I cannot say I saw the Cambodian tragedy happening "on the ground", as they like to say in the State Department. However, I saw its close after effects, and they were bad enough. The DP camps just inside Thailand were full of the maimed, stunted, dazed, and fearful; perhaps lacking in the starving because the international community, for once at its best, saw to it that starvation did not happen, and at least some of the ravages of disease were checked. Its effects on the people of Cambodia could not but elicit sympathy. But it provided quite an education.
Much of my work involved interviewing Cambodian DP's for humanitarian parole into the USA. This was a provision to reunite families divided when, in 1975, some Cambodians were allowed into the USA as refugees following the Communist Victory. Of course, there was little documentation to substantiate relationships, but after a certain date, the Immigration and Naturalization Service (since replaced by Immigration and Customs Enforcement) started asking resettled Cambodian refugees for detailed family trees. These we used to determine whether the person in front of the interviewing officer was indeed related to the anchor person in the USA.
The process was pretty straightforward. Groups of DP's were brought from the camps to a house rented in Aranyaprathet, Thailand, and allowed to wait under a large, circus tent-like structure until interviewed, and then at the end of the day return to the camps to either start packing for the trip to the USA or mope if denied. Not knowing the Khmer language, I depended heavily on an able young Cambodian-born woman most lately from Virginia. However, I quickly learned the words "Bat", "Otde", and "Salap", meaning "Yes", "No", and "dead" respectively.
The last was a sobering word to learn. Of course I had known about the killing fields of Cambodia for some time. Yet the people I interviewed had lived through them. Often, when we asked for their precise relationships to persons listened in their US anchors' A-files, they would misunderstand and think we were seeking the status of the person named. Hence, I often heard the word "Salap". In numerous cases, this led to the realization that the large, extended clans given by the anchors had often been decimated during the years of the Democratic Kampuchea regime and civil war that followed the 1978 Vietnamese invasion.
In addition to Thai, which I had been taught for my service in Bangkok, I was a fairly competent Chinese linguist at the time, and anyone who seemed to be Sino-Cambodian tended to be sent my way. Sure, I'm old enough to remember when Americans thought that all Far Eastern peoples looked alike; but persons of Chinese descent tended to be easy to pick out from a crowd of other DP's. Whereas the indigenous Khmer tended to be brown, with large, sometimes deep-set eyes, broader noses, and sometimes wavy or curly hair, the Chinese descent of many Cambodian town-dwellers sometimes left fair skins and smaller eyes. When such people were spotted, someone might send them to my interviewing table.
One such young Sino-Thai male came to my table, and we soon established that he was indeed the younger brother of a waiter living in Portland, Oregon, who had made it to the USA in 1975. He had learned Mandarin from a Taiwanese organization working among former Cambodian Overseas Chinese; although like so many others of his demographic, he was more comfortable with either Khmer or Teochiu. Of the large, complex extended family described by the brother in Portland, the only survivors were the anchor and the young man in front of me. The case seemed rather straightforward, and had the young man not belonged to a group eligible for resettlement in the USA, any official connected with the immigration system would've immediately pegged him as someone likely to seek whatever possible employment might come his way should he enter the US. Hence, I waived any affadavit of support (a document that is signed often and seldom honored in most cases), and signed off on the case.
The near-total extermination of the two brothers' family was chillingly common among Sino-Cambodians and Muslims. Despite many of the Khmer Rouge leadership belonging to the former and sponsorship of the Cambodian Communists by Mao's China, the Sino-Cambodians were targeted for extermination because they tended to be townspeople, disproportionately educated past the elementary grades, and disproportionately likely to wear glasses. I suspect that perhaps to many sent their youngsters to Taiwan for education following Lon Nol's coup, which might have made them all the more odious. As for the Muslims, they tended to belong to either the Cham or Malay ethnic groups, perhaps a little less pliable than Buddhists about hiding their religion, and hence another target. However, I saw few of them.
A few cases after I sent off the lone Sino-Cambodian youth to rejoin his long-lost brother in the States, a family group consisting of an elderly grandmother, parents, and several small children approached. Their lighter skins, build, and small eyes made me suspect more Sino-Cambodians, so I wrote out on a piece of paper and said in Mandarin, "你们会不会讲中文?" ("nimen huibuhui jiang Zhongwen?--Can you speak Chinese?). In unison, the whole family looked shocked and horrified and stepped back in terror with the "Uh-oh, he's found us out!" attitude. They loudly protested that they were 100% northwest Cambodian ethnic Khmer peasants, and knew no language other than Khmer. I therefore told my interpreter that she couldn't take her coffee break, for I'd need her.
Well, I was satisfied that the father was connected to two brothers in the USA, and that he and his wife would probably be ensconced in restaurant or retail sales following entry into the USA, and thus signed off on this case as well.
At the end of the day, I exited our interviewing site with my group of American officials, and walked past the shaded "bull pen" where the interviewees were waiting for the buses that would return them to Site B, Site 2, and other camps. The young man with the brother in Portland saw me, walked over to the rope, and thanked me profusely in Mandarin. I shook his hand, explained that I was only doing my job, and wished him good luck in the US.
A few yards away stood the grandmother from family group, tending one of her grandchildren. As she witnessed my conversation with the other Sino-Cambodian, her jaw dropped in utter stupefaction.
I could not blame her. My father's family were Jews from Central Europe, many of whom perished in the Shoah; and I'm sure any that survived were very careful to hide their ethnicity. Perhaps the old grandmother hadn't quite fathomed that, whatever might have been the attitude of the Cambodian Communists, there were parts of the world where having been born an ethnic Chinese shopkeeper's daughter was not a crime.
In any event, I have never before or since, seen anyone who looked so sheepish.