my daughter in July 1974, in a predawn nightmare, I had seen myself running alone, near my school at Vimeanh Ekkareach, in a deserted Phnom Penh; in the nightmare, the Viet Cong had evacuated Phnom Penh.

My apartment was empty. My mother-in-law's house near Psar Thmei was also empty.

In my dream, I ended up on a big white cruise ship that departed from Cambodian waters and carried me alone except the family of my cousin. She was there with her husband and her four children. I wept miserably, until my husband woke me from my dream.

At the time, my husband's cousin worked for the International Travel Bureau in Geneva. It was earlier than July 1974, the birth month of my second daughter. I didn't tell my husband about the nightmare, because it was a miserable experience. Not long after, I traveled to France.

There, I met my cousin and her husband, who come to visit me in Besançon, in northeastern France, and I began a letter to my husband, asking him to get ready to come to France. I asked him to come because I didn't want anything to happen as in my dream. I also wrote letters to my sister-in-law, asking her to loan my husband money enough to bring my two daughters and join me. I wrote my father-in-law, describing my nightmare, promising to pay back any money I borrowed by working after my scholarship ended.

Miserably, the post workers in France at the time were on strike a lot. I rarely got letters from home. We had to open a post office box on the border of Switzerland that we checked every two weeks.

Finally, I got a letter from my sister-in-law, whose husband made tons of money as a manager at Tonle Sap Convoy, bringing food supplies into Phnom Penh after all the roads were cut off. She told me she had offered money to my husband, but he had refused it.

When Phnom Penh fell, my family was still there. In order to return, I had to apply for a change of passport, from Khmer Republic to National United Front of Kampuchea. I had to write a letter in support of the FUNK, who had then-Prince Norodom Sihanouk as its head. I didn't have the will to write these letters, so I asked someone to write them for me and I just signed them.

Those wishing to return to Cambodia had to bring their return ticket to the FUNK mission. Travel was organized in groups, via Air China, with an overnight stay in the Beijing airport. Those who changed their mind could return to France from Beijing, or they could sightsee for 60 francs a day.