Channy Chhi Laux, the author of the book "Short Hair Detention" recently spoke about her book at the Alliance Public Library. The book is a memoir of her survival of the Khmer Rouge genocide in Cambodia that took place from 1975 to 1979.
“Cambodia is a small country in southeast Asia. Next to Vietnam,” said Laux. “In 1970 the Vietnam war overflowed into Cambodia. When that happened a group of Cambodian gorillas rose up and took power. That group called themselves Khmer Rouge and they were backed by communist China. The following five years we had the first Cambodian civil war. In 1975 right after the U.S. pulled away from Cambodia, the Khmer Rouge won the war. What they did for the next four years was a crime against humanity and was horrific. They killed an estimate of 2 million Cambodians in four years. My family was part of that and I was 13 years old.”
The book describes progresses through extreme starvation, forced labor, multiple escape attempts and concludes with how freedom was regained.
On the front cover of the book is a picture of her that was taken two months before the Communists took over.
“The communist believed that capitalism, businesses and making profits was evil. They believed that was the cause of human suffering so they decided to do away with any currency, they shut down the banks, markets, schools, and even the hospital. Imagine one day you are here and the next day the government pushes you out and says that you can’t live in your town anymore. Then they push you to a remote countryside and force everybody to work long hours with hardly anything to eat. A lot of disease and sickness followed that. During that time some of the things that they did were not reasonable but they did it anyway. They destroyed farming equipment because any automatic farming equipment was a sign of capitalism. They made us do all the work with our hands under gunpoint,” said Laux.
“Before they took over, if you made a living without breaking a sweat, so if you were a librarian, doctor, teacher, or anything like that, they thought that you were corrupted and that those people took advantage of those that worked in the fields. They targeted people like that; my father was a businessman so he was targeted.
As the son of a refugee my father did not have a day of school. When he was growing up he had to work to put food on the table. He would go from town to town selling cookies. My mother never had a day of school either. But they both worked hard and eventually they had their own business.
“All of that did not matter to the Khmer Rouge, the fact that they had a house and a business meant that they were corrupted. It didn’t matter that he worked hard to get there. Within weeks we moved from two-story brick home to a shelter that we had to build with our own bare, unskilled hands. We didn’t even own a farm in our house but we had to build our own huts out of bamboo and leaves. They were roughly the size of three queen beds put together and there were 11 of us staying in that hut. Everything changed within weeks. “That was not the worst part, that small hut was special to me and my family because it was the last place that my family was allowed to be together. It was in that hut that we suffered together from starvation. Every time I hear people say that they are so hungry, they’re starving, I say no you’re not starving. When you’re starving, every morning when you wake up you can feel that your stomach has ingested itself to the point that you feel cramps and horrible pain from not having food. That went on for months.
“The ration that we had for my family was one table spoon of rice per person per day. That we didn’t have enough to eat, I was 13 years old and we were all forced to wake up in the morning step out into the relentless, monsoon rain. We worked all day in with no breaks in water that was sometimes up to my chest.”
“Sometimes at night I would pray that I did not wake up in the morning. When I would wake up in the morning I would ask God why, what have I done to deserve this kind of torture? We go on and it is shocking to me how we survived without food for so many weeks and months. Not only that we didn’t have rice but they would ration salt too and your body needs salt.”
Laux recalled getting mad at the men around her thinking that they should protect the young and the women.
“As a man they had to live with the humility that they could not save their families. That’s how they controlled us: food, humiliation, and fear.
“Day after day, nothing changed,” she said. “They say I’m so hungry that I could eat a cow. We started saying I’m so hungry that I could eat a bug.”
“The worst part was when they came in and broke my family apart and I was taken to a labor camp. When we left that hut that was the last time my family was together. There were no walls in the camp and we slept on dirt. Just the fear kept us there. I remember, that with all this suffering I never cried. The only time I would cry was when I missed my family or a complete stranger did something kind to me.”
The book is called “Short Hair Detention” because in the camps the girls could not have hair past their shoulder.
“I remember thinking what else could they take away from me. The feeling of lost hope of being a person, how far could it go? It was nothing more than humiliation; they turned the whole country into a jail camp. I got to the front of the line and I did not have to cut my hair. I felt such relief, I felt like they could not control me 100 percent. It was a small win that encouraged me to move on,” she said.
“Growing up in this country (U.S.A.) it’s hard to explain that even the length of your hair was controlled by government. We went to bed with wet clothes and muddy feet. There was not enough food or water. In those times I thought that maybe I should stop taking the rations, maybe that would end the suffering faster. But then I couldn’t do that because my mom was waiting for me. I was praying that I could be strong enough just so that I could die while my mom was holding me. I just wanted to die in my moms arms.
“Through all of this terrible things that happened, as a kid in this environment, when you get a group of teenagers together, we still had things to laugh about. I capture that in my book. Things like tickling each other and splashing each other. Four years I never had a day of school, always working in the labor camps.”
She described the hospitals or “sick house.” She was taken there when she became ill from not eating enough. She would pray at night that no one would die around her because when someone would die they wouldn’t remove the body until afternoon.
In June 1979, Laux arrived in Lincoln as a refugee with the family that survived. After four years of no school and not knowing a word of English, she attended Lincoln High School. She went on to earn a Master of Science degree in applied mathematics from Santa Clara University and undergraduate degrees from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. She worked in Silicon Valley as an engineer in the aerospace and biotech industries for 30 years. She now lives in San Francisco Bay Area with her husband Kent, a Bridgeport High School graduate.
“When it was all over I told myself that I would write a book so that my future children would understand what happened to me and the whole country. I wanted to write this book so that they never took things for granted. This book took me more than 30 years to complete.”
“After my first child was born I remember holding her in my arms and thinking that I needed to write a book for her. So before I went back to work I finished two chapters,” she said.
When her mother passed away eight years ago she took some time off of work to work on the book.
“Then two years ago I lost my job and I thought this is my time to finish the book. I forgot about the fact that I told myself that there was no way that I was going to finish the book. I told myself that I would go back to work as an engineer if I finished the book but once I finished the book I realized that there were things that I wanted to continue on for my mothers legacy.”
“When she came to Lincoln she was a single mom and raised four of us kids. She was really good at cooking Cambodian food. So when she passed away my daughter went to college and asked if I could make grandma’s hot sauce. That was the best question that she could ask me. That sauce had butter, salt, sugar, fish sauce, fresh produce, pepper, and a whole bunch of tears. Because while I was cutting everything I remembered exactly how I used to help her. She and I were so close. Everything that she did, I wanted to be like her. That’s when I knew I wanted to share Cambodian food with everyone. From hot sauces and other cooking pastes, I don’t think I’m going to go back to engineering,” she laughed.
Go to AngkorFood.com to learn about the Cambodian cuisine.
Channy and Kent have brought their children, Natasha and Richard, to farm life in Bridgeport every year since the early ‘90s. They are very proud to have Nebraska heritage.
She said, “I can always count on Nebraskans to support me.”