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I’m a survivor of genocide. Here’s what I found when I went back to Cambodia

Sameth Mell poses for a portrait on Monday, April 2, 2018, in Seattle.
KUOW photo/Megan Farmer
Sameth Mell poses for a portrait on Monday, April 2, 2018, in Seattle.

For Cambodian Americans, April marks the Khmer new year. It's also when survivors of the Cambodian genocide remember the fall of Phnom Penh.

Sameth Mell and his family were among thousands who fled Cambodia. In Spring of 1986, through church sponsorship, they arrived in Seattle. This is his story, as told to Ruby de Luna. 

I was born in 1982, in a refugee camp in Khao-I-Dang, which is about 30 minutes away from the border of Thailand and Cambodia. All I remember is being on top of my father’s body when he passed away. He had died of leukemia. I was about a year old. That’s the earliest recollection that I still have in my memory.

My mom, she told me that her side of the family was executed in front of her — all her siblings and her dad and mom and aunties and uncles. What I’ve heard is that she was able to survive because she was married to my father — and somehow, that got her off the hook.

I’ve returned twice to Cambodia to retrace my identity. Two days before leaving the first time, I found out that Dad’s ashes are buried underneath the tree, near the temple. When I got to the camp, I couldn’t go through with it. Everybody had their cameras out, taking pictures. But where are the camps out, the buildings? We heard they all got burned down.  

I kept walking, looking for the camp. And people kept going in farther and farther because, where is it? I was like, I can’t handle all this right now. I decided to go back to the van.

As I was walking back to the van, I felt like something was holding onto my feet. Like air grasping on your feet every time you’re moving. I’m getting goosebumps just talking about it, but there was a lot of unresolved energy there. That’s what I felt.

I felt this sense of compassion. A lot has gone through there. We understand. We want to honor it — we want to honor whatever is still there. We’re not here to make any ruckus. We were actually born here.

[asset-images[{"caption": "Sameth Mell is held by his mother, next to his father, left, with his siblings at Khao-I-Dang Cambodian refugee camp.", "fid": "143788", "style": "placed_wide", "uri": "public://201804/MF_Sameth03_0.jpg", "attribution": "Credit Sameth Mell"}]]The second time, in 2017, there were fewer people in the group, and it was easier to move around. We were able to check out the landscapes, and that’s where we saw the temple remains. Okay, this is where the temple is at. Oh my god, my father’s ashes are buried somewhere around here. But where? There’s trees everywhere! I texted my sister — sent her photos, hoping for clues. 

I wasn’t able to find my father’s ashes. Not at all. There were a lot of trees around, and I don’t think he’s the only one buried there. But knowing the fact that so many people have been buried here, and being there, I felt, even though I was chatting by myself or praying, I was talking to my father. I’m here. I can’t find where you’re at, but I want to tell you I’m here."

[asset-images[{"caption": "", "fid": "143789", "style": "placed_wide", "uri": "public://201804/MF_Sameth01_0.jpg", "attribution": "Credit Courtesy of Sameth Mell"}]]Sameth Mell works at Seattle’s Mt. Baker Housing Association. He leads RAJANA Society, a Khmer arts and civics project. 

This interview was edited lightly for clarity. 

Year started with KUOW: 1994