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After 40 Years, Broadcaster Brings Cambodian Story to a Close

  • Soksreinith Ten

Greg Barron interviews Cambodian people in the Mak Mun refugee camp in Thailand in 1979. (Photo courtesy of Greg Barron)

Greg Barron, an award-winning radio producer, was 32 when he reported the despair of Cambodian refugees fleeing across the Thai border to escape the Khmer Rouge genocide in late 1979.

Barron knew he did not completely understand what had happened to the refugees. Last year, in Minnesota, he connected with three Cambodians like those whose stories he started to tell nearly 40 years ago.

"I started to realize I never told the full story in that original report. … Back in 1979, very few people knew the facts of the terror, fear and starvation, and the oppression that Khmer people had lived through," Barron told VOA Khmer.

At least 1.7 million Cambodians were killed by the Khmer Rouge or starved to death from mid-1975 to early 1979.

Cambodian refugees in Sa Keo, Thailand, in November 1979. (Photo courtesy of Greg Barron)
Cambodian refugees in Sa Keo, Thailand, in November 1979. (Photo courtesy of Greg Barron)

When the Vietnamese invasion toppled the Khmer Rouge, thousands of Cambodians fled across the Thai border, their first step in seeking refuge in places like the United States.

Bodies hauled away

In November 1979, Barron accompanied American medical teams to Sa Keo and other refugee camps in Thailand and Cambodia. For more than two weeks, he reported on Cambodians who had survived.

An aid worker with a starving child in the Nong Samet refugee camp in Thailand, in November 1979. (Photo courtesy of Greg Barron)
An aid worker with a starving child in the Nong Samet refugee camp in Thailand, in November 1979. (Photo courtesy of Greg Barron)

Crippling lung disease sickened many. Weak mothers could not feed their babies. Hunger and disease took the lives of many infants and young children.

It was particularly shocking, Barron said, to see trucks come daily "to haul away the dead bodies of [Cambodians] who had made it there but didn't survive. There were children who were nothing but skeletons, barely breathing."

At that time, Barron was reporting for Minnesota Public Radio. Upon his return to Minneapolis, he produced a radio documentary about the Cambodian refugees' story called "Trampled Grass."

"We had, the reporters, genuine sympathy and sorrow for what we had seen," he said. "But we weren't affected in the same way as the refugees were affected. It was easy to move on."

'Follow the Moon'

Almost 40 years later, something magical happened, said Barron, now 70 and a retired public radio producer, a Peabody Award winner and a pioneering proponent of in-depth radio storytelling in the United States.

A Cambodian museum opened across the Mississippi River in St. Paul. There, Barron met three Cambodian refugees, and the four determined they had been in the same camps at the same time.

"It occurred to me that my story then in 1979 didn't even know the ending. … I didn't know what had driven the people across the border to freedom," said Barron. "I wanted to tell that story. I needed to finish the story I had started nearly 40 years ago."

Pichsanthor Kim, Hoeun Hach and Sokurt Sous agreed.

Food is unloaded in a refugee camp in Thailand in November 1979. (Photo courtesy of Greg Barron)
Food is unloaded in a refugee camp in Thailand in November 1979. (Photo courtesy of Greg Barron)

Barron produced "Follow the Moon," a radio documentary. The title refers to how Cambodians followed the moon west to border camps, where hope of survival and freedom emerged, he said.

The 56-minute documentary will debut on Minnesota Public Radio and American Public Media on April 17, 42 years after the Khmer Rouge assumed power.

"The young Americans know nothing about the disaster and the horror that the Khmer people faced. There are so many similar circumstances in the world today. People need to know how this kind of thing happened." said Barron.

'This horrible history'

For the survivors, digging into their memories carried the possibility of renewing traumas they hoped time might have quelled. But they said they were willing to speak with Barron because they did not want history to repeat itself — anywhere.

Pichsanthor Kim survived the Khmer Rouge genocide and arrived in the United States as a refugee in 1980. She was featured in the “Follow the Moon” radio documentary. (Photo courtesy of Greg Barron)
Pichsanthor Kim survived the Khmer Rouge genocide and arrived in the United States as a refugee in 1980. She was featured in the “Follow the Moon” radio documentary. (Photo courtesy of Greg Barron)

"It is difficult to recall this painful past," said Kim, 61. "But I realized I am getting old and that younger generations need to know our stories and this horrible history."

Kim was 19 when the Khmer Rouge assumed power. They killed her mother and her oldest sister. Kim remains "grateful" to the United States for admitting her and her surviving family, whom she has cared for since their arrival in July 1980.

Khmer Rouge soldiers keep chasing Hach in his dreams, a vivid memory even though he couldn't recall how his 12-year-old self was separated from his family. "But after talking to Greg, I felt somehow relieved, knowing that this would help other nations to learn about the genocide in Cambodia, and prevent such tragedy," said Hach, 55, who works for a health care organization.

Hoeun Hach survived the Khmer Rouge genocide and arrived in the United States in 1981. He was featured in the “Follow the Moon” radio documentary by Greg Barron. (Photo courtesy of Greg Barron)
Hoeun Hach survived the Khmer Rouge genocide and arrived in the United States in 1981. He was featured in the “Follow the Moon” radio documentary by Greg Barron. (Photo courtesy of Greg Barron)

The only person in his family to come to the United States, he has since reunited with his four sisters in Cambodia, who told him the Khmer Rouge killed their parents.

"Talking to Greg allowed me to recall the painful memory," said Sous, 58, who lost his father and his brother, the oldest of his seven siblings, to the Khmer Rouge. "I had tried to forget, but in fact, history matters. Because it helped me realize the light of hope and humanity, despite horrible things that happened in Cambodia."

Sokurt Sous survived the Khmer Rouge genocide and arrived in the United States as a refugee in 1982. He was featured in the “Follow the Moon” radio documentary by Greg Barron. (Photo courtesy of Greg Barron)
Sokurt Sous survived the Khmer Rouge genocide and arrived in the United States as a refugee in 1982. He was featured in the “Follow the Moon” radio documentary by Greg Barron. (Photo courtesy of Greg Barron)

As more survivors tell their stories, Barron hopes "the community can start to heal again." For him, making the radio documentary made him more "whole," Barron said.

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