Escape from the ‘killing fields’
Sitting on his father’s shoulders walking through rice paddies littered with bodies left behind by brutal Khmer Rouge death squads, Hap Dan made a fateful journey to freedom and safety.
For six long years his family had lived in the shadow of death, fearful that at any moment they might be denounced and executed on the spot as traitors to Pol Pot’s ‘utopian’ revolution in Cambodia.
Forced to leave their idyllic, simple life in the Cambodian countryside, they became part of the tide of humanity fleeing the notorious ‘killing fields’ genocide – eventually finding sanctuary in Australia.
Between 1979 and 1980 the communist Khmer Rouge regime under Pol Pot is estimated to have murdered as many as 2.2 million people while its social engineering and collectivisation policies turned the once lush and fertile Cambodian countryside into a wasteland.
“I lived through five or six years of the Khmer Rouge and the Vietnam War,” Hap recalled this week.
Now himself a 43-year-old father of four boys, Hap says the war was the first experience of his life.
“That is almost my earliest memory. But it was obviously not an ideal environment to grow up in,” he says euphemistically.
“Life back then is still very vivid for me even now. I grew up in the countryside and we had sugar cane and corn fields, mango and banana trees and my parents ran small businesses,” Hap said.
“We made up our own toys and our own games. Life was very simple but it was a good life.
“We were barefoot and our water came from a village well. The neighbours would come over and we would cook things together. It was a happy time.
“I think my parents were doing well before the conflict, they had access to markets in Cambodia and in Vietnam,” Hap said.
But he said that when the war came things changed.
“I remember my brothers used to go down to the river to play but one day one of our friends was blown up by a land mine. After that we were told not to go there,” Hap said.
He says he has surreal and vivid memories from his childhood in Cambodia.
“The Americans were carpet bombing with B52s and we could hear that sometimes,” Hap said.
“Often during the revolution we could hear fire fights and when the Khmer Rouge took control, things only got worse,” he said.
Hap said his parents were forced to work on collective farms as part of Pol Pot’s program to return the country to ‘year zero’.
“If you were an intellectual, a teacher or a land-owner, you could be killed instantly or sent to die slowly from starvation in a labour camp.
“We lost family and friends this way. Mum and dad had friends who just disappeared one day. They were taken away to a camp and never seen nor heard from again,” Hap said.
He tells the story of how his mother was recognised as a ‘bourgeois land owner’ by a party official who had once lived in their village.
But because his mother had once provided the official’s family with food and clothes when they were in need, she was spared.
Hap said that as time went by his parents realised they had to get their children out of Cambodia to provide them with safety and a chance at a future.
“We had a lot of close calls. One time we had bullets go through the house… so Mum and Dad made the decision to go then and there,” he said.
Hap said his parents were aware of the murderous excesses of the Khmer Rouge but kept the worst of the grisly details from their children.
“But we were living in it, there was no way of hiding it from the kids. As a young child born during this war we didn’t know any different, we thought death, machine battles and bombing were just a normal part of everyday life. Being so young and not of school age I had no other experience of life to compare it to.
“For Mum and Dad, it was all about protecting us; giving us a future. So, they just left everything behind to get us out,” he said.
Hap said his family split up on the journey to safety with himself and two brothers travelling with his father and his mother and other siblings leaving separately.
“We travelled by road at night walking to the border of Thailand. We walked past rice paddies and sometimes through jungle. There were bodies everywhere,” Hap said.
“The Khmer Rouge or an army unit would just come through an area and leave the dead behind,” he said.
Hap said that his father and mother were reunited in Thailand and after six months in camps, they were processed for resettlement in a third country.
“We were given the option of going to the US or Canada but because dad had a cousin Melbourne, he decided we would come to Australia,” he said.
That was in 1980 and even though he was only six, Hap remembers the sense of cultural dislocation.
“I remember on the plane we were served airline food in foil pouches. We didn’t know what it was,” he said.
“Mum had bought some bananas to take on the trip to Australia but they wouldn’t let her take them on the plane.
“She spoke no English and I think the immigration officials had trouble making her understand that there would be food and everything else she needed. But she was so used to fending for herself and her family that she wouldn’t believe them,” Hap said.
He said that in Australia his father found work with his cousin at the Victoria Markets while his mother stayed home to look after him and his six siblings.
Hap says although no one knew much about post-traumatic stress disorder back then, his parents and their compatriots suffered from it.
“I remember once the Channel 7 chopper went overhead and my dad and his friends made us all run away… it was a number of years before my father became relaxed about helicopters,” he said.
Hap, who now lives in Melbourne’s east and works in employment services, says his parents believe their decision to leave Cambodia was the best they ever made.
“Coming to Australia was a trip into the unknown for my parents but if we had stayed who knows what would have happened?” he said.
“My parents were always motivated by their kids’ welfare and future and doing what they did gave all of us a chance at having good lives.
“Now most of us have our own kids and there are even grandkids – all of these young lives are a vindication of what my parents did,” Hap said.
“My mum is still around and has managed to experience her first great grandchild. Unfortunately my dad passed away recently before he got to meet his great grandson, following years of ill health contributed to by the hardship he experienced during the Khmer Rouge/Vietnam war.
“There were many nights since coming to Australia where I would hear my dad scream out and cry in pain during his sleep, as the ghosts and trauma of the war continued to haunt him. In the end he was at peace and passed away in the night after saying his good byes to us kids.
“To this day I consider both of my parents as my heroes for the sacrifice they made to get us to safety so we all could have a chance in life,” Hap said.
“In the end, for us, it was all about family.”