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Hauntings Without End

Cover of Leaving the House of Ghosts Leaving the House of Ghosts by Sarah Streed
McFarland & Company, 2002

Reading the title of Sarah Streed's Leaving the House of Ghosts, one might conclude that this is a book about escaping from a land of death. On the contrary, Streed's book makes one thing very clear: for the refugees from Pol Pot's Cambodia, their memories will haunt them for the rest of their lives.

A thoughtful mixture of memoir, history, and sociology, Leaving the House of Ghosts is a vivid portrait of the lives of Cambodian refugees. The book illuminates the factors that brought the Khmer Rouge to power, and the consequences of their terrifying reign.

Streed's first direct exposure to the refugees came in 1981, when her parents volunteered to sponsor refugees fleeing Cambodia. From the beginning, she is careful to place their actions in context, noting that the refugees were fleeing a Communist regime that came to power in large measure because of America's haphazard involvement in Cambodia. "My family's actions," Streed writes, "seemed somewhat akin to putting a landmine in a neighbor's back yard, and then, upon hearing an explosion, quickly running over to drive the neighbor to the emergency room."

Streed is careful to note that the horrors of Cambodia did not begin and end with the Khmer Rouge. She recounts the testimony of a young woman whose village was destroyed by the American bombing:

"The nightly bombings brought irrevocable changes to prewar Cambodia's peaceful rural villages. A plane dumped gasoline on Prapaing Peap and then bombed it. Although the You family survived, the entire village of 100 houses burned to the ground, including their house, so they had to move to Phnom Penh.

"After the village of Samrong Yong was bombed one night, Sokhary's family also prepared to move to Phnom Penh. At the last minute, Sokhary's father refused to go, so Sokhary stayed behind with them. They dug a hole behind the house to use as a bomb shelter and continued to farm. Six months later Sokhary was out in a field with their cow when she spotted a B-52 flying low in the distance. She left the cow, ran home, grabbed her parents and they ran to the shelter. They huddled there for hours as bombs landed all around them, the ground shook, and fire flashed. The noise was deafening.

"When it was over, they came out. The village lay in ruins; whatever hadn't been directly hit had caught fire and burned to the ground.

"Sokhary's mother surveyed the damage, then turned to her daughter and said, 'All right, let's move.'"

The ruinous American bombing was soon followed by the reign of the Khmer Rouge. Inevitably, any book that discusses Khmer Rouge Cambodia will recount a litany of almost unimaginable horrors, and Ghosts is no exception: forced labor, separation of families, murder, even cannibalism. Much of the book is derived from the accounts of the refugees themselves. These are interspersed with more general articles on the history of Cambodia and the difficulties of assimilating into a new culture.

Streed points out one of the problems of relying solely on refugee accounts to paint a clear picture of the history of their lost homeland. There are times when the refugee's accounts will conflict with known facts. (My own experience has been that this is particularly true with regard to chronology.) One also suspects that as more time passes and memories fade, this problem will become increasing common. For the writer, that presents a quandry: on the one hand, the author wants to provide an accurate overview of the history; on the other, he or she also wants to record the testimony faithfully. Streed's approach helps to reconcile these discrepancies.

The only drawback is that in one or two places the book's integration seems slightly rough, as though the chapters were written separately instead of as parts of a whole. That occasionally leads to minor inconsistencies; the death toll of the Khmer Rouge regime, for example, is estimated as 1.5 million in some chapters, and two million in another. Still, the ability of each chapter to stand alone is also an advantage: the complexities of Cambodian history are easier to grasp when presented in smaller, shorter pieces.

Streed also deserves credit for presenting the refugees as human beings, complete with human flaws. She does not make them out to be saints: she dutifully records, for example, the constant complaints of one of her foster brothers. "Why you no have big TV? Americans suppose have big TV, lots TV." "I need car. How go places, have fun, no car?" When Streed tried to explain that her parents did not have enough money for such luxuries, her brother was unconvinced: "They have too a lot, they just not spend. Beside I so cold all the time, just shiver all day in school."

Her foster brothers responded to their ordeals in very different ways, a fact which intrigued her:

"I remember being puzzled as to why two boys, the same age and social situation - the same extended family, in fact - ended up in such different states after the autogenocide. Many years later, I arrived at my answer: Bunna would have been dead and never even made it to America except for Noeun. Not just once, but over and over again, Noeun had saved Bunna's life. To put it simply: Noeun was the survivor; his was the personality and the force, the ability to tackle a new life, that had gotten them through. Bunna, although physically a survivor because of Noeun, had the personality and manner of one who had been defeated. I think Bunna was aware that except for Noeun he would have died many times over, and didn't know how to reconcile that with his life as a survivor in America."

The question of why some survived and others did not is a source for speculation among the refugees themselves. A woman named Prum, considering the question, admitted that she had no clear explanation:

"'I can't explain why I lived,' she continues. 'I'm strong. Also, I'm healthy -- I never really got sick. I was able to go out and find food.'

Then she grows downcast. 'Also, my mom didn't eat her rice, instead, she gave it to us kids. That's also a reason for how I was able to live. But for that, my mom had to die.'"

Just as not all Cambodians were equally able to cope with the horrors of the Khmer Rouge, they were also not equally able to adapt to their new homeland. Coming to America did not suddenly make all their problems disappear. In many cases, Streed notes, a "generational dissonance" is almost inevitable as younger Cambodians, born in America, are assimilated into American society faster than their parents and grandparents. "There is a discord between the beliefs of the parents and the new, Americanized beliefs of the children. Because of this ongoing conflict experienced by many immigrant groups, the Khmer community is having difficulty assimilating into the broader American culture."

Streed notes that there is a rough parallel between the lives of the refugees, and Lon Nol, whose overthrow of Prince Norodom Sihanouk accelerated Cambodia's slide into disaster. The staunchly pro-American Lon Nol seemed to believe that America would be the answer to all his problems. Similarly, many of the refugees who fled Cambodia believed that their troubles would end once they reached the U.S. Only later did they realize that it was not so simple. Fate is at times frightfully random, a point that Streed makes with eloquence as she watches her foster brother's children: "It's frightening to look at the new baby and think of how the baby's parent started out just like that: perfect and loved. Then their world went terribly wrong."

Leaving the House of Ghosts touches every facet of a world gone wrong: why it happened, how it affected the victims, what it took to survive, what it takes to heal. There is a very memorable moment in the book, when Streed describes a refugee arriving in in the United States:

"The plane landed in Los Angeles and the family disembarked -- barefoot, since none of them had worn shoes since the Khmer Rouge takeover. While walking on the airport carpet, Sophea felt guilty, thinking his bare feet would soil the carpet."

There is something fascinating in the idea that a person who had survived the horrors of Cambodia might feel guilt at tracking dirt on an airport carpet. One wonders if this small detail might be a window into the very trait that separates the survivors from the dead: The ability to adapt. The ability to change mindsets overnight. In one minute, to think in terms of avoiding landmines and trip wires; in the next, to think of keeping the carpet clean. Anyone intrigued by such ideas will find Leaving the House of Ghosts worth reading.


Leaving the House of Ghosts is published by McFarland & Company.
It is available from

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