From time to time, I’ll be profiling Asian American women who role-model qualities that I hope my daughters can emulate someday. I call this series Roles for a Lifetime.
To understand how Monica Samreth won the 2013 Miss Long Beach pageant, you have to begin in the Killing Fields.
You wouldn’t know it, however, from where I’m meeting her. We’re chatting in ShoreLine Park, one of her favorite places in her hometown of Long Beach, California. Here, she finds a certain serenity when life becomes stressful; the waters softly lap against the rocks, and the breeze is often pleasant. Here, she can look out across Long Beach Harbor at the majestic ocean liner RMS Queen Mary, now a permanent tourist fixture in these waters. But beyond the once-famous ship and several thousand miles of Pacific Ocean lies Cambodia, the country of her ancestors. There, from the mid- to late-1970s, her mother endured nearly four full years without even a moment’s serenity in the “Killing Fields,” the countryside where the infamous Khmer Rouge carried out their genocidal program. An estimated 1.7 million men, women, and children lost their lives in the most brutal ways at the hands of Pol Pot’s minions. Monica’s mother survived, but she carries deep post-traumatic scars from her experiences. Monica has heard some of the stories of unspeakable cruelty. As she retells them, tears come to her eyes.
“My mom’s dad was a doctor; her mom was a professor. They had a really good life,” Monica begins. But then the Khmer Rouge won a civil war and set about implementing Pol Pot’s extreme Communist plan to reboot Cambodian society. They declared it “Year Zero” for a nation they envisioned would consist purely of Khmer peasant farmers (Khmer being Cambodia’s largest ethnic group). All who didn’t fit that criteria would be either exiled or executed. As they forcibly emptied the cities, the Khmer Rouge relocated millions of urbanites, including Monica’s mother’s family, to the agrarian regions. “They were told to leave their house at gunpoint. My mom was forced to work in the rice fields with very little food.” The family’s status as educated and wealthy made them even more likely targets for Pol Pot’s death squads, who killed people for much less. Even simply wearing glasses – thus implying literacy – could be a fatal mistake. Monica adds, “My mom had to pretend she had special mental needs so they wouldn’t kill her.”
Those Cambodians who weren’t murdered were often tortured publicly to discourage opposition. Monica relates a gut-wrenching example. “One time, my mom’s brother was looking for food, and they caught him. They stuck a small plank in his eye in front of the family. If they cried or screamed because they felt sorry for their brother, they would be killed.”
Ultimately, ten of her mother’s thirteen siblings were either killed or died of starvation or disease in the Killing Fields. The most vivid family story involves one of her mother’s older sisters. “My mom’s sister was pregnant, and her husband had already been killed. She then miscarried because of her circumstances, but the fetus was still inside her, because there was no medical aid. And she was still forced to work! Her stomach swelled up, and one day she fell and bled to death in my mom’s arms. My mom was only nineteen then.”
Determined not to abandon their sister’s body to the mass graves, and well aware of the Khmer Rouge’s prohibition against mourning, the family hid her corpse in the small hut they shared until they could get a chance to bury it. But the body bloated up even more during the next day and burst. Finally, when they could do it secretly, they buried her in the woods.
The family suffered through such horrors, and witnessed numerous others, until early 1979. That’s when the North Vietnamese government, fed up with Pol Pot’s regime, invaded Cambodia. This gave numerous Cambodians the chance to flee the country. Monica’s mother was among those who sought to cross the border into Thailand. “In the middle of the night, they ran. During the day they hid,“ Monica says. When they finally came to the border, a concealed family jewel ensured that Khmer Rouge guards would allow them to pass. “For one diamond ring, my mom was able to escape with her two cousins, her sister and brother-in-law, and her seventy-year-old dad.” After crawling under the last stretch of barbed wire, they were free.
Or so they thought.
Monica’s story continues in my next post. Click here for Part 2.