I run toward Thailand - they catch me again.: Becoming Minnesotan

Male silhouette.
  • Name - Henry Nelson
  • Age at interview - 38
  • Gender - Male
  • Generation - First Generation American / Refugee
  • Date of Interview - 08.13.1992
  • Khmer soldiers with small girl, Cambodia, 1960s?  Photo courtesy Camboda.com.
    Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, Phnom Penh, Cambodia, 2000s.  Photo courtesy Camboda

    Escape, Genocide, Khmer, Oppression, War

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    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.

    Once the Vietnamese army invaded Cambodia in 1979 and overthrew the Khmer Rouge, Khmer refugees began to flee the country to camps in neighboring Thailand.  Continued fighting by the Khmer Rouge, fears of persecution by the Vietnamese occupiers, and starvation caused by poor harvests caused refugees to continute to pour out of Cambodia, and the refugee camps quickly filled.  Newcomers were forced back to Cambodia or managed to stay in the camps illegally.  The U.S. began accepting refugees from Cambodia in 1979, and took 150,000 in that year alone. 

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

    • Chapter 1
    • Chapter 2
    • Chapter 3

    Download Henry Nelson 12
    3:7 Minutes | 3Mb


    Narrator: Henry Nelson (HN)

    HN:  Then the night come up again and my sister say, "Brother, I think you should run. You run as far as you can. Now you have only one choice. You run, maybe you survive. If you don't run, you stay here, you dead."

    Then I say, “Yes. You right. I got to go, but I don't have clothes." Before they kill me they take all my clothes, they just leave me underwear. So my sister get me one old clothes to put on, and she gave me dry rice. It's about a can of rice, dry rice that she give. Dry rice we can survive by just in our mouth, chew it and swallow it. Dry already cook, you just dry it under the sun. So she gave me about a can of it, and she said, “This is all I have. You take it, and you run." And I take that rice and run.

    Then I run at the night. I run at night and I just assume just like my two brothers was killed, I run toward west. That's Thailand. The only thing I know. Then I start to run west, but I'm not running in the jungle this time. I run on the road, on the street.

    I try to write down because Khmer Rouge, many of Khmer Rouge, 98% of the Khmer Rouge who is a guard along the street don't read. As long as I show them a letter that I wrote, some of them they look upside down, some of them look the right way, but I know they don't read it. And then they just do it that way to be pesty and they give it back to me, let me go.

    But they ask you where you're going to. But I just say I'm going from this place to that place, the close one. So if I go to that place, I hiding myself in somewhere no people can see me and I write another letter to go to another place. I doing that along the way.

    But unfortunately I'm trying to go down to Tonlé Sap [Great Lake], but when I reach to that town they call, they call…what' s that place? I seem to forget that place...they catch me again. One of the soldiers know me. When they catch me, they put me in the execution jail.  They tie up my hand, they take off my clothes, they put me in one room. It's not too big, but enough for me to move around. In that room I saw a knife, hammer, like a big ball stick. I saw all those things that they use to execute people.

    They put me there and I know that they're going to execute me again that night.  I'm crying in that room. I'm praying for my mother and father to help me. I'm crying and I ask for them to help me, ask for their spirit to help me, ask for god to help me. Then they walk by and they say, “Hey kid. Shut up and quiet. You want me to do it right now?” They say that way to me, so I shut up. I'm not crying, I'm not yelling no more.

    Continues in Chapter 2

    Download Henry Nelson 13
    1:49 Minutes | 1.75Mb


    Narrator: Henry Nelson (HN)

    HN:  Then they gone to eat dinner. When they go to eat dinner, the rope that they tie me, it kind of loose so I can move. I move all over the room. Then I get the knife in the room and I cut the rope behind me.

    Then I look at, they have two door, one door is a front door another door is in the back door of the room. I look at the front door and I know that I cannot get out by the front door here they eating dinner there. So I go to the back door, I see people work out there, some of them. Then I opened that back door, opened the back door out with those people, then I scrap something, working with those people. Just like I'm a worker here too. They not even pay attention, "Are you a newcomer, why you are here," they never ask those questions anymore.

    When I get out with those people, I just cut the grass a couple knifes and I say, "Oh, I feel I have stomachache.” I just try to give that express to the people around me, to let them hear. "Oh I have a stomachache; I want to get in that jungle there so I may come back later.” Then I get in there, I'm gone. It's lucky for me the second time.

    And the Khmer Rouge who later in 1979, Vietnamese force in, I go back. The people who knew me they say, "Khmer Rouge really scared of you. They thought you have a magic. They kill you twice, they try to kill you twice, you never die. They thought you have a magic and they're afraid you come back to retaliate to their family. They got a guard at nighttime to guard their family.” And I say, "Oh God.” This is just kind of miraculous. This is just kind of that God and my mother's spirit helped me.

    Continues in Chapter 3

    Download Henry Nelson 14
    3:34 Minutes | 3.43Mb


    Narrator: Henry Nelson (HN)

    Interviewer: Jim Dorsey (JD)

    HN:  So I run there. I run for Thailand. I go to territory, I run to territory...first I in Territory Four, I run to Territory Two, I run to Territory Three. Each time I run to one territory, I change my name all the way. I change my name from Chaophan Raksmey, to Vong Virak. Then I change to Vong Vichet and I change to Samneth Vandy the name I came to the United State. Then I change to Henry Nelson when I became a citizen.

    By 1979, when the Vietnamese force in Cambodia, I close to Thailand already. So when they fight in the city, I saw the explosion of the ammunition. I saw the Khmer Rouge soldiers run into the jungle. The Vietnamese fight really strong, they cannot afford it.  The Vietnamese don't know why, but the Khmer Rouge have a strong force too. But this time they lose. I don't know what's happened.

    Then they run into the jungle and they try to rally the people with them too.

    So Khmer Rouge try to force them in, they try to get away from Khmer Rouge, run to Vietnamese.

    And I speak Vietnamese by that time. My mother was Chinese-Vietnamese. So I not afraid of Vietnamese, I know I speak Vietnamese. So I run to Vietnamese, I with Vietnamese, Vietnamese help me to give me food, give me clothes.  Then they ask me, "You know people?" I say, "I still know a lot of peoples back there." Then I get Vietnamese troop to go with me there to get the people out.

    JD:  Where did you encounter the Vietnamese?

    HN:  Encountered Vietnamese at the Phnom Tepadai. It's border Thailand already. But it's just a mountain that kept our border to be apart. But if you climb up to the mountain and go to another side, it's Thailand already.

    I go with the Vietnamese to that mountain, because a lot of people is there who blocked by Khmer Rouge. Don't let the people run to Vietnamese. So I tell the Vietnamese, "Go there. Help those people. Those people really want to come back here."

    Then I go with the Vietnamese force. Then they fight with the Khmer Rouge by that time. While they fight each other, then the people just run from another way. So the Khmer Rouge get busy with fighting, then the people have a chance to run. Some of them die, because of shooting.  Sure.

    Then I work for Vietnamese for a while. About one or two month I work for Vietnamese. They get me to a town and I working for the state. Battambang state, they get me there to interpreter. I speak Vietnamese so I try to convince people to believe in the new government of Hun Sen now that backed up by the Vietnamese.

    But for a while, I live with them for like two months, then I see the flag. Again, I see the red flag, I'm really scared. Because Khmer Rouge use a red flag, and a hammer and all those stuff on the flag. Then I see Vietnamese come in with the new government of Cambodia using the same flag again. Just a little different but red blocks there and it have also the knives, all those stuff on the flag. I say, "Oh God. Again." Then I decide not to stay with them. I run to Thailand.

    Related Glossary Terms


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


    Noun:  1. A person that is a legally recognized as a member of a state or country, with associated rights and obligations.  2. A person that is a legally recognized resident of a city or town.  3. A resident of any particular place to which the subject feels to belong.


    Verb:  To stumble upon; to find accidentally.  (encounters; encountering; encountered)


    Noun:  A person who listens to a speaker in one language and relates what is said to another person in a different language.

    Khmer Rouge

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

    Listen to this word: 


    Adjective:  Like a miracle.


    Verb:  To assemble; to unite.  (rallies, rallying, rallied)


    Verb:  To do something harmful or negative to get revenge for some harm; to fight back or respond to an injury.  (retaliates, retaliating, retaliated)


    Adjective:  Of or pertaining to Vietnam.

    Noun:  1. Inhabitant of Vietnam or person of Vietnamese descent.  2. Language spoken predominantly in Vietnam.


    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
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