Obey Anka, or die.: 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 children, Cambodia, 2000s.  Photo courtesy Camboda.com.
    Women planting rice, Cambodia, 2000s.  Photo courtesy Camboda.com.

    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

    2:8 Minutes | 2.06Mb


    Narrator: Henry Nelson (HN)

    Interviewer: Jim Dorsey (JD)

    JD:  Then what happened? Were you eventually sent away to work somewhere?

    HN:  Oh, then the Khmer Rouge start to collecting information from each family. They asking your history, your biography, your resume. So each one of the family member have to give them a resume. Who you are, if you are a student, what grade you have. They tell us to give them all this information, by giving us an idea, saying that, "You give us the true and honestly, the best you can give the information about yourself because we gonna get you back in the town to help the government to build our country back". Then we give out the true information that we have.

    Then my two brothers, one is in law school, one is in university studying about science. They get that truth first, to the reform camps. At the reform camps they use them as a cow. They put the yoke on their necks, let them do a job at the farm and using a strap behind them. Hit behind them just like a cow. Then they can't afford to stay there no more, they escape from the reform camp. They caught them, because we are not familiar with the jungle. We don't know the territory so they just run. They think that they just run forward west then they will hit Thailand.

    So that will just run west, but in the jungle there a lot of Khmer Rouge hiding there. They know what's going on. They really know what's going on. They really have a good experience about it, so they catch my two brother and they kill them. They brought back to my mom his underwear. They throw the underwear to my mom and they say, "This is your kid that not obey Anka."

    Anka is the government. They call the government, name them Anka, so when they use the word Anka everybody have to be scared and have to obey it. They say, "Your two sons not obey Anka." Then, "Here. Example. So don't let any other of your kid do that anymore." So the underwear has blood and you know that they were executed.

    Continues in Chapter 2

    1:24 Minutes | 1.35Mb


    Narrator: Henry Nelson (HN)

    Interviewer: Jim Dorsey (JD)

    JD:  How about you? Were you put to work?

    HN:  Me, they put me to work too, after they collect all of the information. Then they sent me to the front line, they call "the first force" for the country economic rebuilt. People who are married, they leave you behind as a second force. So, like you fourteen, thirteen and that you not married, they assume that you should go to the first front line, too.

    JD:  And what sort of work did they have you do?

    HN:  Grow wheat, grow rice. We dig a well. We make a dam to generate electrics. But it's amazing, no country in the world build it that way. They build it with wood across the river and just put the soil in the wood. And the dam won't handle, cannot maintain there because water is coming so hard. And it just break the dam and hundreds and hundreds of kids died in dam.

    And they let the kids dig the well. So the kids dig the well and there is nothing to protect the kids. So many, many kids dig the well and the ground just collapse on them and they die in there. I think that they just trying to do as much as they can to eliminate the people.

    Continues in Chapter 3

    2:33 Minutes | 2.46Mb


    Narrator: Henry Nelson (HN)

    Interviewer: Jim Dorsey (JD)

    JD:  How far was the place where you worked from the little hut in the jungle where your mother lived?

    HN:  They sent me from the jungle to a place that take me a walk like five, six days to be there.

    JD:  And once you were there, where did you live?

    HN:  We live in the group. Hundreds of kids sleep in the group that they just put some kind of plastic cover on the tops for you and that's it. You sleep under it. A lot of them sleep just that way.

    JD:  And what time would you get up in the morning?

    HN:  In the morning it's about four o'clock, the bell rings.

    We work since four o'clock in the morning. Then you get out of work until eight or nine o'clock. Then they let you go back to the camps. When you go back to the camp you have dinner by that time. A very small dinner that you have.

    And then after the dinner you cannot go to sleep yet. We all so tired. We just want to have time to rest but you can't. After the dinner, they have a bell ring call you for the meeting. Meeting, meeting all the time. That's why the people who been here in the United States, when they heard the word "meeting" it really hurt them a lot. Pain. And I'm not really like it too much either when I hear the word "meeting", but I just realize that, "No. This is not Khmer Rouge meeting."

    JD:  What would happen at a Khmer Rouge meeting?

    HN:  When they have the meeting, they have people executed. In front of everybody at the meeting. They call the name of the people like today you go to work or we have some kid or some adult that is there, they are kind of tired so they take a rest. But everybody not allowed to rest yet. So they take a rest, but they notify that person action. Then at the meeting they call that people up, and they say, "This person is cheating all their friends and not obey Anka. This person have to be executed." And then they execute that person right at the meeting.

    They execute them by shoot them, or sometime they execute them by put them under the wheel. Tie them up with the wheel and they let the wheel roll on you. They do it that way. Or sometimes they hit them with a stick, so they don't have to use the bullet. They say they save the bullet to fight with Americans. "We keep this bullet to fight American."

    Related Glossary Terms


    Noun:  The Khmer Rouge term for their government. 

    Listen to this word: 


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


    Noun:  A person's life story.


    Noun:  1. Participation in events, leading to knowledge, opinons, or skills.  2. The knowledge thus gathered.

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


    Noun:  A bar or frame of wood placed over the neck, used to carry or pull heavy objects.


    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: 560