No one knows the exact number of Cambodians that were executed in the infamous killing fields between 1975 and 1979. Estimates range between 1.7 million and 2.5 million innocent men, women and children who were mercilessly slaughtered at the hands of the Khmer Rouge regime.
But for Reaksa Himm, the only relevant number is 13. That number represents how many family members he personally lost in the killing fields. Among those 13 family members were his father, his mother and nine brothers and sisters. To compound the tragedy, Himm witnessed the brutal murder of 10 of his loved ones just outside a small village called Thlok.
That Himm survived the mass execution is nothing less than a miracle. But no less incredible is long trek he took from revenge to forgiveness.
Journey to the Killing Fields Himm’s road to spiritual revelation was paved with unfathomable pain and heartache. But it didn’t start out that way. In 1975, Himm and his family were living a peaceful life in the city of Siem Reap despite an ongoing conflict between the ruling democratic leadership and the Khmer Communists led by brutal warlord Pol Pot. When the Khmer army defeated the American-backed government, Himm’s world was turned upside down.
After systematically executing all leaders sympathetic to the previous government, the Khmer Rouge regime began rounding up the Cambodian people and sending them to work camps. They were told they would only be gone three days to allow the army to root out American solders they suspected were still in hiding. But days turned to months, and months turned to years.
For the first two years, Himm’s family tried to conform to the new government’s policies. They never dared say anything against the leadership.
“If you opposed them, they would usually come in the night and tell you they wanted to send you to school so you could change your behavior,” Himm says. “But to be sent to school literally meant execution.”
By the age of 14, Himm was working in the fields tending to cattle and water buffalo. Each morning he would take some rice and dried fish wrapped in a banana leaf for lunch and head to his post. But one afternoon, he met an older man who was a stranger. The man asked if he would share his lunch. As part of the Cambodian culture, Himm had been trained to respect his elders, so he gave the man half his lunch.
“Before I knew it, he had eaten all of my lunch,” Himm recalls. “I was so angry. I had nothing to eat after that. But then he wanted to tell me a story. So I sat down and listened to him.”
“In the next six months,” the man said, “all of your family is going to be killed, but you will not die. You will have to go through a lot of suffering.”
Out of the Grave A few weeks later, three Khmer soldiers came to the family’s house and arrested Himm’s father. When asked what he had done wrong, one soldier barked these ominous words: “Today we will destroy you! If we keep you, we gain nothing! If we kill you, we lose nothing! You are serving the American government! You are CIA!”
Himm had no idea what “CIA” meant, but he did know what happened to those faced with that accusation.
“That person became dead meat,” he says.
Himm ran back to his house and tried to gather his younger brothers and sisters. Suddenly the soldiers busted through the door, dragging Himm’s father behind them. At first the soldiers put Himm’s hands behind his back, but then they released him so he could carry his 2-year-old brother.
And then they took them all to the jungle.
“When we finally arrived, the soldiers began digging graves for us,” Himm says. “For the next 15 minutes, we just stood there and waited for them to kill us. I tried to hug my father, but his arms were behind his back. Then I told him goodbye. My father responded by saying something I will never forget. He said, ‘I love all of you.’ In Cambodian culture, we rarely show affection. That was the first and last time I heard my father say those words.”
Himm stood there as the soldiers made his father kneel down in front of the grave. His father was clubbed from behind and fell into the pit. Then came the screams.
“I saw every single ax fall as they butchered my father,” Himm says. “It was my turn, and I laid my baby brother beside me. Someone clubbed me from behind, and I fell on my father. Then I heard my baby brother scream so loud. Then I heard the chopping and the screaming.”