The Killing Fields in Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge 1975, an Interview with Ms. Neou Samreth, RN
Ms. Neou Samreth graduated from nursing school in Cambodia in 1967. After graduation, she worked in a hospital malaria unit where she cared for an average of 40 patients per shift. It was not unusual for the nurses to get malaria. When nurses developed a fever and symptoms of malaria, the doctors on the unit would order treatment. In 1975, everything changed.
In 1975, a brutal communist dictator named Pol Pot and his armed forces, the Khmer Rouge, violently took over the Southeast Asian country of Cambodia. Cambodian citizens were taken from their homes in cities and forced to work in farm collectives. Hundreds of thousands of people died on these farms from starvation, brutality, and disease. Private property was outlawed and stolen from homeowners.
The Khmer Rouge executed anyone who was an intellectual, including teachers, doctors, and nurses for fear that these people would become opposition leaders. Educated nurses were not allowed to practice their profession, and the penalty for doing so was death.
Approximately 2.2 million Cambodians died during the 5-year reign of the Pol Pot regime. This war is sometimes referred to by the name of the 1984 movie, the Killing Fields. The regime lost power in 1979 after trying to enter Vietnam, where they faced fierce resistance.
After the murder of her husband, a teacher and professor, this nurse continued to care for patients though doing so placed her at a very real risk of death. As a nurse, she had seen many births, but she did not have formal midwife training. She learned to deliver babies because many women had difficulty and would have died without her assistance. There was no one else to help.
When a patient who was a parent died and there was no one to care for their children, she took on responsibility for providing the necessary care herself. She had 5 children of her own to care for, but she found a way to do the impossible and cared for these other children as well. She did this even though there were times when she had no home and very little food with which to feed them.
Reference: History.com Editors (2017, September 12). Khmer Rouge. Khmer Rouge (history.com)
Neou Samreth, RN Interview Life under the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia
Transcript of an Interview with Neou Samreth, RN a Cambodian Nurse
Mary: I think it was 1973 to 1975. You know … but I don’t want to get into that too much, but did you leave nursing when things happened, when the war started?
Daughter translating for Neou: Yeah, when the war come for like three or four years, three years and eight months, they (the Khmer Rouge) did not allow any nurse to finish school or anything. They only used the nurse. So the nurse they don’t train or anything. They don’t come from school. They just do whatever. They call a nurse but like even if you don’t finish the school, they say ok you are a nurse. They are trained right there and do it. If they treat you and you die – you die.
Becky: So, all of the people who were trained as nurses were not allowed to work and practice?
Daughter translating for Neou: No. Even the doctor.
Becky: No doctors, no nurses.
Daughter translating for Neou: Yeah, they (the Khmer Rouge) killed the doctor. They killed the doctors. They put their own in there.
Daughter translating for Neou: They (the Khmer Rouge) put their own nurse in. And that nurse don’t carry a degree.
Becky: No training?
Daughter translating for Neou: No training but they assign you. They say you are a nurse. If the patient comes treat them. I want you to use this and they use it.
Mary: So, Hope said that you sometimes took care of people at home after that. Did you? Were you able to do any kind of nursing. Is this too painful?
Daughter translating for Neou: No. It’s not. It’s okay.
Daughter translating for Neou: What happened…
Daughter translating for Neou: Yeah, she said during that she had to take risks to hide her identity. Just having family, friends and she knew she was not allowed but she still did it.
Becky: Wow. Thank God. Thank you.
Daughter translating for Neou: Being a nurse once you see it, she cannot just turn away. She just like I know if they are not allowed but I have to help, have do something, it is hard for her to turn away.
Becky: But you did it with a risk?
Daughter translating for Neou: Yes with a risk.
Mary: Being a nurse is in your heart. Being a nurse is in your heart. Not just a job.
Daughter translating for Neou: Yes she had a lot of….well before that happened (the war) she had many patients that die and then give the children to her (Neou). I remember she have like two or three of them living with my mom until the government take them. Sometimes the patient has no where to place the children so they are like: ‘can you take my children?’ and then she (the patient) die and she (Neou) said she can. But sometime when they (the patients) love her, when she (Neou) is not in that night that she (the patient) die and she told her children to wait for my mom. Anybody come to pick them up (the children) they don’t go and they wait until my mom comes to pick them up because their mom said you have to stay with her or let her find a way to put them somewhere my mom says.
Daughter translating for Neou: Yeah she said some time the mother in a coma and no one taking care of the kid. The kid is just sitting there and have no food and she have to use her own money to just buy food for the kid. This was very difficult.
Mary: It is very hard,
Daughter translating for Neou: It is not just…I remember when my mom after the war it really started to get over with the painful thing and my mom do a lot of things. Its not just about money its about….
Daughter translating for Neou: Yeah what you can do.
Becky: Wow. I am honored to meet you.
Mary: Me too.
Becky: Thank you. Thank you.
Daughter translating for Neou: She is so sad. Now she is like really sad now.
Mary: I’m sorry. I didn’t want to ask because I know there were some painful times.
Daughter translating for Neou: Yeah. She said very, very sad when she remembers.
Mary: You are a true hero.
Daughter translating for Neou: She said she is very grateful for all the children like me and we are very lucky to be here but some people there are not able to pass this. She said that she always dreamed that she would come to a different country, especially the United States and the dream come true.
Becky: We needed to hear your story. It helps us to hear your story and I’m sorry your story is painful. But it helps us to appreciate.
Daughter translating for Neou: Yeah, she got happy it just make her sad but she is happy to tell you the story.
Mary: I’m going to cry. Your husband was killed?
Daughter: Yes he was my dad.
Mary: Yeah, but we always want to do holistic nursing and care for the families too. I mean wow this is such a powerful story.
Daughter: When my dad pass away and my dad already dreamed to take the children and go out of the country and never be there.
Daughter translating for Neou: She is very happy because it is like a dream come true, all the children get out.
Mary: And you are here safe.
Daughter translating for Neou: Yeah.
Mary: And your dad is with you.
Daughter: I think my dad is ok….because he chose not to leave anyone behind. He carried someone until the last minute. They all go together.
Mary: Now he was a teacher too?
Daughter: Yes, he was a professor.
Mary: In college?
Daughter translating for Neou: Yes.
Daughter translating for Neou: Yes, he was a teacher but was working on going to be a professor.
Becky: Will you tell us more of your story at another time?
Daughter translating for Neou: She said that in the during that war she take a chance to deliver the babies. She didn’t learn midwife but she take a chance because she see that someone needs help for delivery of the baby. She said when she is being a nurse she sees how the midwife do it but coming to the war and then like…
Mary: There was nobody there.
Daughter translating for Neou: Yes, nobody there.
Mary: No one to take care of babies.
Daughter translating for Neou: Yes, nobody to do delivery. So if she (Neou) don’t she (the patient) going to die and so they respect her a lot. If she (Neou) help she (the patient), the person had a chance to live. But she was lucky that something happened to anyone she had but even if my mom can help for example there is no lose. If she do it she have it. The person has a chance to live.
Mary: In my understanding and I don’t know much but my understanding is that that would have put your life at risk to take care of other people as a nurse after that, during the war.
Becky: She said she did it with a lot of risk.
Daughter translating for Neou: Yes she took a lot of risks. She is not allowed to do it.
Becky: You are amazing.
Daughter translating for Neou: Like you said, delivery of the baby but she see it. She see people doing it in the hospital all the time and she got to do it.
Mary: And she stepped up to the plate.
Daughter translating for Neou: She took a lot of risks put her life in it. She had more experience with malaria because she worked like six years with that department. When she didn’t like a specialty in malaria but she worked and she practiced in that she can know more.
Becky: Yeah. In this country, I have done a lot of different kinds of nursing, but I only went to school, I mean I got my generalist degree but you learn by experience.
Daughter translating for Neou: That is right.
Becky: Schooling isn’t everything.
Daughter translating for Neou: Yes.
Becky: Learning experience is important.
Daughter translating for Neou: Yes.
Mary: Could we have a second session?
Interviewers: Mary C. Vrtis, Ph.D., MSN, RN, & Rebecca Day, MSN, RN
Transcriptionist: Barbara O’Brien Smith