No refuge for the refugee

Originally published on Ampersand

By Mariah Quintanilla

Bodies floated by, bloated and stinking, as Kenny scooped drinking water into his pail. The lake was contaminated with feces and urine, but he needed water. “You can see everyday, people floating, and what do you call those? Maggots,” he said. Death became a normal part of Kenny’s life in Cambodia. “Like that movie, The Walking Dead!” Kenny chuckled.

Despite his ordinary appearance, Kenny Mann conceals a history of tragedy and near-death experiences. Coming to America may have saved him from rebel communists armies and malnutrition as a child in Cambodia, but this country came with a new set of dangers—fast cars and open roads.

I met Kenny at The Grand Sierra Casino in Reno, Nevada. A short, square man in knee-length jean shorts and a dark green cotton shirt emerged from the bee-like flow of people through the lobby.Kenny shook my hand and swiftly stuffed his hands into his pockets, avoiding my eager gaze. It seemed he was as nervous to tell his story as I was to hear it.

Kenny wore thick leather work boots typical of a construction worker, and a dragon tattoo—his Chinese calendar birth year—peeked out from under his sleeve. He asked me what I wanted to know. “I want to hear your story,”I replied.  In broken English, occasionally stuttering under the pressure of my undivided attention, Kenny recounted the day his family was killed.

In 1978, directly following the Vietnam War, the Khmer Rouge communist party controlled the majority of Cambodia, then referred to as Democratic Kampuchea. Kenny was 13 years old as the group’s leader, Pol Pot, carried out a genocide that would result in the death of over 2 million people. During this year, around 150,000 Vietnamese troops occupied Cambodia, retaliating attacks from the increasingly paranoid Khmer Rouge regime. Death and famine were the most palpable outcomes of the communist battles, wiping out the majority of people with professional job titles as well as destroying generations of Cambodian families.

Lon Nol and US Vice-President Spiro Agnew, Phnom Penh, 1970


As the Vietnamese army moved north, intent on taking Cambodia’s capital city of Phnom Penh, they passed through a Florida-shaped province bordering Vietnam named Svay-Rieng—Kenny’s hometown. Kenny and his family were working in the rice fields when they got news that the Vietnamese army had crossed the border into Cambodia.

His entire village walked for two days, abandoning their crops and taking only what they could carry on their backs. The Vietnamese army finally caught up to his village in a dried watermelon field, pushing the mass of people farther north. After enforcing days of work in the fields with little sleep or food, they assessed the numbers of elderly and malnourished and called a massive “meeting.”

Clanking ice jolted me from my scribbled notes. Kenny grasped his tea with both hands and took a big gulp. I hesitated, searching for some facial manifestation of unease. He quickly resumed his monologue, however, careful not to dwell on one memory for too long.

He described an eight-foot high barbed wirefence that the soldiers then used to imprison his entire village. “Everyone got tied. My mom. My brothers. 1,500 people in there.”Kenny was the last to enter the massive cage—the spiked fence dug into his back.

Then the slaughter began.

“Cut throat right there. They didn’t shoot. Kill everybody by knife. Big knife,”Kenny said in a low voice, staring straight ahead. “No guns. Blood everywhere.”

The worst part, Kenny insisted, was not the death, but the manner in which he escaped. As the massacre continued, he spotted a hole under the gate and jumped into it, but got caught in the spikes. “Everybody stepped on my back. I cannot move,” he said. Kenny saved himself from being trampled to death by tugging at the foot of a two year old girl in her mother’s arms, holding on until he dislodged himself from the hole.

“I feel sad about that little baby,”Kenny said. His eyes were red and glazed from the smoke, his slumped posture revealing signs of regret and sadness. Kenny may have eventually accepted the death of his parents and siblings, but it was clear that he still held himself accountable for that moment in the cage.

Kenny was hesitant to talk about the years following his arrival in America. He and his uncle moved to San Fransisco, where he got his first job as a dishwasher. Not long after settling in the city, however, he ran away from his uncle and moved to the east coast. There, he bought a car, and took a road trip from Boston to Chicago with a group of friends.

On the drive back through Illinois, he lost control on the freeway. The car, along with Kenny and two other passengers, tumbled across the divide, landing directly in the path of an oncoming semi. Kenny was fastened upside-down in the battered vehicle. His friends pushed open the doors and climbed their way out, but once again, Kenny was stuck.

The semi blew its horn. “I cannot move. I thought… I’m done,” he said.

The semi did not have enough time to slow completely, hitting Kenny’s car with enough force to send it spinning along the road. This was the third time Kenny told me he thought his life would end, and naively, I thought it would be the last.

It was storming the second time Kenny wrecked his car. He sped on a flooded section of road, drifting into a power line pole that split his vehicle in two—busted power lines whipped and buzzed on the rain-soaked cement. Luckily, his life was once again spared.

Despite his history of near-fatal crashes, Kenny could not curb his love of “high-performance” cars. Today he owns a Subaru WRX—a hyped-up compact sedan. Thankfully, he drives more cautiously than in his youth. This is for the best—as I’m sure Kenny had used up seven of his nine lives in Cambodia.

Kenny finally escaped the frenzy of dust and screams in the cage, and looked back on the scene horrified.  His entire family, save his aunt and two uncles, now lay in the bloody mass. In that moment, however, there was no time to consider his loss—his life was still in danger.

He trailed a group of elderly people fleeing into the jungle. They told him to leave, but he proved his use by climbing trees and scouting for Vietnamese soldiers. “I’m good with a tree,”he proclaimed. I laughed and took a deep breath, realizing that in my extreme focus to catch every fragmented sentence, I had forgotten to breathe.

After a week of eating insects and frogs in the jungle, Kenny and the group of survivors stumbled upon a small village they hoped would provide food and water. Instead, they encountered the Khmer Rouge. Once again enslaved, they were forced to plow fields and dig pits the size of small pools every day. The pits were eventually covered with dirt, and Kenny soon discovered that he was not digging pools for rainwater as he suspected, but rather mass graves. In later years, the pits would become iconic of the genocide, and inspire the name of the 1984 film The Killing Fields.

Each person in the group was interrogated upon arrival to the village. Where did you come from? Why did you leave? A young boy Kenny befriended warned him not to tell the truth about his village or what had happened to his family, so he lied, insisting he came from his friend’s town instead. A girl of about 18 was questioned next. Kenny recognized her from Svay-Rieng—they used to watch water buffalo in the fields together, acting as shepherds of a sort. She told the soldiers that the Vietnamese army had slaughtered her family, and that she was fleeing the attack.

“They leave her by herself. 16 people to one side. Only her. They tie her right there and kill.” While the rest were put to work digging in the fields, the Khmer Rouge soldiers hit the young girl with sticks until dead. “You could hear the screams,” Kenny said, well aware that if he would have uttered the truth of his circumstances, he too would have been killed.

It took Kenny three years to migrate north toward Thailand. During those years he was reunited with an uncle who also escaped in the chaos of the mass slaying. The pair spent two months in Sa Kaeo, a refugee camp on the Thai-Cambodia border erected by the Royal Thai Government and supported by the United Nations. Malaria and malnutrition plagued the 30,000 Cambodians that reportedly sought refuge in the camp at one time.

During their short stay in Sa Kaeo, Kenny and his uncle entered their names in a lottery for asylum in the country of their choosing. They were given tickets to the United States in 1981, and after a year-long detour studying English in the Philippines—rather unsuccessfully Kenny added—they arrived in Utah with the aid of a Mormon missionary group. The Mormon Church supported Kenny and his uncle until they learned enough English to find a job and begin facing the trials of adjusting to a new life in a radically different country from Cambodia.

Kenny is 50 years old now, with a son and daughter in high school. He is divorced from a Cambodian woman who had survived similar circumstances—her family is still alive—and currently lives with his Vietnamese girlfriend in a small house in Reno. He works as a glazier in South Lake Tahoe, installing glass windows and doors in casinos and high-end houses around the lake.

He worries about normal parent things now, like his 16 year-old son attempting to get his license and spending too much time indoors playing video games. He has yet to tell his children his entire story, unsure if they’d truly understand.

Kenny was only a child in Cambodia, but he can still provide detailed descriptions of corpses that lined village roads and floated in lakes where he fetched drinking water. We will never know how often those scenes seep into his daily thoughts—how they affect him.

“Have you ever gone back to Cambodia?” I asked. He has returned three times to visit the only aunt he has left, but has yet to see Svay-Rieng, the village he was forced to leave 37 years ago. He often dreams of his family, living in a hut made of mud and rice husks as they did when he was young, and yearns to go back to that place some day.

Kenny slurped the remaining tea clinging to the ice at the bottom of his cup. “What kept you going?” I asked, expecting that years of reflection had provided Kenny with a neatly profound attitude toward his burdensome past. He looked down at the table and shook his head.

“You just do,”he replied.



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