<i>New Year Baby</i> and the Cambodian Genocide

Kari Chisholm FacebookTwitterWebsite


Just the name of the country evokes the horrors of the killing fields, the death camps, the genocide. The era of the Khmer Rouge remains one of the most terrible parts of human history. Millions died, and millions became refugees.

Growing up in Portland, my aunt had a foster kid - a Cambodian refugee - living with her for a few years. But being a kid, I never really learned what had happened to him before he arrived in Portland. For me, the late 20th century history of Cambodia was something learned in dry textbooks; the kind of thing you study but don't really feel.

New Year BabyRecently, I met another Cambodian refugee - a friend of a friend. Her name is Socheata Poeuv, and she's producing a documentary of her family's life as Cambodian refugees. I've seen about ten minutes of what's done so far, and it's some of the most moving and powerful film I've ever seen.

A bit of the story, in her own words, starting in the very recent past:

One Christmas Day, my parents called a family meeting. They sat down my brother, two older sisters and me – to reveal secrets after 25 years.
My mother told us that my two sisters aren't actually my sisters. They are the children of my mother's sister, orphaned when their parents were killed by the Khmer Rouge. We learned my older brother isn't actually my full brother. He is my half brother – the surviving child from her first family. My mother's first husband and daughter died in the genocide. This was the first I'd heard of them. It was the first for my brother too. In that room of shocked and tearful children, my father got up and in his character, locked himself in the bathroom.

One of the horrible things the Khmer Rouge did in those days was to create forced marriages - often between people of varied social classes and skin tones. Socheata's parents didn't choose each other.

Though my parents had the worst possible matchmakers, they stayed together when the Khmer Rouge fell. Ma knew she would need help if she was to leave her country.
When her beloved sister died, she vowed to adopt her two orphaned nieces as well. My mother needed help finding the two girls in a distant children's camp and then smuggling the family across the Thai border.
My parents struck a deal. Pa agreed to find her adopted daughters and smuggle the whole family to safety. Ma agreed to be Pa's wife and provide him, a man orphaned as a teenager, a family.

I can't tell Socheata's entire story here. The documentary isn't done yet. But the film, New Year Baby, will be the story of Socheata's return to Cambodia to discover the rest of her family's history, meet her surviving relatives, and retrace the journey that brought them to America.

It's still in production, but I'd suggest you dive in to Socheata's blog (travel and film notes from Cambodia), and if her story moves you, support the film with a small financial contribution.

The story of the Khmer genocide must be told. New Year Baby will be the first documentary about the Cambodian genocide ever directed by a Cambodian-American.

  • Patricia Harrington (unverified)

    I'm so happy to read of Socheata's efforts and upcoming documentary. I've worked with the Cambodian refugee community for 18 years, and have two Cambodian nephews who came over as unaccompanied minors. From my perspective as a mystery author, I've tried to tell the story of the adjustment of the Cambodian community into American society. My intent was to write something that entertained and enlighted a readership that might not know a Cambodian family in the course of their everyday lives. The traumas and horrors, secrets buried because of pain, are "foreign" to the average American. I'm pleased that enough of that story came across as the subtext in my novel DEATH STALKS THE KHMER. My novel has been used as a supplemental reading text for students in the University of Washington's social worker classes.

    I wish Socheata all success on her documentary and would be happy to do a review of it, once done.

    Patricia Harrington

  • (Show?)

    Kari writes <<< The story of the Khmer genocide must be told. <<<<

    Maybe I remember Kent State too well seeing as I became eligible for the draft just as we began our "incursion" (remember that Nixonian term of art?) and carpet bombing of Cambodia. A half million tons of bombs, thousands of "missions", our dictator du jour Lon Nol...Cambodia's capital swelled with 2 million refugees as we and the Vietnamese carried the war to that country. Many historians credit the US with helping create the Khymer Rouge, as, some would say --I would-- we're helping create and build the insurgency in Iraq.

    There are lesson to be learned here, and the story needs to be told, but it wasn't just the Khymer Rouge. I've worked with many, many refugees over the years in Portland, as we became an important center for victims of the wars. Interesting stuff, but let's hope the whole story is told.

    Frank Dufay

  • prak hap (unverified)

    In 1976,1977,1978,I have seen hundreds were forced to accept partners in the most humiliating manner under the gun points.Those who gave orders felt they did Cambodia an altruistic favor. Decency and morality meant nothing to them.Every being was statistic data at the Khmer Rouge disposal.Women were subjected to ultra nationalistic deed which was to accept any man at the command of the order givers. No choice or argument but death awaiting at the sleeping quarter. This trauma not many revealed and spoke of.It was painful just to think about it.It was a colossal crime against people will that most scholars have not even attempted to further explore.Socheata may have touched on something that I had not seen in previous documentaries or books so far.Thanks,for the courage.

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