Escape from the Khmer Rouge: Part 1.: Becoming Minnesotan

Female silhouette.
  • Name - Thaly Chhour
  • Age at interview - 32
  • Gender - Female
  • Generation - First Generation American / Refugee
  • Date of Interview - 08.14.1992
  • Khmer family at home, Phoum Kampong Phluk, Tonle Sap, Cambodia, 2000s.
    Loaded truck, Cambodia, 2000s.

    Genocide, Khmer, War, Youth Experiences

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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

    Khmer Rouge
    Pol Pot

    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 Thaly Chhour 1
    1:41 Minutes | 1.63Mb


    Narrator: Thaly Chhour (TC)

    Interviewer: Cheryl A. Thomas (CT)

    TC:  Before 1975, I live in the village called Preik Hoe.  It's Kandal Province, and I was a student over there. And I remember in 1972, there were fighting close to my home town, and we had to escape from there to live in another place called Ta Khmao. It's about two miles from where I live. And we stay with our relative there for about a year. Then we found a place in Phnom Penh. We moved to Phnom Penh City in 1973. Then in 1975, Communists took over when I was there.

    CT:  You have been saying "we".  Please tell me the members of your family?

    TC:  Okay. I have my mother and my father at that time and my two older brothers and my older sister and younger sister. So there was seven of us at that time.

    Now there are four. My two sisters and my mother and I are living.

    CT:  And when did your brothers and your father die?

    TC:  They all die during 1976, during Pol Pot time by starvation.

    Continues in Chapter 2

    Download Thaly Chhour 2
    4:15 Minutes | 4.09Mb


    Narrator: Thaly Chhour (TC)

    Interviewer: Cheryl A. Thomas (CT)

    CT:  In 1975, Thaly, would you tell us what you can remember about the day that the Khmer Rouge came into Phnom Penh?

    TC:  Okay. In 1975, it was in April, and at that time my feeling thought that the war is over and we were really happy. We thought that everything would be peace. And it was not turn out the way we thought.
    During the night, some of our neighbors they try to pack stuff and leave, and so I went over there and try to find out what's going on, and they say they will leave because they will come and force you to leave anyway. Then I went to tell my parents. I told them that our neighbors were leaving, maybe we should leave, too. If we don't leave, they might come and force us and hurt us, or something like that. At that time there were a lot of my relative move from other home towns because of the fighting over at the home towns, so they came and stay with us, about three families at least.

    So at that time we decide to pack and leave. We just can get a little bit of food and clothes. We couldn't get much stuff because we didn't have any transportation. And along the way it was very crowded. We tried to go back to where we used to live in our home town, Preik Hoe. We thought maybe we could just go and stay over there, since we have to move from where we live in 1975. And we could not move much because it was so crowded, and during the night we couldn't see anything. We didn't want to separate anyone.

    So we tried to stay close together. And we try to go to get some rice along the way and I heard that some people had the rice, fell over and they die and all that.  So it was too many people, we couldn't get - we couldn't get the rice at all. Some just came back and have some rice that we brought along from home.

    And along the way by the river, we walk along the river, and then we have to stop and try to cook at that time. And when we went to get the water, I saw the dead body by the river and the water we could hardly drink because it's a lot of grease, greases from the dead body. Even we boil it, it still floated and it's so hard to drink, I remember that time. It smell so bad even after we boil, still smell but we didn't have anything to drink so we had to drink that water.

    And we stay for a few day, and then we just keep moving until we got to the town called Trey Sla, so we decide to stay over there and we met my family, met one of our distant relative who live in that town, so we decide to stay with them and then later build a shelter for our own. And while I was there, we all were together in that town. And we went to do some farming, and during corn season we plant corns and all that.

    Continues in Chapter 3

    Download Thaly Chhour 3
    4:49 Minutes | 4.64Mb


    Narrator: Thaly Chhour (TC)

    Interviewer: Cheryl A. Thomas (CT)

    TC:  And then when we left, that is – that was the new year time in 1975 in April. My brother went to visit our home town during the new year because we have a very close neighbors, very friendly, and he always went over there to stay, like part of the family, so we were separated from my oldest brother. And when we went to Trey Sla, my mom decided to go and get him. So she packed some food and walked for about one day, one night.

    CT:  All of you?

    TC:  No, just my mom. She went to get my brother so we can be together. And after that she found him and she brought him along, and because like Cambodian people, we depend a lot on the man. So he can run to get some fish and all that for the family.

    And after we stay there about several months, then they start to tell people to go back where they used to stay, like in the city, they would take us back.

    CT:  They told you to go back to Phnom Penh?

    TC:  Yeah, to where we stay, yeah, in Phnom Penh. Any people who want to go back where they used to stay they can go. And so we kind of not really believe in that because it's not true, that's how we feel, so we did not - we did not go until everybody left, almost all the people from the city left and then we decide if we stay we might get in trouble – if we stay with just a small, you know, group. Then we decide to leave, too. So we get on the boat for one night, two days or something like that.

    When we got - when they got to Phnom Penh City, they tried to swing the boat in. We thought maybe it was true, we thought that, but it was not. They swing in for a couple minutes and then they left again. So we took the boat all night until the next morning. We end up in Kampong - Kampong Chhnang City, and then we get off from there.

    I remember on the boat there was one lady who tried to get the water, tried to get the basket and tie the rope to get the water and the water pull her, you know, pull her into the water and she drown. They did not stop. We made noise saying that somebody drown and they would not care. So I remember that part. So at that time we end up in Kampong Chhnang.

    At that time we got off- I mean before we got on the boat, they check our stuff and some stuff they just did not want us to bring along so they throw all the document like birth certificates and everything like that they throw all in the water. That's why we didn't have any birth certificates to prove when we came [to America].

    And when we got off the boat, we tried to find a place to cook and eat, and later in the afternoon they had the truck to come and pick all of us up to the - to the train station so we can continue our trip. And then we got on the train to Say Sisophon City, the big city, too, and it was so crowded on the train and it was so long on the train I couldn't remember how long. And there were some people die on the train and some people got so sick, diarrhea and vomiting and all that. It was so warm in there. It's so hard to breath and they would not stop. They just keep moving, moving all days.

    Continues in Chapter 4

    Download Thaly Chhour 4
    3:14 Minutes | 3.12Mb


    Narrator: Thaly Chhour (TC)

    Interviewer: Cheryl A. Thomas (CT)

    TC:  So then we get to Svay Sisophon. We get off the train and we try to cook food. Then there were some trucks to come and pick up - pick us up to where we finally stay over there. And it was a long drive and it's far away from the big city, no tropical trees or something like that. And we end up the place called Phnom Traw Lork, it's like Traw Lork Mountain. We stayed by the mountain. So we end up during the night hardly see anything. They don't have any light except small candle and all that. When we got there, they took my brother right away to stay in his age group so they just took him away from that village.

    CT:  Is that your older brother?

    TC:  Yeah, my oldest brother. And then the next morning they try to separate us like teenager go to teenager group and adult group go to adult groups. And I was - I was in the teenager group at that time, and not for long because I'm so big and tall, something like that. They put me in the adult groups. And then I was separated from my parent and my sister, my older sister also had to go to her group in other place.

    And not for about maybe one or two months my brother came back. He was very sick. He got very sick. They had to send him home because he couldn't do anything. They let him work so hard, and I didn't know what he did. But after he got so sick, they send him home.

    CT:  What do you call home at this time?

    TC:  Phnom Traw Lork Mountain.

    CT:  That's where your parents were?

    TC:  Yeah, uh-huh.

    CT:  Were you there, too?

    TC:  Yeah, I was there.

    CT:  You worked in just a different camp?

    TC:  Yeah, I just work and come back to the village. And then not for long, about a few months later after my brother got home, about a few months later, I was in a teenager group but we had to build a place, a shelter close to Phnom Traw Lork, it's about three miles from there. But we had to stay there, not going home. So I stay with the - my group and work, dig the ground and all that, made the road or something like that.

    CT:  How old were you?

    TC:  I was 14.

    Related Glossary Terms


    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.


    Noun:  An official paper that provides proof of something, like birth or citizenship.

    Verb: To record. (documents, documenting, documented)

    Khmer Rouge

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

    Listen to this word: 

    Pol Pot

    The leader of the Cambodian Communist movement known as the Khmer Rouge and Prime Minister of Democratic Kampuchea from 1976–1979.

    Listen to this word: 


    Minnesota Historical Society. Becoming Minnesotan: Stories of Recent Immigrants and Refugees. September 2010. Institute of Museum and Library Services. [Date of access].
    nid: 558