The Khmer Rouge regime was not only the darkest age in Cambodia’s history but also a hellish chapter for all Cambodian families who did not flee the country before it fell into the hands of the ultra-Maoist group. Due to the foolish ambition of the Democratic Kampuchea to create a classless, agrarian utopia, and the purge that claimed countless lives, millions of families lost their beloved ones or had been separated. The Ramas, meanwhile, were not an exception. Yet, one thing makes their account extraordinary: a plastic bag of family photographs taken during the old regime. This is the adventure of these pictures as they travelled with the Ramas, from their warm home to a burial pit under a crumbling cottage, and then to a new life of opportunity in “the Land of the Free”. Story by Taing Rinith.
It was a summer afternoon in the city of Battambang in 1975. Only a few days ago, the city had fallen fell into the iron grip of Khmer Rouge guerilla force after they broke through the last stronghold of the General Lon Nol-led Khmer Republic’s army. The residents, who had been suffering from the conflict between the two sides were cheerful at first, under the impression that civil war had come to an end. Little did they know that day was the starting point of a worse fate in the hands of their “liberators”.
The Ramas, a middle-class Cambodian family, were taking refuge in their big, comfortable dwelling. The parents and seven children turned assiduous attention to everything happening around them.
Later that day, Khmer Rouge soldiers ordered all residents to leave their homes and to move to the countryside out of the city “for their own safety”. Speaking on loud hailers, they said the evacuation was temporary because the US might bomb the city. Like other households, the Ramas did not dare protest.
“I remember the roads leading out of the city were dusty, chaotic, congested with people leaving the city on foot, pushing carts, ox carts, tut-tuk and very few cars,” says Rama Vira, the second oldest son of the family, who was only 10 at that time.
“That was the trip that changed the course of my life; it was a trip to darkness and hell on earth.”
The Ramas left behind their property without many belongings because the soldiers ordered them to do so. But, somehow the parents decided to bring along the family photos with them. They settled in O’ Srarlao village, located roughly 15km from the city in an area known as Zone 4. It was not long before they had to face the hardship and inhumane treatment from Khmer Rouge cadres, who abhorred city people like them as “the social leeches”.
Zone 4 would become one of the harshest areas under Khmer Rouge, where slave labour, disease, starvation and mass killing claimed countless innocent lives. Anyone thought to be an intellectual of any sort was cruelly executed. It was that time that the Ramas realised that their photos from the old life, especially the ones that show their privileged life, could lead to their death. The pictures, however, were too important for the family to be destroyed, so they wrapped them in plastic and buried the legacy of middle class living under their huts.
“For us, the main reason that my parents buried the images was to hide our family’s identity of the good old privileged life before the Khmer Rouge,” Vira says. “The Khmer Rouge village leaders would conduct random and unannounced searches, targeting “city people” as they looked for evidence that tied people to their lives in the city.”
“(Yet,) the other reason was, we wanted to protect and preserve these valuable images for our family and future generation.”
Hiding the photos under the earth, nevertheless, could not help all members of the Ramas to escape the cruel death. The father, a former math and French language teacher who by 1975 was also working as a banker for the Banque Khmere Pour Le Commerce, was killed in the summer of 1977.
After the fall of the Khmer Rouge in 1979, the family reunited and escaped to Thailand and moved through several refugee camps. On their journey, they always had their family photos, which they dug out before they left O’ Srarlao village.
In 1981, with the help of two American doctors who worked in the refugee camp as volunteers, The Ramas were able to immigrate to the US and settled in New Orleans, Louisiana. After years of enduring hardship, they finally could start a new life.
In 1990, Rama Vira graduated from the University of New Orleans with a degree in Civil Engineering and has been working for the Los Angeles County Public Works for 29 years. He lives with his wife and two children in a suburb of Los Angeles, near his mother and three younger brothers, while his two younger sisters are residing in Texas and the eldest brother in Louisiana.
All surviving members of the Rama family are now living a good life, but they never forget their dreadful ordeals in their homeland.
“How can a country with friendly, calm and smiley people (throughout our history) turn against one another in the cruelest and most violent ways?” Vira says.
“Why did it take so long and only a few Khmer Rouge leaders were brought to trial and convicted for this massive scale of brutality and atrocity inflicted on its own people?”
In April 2015, Vira learned about the Found Cambodia, an online archive containing photographs depicting some of the sociocultural changes Cambodia has witnessed both before and after the fall of the Khmer Rouge in 1979. In the same month, he sent an email to Charles Fox, a British photographer and the founder of Found Cambodia, to include his family’s photo archive, now expanded with snapshots taken during their journeys out of Cambodia, into the project.
“My intention for submitting my family’s images to Found Cambodia was to add to Charles’s archive and to share and show a snapshot of our family’s life in Battambang before the Khmer Rouge regime,” Vira says.
After many Skype sessions with Vira as well as having seen his family’s photos and listened to their stories, Charles proposed that this set of images deserve being published as a book. All members of the Ramas supported this idea.
“We decided that the book was the best way to tell their story,” Charles tells Good Times2 last weekend. “This is a very good example of one family’s narrative Before-and-After Khmer Rouge.”
“This story also represents the resilience of Cambodians, one thing that made me fall in love with them.”
“Buried”, published this month by Catfish, comprises a compilation of The Rama’s family photos, each attached with handwritten narratives from the members, and essays from well-known Cambodian scholars. The book was launched in Cambodia at the opening of an exhibition of the same name held at Meta House last Sunday, where some of the photos are put on display to the public.
“There are a lot of families who survived Khmer Rouge and started a new life, and I don’t think their (the Ramas’) story is different from other families,” says Nicolas Mesterharm, the founder and director of Meta House. “This is not a story about heroes but a story about a family’s survival.”
“But, it is special that they have kept the pictures. They are not just photos but objects that speak about old memories and help the new generations know about the bitter past.”
Meanwhile, Rama Vira says he hopes that the book and the exhibition will bring awareness and contribute to the learning and healing process concerning Cambodia’s Year Zero.
“These images connect us to our past of our family history; these images help us heal the trauma we experienced during the Khmer Rouge; these images give us hope; and these images inspire us the move forward,” Vira says.