Escape from the Khmer Rouge: Part 2.: Becoming Minnesotan

Female silhouette.
  • Name - Thaly Chhour
  • Age at interview - 32
  • Gender - Female
  • Generation - First Generation American / Refugee
  • Date of Interview - 08.14.1992
  • Apartment houses, Phnom Pehn, Cambodia, 2000s.
    Outdoor market, Cambodia,  2000s.

    Escape, Genocide, Khmer, Oppression, War

    Javascript is required to view this map.

    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 Thaly Chhour 5
    4:8 Minutes | 3.98Mb


    Narrator: Thaly Chhour (TC)

    Interviewer: Cheryl A. Thomas (CT)

    CT:  You were in that camp for how long when you weren't with your family at all?

    TC:  I was not with my family until they move from that place to another village called Phnom Ruom Dourl, like Phnom Ruom Dourl Mountain. It's about five mile from Phnom Traw Lork. I heard that my parent move to other place so I went to visit and when they move over there, they didn't have anything, they had to cut wood and build a house, a shelter, and stay. And then I never get to go back home and stay with my parent. And my sister got so sick and then she came back home so they all were home except me.

    And then I got so sick later they send me to the hospital and they did not - in the hospital they did not have any medicine and people die every day. They swell up and they got malaria, diarrhea, all kind of disease and they did not have any medicine for us, not enough food. They burn rice and let us eat. It's so hard to eat sometimes just nothing. And when they give us medicine, they gave us some strange medicine. So it wasn't help.

    And I was in the hospital for a while. Then my brother after work he tried to come to visit me, walk so many miles to visit me. Then at that time I met him, my younger brother and I told him I kind of get a little bit better, I will ask the nurse to go home because I didn't want to stay. It's not worth it to stay, but they wouldn't let me go home either because they just want us to stay there. If we cannot work, you have to stay at a hospital, and the hospital is worse, it's worse than staying in the village. You have air and all that. In the hospital you only see dead people and sick people, make you feel sick. But they would not let me go so I just asked permission to go visit my parent. They say, "No, you wait." So I asked several time and I never got to go.

    And later after about a couple months later, my brother-in-law - my oldest brother came to visit me with some food and I saw him wearing a piece of cloth on his shirt and I thought somebody in the family must have something wrong, because like when somebody die, we wear a tiny cloth on the shirt and I thought maybe somebody had problems.  Then I tried to ask him is anything wrong in the family? Why are you wearing that thing? And then he tried to make me forget. And at that time I was, you know, I couldn't remember. He just talk about some other thing he said, you know, "I brought you some food, some chicken and some dessert. You should eat, you should not keep overnight, they will steal it and you wouldn't have a chance to eat." So I forgot about that cloth.  And when he left, I thought again, I thought maybe somebody have something wrong but I didn't see him again so…

    Continues in Chapter 2

    Download Thaly Chhour 6
    3:26 Minutes | 3.3Mb


    Narrator: Thaly Chhour (TC)

    TC:   And later I got better. They took me back to where I used to stay and then they moved from that shelter to another shelter and I was over there and I went to work the next day and I got sick again. I got malaria again. I got chilly, a certain time of day every day a certain time I got shaking and I could not go to work. And I came back and I stay in the shelter. They force me to go. I said I can not make it, and then they told me to go to the hospital again which I didn't really want to go at all because it's not a good place.

    And they force me to go and they gave me shot before, before I even went back and that shot was a coconut juice in the Coke bottle. And after they gave me a shot and I was unconscious, I could not know – I couldn't speak for about a half hour. I thought in my mind, I thought maybe I die at that time. I thought maybe if I die, I like to see my family first or something like that, and I pray God so, you know, I shouldn't die at that time because if I die, I want to see my family.

    And then they move - they move me from that shelter, it's so hot, so they move me to like the hay shelter, it's cooler and then they fan me and I just couldn't talk. I knew what they did but I just couldn't talk for about a half hour after that medicine, you know, settle or something. And then I could talk. I was so happy.

    I had a big infection on my leg because I have to plant some rice and a lot of leeches and you have to finish the work, you know. When the leech bit me, I just grab it and pull it and throw it in the water and its always come back. They always come back because of the blood that they suck, and they like to suck the blood. So it always came back and we had to finish the work, we cannot get out of the water.

    And I got big infection and I have to go back to the hospital. I could hardly move my feet because every time I move it hurts and it's bleeding and no medicine to put on. I try to find all kind of leaves, pound it and put it on, it doesn't suck the infection, you know, so I keep trying from one leaf to the next leaf. I was in the hospital for a while. And finally I found one leaf, it very helpful. It heals so fast and it still hurt and I tried to be very careful.

    Continues in Chapter 3

    Download Thaly Chhour 7
    8:15 Minutes | 7.93Mb


    Narrator: Thaly Chhour (TC)

    Interviewer: Cheryl A. Thomas (CT)

    TC:  And then I got to send back to the village and at that time I found out my father died and then we all stayed together at that time. We got to stay together because no food - when there is no food, people kind of can be together, you know, because we're so sick and we're so weak, we could hardly do anything, so they let us stay in the village. If you're strong you have to go out to the top group and work hard, something like that.

    And later on, for a couple months or several months, my brother still sick and he had infection on his leg and it stay there, it doesn't heal, it doesn't get big because it's so dry and dehydrated and all that, so it doesn't do anything. And then one day he just slept and did not get up. When we ask him to get up to eat some soup water, he just die. And then somebody came and get him to bury. And over there they don't have any coffins or anything, they just bury you like that, just a piece of cloth and they bury it.

    And later on a few months my other brother like during that time, we got some rice, rice okay to harvest and all that and we got more food but it was too late for my other brother, he could not eat it, even when we have more. It's kind of too late, so he pass away, too, in the same year.

    CT:  In the same year?

    TC:  In the same year, in 1976. It's over a year after the Khmer Rouge took over. And then I - when I was sick, I got one - I had to beg and beg them for good medicine, friends medicine or something like that.  So when I took that one medicine, I was completely well and I was so happy. It's like we don't have any good medicine, so it like worked so well after I took it. And then I stay in the village and went to work and come back home. My sister because she's older than me and she had, I don't know what you call - what you call period, I don't.

    CT:  Period, yes.

    TC:  Yeah. Then she didn't have that because not enough food and all that. And then she  was so sick and then one of her legs she could not walk, she walk with the stick, it's like she paralyze because of, you know, because of lack of food and all that. And she stay in the village. After she got better, they took her to other place and then she got sick, she came back and my younger sister they took her from - away from my mom so she went to leave with her small - with her teenage group.

    CT:  How old was she when they took her away?

    TC:  She's maybe 12 or something. And then like she had to work hard like carry like cow dung and all that on her head, and then she got so skinny, and during the night a lot of - a lot of bugs, you know, like bed bug or some other kind of bugs that we could not sleep. I used to go to visit her once, tried to go to visit her and stay overnight with her. I could not sleep at all because of a lot of bed bugs and bites, bit me.That's why she got so skinny and she lost almost all her hair. And it was hard at that time.

    CT:  Where was your older sister at this time?

    TC:  She was in the camp, too, away from home. And then we waited and waited and then I had to leave. I said we should go to the main street in case Pol Pot came back, you know, we might not be able to go. They might take us away. And then we all decide to go to the big street and stay there.

    And finally my sister got home and she was so sick because she eat some kind of tiny animal, bug or something like that, and then she got like poison from that and she could not move. She tried to get home. She just lay down and couldn't get up, didn't want to get up, didn't want to move. And then I tried to go and find sugar, maybe it will help her to have strength. And then I got some sugar and let her eat a little bit, and she feel a little bit better and then I try to ask her to leave and try to help her to carry her stuff to the main street so we can be together and she just walk with a cane and try to hold her and all that.

    And then we tried to ask somebody who has have cows, cart, so my mom can ride on that. And we got one person very nice and let my mom sit on it. Then we move little by little.

    Then we thought that we would go back to our home town in Preik Hoe that we used to live before, but it was far away, but we just keep moving. And then when we got to Siem Reap City, big city, my mom was so sick that I had to take her to the hospital. They have the hospital at that time, and she stay in the hospital for a while.

    And I went to find some rice in the field. At that time whoever can go and get some food, nobody own anything, no - not belong to anybody, and we go and get it. So my sister and I try to go, my younger sister and I tried to go and get some rice and go visit my mom, and my other sister just stay in the place on the street, no shelter or anything, stay from night to night for a while until my mom got a little bit better.

    After several days we brought her back and then not for long they announce it somebody want to go to Phnom Penh, they will have the truck to pick you up, Vietnamese truck, you know, soldier pick us up with the Cambodian guys and all that. So we decided to get on the truck. Then they took us to Kampong Chhnang back to that place. Then they stop there. We have to stay overnight and then another truck bring us to Phnom Penh City at that time.

    Continues in Chapter 4

    Download Thaly Chhour 8
    3:24 Minutes | 3.27Mb


    Narrator: Thaly Chhour (TC)

    Interviewer: Cheryl A. Thomas (CT)

    CT:  What happened when you got to Phnom Penh City?

    TC:  We didn't - they truck did not really go there yet, so we stop in one place close to Phnom Penh City and they drop us there. Then we have to find our own way to get home.

    So my mom couldn't walk and my sister she is sick so we just stay there from night to night So when we got there, we went to our relative in Chak Un Ray, it's called Phnom Penh City, and we stay with them for about several days. Then we went to our home town and there was only my house left because they say at that time Pol Pot live in that house, they put stuff in there, so fortunately we still have the home.

    And after we stay for one or two nights, there was fighting again. There was some maybe Khmer Rouge trying to get over to the bridge close to my house and put some bomb or something like that in that. There was fighting and I was afraid.  My mom did not want to leave the home. She said, "Now I got to my home, if I die, I want to die in my home." So we didn't dare to leave her and we were so afraid during the night – no door, no window, and we are afraid of ghosts because they say, you know, at that time, Pol Pot kill people and they just put the banana tree on top, you know.

    So when after the fighting that night, they send some Vietnamese soldier to stay in our home, they stay upstairs, we stay downstairs, so I feel a little bit safer I have somebody there. Then we stay there

    And then we try to visit our village people and they brought us some rice and food because my mom was very good. She had a small business and she always help people, so they – we were friendly and they remember us, they brought us food and all that. And we stay for a while. And then they, people, children start school, we try to get some stuff from the city we owe them for it, and then we sell to the kids books and pens and all that. Then when we make some rice, we brought back to them. At that time we exchange with rice, no money.

    And we were scared, the Vietnam people, they got drunk, they drink wine and then they swear each other, sometimes they shot gun.

    CT:  People staying in your house?

    TC:  Yeah, the Vietnamese people, they argue.

    Related Glossary Terms


    Adjective:  Dry; suffering from lack of water. 


    Noun:  Illness caused by the spread of bacteria, viruses or other microoganisms within the body.

    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:  Unable to move parts of one's body. 

    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: 


    AdjectiveWithout awareness, sensation, or cognition.


    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].
    nid: 639