Chattanooga couple returns to changed Cambodia for holidays after once fleeing for their lives

Khom (left) and Tha Yim visit Phnom Penh, Cambodia, their homeland which they fled during the murderous Khmer Rouge years. They have lived in Chattanooga for the 33 years since they fled.

PHNOM PENH, Cambodia - The holidays have a way of bringing people home.

But for Tha and Khom Yim, "home" is a complex term. Although they settled in Chattanooga decades ago, home is also Cambodia, where they once fled for their lives.

This month the Yims are visiting their homeland, a place where millions of people died during the Khmer Rouge genocide 40 years ago.

Most Cambodians led normal lives during the war in neighboring Vietnam.

Tha remembers growing up among farm fields and banana trees, riding bicycles through town and playing in the streets.

"It was a simple life," he said. "I took a bath in the Mekong River and stayed after dark without fear."

It was when the Vietnam War officially ended on April 17, 1975, that another one began. Suddenly, fear was everywhere.

"It was the day I lost my happiness," said Tha. "The hope for peace was just another tragedy."

Over the next four years, the Communist Khmer Rouge - in one of the world's most brutal genocides - wiped out nearly 2 million people, or 25 percent of Cambodia's population. Under the infamous rule of Pol Pot, Cambodians perished at the hands of their own people in Pot's attempt to create an agrarian society.

The violence began with a lie. Khmer Rouge soldiers marched the streets, proclaiming the U.S. had sent airplanes to bomb the city of Phnom Penh and ordering people to evacuate. Instead, evacuees were starved, beaten, sent to labor camps and separated from their families.

Tha said his mother died from starvation early on. The last time he saw his father alive was in 1978.

"Half of my family died," he said, many from starvation. "Some we don't know. When you're separated, you have no idea."

Tha was sent to work in intense labor, digging trenches used for irrigating rice. He remembers working for at least 12 hours a day in the hot sun, his body quickly shriveling into a frail skeleton. At night, he slept on a small mat without a rooftop or mosquito net, sometimes risking his life sneaking into darkness to steal food.

He watched people drop like flies.

"Ninety percent of the people in my age group were killed," Tha said. "People died because of heat, no food, and too much work."

Additionally, myriad sicknesses went untreated.

"If you didn't die from that, they find a reason to kill you. If you look Vietnamese, you look different if you're an intellectual," Tha said. "They just kill and kill."

Tha recalls unexpectedly coming across piles of rotting human flesh, having a gun held to his head, and digging through the ground to find bugs for food.

"There were some days I thought I just want to die," he said.

Tha finally reached a refugee camp on the Thai border at age 24, where he met Khom and was soon married. The year and a half they spent in the refugee camp was also a very dark time; women were raped, people were beaten and hunger continued.

"No one had courage to do anything though, because [the Thai] controlled the camp," Tha said.

He and Khom started brainstorming ways to leave the past behind, applying to go to the United States. In 1980, while working as a translator in an open-air hospital, Tha met Marian and Steven Lee May, both volunteering during their pediatric residencies. The Mays eventually gave Tha and Khom the opportunity to restart their lives in Tennessee.

"Tha contacted us to see if we would sponsor him," said Marian, who now practices medicine with her husband in the Chattanooga area. "He felt at that time that his life was in danger, since the Thailand government was talking about sending all the refugees back across the border."

When the Yims were finally eligible to relocate, they were put in an Indonesian camp for another 10 months. In 1982 they moved to Chattanooga, when Khom was pregnant with their son, Ramy.

This month, Ramy, his wife and two children are visiting Cambodia for the first time, joining Tha and Khom on holiday.

"My son seems a little more nervous than the rest of the family to come here," said Tha.

However, it took Tha more than 27 years to build up the courage to return to Cambodia - in 2007. Even when his wife visited in 1995 and again in 2004, he stayed behind. Walking streets now unfamiliar to him, he is in awe of how far Cambodia has come since he left it many years ago.

"Seeing everything changing gave me hope and cleared my mind," he said. "I don't have to face the fear anymore."

Since arriving on Dec. 7, Tha and Khom have visited the pristine beaches of Sihanoukville, the ancient Angkor temples of Siem Reap and the chaotic city of Phnom Penh - just miles from where Tha grew up. They have been sure to visit their more than 20 extended family members.

Tha said he's enjoying time with family abroad, but misses loved ones back in Chattanooga, where he has lived for 33 years.

"I've been in Chattanooga since Day 1. It saved us. It's like family there now," said Tha, who works as a database administrator for Blue Cross BlueShield of Tennessee. He and Khom have a home in Red Bank, and they especially like visiting peaceful, scenic areas like Fall Creek Falls and Raccoon Mountain.

Even so, they have never quite shaken off their Khmer Rouge experience. For Khom, who no longer works, the struggle is vividly inescapable.

"I can see it in my eyes!" she exclaimed. "The death is in my eyes!"

Olivia Harlow is a Chattanooga resident who is currently working as an intern at The Cambodia Daily.