Ysa Benjamin’s Story

Mr. Ysa speaking on the desperate conditions of street kids in Phnom Penh at a Brooklyn, New York fundraiser in April 2006.

We originally met Ysa Benjamin through an American human rights worker with the Documentation Center of Cambodia who was documenting the atrocities of Pol Pot. About to leave Cambodia, she introduced us to Ysa Benjamin, her colleague. BB2C would never have found Rudi’s birth family if Ysa Benjamin had not gotten involved. He brought food to the family when they had none and took Rudi’s birth mother to the hospital when she became ill from the sewage backing up in the family’s hut. It was Ysa Benjamin who told Rudi’s birth parents, who thought they would never see their son again, that the American who had adopted their son had been looking for them for a long time and wanted them to have an ongoing relationship with Rudi.

When BB2C discovered Ysa Benjamin’s accomplishments, experience, intelligence and dedication, we asked him to join us in our work in Cambodia.  He is now the Executive Director of Cambodian Community Connection, BB2C’s in-country organization.


My Life Story by Ysa Benjamin

My name is Ysa Benjamin.  I am a Cham ethnic, a follower of Islam, from Svay Khleang village in Kampong Cham, about 120 kilometers north of Phnom Penh. Cham people have lived in Svay Khleang for centuries following the seizure of their own kingdom by the Vietnamese in 1471.

I was one year old in 1970 when the Khmer Rouge seized Svay Khleang, so my story is also the story of how Pol Pot destroyed my village and the lives of so many of my family and neighbors, and attempted to eradicate the Cham.

At first, almost all the people in my village supported the Khmer Rouge, because they saw it as benevolent.  In particular, the Khmer Rouge had encouraged believers in Islam to practice their religion, and announced that it would hand power to King Sihanouk when it won the war against Lon Nol. However, the Khmer Rouge started to change its policies in 1973, after capturing the entire area. It forbade the practice of both Islam and Buddhism, and arrested religious leaders as well as wealthy people.

Because they were being suppressed with increasing harshness, Svay Khleang villagers decided to rebel. One night, in October, 1975, they killed a sub-district cadre  while he was arresting people. The next morning there was a battle between the villagers and the Khmer Rouge forces. Villagers armed only with swords, sticks and stones fought the soldiers, who were equipped with modern weapons. The soldiers shot people to death indiscriminately. Then they made the survivors move away to the west, my family included.  But my grandparents, and my uncle and aunt’s families had been killed.

The soldiers separated men from women and had them go to different places. The young children, such as my little sister and myself, were allowed to stay with their mothers. The Khmer Rouge screened the men: those who were found to have been involved in the rebellion were taken to be executed. Almost half of the men were taken at that time. Luckily, my father was not a target. All of us women and children almost died of starvation. I remember that there were only two meals each day, lunch and dinner, and that I had only two spoons of gruel for each meal.

A month later, the Khmer Rouge allowed the men to rejoin their wives and children. Any woman who did not see her husband realized that he had been killed. One woman committed suicide after learning the fate of her husband. After the reunion, a new wave of evacuations started. They sent people in small groups of three or four families in different directions. At that time, nobody knew the reason the Khmer Rouge did that.  When I came to work at the Documentation Center of Cambodia (DC-Cam) in 1999, I found a Khmer Rouge document which recorded these events in my village.  The stated reason for the evacuation was to eliminate the Cham community and to avoid another uprising.

My family, with four others, was sent to Kratie province, about 100 kilometers from Svay Khleang. After arrival, each family was sent to a different village. My family was assigned to live in Kombor.

Eventually, all the members of my family were also separated. My father was sent away to a fishery unit; my two brothers, 9 and 11 years old,  were assigned to a mobile unit; my mother went to work in a rice field for a village cooperative (Sahakkor), and my younger sister, 2, and I  were put in a children’s unit near her. We were forbidden to speak the Cham language. The Khmer Rouge announced that the revolution needed all children to be the same, so we must speak the same language and also eat the same food. Before that time, my mother used to tell me not to eat pork. But now if I didn’t I would be dead of starvation.

Once a month, they allowed my father to visit us. He would hide small pieces of fish fastened around his legs. The Khmer Rouge had warned him not to bring fish for the family. But because he did so, I could, to my great relief, eat fish with rice, not pork, when the soldiers did not observe me too closely.

As for my brothers — I rarely saw them. Once every few months they came to see us. Sometimes they did not have permission to come, but ran away from work to see us for only ten minutes, and then ran back. If the Khmer Rouge had found out, they would have been severely punished.

A few months later, in 1975, one of my older brothers, Hanafi, became very ill and died very soon afterwards. His illness was caused by starvation and overwork. A year after that, my mother gave a birth to a baby girl who lived for only three months. She, too, died of starvation. She never had a drop of mother’s milk. When she died, some people came to take her body.  They threw it on a truck, then drove away. My mother stood there, crying bitterly, and watched the truck until it disappeared from her sight. She wanted to tell my father about the death of my sister, but we could not send a message. He found out three weeks afterward when he was allowed to visit us.

We did not see my surviving brother, Asa-ari, for almost a year and didn’t know if he were still alive. We had a chance to search for him during a few days’ holiday declared to celebrate the Khmer Rouge “anniversary of liberation.”  My father was allowed to join us during the holiday.  We went from one village to another and asked for him. By the second day we received some information that he was very ill at another village. That village was not very far from where we were living, only two kilometers away, but nobody had come to tell us. Finally, we found my brother lying seriously ill among dozens of sick youths in a small house. There were no doctors or treatment at all. We were granted permission to bring him to a hospital.

In late December 1978, my father came to tell us that the Vietnamese soldiers were getting closer and that we should gather everyone together, otherwise we might be separated from each other for the rest of our lives. Luckily, my brother arrived home the next day.  A couple of hours later, I heard the fighting. The sound moved closer and closer until it reached my village. The Vietnamese arrived. They gave us food, clothes, and shoes. It was the first time that I had every put on shoes, and I did not know how to wear them.

We went back to my birth village at Svay Khleang. The journey took about two months on foot. Several people with us got killed by mine explosions along the way, because they had turned off from the road to pick fruit, even though the Vietnamese had warned us not to do this because the Khmer Rouge had planted mines under the fruit trees.

Eventually, we arrived at Svay Khleang. About ten or twenty families who had been sent to other locations arrived at the same time. I saw many mass graves in the village. We wanted to know where my grandparents and relatives were buried, but we could not find the place. The school and mosque were completely destroyed, and my house was half demolished.

Day by day, more and more villagers arrived.  When we counted the number of people we discovered that only 120 families had survived out of the 1,240 families that had lived in the village before Pol Pot. We did not have school for the first two years. Parents taught children at home. Some parents who were illiterate sent their children to their neighbors. My brother, sister and I were luckier because our parents could teach us.

The first school opened in my village in 1981. It was made from wood and thatch, and there were only two classrooms. Each classroom housed more than a hundred children. Young children and teenagers attended the same class because both were beginners. The teacher worked hard, but at times I could see that he was having a problem with mathematics. He was not very good at this subject, but perhaps he was the best one left alive. The Khmer Rouge had killed all educated people.

I passed from one grade to another until I reached high school. But my brother left school after completing the primary level and got married, because he felt ashamed to study with small children like me. Other youths did so as well.

After the Khmer Rouge, villagers were no longer allowed to own their former farms or fields. The government divided land into portions for several families. While regular people were given small plots, the chiefs of the village, sub-district, and district got large ones. The government officials were always very wealthy, but the ordinary people were poor. In addition, the officials did not share the land equally between Cham ethnics and Khmer. The Cham got only half the amount of land the Khmer received. No one was brave enough to complain. This inequity affects the living conditions of Cham people to this day. My parents worked very hard, but no mater how hard they worked, it was not enough to support the family. Most of the time we ate rice mixed with red corn and potatoes, which my parents got from the forest.

When I entered high school, there were only four other Cham children there.  The others had left school after completing the primary grades. This was, in part, because the Chams were afraid that by studying Khmer literature they would lose their Cham identity. Some fellow villagers told my parents to stop my schooling, but they did not listen. I was a good student and my teachers always encouraged me.

I came to the city of Phnom Penh in 1994, facing many difficulties but I never quit my studies. Out of my school time, I did some work to exchange for goods and a place to stay. Fortunately, in 1999 I had a good job as a researcher at the Documentation Center of Cambodia. Here, I conducted research about the Cham ethnics during the time of Pol Pot.

In the course of my work, I learned the Khmer Rouge’s intent to eradicate all Cham ethnics from Cambodia and I found that the Khmer Rouge had killed between 400,000 and 500,000 Cham people (57-71 percent). All of my research findings have been recorded in two widely respected books.

a vision of renewal and recovery