Monique Sokhan fled from the terror of the Khmer Rouge and the genocide in Cambodia in the 1970s, when she was just a small child. Many of her family members who stayed behind did not survive.
“All Cambodian families have been affected by the genocide, by the war. I am in the lucky position to have been able to survive, to have been able to flee, whereas others did not manage. And to tell you frankly, sometimes, it’s also difficult, because you’re wondering why others have died and you’re alive. And for those who did not survive, I think for me I felt like having a responsibility somehow to do something that would make them proud of me.”
It’s that feeling that drove Monique Sokhan to work for refugees. But her first job for UNHCR was in Thailand, as a Protection Officer in camps for Khmer Rouge refugees – while the Khmer Rouge were the very people who were responsible for the killing of her own family and friends.
Now, as UNHCR’s Assistant Representative for Protection in Lebanon, Monique is still looking for answers: How did we come up to a situation where more than a million people got killed? Why Cambodians were killing Cambodians?
Monique Sokhan edited transcript
Melissa Fleming (MF): I was overcome, actually, with admiration and also just a deep sense of awe. I felt like she had given me and, in turn, the listeners of the podcast, a gift of her story. A story which, she hasn’t told publicly. It is just an incredibly intimate, moving human story.
How do I begin to describe Monique Sokhan? She fled from the terror of the Khmer Rouge and the genocide in Cambodia in the 1970s, when she was just a small child. Many of her family members who stayed behind did not survive.
Monique Sokhan (MS): All Cambodian families have been affected by the genocide, by the war. I am in the lucky position to have been able to survive, to have been able to flee, whereas others did not manage. And to tell you frankly, sometimes, it’s also difficult, because you’re wondering why others have died and you’re alive. And for those who did not survive, I think for me I felt like having a responsibility somehow to do something that would make them proud of me.
MF: It’s that feeling that drove Monique Sokhan to work for refugees. But her first job for UNHCR was in Thailand, as a Protection Officer in camps for Khmer Rouge refugees. And remember, the Khmer Rouge were the very people who were responsible for the killing of her own family and friends.
I am Melissa Fleming and I am the Spokesperson for UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency. This is Awake at Night.
MF: Thank you Monique Sokhan for joining this podcast, for being in this interview and for opening up a painful chapter of your early childhood. But perhaps you had a happy part of your childhood. Could you describe what it was like in Cambodia in your early years?
MS: I remember lots of freedom of course. Running around, playing with my friends. I had the memory of one person that was very close to me. He was a cousin but he took care of me and my sister. And I still have, always, his face in my heart. I have chosen to talk about him because he was one of the first persons I tried to find when I went back to Cambodia years later, just to be told that he disappeared during the evacuation of Phnom Penh. I don’t know how he was killed. I know that he was killed. I don’t know how he was killed. I don’t know where his body lies. But, I just have his smiley face in my memory and that is, I think, you know, something very precious to me.
MF: How old were you at that time?
MS: I was six.
MF: And he was?
MS: I think he was maybe 15 years old. Happy moments? My family, of course, my parents. My mom used to run a school and my father used to teach all the students. He was teaching philosophy.
MF: He was a professor.
MS: He was a professor. He was quite respected. What was very special about Cambodians is this family bond. Extended family as well. I remember very joyful moments, family gatherings, lunches. And I remember Cambodia at the time. Cambodia is a beautiful country. And, at the time, you would feel the joy in the city but also the pain. Because, from time to time you would hear the shelling as the conflict was coming very close to Phnom Penh.
While I was a child I didn’t understand what was happening. I was still a free, young girl running around, having lots of fun, friends etc. I didn’t realize what was happening, even until one day my mother and I went to the school of my sister just to pick her up. And, while we were waiting the area was shelled and a rocket hit a school nearby, not my sister’s school but another one. My mother took me hiding behind a big tree and I heard lots of screams. Everybody was screaming around and I was just asking my mother, “What is happening? Where is my sister Valerie?” We waited until we finally found her. It was that day when my mom decided that we had to leave Cambodia. My father didn’t want to leave but my mom is a very strong woman and she basically decided that it was better for the family. She told my dad that if he didn’t want to leave, she would go with the children. So, eventually my dad agreed and the problem was that at the time it was difficult to leave Cambodia. My mother had a cousin who was the spouse of a high-ranking official and she was able to get from her two passports and two exit visas.
MF: Only two.
MS: Only two. So, a decision had to be made as to who would leave first. And, they decided that I would leave with my dad, because I was the youngest one. And because I was the naughty one, screaming around.
MF: You were six?
MS: I was six. My sister is four years older. She was 10 at the time, but more quiet.
MF: So, they thought if there was a threat, they could actually tell her to be quiet.
MS: Exactly. It was easier with her, as she was a more quiet child. So. I left with my dad. I didn’t know where we were going and he just told me we were going on holidays in France. I didn’t know what country it was, I’d never been there. But I was excited about it.
MF: A vacation!
MS: Yes… I was a young girl and I was very close to my dad. So it was easy to just go with him until I realized when I arrived in France that it would take much longer for my sister and my mom to join us. So, for the first months in Paris my dad had to take care of me. We ended up in a small hotel in Saint-Germain, in Paris. I still remember a small room almost on the rooftop of the hotel, because we couldn’t have a large one. He had taken some money with him, but he also had to try to find support, a job. While he was trying to find a job, I stayed alone in the hotel room.
MF: It must have been terrifying.
MS: Yes, I think it’s the loneliness that you’re feeling when you are young. Even though he explained “Don’t worry, I’ll come back”, you are there waiting until he comes back, and you don’t know whether he would come back. He bought me a teddy bear. I still have it with me. I think it was something that helped me somehow. And then he asked his friends, a French family, to take care of me. He basically left me with that family. They had a little girl and she’s one of my best friends now. So, I stayed with them. But every night I was waiting for him to come back, because I was among foreigners. I didn’t know anyone. I didn’t know the language. I didn’t understand what they were talking about. I didn’t like the food. Cambodian food is very special you know, and French food is different. So it was a bit difficult to adjust. They tried to put me in school and I remember crying. The other children were also crying but they had their mom with them, they had their parents. I didn’t have anyone. So it was a bit difficult.
MF: But you went into the school.
MS: Yes, but I was crying and screaming. And they had to take me out of it because I was impossible, basically. I stayed in that big house of this French family and just remained, until my mother and my sister came six months later. I was so happy about it. I didn’t hope anymore that they would come and my mom had to fight to be able to leave the country. She succeeded because of her determination but also because the person who has offered or given the exit permit also understood what was going on in Cambodia and asked her to take her two daughters along with her. So, that was the only condition under which she was able to leave the country. So, that changed my life, when you have your mother and your family joining.
MF: Can you remember the day they arrived and how you felt and what you did?
MS: I just remember going to the airport and seeing them coming out. Just screaming of joy. It was very special. I can’t explain this. It’s very emotional. And, especially as a kid, you have not only your mom, but also your sister with whom you used to play. It was a big relief when I saw both of them.
MF: Did you have any sense during the time they were away that they might be in danger?
MS: When you’re six, not much. You just feel that you’re missing someone. One of my happiest moments in life was when they came.
MF: Where was your dad at that point?
MS: My dad was there as well. He eventually found a job as a clerk. He couldn’t, of course, teach again. And this was one of the regrets of his life, not to be able to continue. But he knew that we were undergoing a very difficult moment and that it was already good to have a job and to be able to care for your family. At the time, when the Khmer Rouge took over, we eventually got our refugee status. So, life was becoming better, as we were able to find a very small apartment in Paris. But even in that small apartment, my parents sheltered another family. So, we were very crowded.
MF: Did it affect you that your parents were no longer doing the professions that they loved?
MS: I don’t know much about that because I was young. It must have felt very difficult, very strange to be in a different country without the extended family around, without knowing what happened to them in Cambodia. I think that was the worst part of it. Not knowing. At the time, the news coming out from Cambodia were only through refugees, but also through French priests who were able to go to the border and try to connect families and bring them letters, medicine etc. I can’t remember when exactly but one day they got finally some news from Cambodia. They learned that their brothers and sisters didn’t survive. You know, when you are a child, when you see your parents crying… it’s hard.
MF: They are the people who are supposed to be the strong ones, right?
MS: Yes, but they had to move on because they have kids. And, they tried to make life as better as possible for us, always encouraging us to learn our lessons, to be good at school. I concentrated on that and became good at school. At first, I didn’t speak a word of French, but as a child you learn very quickly. I liked studying at that school and I wanted my parents to be proud of me. One day, we received wonderful news. It was in 1979. The Vietnamese took over. We received the news that my aunt, my mother’s elder sister, because she lost her younger sister during the war, had survived with seven of her kids in a refugee camp in Thailand. We did everything possible to bring them to France. She was a widow, she lost her husband, my uncle, to the Khmer Rouge. He was a colonel. He was executed by the Khmer Rouge.
MF: So your relatives started appearing but, of course, the majority of them had not survived.
MS: Many did not survive.
MF: Did you find out later how they were killed?
MF: For some of them yes. Of hunger. Of forced labour. Of execution. And all Cambodian families have been affected by the genocide, by the war, by the Khmer Rouge regime. I’m not the only one in that situation and I have to say that I’m in the lucky position to have been able to survive, to have been able to flee, whereas others did not manage. And to tell you frankly, sometimes it’s also difficult, because you’re wondering why others have died and you’re alive. What made the difference? Is it because your parents took the right decision at the right time? And for those who did not survive, I felt like having a responsibility somehow to do something that would make them proud of me. And I think, doing what I’m doing now, I believe they are proud of me. I think it’s also important that I was able also to come back to Cambodia, after I finished my studies, to try to contribute to the reconstruction of the country.
MF: What did you decide to study given all the burden that you were feeling in your family home, although it was not really talked about?
MS: I wanted to go back to Cambodia at some point. So I chose to study law. And then I decided also to study human rights. At the time I think I remember there was a course in refugee law and it was somebody from UNHCR coming to teach. I told myself, this is really where I feel more connected with. We were studying the Refugee Convention and it was the first time that I came to see a document that really reflects what I was feeling as a refugee. I was thinking: “Wow. That’s incredible. There is a recognition somewhere that people like me deserve to be treated as human beings.” So, I basically decided that I would love to work for UNHCR.
MF: Did you discuss your wish to go back to Cambodia with your parents, and what did they say about that?
MS: My mother was the first one to go back. As I told you, she’s a strong woman, very determined.
MF: As soon as it was safe.
MS: Yes. My grandma was still alive. I lost my grandpa, but somehow we have strong women in the family. So she wanted to see her mother. So she went. Then she came back to Paris. And she told me: “Well, why don’t you come to Cambodia with me? Just to see how the country is now, as you always wanted to go. You can go back to your studies afterwards. Just one month. Just come with me.” Holidays!
MF: Another holiday! This time in the other direction.
MS: So, I went there and stayed for more than four years because it was too compelling. It’s difficult to describe the feelings but at some point you want so much to see your country that you feel the energy and the determination to contribute. At the same time it was sad. Because, you learn who was able to survive and who was not able to survive. You hear the stories. And it is this “survivor guilt” that you feel when you go back, and you are also told: “Well, you didn’t experience what we experienced. You didn’t experience hunger. You didn’t see the killings.”
MF: How did that affect you, when they said those things?
MS: I told them “You’re right. You suffered much more than I did. But do I have to apologize for that? I didn’t decide to leave the country. I just want to help. What can I do to help you?”
MF: And where did you find work? What was your first job there?
MS: I was quite lucky to have been able to join the UN Centre for Human Rights and I had four years of amazing experience with them. On the streets of Cambodia at the time you would see a lot of people with no limbs, many orphans, many children wandering the streets because they had no parents anymore. You felt that there’s so much to be done. You still had killings and people were getting killed for nothing.
MF: Your parents were still back in Paris, and your sister?
MS: Yes, it was just me just staying behind.
MF: They didn’t also want to come back.
MS: They asked me to go back to Paris. They worried about me. They worried about the situation and they were asking me: “Why do you stay?”
MF: How did you reply?
MS: I said: “I want to stay. I left once, I don’t want to leave again, when my country needs me.” And again I said to them “You know, it’s my duty. My choice and my duty.”
MF: So you started working for UNHCR actually in Thailand. You made a transition from Cambodia to Thailand, and you were actually responsible for protecting some of the very people who had actually killed your relatives. Tell me about that. And how did you cope with that kind of situation?
MS: I always wanted to work for refugees, so when I got this offer from UNHCR to go to Thailand and work in the refugee camps I was quite excited. And then they told me: “Well, you have to know these are Khmer Rouge camps. It’s controlled by the Khmer Rouge.” I paused and said: “OK. I will go.”
MS: I wanted to understand. I wanted to talk to them. You know I speak Khmer, I speak the language, thanks to my parents. And it was really out of curiosity. Why? How could they explain what’s happened? I think it was also a challenge to myself, I would say. So when I went to those camps I thought that I would be facing horrible people, men with guns. I mean, there were men in uniform but they didn’t have guns in the camp. I saw a lot of women. I saw a lot of children. And I started talking to them, being very transparent and very genuine, as to the reasons why I was there. I told them that I work for UNHCR and I just went every day to talk to them, going to their shelter. Sometimes, they were offering me food. I started a conversation with them, trying to understand them and trying to tell them: “Look, I’m not here to judge you. I’m here to support you. Because you are like me. You are victims. There is a war. You had your own reasons to flee as well, at the time.”
But I also knew that among them there were people who have killed others. Including my family. I basically tried to ask them questions about that. Some denied. Many said: “Well, you know we didn’t have any choice. We had to follow the leaders. We are like you, victims, because we didn’t decide for ourselves, we had to do what the leaders were asking us to do otherwise we’d have been killed as well.” So, I did what a Protection Officer did at the time, trying to assist their needs and to find out their wish, what they wanted to do. Many of them said to me: “We want to go back to our village of origin,” more than 20 years later. Because basically they had being taken by the Khmer Rouge until the last conflict and they ended up at the border. I informed UNHCR that it was very important when the day would come that they would return to Cambodia that they freely choose the destination where they want to go. It wasn’t easy because controlling the population is power. And I had also to negotiate with some Khmer Rouge leaders. I think one of them liked me somehow.
MF: You mean in a romantic way?
MS: No, no.
MF: Just he felt affection for you.
MS: Yes, exactly. Because I was just telling him who I am and why I was there, that I wasn’t there to judge him. And we created a bond. It’s been difficult for me to say that as he was a senior Khmer Rouge leader. Actually, he gave me key information. They were negotiating a peace deal with the government. We didn’t know that, we didn’t have information about that. He was the one who reported to me and said: “Look can you tell your people that we are going to return soon”. And I asked: “How? I can still hear shelling.” He said to me: “Trust me. Trust me and be prepared. We need this type of rice to be able to cultivate. We need those tools for our fields. Make sure that you convey that message to UNHCR, to your people.” That’s what I did. At first we were saying: “No, it can’t be done. It’s a conflict, there is no peace deal.” But a few days later we saw some refugees packing. People were taking out the tents, putting them in their trucks and some of them were leaving. Refugees left within a few hours. It was amazing. I think it was a refugee camp of more than 10,000 people, who were very disciplined – packing and leaving. As a Protection Officer, you are told: “Make sure that people sign a voluntary repatriation form.” And I was there, at the border, trying…
MF: Single-handedly get 10,000 people to sign individually their forms? That wasn’t going to happen.
MS: No. So they left and the camp was empty very quickly. UNHCR asked me to go where the people were going to. I said: “OK, fine. I’m going to accompany them and be there on the other side.” So I think I was one of the first humanitarian workers able to access one of the stronghold of the Khmer Rouge. I basically met the people that were refugees on the other side. All those activities that UNHCR is doing when refugees repatriate.
MF: Did you have any mixed feelings about helping them as members or affiliated with the Khmer Rouge reintegrate back into Cambodia?
MS: I didn’t have any more problems, when they went back. It was at the beginning, when I started in the camp, that I was having doubts or mixed feelings. But, you feel immediately the connection with women and children. I was with them every day in the camp. I think I did take care of them well. I hope. They were also undergoing very difficult moments, especially the children, because there were landmines still around. I remember in particular one child who went into the forest with his dad and his dad saw him stepping on a landmine, in front of him. This boy had to be transferred to a hospital in the town, so after work I was trying to go and see him, trying to talk to him. He wouldn’t talk to anyone anymore. He has this type of look. Very blank, like when you see something very traumatic. So, after my work in the camp every day I tried to go and see him – for weeks. And, one of the most rewarding moments was when he started smiling. And this is probably when I felt that I was doing something good. It felt good. It’s very strange because I knew that some of them did very bad things. But when you are faced with a human being in a daily encounter, you don’t think about that any more at some point.
MF: It seems like you were sacrificing a lot. You were giving yourself almost entirely to this operation. How about yourself? I mean your own personal life, did you have friends?
MS: I didn’t tell my parents that I was working in a Khmer Rouge camp.
MF: Did you ever tell them?
MS: No, they don’t know. They didn’t know at the time and my mom still doesn’t know. My sisters and brothers, they don’t know. Most of the time, I don’t tell them exactly what I’m doing as I don’t want them to worry. Personal life? When you’re working in situations like that, apart from your colleagues, you don’t have your friends anymore and you can’t have a relationship in a situation like that. But that is okay. Because you have this strong belief that you are doing something important. So it was kind of normal for me to be doing what I did.
MF: What happened next in your career?
MS: After Thailand and Cambodia, I went to West Timor and then I went to Mongolia. After that, I went… Where did I go? Bosnia for about three years. And then from Bosnia to Hong Kong to head the office.
MF: So this was probably the first non-conflict place that you had ever been based. So in this city, this bustling city where there is no war in sight.
MS: Exactly. For the first time I could sleep in peace. When you have this feeling that it’s safe and you don’t need to be on your guard every time.
MF: You enjoyed that.
MS: Oh, yes. I enjoyed it very much. And also every time I come to Geneva, I enjoy the lake because it’s so peaceful. That feels good. So I worked there, I think, for about two to three years. And then when I was in Hong Kong one day, I received this call from a friend who is also a Khmer Rouge expert. And he said to me: “Look Monique, the Khmer Rouge Tribunal has now been established to finally investigate and prosecute the crimes of the Khmer Rouge senior leaders. We’d like you to join us.” I was like: “Oh my God… I’m here, with UNHCR in Hong Kong. I love Hong Kong etc.” But frankly the hesitation lasted a few seconds. Because, for me, it was a unique opportunity to try to find out more about what happened in Cambodia. So, I joined as an Investigator. I stayed there for about two years trying to understand how we came up to a situation where more than a million people got killed. Why Cambodians were killing Cambodians? Why many of my family members got killed during that period?
MF: So were you able to answer that question after those two years?
MS: Some of it. Yes. You know it’s still very difficult to comprehend a genocide. I was able to understand where did the orders to kill people came from. And how it cascaded and why it ended up to massive killings of people. But I still don’t understand, for instance, why they had those policies of killing intellectuals, religious monks, ethnic minorities, just to create a new society. For me, it’s still very difficult to comprehend that. I think one of the satisfactions I had was to talk to survivors of the Khmer Rouge, but also to those who perpetrated the killings. And, to try and understand their perspective. Not to excuse any acts, but at least to understand from their perspective. And, for me it was important. Probably also for me to be able to reconcile with my own story. I also had the opportunity to be able to witness the arrest of some of those Khmer Rouge leaders and the prosecution of them. So it was very important for me to come to terms with that. I know that there’s a lot of criticism of the tribunal, but for me, it was very important to see it happening even 30 years later.
MF: To a certain extent, there was some justice?
MS: To some extent, yes. You know, the Khmer are Buddhists and they very resilient. Basically they believe that, even if there is no justice in this world, there’s going to be justice in another one.
MF: So do you believe that too?
MS: I want to believe that.
MF: You must be a resilient person yourself. Is there anything that you do, like hobbies, meditation or sports that helps you?
MS: I think my experience makes me strong and makes me the person I am right now. Yes, I do have hobbies. I’m doing archaeology for instance.
MS: Yes! I’m digging. I do have hobbies, but I think what is important are the people who surround you, your family, your friends, your colleagues.
MF: You’ve met and you know intimately people who have not just witnessed, but lived through the worst of man’s inhumanity to man. Is there anything, though, that gives you hope?
MS: Of course. I think people who have gone through such experiences are very strong persons, they are very resilient. And somehow you go on with your life. I think it’s also our responsibility, to make sure that it’s not happening again. I still have hope in humanity, otherwise I wouldn’t do this job.
MF: And when you go to sleep at night what keeps you awake? Or what wakes you up in the middle of the night?
MS: For many years, it was the sounds of shelling and bombs. I still had nightmares about it. And then, it stopped. What keeps me awake now is this feeling that there are people out there that need our help – the way I needed their help, when I was younger. And this is what is important, in what we are doing as humanitarian workers: striving for the best possible, to find solutions for them. Because people only want to have a normal life like you and me now. And they deserve that.
MF: Thank you so much for sharing your story with me and with us on this podcast. I feel incredibly moved and really inspired by the work you do.
MS: Thank you, Melissa, for having me.
MF: Thank you.
MF: Thank you for listening to Awake at Night. To find out more about the series and to see pictures of Monique at work, do visit unhcr.org/awakeatnight. You can find us on Facebook @UNHCR, and on Twitter we are @refugees and I am @melissarfleming. Please spread the word about the series using #awakeatnight.
If you were inspired and moved by this episode, do subscribe to Awake at Night wherever you get your podcasts. And, if you could take time to review the podcast it would help us spread the word and get more attention to the people who serve humanity.
Thanks to the fantastic design and studio teams here at UNHCR, and to my producers Bethany Bell, and Laura Sheeter, of Chalk and Blade. The sound design was by Pascal Wyse and the original music for this podcast was written and performed by Nadine Shah – and produced by Ben Hillier.
My guest next week is a remarkable man, who sees beauty everywhere, even amidst the horrors of conflict, including most recently northern Iraq.