Expat Magazine

The Canceled Flight and the Killing Fields

By Sedulia @Sedulia

This morning I left my warm bed at the crack of dawn and made my way to the airport to take a flight home to see my mother and brothers and sisters and my godfather-uncle for Easter (my father died 15 years ago). I was so looking forward to it, even though I could only go for less than four days. 

I foolishly didn't check if the flight was on. When I got to the airport, my flight had just been canceled and three hundred people were waiting for three ticket agents to rebook them (thank you USAir!). I called US reservations and got a very nice agent. But she said she couldn't get me in before Saturday afternoon at the latest, and I had to leave Monday morning. So sadly I canceled my reservation and went home. I felt so sorry for all the Americans waiting patiently in line (while it was mostly French people who just went and stood brazenly in front of the people who had been there since 5h30, in line for the ticket agents). Most of them would spend the whole day at the airport trying in vain to get home and then have to spend more money on hotel rooms.

There is an EU-wide policy on refunds and compensation for this sort of thing, but I didn't remember till I was well on my way home in a taxi. The driver was a small man with a wizened face, who turned out to be Cambodian. He was very chatty and told me he speaks five languages: French, Cambodian, Teochew, Cantonese and Mandarin. His parents were Chinese immigrants and he was born and raised in Cambodia. "But I have been in France since 1976," he said. You often meet Cambodians who arrived in Paris from that era. I didn't want to press him to talk, but he enjoyed telling me about his childhood. His family was well off and he and his three brothers and a sister had gone to a good school. "We used to see Charles de Gaulle all the time. He came to Phnomh Penh several times, he was a friend of King Sihanouk. He was very tall, and Cambodians are very short! The king had to make a special bed for him. When he came, we would line the streets and wave our French and Cambodian flags."

He said he was a Buddhist and that like all the other boys, he spent two years in a temple living as a Buddhist bonze. "We read scripture and learned to be calm, not to be violent." He told me that Cambodian New Year is always in April and that he celebrates it every year with other Cambodian Buddhists in a pagode in the Bois de Vincennes.

As he talked, he smiled and laughed. Even when he went on to darker times. "Prince Sihanouk always wanted to be independent, he didn't want to be too friendly with the Americans. But a little country can't survive alone. General Lon Nol, he wanted the Americans, so he staged a coup d'état. The general drafted boys from the city and without any training they were sent straight to the front line to fight against the Khmer Rouge and Pol Pot. So my parents made me and my brother leave and sneak out to Thailand. We went to a refugee camp. I was about 24."

I hesitated to ask. "And the rest of your family?"

"Pol Pot came into Phnomh Penh and everyone was happy because it meant peace. The first day everyone was happy. The second day everyone was happy. The third day, Pol Pot told everyone in the city they had to leave. Walk out of the city. Everyone on foot. He said the Americans were about to bomb Phnomh Penh, but that was a lie. Anyone who stayed behind in their house was shot. My parents and my younger sister and brother all had to go. There was no one left in the city. And my sister and brother walked through the forest all the way to a refugee camp in Vietnam."


"I heard Pol Pot shot everyone who wore glasses or was educated," I said.

The taxi driver laughed softly, in the way Asians often do, to bridge a difficult moment. "Yes, they killed everyone," he said. "My parents were killed in the forest. My brother and sister had to dig their graves and bury them there in that forest."

His brother and sister live in France now, and his two other brothers in Canada. "I couldn't speak English, but I already knew French. We had the choice of the U.S. or France, but I knew that in France I could arrive here and start working the next day. So I came to France. The French government made us refugees citizens right away. I am French now." He told me that the Cambodian government has given all the refugees from Pol Pot a permanent long-term visa.

I got home and unpacked my bags. It didn't seem so important any more that I was missing Easter with my family. 


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