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From Cambodia's Killing Fields To VOA - 2002-04-02


Tuck Outhuok's journey to the Voice of America's Khmer service led through the killing fields of Cambodia.

As a teenager growing up in Phnom Penh in the 1950s, Tuck Outhuok discovered jazz by listening to Willis Conover's jazz program on the Voice of America.

"I decided to go to the U.S. because I loved the language, I loved jazz, I listened to Willis Conover during the 50s, and this drove me to win a scholarhip to come to USA."

After studying forestry for four years at the University of Georgia, in the southern United States, Tuck Outhouk returned to Phnom Penh to work in the government's Forestry Department. He was married, with a three-year old daughter, and in charge of forest management in coastal areas when the Khmer Rouge seized power in April of 1975. Immediately, the Khmer Rouge--Cambodian communists whose four-year rule over the country was marked by astonishing levels of brutality--forced the entire population of the capital,at gunpoint, to leave their homes and go to the countryside. Tuck Outhuok and his extended family joined the crowds of bewildered Cambodians streaming out of Phnom Penh.

"We left, without food, without clothing, without nothing. We were forced to walk --hundreds and hundreds of people were on the street. It was hot. We had a car, which we couldn't drive because it was so crowded, we just put whatever we can put inside the car and push it. It was noontime, we had nothing to drink, nothing to eat, kids crying, I saw people dying on the street, some of them were shot by the Khmer Rouge for some reason I didn't know."

Even the patients in the hospital were forced into the mass exodus.

"Some people just collapsed from the heat. People from the hospital were out, pushing their beds, cots, those people were left on the street. Some were dying, some already dead. I was real thirsty, I was trying to get some water from a well. When we got water out of the well, we found a human head in the bottom of the well, but we had no choice but to drink this water."

After two days of walking, the survivors of the forced march came to fields where they were told to stay. Thousands of people lived there without shelter, without food, without any kind of facilities. Tuck Outhuok says that he, like everyone else, scavanged for food, and the family was reduced to eating anything that he found - grass, leaves, roots, snakes. Every day the piles of bodies behind the pagoda (temple) on the edge of the field grew. Every day Tuck Outhuok saw people he knew who had worked for the government taken away, not to return. After he and his family had been in the field for seven days, his turn came.

"They came to take me at midnight, with my family. They told us to sit on the top of the bank of the rice field--at midnight, I can remember the moonlight. They put a blindfold on my face, my wife's eyes and my relatives--brothers and sisters. I can feel Kalashnikov muzzle on my forehead. They're shouting at me that I'm an American imperialist, American lackey, CIA agent, you work for the government who is the lackey of America, and you deserve the death penalty. I was thinking that this is it."

But Tuck Outhuok was lucky. He was saved by another Khmer Rouge soldier, a neighbor from Phnom Penh, who persuaded Tuck's would-be executioner to let the family go. Tuck Outhouk says that he knew that to survive he had to flee Cambodia. But he didn't know where to go.

"I didn't know what was going on in the world. Nobody could get any access to any radio or anything, because everybody was just living in the open field. So I remember that when we get to one area where we cannot push our car anymore, and the Khmer Rouge took our car, and they didn't know how to drive, so they ended up in a ditch. So I remember where the Khmer Rouge left our car in a ditch, and I know that my car has a radio that's working, and then I was sneaking out of my place to get into this car to try to listen to the radio. If they found out I did that, the penalty is death. I get to the car at midnight, and listen to the Voice of America. The broadcasts say that Saigon has not fallen yet, the embassy is still open. So we decided to go to Vietnam."

After many close calls, the Outhuok family did manage to reach Saigon, only to find that in the meantime the city had fallen to the communists, and only the French embassy remained open. After three years of hand-to-mouth existence in Vietnam, relatives in France helped Tuck Outhouk and his wife and daughter get visas to go to France. From there, they came to the United States. He worked as a carpenter, a cabdriver, and a social worker in the Washington suburbs, before being hired by the Khmer Service of the Voice of America.

"I start working for the Voice of America since 1988. I get to know a lot of people, I get to meet Willis Conover before his death, and it was a real joy, I was so moved. I told him that he saved my life by introducing me to jazz. Because his jazz just had something powerful in me to come to the United States to study, and to serve in America."

Tuck Outhouk says he believes VOA makes a difference to the people of Cambodia.

"We broadcast a lot on democracy during that time, I think we did something very good to the Cambodian audience to understand more about democracy. The Cambodian people have been under a dictatorship for so long, they have little knowledge of democracy. I hope we continue to do this kind of programming always."

Tuck Outhuok says that working for the Voice of America gives him particular satisfaction.

"I think I achieved my goal. I listened to the Voice of America when I was in a ditch with the car radio, and I said to myself, I'd like to work for the Voice of America - and I achieved this goal."

English Feature #7-36052 Broadcast March 18, 2002