I know that I'm not dead yet.: Becoming Minnesotan

Male silhouette.
  • Name - Henry Nelson
  • Age at interview - 38
  • Gender - Male
  • Generation - First Generation American / Refugee
  • Date of Interview - 08.13.1992
  • Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, Phnom Penh, Cambodia, 2000s.  Photo courtesy Camboda
    Memorial stupa at Choeung Ek killing field, Cambodia, 2000s.  Photo courtesy Cam

    Genocide, Khmer, Oppression, War

    Essential Question

    Life in the Old Country: What makes a country a person’s homeland?

    Politics & Government: How are other systems of government different than the U.S. government?

    Words to look for


    Background Information

    The Khmer are the people of Cambodia.  In 1974 a Communist group called the Khmer Rouge, led by Pol Pot, gained control of Cambodia.   The Khmer Rouge wanted to transform Cambodia into an agriculture-based classless society, and to remove all Western influence.  Educated people, professionals, city-dwellers, and any opponents of the Communists were quickly rounded up and placed into forced labor camps in the countryside.  Many Khmer were executed under this tyrannical regime, and many others died of starvation, exposure and exhaustion.  During the period of genocide from 1975-1979 approximately 1.4 million people were executed, and it is estimated that a total of 20% of the Cambodian population died.

    To learn more about Khmer history and culture, visit our Khmer Community page.

    • Chapter 1
    • Chapter 2
    • Chapter 3
    • Chapter 4

    Download Henry Nelson 8
    2:3 Minutes | 1.98Mb


    Narrator: Henry Nelson (HN)

    Interviewer: Jim Dorsey (JD)

    JD:  How long did you stay in the camp?

    HN:  I stayed in that camp for three years in there. To work build those dam, those farm. And people, my friend who I work with, they starving to death. I even had a friend who worked close to me and he just got so weak. And I am also weak. I got swollen. My legs swollen, my hands swollen, my face swollen, because I don't have enough food. I don't have enough salt for my body to circulate it. So I get swollen, I exhaust. I walk with a cane, but I still go to work.

    JD:  How many days a week would you work?

    HN:  We work seven days a week.

    JD:  Were you ever given a chance to go home and see your mother?

    HN:  I'm scared to ask them. I'm really scared to ask them, because I knew that they will kill me someday. I realize that already. So I try to do the best to please them, to make them see that I am a really strong worker. I really want to help Anka to build the country. Because the people who from the town, the student who have high education, sooner or later they execute those people. My professor who been there with me was executed.

    JD:  Why was he executed?

    HN:  He's a professor, so he have a knowledge. Then sure that he don't like Communists, Khmer Rouge to be treat the people that way. The Khmer Rouge also understand that. They understand that the knowledge people don't like them so much. So they try to do the best to execute all those knowledge people and keep the illiterate people, so it's easy for them to use.

    Continues in Chapter 2

    Download Henry Nelson 9
    2:24 Minutes | 2.31Mb


    Narrator: Henry Nelson (HN)

    Interviewer: Jim Dorsey (JD)

    JD:  At a certain point, did you have a run-in with the Khmer Rouge?

    HN:  Yes. I working there about a year later.  I heard one of my third brother - I'm the fourth brother - I heard my third brother was executed because he used the bad language with the group leader.

    Then they send me a letter saying that, "Your mom at home sick, they want you back." So I believe them. I go back home. Along the way home, when I reach to my house, by that time they caught me. Right there. They tie me up with my hands to the back. They have one of them handle a long knife and the other one handle a hammer. So they lead me to the farm far away that no people stay there. And when we reach to the place, they released the rope on my hand and they give me...I don't know what you call that stuff...that stuff that for dig the grounds.

    JD:  They gave you a shovel?

    HN:  Shovel, yes that stuff there. They gave me to dig the ground, a hole. So, they do that for the people that they execute. But that's nice enough that they let you do that, even though they just kill you, hit you there, leave you there. So it's nice enough for you dig the hole in the ground for yourself. So I dig it for myself.

    I'm crying by that time, because I know that the end for my life. I dig it, I'm crying. And after I dig the hole is big enough they can put me in there, they tell me, "All right. Fine. Stop it." And they tie me back. So right there I see one soldier have an M-16 with him, and the other have an AK with him. Two of the people is not a soldier, he's a group leader that the Khmer Rouge assigned him to watch the people working in the farm.

    After I dig that, they tell that's enough, let me stand in front of that hole and they kick me behind, put me on the knee. And then they ask me, "Can you tell me who you are?"

    Continues in Chapter 3

    Download Henry Nelson 10
    3:15 Minutes | 3.13Mb


    Narrator: Henry Nelson (HN)

    HN:  "I am a student, but I don't have too much educated. I live in the temple with the monk. My father is poor, he working as a taxi driver to get the money. My mother open a little grocery to feed the kid."
    They don't believe me, because they know real well from what I told them the first time they asked to put a resume for them. So when I told them that, they know I'm lying.  Then they kick me into the hole. It was real hard, I just getting pain and I cannot see things. They kick real hard on my legs. So I just fall into the hole and they grab my head and they drag me up out of the hole again.

    And they ask me, "Can you tell me again one more time who you are and what your family's background is?"

    I continue to tell them the same thing again, because I don't want to change my words. I try to handle it, I just know that whatsoever, I keep the same word I told them, maybe I can have a chance. If I change it back and forth...many people do that, I know that many people was killed. And I knew a lot of story that people killed. So I assume this time even I die with one word that I say. So I tell them the same word again, and they knock me with that thing that I dig the ground. They hit me with that stuff on my head.

    One more time I fall in there again, and I start having blood bleeding from my head. My hands was tied up. And then in there I really go black. I can't see things. My eyes just blur, and they drag me from the hole again.

    They ask me, "Can you tell me the truth? That your father is a soldier, right?" Then I know all these people know pretty well who I am. "And you are a student in college, that you are going to go to the university in 1975. You have two years educated in France, is it correct?"

    I told them all of those stuff, actually. And then I didn't answer, I didn't answer. I know that they got the right point. They got everything correct. They have real information about myself. Though I won't say nothing.  So this time they just try to knock me to finish me.

    So I don't know what's going on. Just one thing hit my head real hard, and then I don't know anything. I unconscious. So I in the hole, I in the hole. The cold soil on my body and then maybe they left. That's what it is.

    Then at nighttime, it is raining and come down, they cover me with not enough soil. With very thin soil on my body. So when the rain come down, I feel, I revive myself. And then I know, I look all around me it's quiet. It's nothing. Tree and just the wind blows there and the quiet night, and I know that I'm not dead yet.

    Continues in Chapter 4

    Download Henry Nelson 11
    2:34 Minutes | 2.48Mb


    Narrator: Henry Nelson (HN)

    HN:  So I decide to run. But I don't know where to run, either. So where I'm run, I run to my sister's house. I run to where my mother is. I run there, I stay there overnight. I run to my sister at nighttime. And my sister ask me, "Brother, what are you doing here? Look at yourself. Blood." I say, "Sister, I am so tired. I cannot go anywhere. I'm so tired, I just want to have a place to sleep. I want to sleep."

    And then my sister, she don't know what to do. Then she put me in the house. She got all the dirty clothes and the whatever is dirty thing that we throw away at the corner of the wall.  Dirty clothes, all those trash, whatever, just put on me at the corner of the house, so nobody can see me. So I sleep there overnight.

    In the morning I see my brother, sister, the rest of my brothers and sisters there. I don't see my mother. And then my sister told me that, "Mother was killed, before you came."

    They took my mother with one of my sisters. She's about six years old. When they got my mother, my six year old sister tried to run after her. She crying and run after her very long, it's about one mile that she run after her. And then those soldiers just pick her up, let her go with my mother. So in Khmer Rouge, if they kill your mother, you cry, they kill you also.

    So they execute my little sister who run after my mother. And my sisters told me that mother was killed before you came here, a few days. And I see all my little brothers, one is like five years old and the other one is like four. They just sit on the stair of the house and starving to death. No one knows how to do anything.  Usually mother fix thing for all those little brothers and sisters eat. But now she's gone and my older sister also go to work. And all my younger sister and brother just sit there and starve there.

    I can see through the trash and dirty clothes that cover me, but I don't know what to do. Because I know if I get out there, they saw me, they will catch me and kill me again. So all I need, I just need rest, and then when I gain up my energy, then I will run. I will run anywhere that I can.

    Related Glossary Terms


    Noun:  The Khmer Rouge term for their government. 

    Listen to this word: 


    Verb:  To appoint or select someone for a specific duty or task.  (assigns, assigning, assigned)


    Verb:  1. To suppose to be true, especially without proof.  2. To take on a position or duty.  (assumes, assuming, assumed)


    Noun: A member of a Communist political party or movement, or a supporter of the political philosophy of communism; they usually advocate for a classless society with communal ownership of property, and often set up one-party totalitaran type governments.


    Adjective:  Unable to read or write.

    Khmer Rouge

    A Cambodian Communist guerrilla force active from the 1970s to the 1990s under the leadership of Pol Pot.

    Listen to this word: 


    Noun:  A male member of a monastic order who has devoted his life for religious service.


    Noun:  A document that lists a person's qualifications and experience for a certain job or role.


    Adjective:  Puffy; inflamed; bloated.


    Noun:  A building for religious worship.


    AdjectiveWithout awareness, sensation, or cognition.


    Minnesota Historical Society. Becoming Minnesotan: Stories of Recent Immigrants and Refugees. September 2010. Institute of Museum and Library Services. [Date of access]. http://www.mnhs.org/immigration
    nid: 561