BY CHRISTINE GIANNETTI
What memories does one have from their childhood? Maybe it consists of playing on the playground with friends or going to school to learn the alphabet. But for Sayon Soeun, it consisted of learning how to obey orders from commanding officers and how to shoot a gun or use a grenade. Soeun visited the County College of Morris on Thursday, Feb. 12 and shared the story of his experiences growing up in Cambodia with the Khmer Rouge during the time of the Vietnam invasion and Cambodia genocide. He was a child soldier at the age of 6 and was given a weapon and the power to kill by the age of 9.
He spoke of his life prior to being abducted and what it was like growing up in a military camp. “My parents would tell me not to go far from my house because the boogeyman would get me,” Soeun said. He now knows his parents were talking about the Khmer Rouge. “I remember playing in the rice fields looking for bugs or toads to play with and seeing the kids on the military truck having fun, singing songs. I didn’t want to miss out.”
Soeun explained what he experienced in the camp. “For the first couple of days we would get lectured. They would tell me my soul belonged to the government. They would say everyone around you is your enemy; you cannot trust anyone but the government. If you snitch on anyone they would promote you, and if someone was accused of a crime, they would choose someone else in the group to do the execution.”
Soon each of the young soldiers were assigned jobs; Soeun was only nine at this time. “It was my duty to patrol my village making sure no one came in or out. I had an AK-47, a 9 mm, and grenades on me all the time. If I saw someone trying to escape I had the authority to execute them on the spot with no questions asked, I had the power to choose whether someone would live or die.”
During the time Soeun guarded his village, Vietnam invaded Cambodia, and Soeun as well as others in his platoon were then given the job of leading civilians away from the front lines. The Vietnamese quickly broke through, and eventually all resources were dissolved, at which time Soeun and others like him were free to walk among the other civilians.
One of the audience members asked, “What was going through your mind after liberation?” Soeun’s answer, “I was in a black hole. I was just trying to survive, living day by day.”
He continued to walk until he reached Thailand and described himself as looking like the “Michelin Man” after his treacher- ous journey because he became ill. Soon after reaching Thailand, the Red Cross set up a refugee camp and orphanage which he then lived in. He was eventually picked to be sponsored and adopted. He moved to Connecticut where his adopted parents lived.
“Have you ever met any of the other child soldiers that were in your platoon?” another audience member asked. “A lot of child soldiers have come to America but do not wish to talk about the horrors they experienced,” Soeun said.
In Burcu Munyas’ “Journal of Genocide Research: In the Minds of Cambodian Youth” survivors explain, “The ways in which survivors deal with the experience of genocide vary, in accordance with per- sonal histories, experiences and internal resiliency. Some find refuge in silence. Some are compelled to tell and retell their stories to bear witness, to educate their children, and to honor those who died.”