Life under the Khmer Rouge: Cambodian family who buried their past to ensure their future
- The Rama family buried their most prized possessions – family photographs – when the Khmer Rouge came to power in Cambodia in the 1970s
- Photographer Charles Fox has created a book filled with these retrieved photos, along with images of the family’s life in America
Vira Rama recalls watching his mother carefully stashing treasured family photos in a tarpaulin bag. Trembling with fear, she dug a hole beneath the small hut to which Khmer Rouge soldiers had relocated the family, and buried them among banana leaves, knowing that if she was caught she would be killed.
The photos – records of a past life that they, like many Cambodians, had to hide to stay alive – would remain there for the duration of communist leader Pol Pot’s reign from 1975 to 1979.
“I was only 10 or 11,” says Rama, “but I can vividly remember my parents talking about how if the Khmer Rouge found these pictures, they would reveal our background and we would be killed.”
Four decades on, this prized collection of family photographs form the basis of a book, Buried. Compiled by British photographer Charles Fox, who has been working in Cambodia since 2005, the collection of images documents the Rama family’s journey from pre-Khmer Rouge Cambodia via refugee camps to their resettlement in the United States.
“We were told [by the Khmer Rouge soldiers] to pack a few belongings and to get ready to evacuate the city because the Americans would send their bombs,” recalls Rama, who now works as an engineer in Los Angeles.
“[At the time] I had no idea why my parents [told us we had to leave home] … we were told we’d be returning in a few days, but they packed some food, clothes and the family photos.”
The family was relocated to the countryside and allocated a small wooden hut in what was known as Zone 4 (the Khmer Rouge abolished the old provinces and replaced them with seven zones).
“Khmer Rouge soldiers started randomly searching people’s huts, especially [those of] city people” says Rama, adding this was when the family carefully buried the photos beneath their living quarters.
Rama recalls his mother cutting King Norodom Sihanouk out of a photo because he was pictured presenting his father, who had worked as a banker, with a medal. This image is the first photo featured in Buried.
“If the Khmer Rouge discovered that photo as it was, we would have been killed,” Rama says.
Soon afterwards they were evicted from the hut and the family was separated – siblings were sent to different villages to plant rice, build irrigation systems and dams, and carry out other hard labour.
In the summer of 1977, Rama’s father was sent to another village. Two weeks later one of his friends returned with his belongings.
“He gave them to my mum and all he said was, ‘I’m sorry’. We knew they had taken my dad,” Rama says. “His crime was for being an educated man.”
Soon after that, soldiers started rounding up spouses, siblings and other relatives of the executed. Rama’s mother knew it was time to escape before they too were killed.
Risking their lives again, they left behind Zone 4 – a place notorious for the brutality of the soldiers who ran it – to Zone 3, where soldiers were known to be more lenient.
The remaining family members split into three groups and were separated until 1979, when Vietnamese forces liberated the country. The family then reunited in Battambang, where Rama’s mother returned to the hut to retrieve the buried photographs.
However, they would remain hidden for some time to come – kept wrapped in banana leaves and kramas (Cambodian scarves) as the Ramas made the perilous journey across minefields and through jungle still dotted with Khmer Rouge soldiers to the Thai border.
In early 1980, they arrived at the Khao-I-Dang refugee camp in Thailand. Within 18 months, the family was sponsored to resettle in the US.
In late 1981, after a few months in the Philippines learning English and other cultural aspects essential for their new life, the Ramas relocated to New Orleans.
Fox’s book features a hand-picked selection of photographs that tell the Ramas’ story. While Fox acknowledges this is only one family’s tale, he believes it will resonate with many.
And while it is a story that is now more than 40 years old, it remains as relevant today as it was then.
“They [the photos] tell a story that’s not unique to thousands of other families, but it’s a conversation that opens up in a broader sense,” Fox says.
“They are representative of that time but they are not unique. Buried and the conversation [surrounding it is aimed at] a wider audience. I wanted to open up thinking about the Khmer Rouge and the post-conflict [era].”
It was while working on ongoing project Found Cambodia, a picture archive of day-to-day photos before and after the fall of the Khmer Rouge, that Fox stumbled across the Rama family’s story.
In April 2015 – almost 40 years to the day that the family was marched out of Battambang – Rama responded to a call-out in a newspaper asking for family photos from this era, on behalf of the project.
When Fox saw the wealth of images Rama had, he instantly recognised they deserved their own space.
“It was so complete in many ways as a narrative,” Fox notes. “We have to look holistically at the story of the Khmer Rouge and this was quite unique from what I found.”
It took four years of building relationships, sorting through the images and finding the best way to present them before Buried was ready for its July launch at Meta House in the Cambodian capital, Phnom Penh.
“The phenomenon of burying the images, this is what became so poignant to me,” adds Fox.
“When you take something as banal as the family archive and it becomes so important in the conversation of genocide, the act of burying these images completely changes their discourse and life cycle.
“That event itself, burying them, is something that needed to be explored.”
For Rama, the buried photos have not only given him a point of reference when he talks about pre-Khmer Rouge life to his nephews and nieces, they have also brought a form of reconciliation and a way to heal from the horrors.
“Most Cambodian families went through the trauma and my story, but very few have photos like this,” he says. “These photos are almost healing. They give us something from the past; this is history.”
Rama also hopes the book will open up new conversations about genocide, conflict and refugees.
“We hear so many times the Khmer Rouge killed one third of the population. That huge number to some people is propaganda; the younger generation sometimes think it’s fake news. When they start to see photos like this, maybe their awareness will grow,” he says.
The story struck a chord with Darathety Din, a Cambodian researcher who contributed an essay to Buried.
“When I heard about the book, it made me think about all the photos my family had,” says Din, who wrote her thesis on how Khmer Rouge narratives shape millennial Cambodians’ identity.
Similar to the Ramas, Din’s grandmother had wrapped precious family items in a sack and kept them safe from the clutches of Khmer Rouge soldiers.
“This book is a conversation starter,” says the 24-year-old. “It offers an alternative narrative about the Khmer Rouge.”
Fox believes Buried can also help smash the negative connotations often associated with refugees in the modern world.
The second half of the book features photographs of the Ramas settling into their new life in America, where they all continue to live today. It ends with hope, featuring a photo of one of Rama’s younger brothers smiling as he looks out at the horizon.
“The second set of images really open up a discussion about the way refugees are represented,” Fox says.
“While this story may be 40 years old, it’s up to date on the conversation of refugees because here we see a very personal narrative that’s readdressed and refocused, and we can reflect on it.”
Buried will feature at the Indian Photo Festival in September. It is available to buy online at www.catfish.asia.