Jan 17, 2013
JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Amid political turmoil and social upheaval in the 1970s, a Cambodian teenager enslaved in a labor camp fled for his life from Khmer Rouge guerillas in the face of certain death.
Nearly four decades later, Narom Orr, a machinist at Fleet Readiness Center Southeast, says he is truly grateful to be living in the United States with a loving family and a great job.
“I can’t ask for anything more than that,” he said.
Orr was born in Southeast Asia in the present day capital of Phnom Penh, Cambodia. He was one of seven children, his mother a homemaker. His father served as a combat soldier under the democratic government that supported U.S. troops in Cambodia.
He was a high school student in 1970 when General Lon Nol led a military coup to oust Cambodia’s elected Prime Minister Norodom Sihanouk who took a neutral stance during the Vietnam War.
Nol declared himself the president of the Khmer Republic and sent troops to fight the North Vietnamese and the Khmer Rouge, communist guerrillas. The overthrow further destabilized the balance of power in Cambodia with a mostly Buddhist population of more than seven million.
Nol relied heavily on American aid to shore up his beleaguered troops, and without backing he was overthrown by the Khmer Rouge led by Pol Pot and his rebels who occupied the capital of Phnom Penh in 1975.
At that time, Orr was a college student studying veterinary medicine in the capital. He hired a private tutor to learn English.
“When the communists took over, they told us we had to be out of the city in three days, because the Americans were going to bomb,” he said. “It was propaganda. If you didn’t leave, you’d be shot. We were isolated from the outside world, left in the dark.”
Pot declared 1975 as “Year Zero,” essentially banning all personal and religious freedoms. Money was worthless. Private property was forbidden. All past knowledge was illegal. Medicine was banned. Virtually overnight, the country was transformed into an agrarian society based on the Chinese communist model of collectivism. Those who opposed were killed.
“You go to school that day, and you’re told you have to get out,” he said. “You’re not allowed to go back home to pack clothes.”
Orr said the communists were driving everybody out the city, about two million, to the countryside to work in labor camps. Cambodia had five national roads fanning out from the capital. People were ordered to take the road they lived closest to and travel in that direction. He said there was no transportation, no lights, no running water, and communication was gone. He left the city via a road that took him near his parent’s home.
“It was the last time I saw my mother and father,” he said. “I found out later the communists took them away and shot them. My little brother, he was eight or nine at the time, was living with my parents. I heard he escaped, but I never knew what happened to him until much later.”
Hundreds of thousands of educated middle-class Cambodians were tortured and executed, or died of starvation, exhaustion or disease while working in the camps. Estimates put the death toll at more than 1.7 million from 1975 to 1979, one-quarter of the country’s population according to the Documentation Center of Cambodia.
“My older brother was killed by the communists,” said Orr of his sibling who was a doctor. “He was captured and probably died in captivity.”
Orr said camp conditions were “like hell.” He worked 12 hours a day, sunup to sundown, seven days a week surviving on two meals of watery soup each day. He slept on a homemade hammock stitched together from old rice sacks or whatever he could scavenge.
He suffered from mosquito bites, dysentery, heavy rain, heat, near starvation, exhaustion and the constant fear of death.
“For the communists, it was no big deal,” said Orr. “They wanted you to die. Life was nothing for them. They tried to kill anyone who was educated, professionals first, one at a time. When it got close to my time, I made a plan to escape. I said to myself, ‘If I stay, I will be dead, and if I leave I might be dead or alive.’”
In the fall of 1979, Orr and 14 others had nothing to lose. They traveled on foot at night headed west for Thailand where the United Nations had set up refugee camps. The borders were mined, and the group became separated. Orr and six others made it to Thailand. Conditions were much better, but the refugees were not allowed to leave the camp under threat of arrest.
While there, Orr met and married his wife, Chandara, who arrived alone at the camp. She thought her parents and eight siblings were dead. They later discovered her father, a high ranking Cambodian officer, and mother escaped with the help of the Americans. They lived in Harrisburg, Pa., and they were looking for their children.
Orr’s father-in-law completed sponsorship paperwork at the American Embassy for the pair, and they arrived in the United States two days before Thanksgiving in 1980. Orr got a job in a furniture factory. He eventually earned his GED, but never completed college, his only regret.
He moved to Florida in 1993 and was hired by an aerospace company where he fabricated aircraft parts until 2002. In 2003, he hired on as a contract worker at Fleet Readiness Center Southeast, and a year later he landed a permanent wage grade position in federal service.
Orr has been at FRCSE for 10 years and is grateful to live in the United States.
“I wouldn’t trade the U.S. for anywhere else in the world,” he said. “You can’t believe how many Cambodians want to come here just for the education.”
In 2002, Orr returned to Cambodia where he discovered all but one of his siblings lived.
“Everybody was crying,” he said. “They never thought I was alive; I never thought they were alive.”
While in Phnom Penh, Orr visited his former high school, now the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum. The Khmer Rouge used the school as a security prison and interrogation center with classrooms divided into crude cells. It was the site where mass executions and torture like waterboarding took place from 1975 to the fall of the regime in 1979. Of the estimated 17,000 prisoners held by the Khmer Rouge at the prison, only seven were known to have survived.
Today, the museum’s walls are lined with the photos of thousands of victims who were executed at the former school, a grim reminder of the genocide that nearly destroyed a nation.
“It brought back old memories; it’s not the same anymore,” said Orr. “You can still see the bloodstains on the wall. I never in the world could imagine that stuff like that could happen in my country. I’m just glad I’m here in the United States. I have a good life and a good family.”
FRCSE Public Affairs