Memoir of a Thirteen-Year-Old Girl

Surviving the Cambodian Genocide


The short, fat, ugly man continued: “You are here because you are big and strong enough to help build our country. From this day on you are the sons and daughters of our government. Thus you are all brothers and sisters under one new parent, our government: the same government that fought for your freedom, rescued you, and freed you from the old regime—the regime that was filled with slavery and labor abusers, and was run by a few lazy fat pigs that called themselves businessmen. Our government will take care of you, and all she asks is that you be willing to help build and protect her. Thus you are also encouraged to turn in any enemies among us. Enemies will show themselves in all different forms to destroy the goal and dream of our government. They will do anything to bring back the old regime.”

Freed me from my parents? That thought came to mind when I heard that I had been freed. Nothing made sense. I felt doomed.

While he spoke, he walked in a twisted line that traced a figure eight, with girls in one circle and boys in the other. He added, “Your parents are still covered in crud from the old regime that needs to be rinsed. Thus our government is working on them to make them into better people who will be more committed to helping build our country. You, on the contrary, have not been corrupted by the old regime. Thus our government is counting on you to lead this country to the world. You are the future of our country.”

A couple of hands clapped, then the rest of the girls and boys clapped along, with still bodies and controlled manners. We were all listening while seated, quiet and motionless as statues. I felt the man’s body stirring the air, but I never knew what his expression looked like for I didn’t dare focus on his face. Sitting on the dry dirt floor with my small bag in front of my feet, I hugged my knees for comfort.

“Your duty at this moment is to help gather rice from these fields, and to learn to be a better comrade. Girls must keep their hair short. No hair shall touch your shoulders. Long hair will get in the way of working. Thus you will become less effective and cannot help our government to the best of your ability. Any questions? If not, you are dismissed.”

I never thought freedom had anything to do with the length of one’s hair. But now that it was taken away, I felt devastated, even though my hair was already short.


Some girls had to quietly surrender their long hair to appease the devil. As I sat and watched a woman trimming the girls’ hair with cast iron scissors, I felt the short-hair requirement was more symbolic than practical as the fat black-uniformed man had explained. I was glad that my hair didn’t require trimming.

Short-Hair Law

Here is a passage taken from Chapter 7, "Short-Hair Law". During the Khmer Rouge, girls were required to keep their hair short.