They took my father.: Becoming Minnesotan

Male silhouette.
  • Name - Henry Nelson
  • Age at interview - 38
  • Gender - Male
  • Generation - First Generation American / Refugee
  • Date of Interview - 08.13.1992
  • Lon Nol / U.S. military base, Phnom Leap, Cambodia, March 1972.
    Khmer soldiers on bicycle, Phnom Penh, Cambodia.  Photo courtesy

    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.

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

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

    3:13 Minutes | 3.1Mb


    Narrator: Henry Nelson (HN)

    Interviewer: Jim Dorsey (JD)

    JD:  Do you recall when the Khmer Rouge came to power?

    HN:  Definitely. Definitely. Khmer Rouge come to the power in 1975, the 17 of April.

    JD:  And what happened the day they came into town?

    HN:  The day of the 17 of April the Khmer Rouge start to come into town. And the first night they come in that night, the first they come in I see a few people was shot and killed by Khmer Rouge soldiers. And I don't know what's going on but people's deaths.  Just the minute they come in.

    JD:  And then did the Khmer Rouge come to your house?

    HN:  Yes, sir.  In the morning of that day, Khmer Rouge riding in the jeep, there's three of them in the jeep. So, they come to my house and then they pick up my father. I don't know what's going on but they asked for my father, to get on the jeep with them.

    JD:  What did your father say?

    HN:  My father say nothing. First they meet with my father and they see my father have a watch, an Omega watch, on his hand. They say they would like to have it. And my father seem like he don't want to give to them, but they look really mad when my father acting don't want to give to him. So my father decide he have to give to him. So he take off the watch and give to that guy who request for the watch. Then they get the guns, tell my father, they point the guns at my father, say get on the jeep. Then he got on the jeep. So I realize it's not a good situation for him at all.

    JD:  Your father was a captain at that time?

    HN:  Yes he's a captain. He fought in the war a lot with the Americans. He serve American republican regime in Cambodia under Lon Nol regime. Lon Nol is the president by that time and Lon Nol deal with the Americans.

    JD:  How did it feel when you saw your father being taken away?

    HN:  I quite pretty well understand that my father is gonna be in big trouble. Because these people is not nice.  And they point the gun at my father ask him to get on the jeep, kind of forcing him to go. So I know that it's not good for him.

    JD:  Was your father in uniform that day?

    HN:  He take off the uniform. He know that, he know quite what was going on pretty well. He also want to escape to Thailand too, but he have no chance so he just stay with all the kids and he take off his uniform. But still, I know that those Khmer Rouge have the spy all over the town since they fought with us many years ago so they know who's who.

    JD:  What happened to your father?

    HN:  I never saw him again. He's gone from that day, ever.

    JD:  Did anyone ever tell you what happened to him?

    HN:  I, people who came through the place where my mother and me was evacuated from the town, they just say that they saw thousands and thousands of soldiers executed at the Tipa Dai mountains. And my mother just cried, and she know that my father not alive.

    Continues in Chapter 2

    2:12 Minutes | 2.12Mb


    Narrator: Henry Nelson (HN)

    Interviewer: Jim Dorsey (JD)

    JD:  The Khmer Rouge, the soldiers that came and took away your father, how old were they?

    HN:  Khmer Rouge really brainwashed the kid. The soldiers were eleven years old, nine years old, ten years old. That don't even...can' t carry the gun from the ground. And those kid get really brave to kill people. Like they want to kill adult, they put a stair to climb up and hit the head. The Khmer Rouge train those kid very good, and they brainwashed those kid.

    And those kid have no educate. They train them since they young and they give them enough food to eat. So they trust Anka, they love Anka. Their father not even have enough food for them to eat.  They took the children away to reform the kid, they brainwash the kid. The kid come back home and not even listen to their parent.

    Kid also inspired to be a spy on their parents. By that time the people are starving. People stealing all over the country, we steal everything. I am also stealing stuff, honestly.  So we are really...don't trust others, by that time. You don't trust me, I don't trust you. Husband and wife don't even trust each other. And parent and kid not even trust each other.

    Kid come back home, they see the parents have rice to eat, they go back to Anka, they give the information to Anka. Because no one have a right to eat rice. So when you have rice to eat that mean you stealing something. So when you have wheat to eat, that mean you stealing something. So then they go back to Anka, they give that information to Anka, and then Anka come back to get the parents to the meeting. Then they accuse the parent is not obey Anka. The parent is bad people and they let that kid kill their parents. The kid did it. But when the kid kill the parents, they say...told the people in the meeting, “They not kill the parents. They kill the enemy of the Anka." They did.

    Continues in Chapter 3

    2:4 Minutes | 2Mb


    Narrator: Henry Nelson (HN)

    Interviewer: Jim Dorsey (JD)

    JD:  You mention that you and your mother were evacuated.

    HN:  Yes. Just a few days later after Khmer Rouge had been all over the town, he told the people that America will bomb the town and they want all of the people get out of town in about three days. So get whatever you can get.

    JD:  And what did you do?

    HN:  We pack up the stuff that we should pack up. We just get a little rice with us and a few clothes to put out there. And then they evacuate us into the jungle. There's a place with no home or nothing is, just trees there. And they told us, "Okay. You stay here." And we were so surprised: "Here, what is here?" It's nothing. It's jungle and there's mountain there. And so "You stay here, you make a place for you to live here. And don't go nowhere." They really mean it then.

    They look at us so mean and they have a gun in their hand. And we don't want to say anything more because we know that this is really a serious situation and that we cannot complain about it.

    JD:  How did you get to the jungle? Were you taken by truck?

    HN:  No, we walk. We walk all the way there. And we never walk this far. You know that people in the town they really live in the comfortable life and they never do that. But they have to this time. Thousands and thousands of peoples. Some of them who really old die on the way they walk in the jungle. The old people and some of the babies that never get under the sun, burn like that, die on the way.

    They executed those people who just want to stay in their home, want to stay in their property. And they tell them to leave, and they give them a real order. They say, "I come back next time, I see you, you gonna be stay here ever.” They use the word "stay here forever on your property” that mean they execute you there, let you live there on your property.

    Continues in Chapter 4

    1:52 Minutes | 1.8Mb


    Narrator: Henry Nelson (HN)

    Interviewer: Jim Dorsey (JD)

    HN:  We stay in the jungle for all the way since 1975 'til 1979, when the Vietnamese force in.

    JD:  So did you make your own dwelling?

    HN:  Yes, we make our own house. It's not really a house, it's a cottage to stay. It's really uncomfortable. It's raining we get wet, yes really. And mosquito. And people get diarrhea because of this unsanitary and no medications there.

    JD:  How many of you were living in that hut that you built?

    HN:  My mother and all the thirteen.

    JD:  The thirteen children?

    HN:  Yes.

    JD:  How did you get enough food to eat during that time?

    HN:  We have some that we brought with us, but just a couple days. Just like they say, take food for a couple days because Americans gonna bomb the town. But after the couple days you will be okay to go back. So we just get like food for a couple days in there. After that couple day, then we started starving. We get whatever we can. We dig whatever under the ground that we find.  But the thing that we shouldn't eat at all, and we eat all those stuff. Many people get a poison, because they eat the stuff that they never knew it, and die. And we still have like, watch, good clothes. We give all those that we can for rice.

    JD:  You exchanged those?

    HN:  We exchanged those for rice.

    JD:  Who would you trade them with?

    HN:  We trade them with the farmers. Because at that time the farmers, the ignorant people, have a very good priority. Khmer Rouge love those people. Khmer Rouge give those people enough food to eat. But the people who come from the town, that you look to be a town people, you're not going to get nothing to eat.

    Related Glossary Terms


    Noun:  The Khmer Rouge term for their government. 

    Listen to this word: 


    Verb:  To systematically tell misinformation to a person in order to manipulate their actions and ways of thinking.  (brainwashes, brainwashing, brainwashed)


    Noun:  A place, house, or shelter where a person lives.


    Verb:  To leave or to remove troops or people from a place of danger. (evacuates, evacuating, evacuated)

    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:  First concern.


    Verb:  To remember; to recollect.  (recalls, recalling, recalled)


    Noun:  A form of goverment.


    Verb:  To ask.  (requests, requesting, requested)


    Adjective:  Not clean; not hygienic.


    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].
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