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Cambodian vendor on fleeing the Khmer Rouge and losing his family

Continuing our #VendorWeek series of articles about street paper vendors, we catch up with Sokha Roth, who fled Cambodia as a child to escape the Khmer Rouge. Today, he lives in Basel and sells the street paper Surprise. He talks about living under the Communist Party’s strict regime, and what happened when he returned to his home country and family 26 years later.

Interview by Diana Frei, Surprise
Photos by Lucian Hunziker 

Sokha Roh lves in Basel and sells the street paper Surprise. Credit: Lucian Hunziker

“In 1976, before I turned 10, I lived in a village in Cambodia. There were many rice fields there, and many mango trees growing in the area. One day I went for a walk and noticed a young tree that was still small and tender. Because it was so fragile, I dug it out and replanted it near our house, at a place where there were not many trees growing. I built a fence of wood around it to protect it.

“Shortly before that, in 1975, the Khmer Rouge had come to power, and I was about to be drafted into the army to serve the state. That is why I fled shortly after. I no longer had a home. Initially, I headed towards Vietnam. I was afraid of the soldiers. Of their guns. Of the violence. Of the shooting. I hid myself. If they had found me, I would have been made to fight in the war. In order to have something to eat, I had to steal. I climbed up trees. I fished. Later on, due to the war between Vietnam and Cambodia, I headed in the opposite direction, towards Thailand. I arrived there a few weeks later.

“I would love to return to Cambodia when I’m old. But where? I no longer have a real home there.”

“In Thailand, I was taken in by an international organisation. I was ill and had too much fluid in my body, and could no longer urinate. As an asylum seeker, I was allowed to fly to Geneva. I knew nothing about Switzerland. In Geneva, I was treated in a hospital. A Swiss family adopted me, and in 1979 I received a Swiss passport. In Cambodia, I had been born under the sign of the dragon, and in Switzerland my star sign was Aquarius.

“In 2002, 26 years after fleeing, I travelled back to Cambodia for the first time. The entire family picked me up from the airport in Phnom Penh. My brother recognised me from the black spot on my forehead. In Cambodia, people believe that it brings luck. Everything is different now in my village. It is no longer as beautiful as it once was.

“Our land now belongs to my mother’s sister, who came there after the war. I cannot stay in Cambodia, as I would not stand a chance without my own land, and would be unable to find work. But I found the mango tree — it is now 10 metres tall and bears a lot of fruit.”

Surprise: Sokha, what does your story about the mango tree mean to you?

Sokha Roth: When I saw the tree, it made me realise how much my village had changed. When I was a child, there was no house on the piece of land where I planted the tree. Everything was flat, and there was nothing more than a few small trees there. At that time, I imagined that when I grew up, that would be where my home would be. My family had no mango trees.

Are your relatives still alive?

My mother lives together with two of my sisters who take care of her. She is old and in poor health. A long time ago, she was beat up so badly during a family dispute that she suffered a head injury. She cannot work, she cannot cook, and she cannot wash herself.

Do you still have contact with your family?

Since 2007, I have had almost no contact with them.

Does that upset you?

I travelled to Cambodia two or three times. Each time I returned to Switzerland, my mother cried a lot. That was when my brother told me that it would be better if I no longer came back. My sisters do not really like it when I come, because then they have even more to do. Even my brother gives me the impression that I am interrupting his life.

Are they jealous of you because you came to Switzerland?

I don’t know. My family is very poor. There have been a lot of political changes in Cambodia since I was a child. The Khmer Rouge introduced communism and killed large numbers of their own people. They took me and made me work for them. I worked all day and all night, without anything to eat or drink. That is, until I fled.

The Khmer Rouge separated you from your family?

Yes, but not just me. They did that to the entire population.

Why did they make you work for them?

I am the oldest son in the family. And when the regime came to power, my father was the head of our village.

“The Khmer Rouge killed large numbers of their own people. They took me and made me work for them. I worked all day and all night, without anything to eat or drink. That is, until I fled.”

They chose you for certain tasks because you were of the right age.

Yes. Once, I was playing near our house, and two women from the military came. They were probably about 25 or 30 years old. They did not have any weapons, but they wore uniforms. Back then, everyone had the same standard black clothes, but these women were wearing additional military components. They told me I had to serve my country. Serve the people. It was the first time that I had heard such words. Suddenly, I had thoughts of having to leave my family. I was afraid. I went to my mother, held her tightly, and told her what the women had said to me. My mother simply looked at the two women without saying anything.

Did your father have to work together with the Khmer Rouge?

At the time, the Khmer Rouge had a peasant army in the jungle. In 1973, they gained control of the peasants and then took over the entire country. They came to the local communities, to the villages, and made the people choose. Either you were with them or against them. That meant you had no choice but to join.

Your father was put under pressure?

The village was under their control, and they chose me to work in the community. I worked for the postal service, and was tasked with delivering top secret messages. Each morning, the boss gave me a letter, and each time I had to deliver it personally to a certain place several kilometres away. I hadn’t turned nine yet, and could not read. All I knew was where I was supposed to bring the letter. My brother once told me that what I was carrying were arrest warrants.

Why did you decide to flee shortly after?

I delivered these letters every day. The other children punished me for that, and I could neither sleep, nor did I get anything to eat. Suddenly I thought: I can’t do this anymore. Tomorrow, I will leave and never come back. I believe that the military searched for me, but I left, first heading towards Vietnam, and around a year later on to Thailand due to the war between Vietnam and Cambodia.

Surprise vendor Sokha Roth. Credit: Lucian Hunziker

And then you were picked up by Terre des Hommes and adopted in French-speaking Switzerland. Did you have a perfectly normal childhood in Switzerland?

I was in Leysin in a Catholic nursing school, where I was picked up by my Swiss family. On Christmas, Terre des Hommes broadcast photos of all child refugees on television, after which we were all placed with Swiss families. I went to school in the French-speaking part of Switzerland.

Did you have siblings in the family who adopted you?

Yes, two sisters and a brother. All of them were very musically inclined. My brother studied medicine and became a doctor.

Did you get along with them?

I was the youngest. They played music in the house, and I worked in the garden. My father had lots of pigeons and rabbits and a big garden with vegetables. I did my homework, and when I was done, I took care of the pigeons and rabbits.

Would you rather have played the piano instead of doing garden work?

Yes, only a few songs [laughs]. Just a little…

Did you feel at home in the family?

My father punished me too often. Sometimes he reacted strangely. Once, a representative of Terre des Hommes came to visit me and evaluate the situation. He saw the beautiful house with the garden. But my Swiss parents often confined me in the house. I was not allowed to go out and had the feeling that I was suffocating. In Cambodia, I was outdoors a lot. For a few months, I had to stay at home all the time. I felt like a prisoner.

So they didn’t treat you like you were their own child?

I don’t know. Later, my father once asked me: Do you love our family? I said no, and he hit me.

Have you lost contact with that family?

Yes, for a while now. Actually I do love that family, and I thought that maybe we could share a meal once a year. But that was clearly never the plan. My father wanted all his children to do well in school and pass the exams, that much was clear to me. But he also said: When you’re grown up, I want you to keep your distance. You will have your own life.

Would you like to return to Cambodia?

I would love to return to Cambodia when I’m old. But where? I no longer have a real home there.

Planting a mango tree: Was that a piece of home for you?

Yes. Many Cambodians create a real paradise for themselves outdoors. These are places that you can’t really see from the outside. You have to go into the garden. It’s a stunning place. The people there do not have much money, but they have a beautiful landscape, and they live in harmony with nature. Full of life. That was how I always imagined the future. As the beginning of paradise.

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