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Interview with a Survivor
Above: Chantana’s husband’s name engraved on a memorial stone at the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum in Phnom Penh.
A Rough Start
Lord, please, I prayed. Bless my imperfect efforts! I knew I had to get up at 4 am to drive to the airport, but logistical challenges made prayer seem more important than sleep.
God, I felt like throwing up when my phone fell in the creek today. I wish I’d backed up those interview files for my book. Please help us restore them!
I rolled over and breathed, trying to calm my nervous stomach.
Help Chantana feel free to share her heart with me. And please help me understand her, even though we couldn't find an in-person translator!
Four o’clock in the morning arrived. Armed with a new-to-me phone (thanks, Joshua!) and a roaming plan on my SIM card, I got through security and boarded a plane bound for Paris.
Lord, help me with this book, I prayed, and thought about Sovath’s story, and how I would write it.
Sovath was a young boy when the Khmer Rouge began their genocidal reign in 1975. Separated from his family and told that, “to let you live is no gain, and to kill you is no loss,” Sovath almost gave up hope. But because of the courage of a friend, he ran away, eventually calling on “a God (he) did not know” to help him.
Sovath’s story is incredible. But while interviewing him over the last several months, I realized there is more to his story. There is another story entirely, one just as inspiring.
This isn’t just Sovath’s story. It’s also the story of his sister, Chantana.
Once in Paris, I walked to the nearest stop in Paris’s vast, complex transportation system. Chantana texted the name of the metro stop I should aim for. I got on the subway and took it somewhere else. She texted me.
“You are lost again, aren’t you?”
“Haha, no,” I texted back. “Be there in 15 minutes!” I made it to the correct stop and exited the metro.
Then my SIM card stopped working.
I restarted my phone. Nothing. I was in the middle of Paris without a phone, and all I can say in French is bonjour, au revoir, and some bad words I heard in a song when I was in high school.
I stood around, looking for Chantana, trying to look like I was totally supposed to be there and not nervous or kidnappable or anything.
After about 10 minutes, a petite, elderly Asian woman walked around the corner. She locked eyes with me and smiled a big, friendly smile. She continued walking toward me.
“Chantana?” I asked. The woman said something, then laughed cheerfully.
“Sorry!” she said. “No much English!”
Oh dear, I thought. She really doesn’t speak English! What am I going to do?!
“It’s okay!” I said, reaching out and touching her arm in a tender half-hug. “We can use Google translate.” The lady laughed again and said something in another language, which I figured must be, “Let’s go.”
So I followed her.
After a couple of seconds, she turned around and waved.
“Au revoir!” she said.
I froze. This was clearly the wrong little old Asian lady.
“Au revoir!” I called back casually, hoping nobody else noticed my, as they say, faux pas.
Eventually, I met the real Chantana, who is stylish and funny and hardworking and blunt. I liked her right away. We went out for (delicious, authentic) Cambodian food and did our best to make small talk. Then we found somewhere quiet to sit, and she asked if I wanted to hear her story now or later.
“Whenever you’re ready,” I said. “We can talk now, or tomorrow…whatever you are comfortable with.”
“Now is okay,” she said.
“Do you want me to call the translator?” I asked. “She said she’s available every evening.”
“Why?” she asked. “I have been asking God all week to help me communicate! I can do it.”
We talked for the next 5 hours! Using a combination of English, French (I knew more than I thought I did, thanks to several years of attending a mixed-language house church), and Google Translate, Chantana shared her life story with me.
“I had a vision two months before Pol Pot,” she said, using the name of the leader of the Khmer Rouge synonymously with the time period. In her vision, Chantana was out in the hot sun, walking all alone down a long road, escaping from something. She found a shade tree and sat underneath it to rest. That was the end of the vision.
She didn’t think much of it at the time, but later it all made sense.
A few days before the Khmer Rouge invaded Phnom Penh, Chantana called her husband on the phone. He was working as an engineer in Japan at the time.
“Don’t come home,” she said. “Send for me. There will be war!”
“Don’t worry,” her husband said. “Just stock up on rice. Everything will be fine.” Chantana hoped to convince her husband, but he surprised her by coming home unannounced. Just two days later, they were forced to evacuate Phnom Penh. Eventually, Chantana’s husband was killed, along with two of her brothers. She was sent to work alone, in a faraway village, where no one knew her name and nobody asked it.
During that time, she said, it was better not to know anyone’s name.
At one point, she was grazing a cow in a field while suffering a raging headache. As the hot sun bored into her dark hair, she began to cry. Turning her face upward, she cried out:
“If there is a real God somewhere out there…If you can hear me, whoever you are… God, help me!”
Later, Chantana found the God she had prayed to in a refugee camp. “Jesus did not search for a way. He is the way. He can resurrect you if you die. He is the true God!” She eventually shared her faith with her little brother, Sovath, and many others.
She now believes her vision about being all alone in the hot sun, and then finding refuge under a tree, was from God.
“These days, I ask God to put me in his pocket and zip it up,” she told me, chuckling at herself. “I’m not perfect. Life has many temptations. And I am old now. No, I am not perfect. But I ask God to put me in his pocket, to keep me by His side. He says to me, Why do you cry, my daughter? I will take care of you.”
Chantana’s story has moments of courage that surprised her as she recounted them. “After Khmer Rouge, there were many abandoned houses in Phnom Penh. I could have been killed, but when we ran out of room, I went out and found a house and claimed it with a chain and padlock. I can’t believe my courage! I can’t believe myself!”
But after spending three days with this remarkable, humble, intelligent woman, I believe it.
“My mother told me after the war that we must never forget what happened. I told God I wanted my story to be a movie. Then, a few days later, Sovath told me you wanted to write my story. God arranged everything.” God did arrange everything, from a phone to translation to open hearts.
I flew home and found my old phone restored, including previous interview files. I now had many hours of transcription work to do and a book to write.
I’m determined to make sure Chantana’s and Sovath’s stories are not forgotten.
If you are moved by their stories and want to help, I’ve created a GoFundMe campaign to help cover the costs of writing and producing this book. Here’s a quick breakdown of how the funds will be used:
Every little bit helps. Thank you so much for considering donating!
July’s Newsletter Theme
July’s newsletter theme is perfectionism vs. holiness. Among other things, I have a spoken word poem to share with you entitled “Eulogy to Perfection.” It’s something a little different, and I can’t wait to share it with you!
A Little Extra
This week’s A Little Extra is a spoken word poem written and performed by Rupi Kaur, entitled Broken English. It’s a moving tribute to her parents, who immigrated to the United States before she was born.
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