I trained so I could kill the people who murdered my family - but instead I have forgiven them
Read our inspiring interview with Khmer Rouge survivor Reaksa Himm
“I REMEMBER it all very clearly,” says Reaksa, a polite, softly spoken and professional man, who wastes no time with small talk before getting right to the bones of the interview.
“When I first moved to Canada, I used to have flashbacks and nightmares. Every night before I went to bed, I was scared to go to sleep.”
When he then launches into his memory of that terrible day in 1977, it is a wonder that this is no longer the case.
“One morning, they arrested my father and took him to the jungle.
“They took him and others to a big grave and pushed him into it from behind. They slaughtered him and I saw every single moment of it.
“Then they pushed me into the pit. I heard them do it to my baby brother as well.
“I had blood coming through my nose and mouth. I could hardly breathe. But they thought I was dead already.
“I also saw them kill my mother and my sister.”
He adds: “At that point in my life,I wished I had a gun. But I was just a little boy - there was nothing I could do.”
Reaksa made a promise to his family to avenge their deaths. He spent some time surviving in the jungle, before living with an aunt and completing his education. The young man joined the police force with the sole purpose of being able to have the resources and know-how to go about killing those responsible for the deaths of his parents and siblings.
But he found himself unable to do it and instead he fled to Thailand, before making his way to Canada in 1989 as a refugee.
On beginning to study psychology at Tyndale College in Toronto, Reaksa realised he was still suffering from post traumatic stress disorder. But what got him through it was his new-found Christian faith.
This, he says, is what motivated him to find the man who killed his father so that he could forgive him. His name is Mao and he lives in the village where Reaksa grew up.
Reaksa would have done the same to the other killers involved, but four of them were dead and the other was no longer in the area. Mao never spent any time in prison for the atrocities he committed.
How was Reaksa able to forgive him?
“With my own human instinct, I could not do it. It is the power of the grace of God in my life that I was able to forgive him.
“I really set myself free.”
But building up the courage to face him was a different story, says Reaksa.
“It took me three months to get myself to do it and then when I was in the car on the way there, I felt blood coming into my eyes, my ears were ringing and my heart was thumping.
“I knew I had gone there as an ambassador of Jesus Christ to set myself free. That helped me to calm down.”
Reaksa gave Mao a camel scarf and a Bible as a symbol of his forgiveness and then he gave him a hug.
He says: “He was shaking. The man did not know what to say.
“Saying the words, ‘I forgive you’, was very painful, but as soon as I said it, the pain went away. It brought tears to my eyes, but they were not tears of pain.
“He did not say anything. I think he was in a state of shock.
“I heard afterwards that he did not sleep in his house for three months after that because he thought I was going to come back to kill him.”
Reaksa does not think Mao understands the concept of forgiveness and he is concerned about Cambodia’s ability to come to terms with its past.
The Khmer Rouge’s attempts at agricultural reform led to widespread famine and its insistence on absolute self-suffiency led to the deaths of thousands.
Arbitrary execution and torture carried out by its cadres are considered to have constituted genocide.
Reaksa says: “It’s a very big struggle. It’s not just the psychological trauma they have to deal with, but also the economy still needs rebuilding. The next generation from now will perhaps be the ones who come to terms with it.
“But at the moment the younger generation don’t believe it happened. To them it’s too true to believe.
“I don’t know when they will come to the point of understanding and accepting it.”
In the mean time, Reaksa is determined to do what he can to help the country. One of the effects of the Pol Pot-led regime during the time the Khmer Rouge were in power is that schools were closed and those who were educated were murdered.
The idea was that the regime wanted the country to begin from zero.
So Reaksa is working on projects that provide and support education. He has built a youth-focused community centre in a suburb of Siem Reap, a city close to where he grew up and now lives with his family.
The centre, which houses Cambodia’s first children’s library, provides access to computers and books, has a sports pitch for young people to use and is used as a church on Sundays.
Reaksa also provides scholarships to students to attend the city’s university.
Using proceeds from the sale of his books, Tears of My Soul and After the Heavy Rain, Reaksa also built a school in another village. It now teaches around 200 pupils, including five of Mao’s children.
Cubbington-based charity Teams4U, which supports vulnerable children, is working with Reaksa on these projects and it is thanks to this charity that his tour of the UK brought him to Leamington.
Anyone who attended his talk will surely agree that he is an astonishing and incredible man. He ended the interview with the following words: “My message is that forgiveness will set you free.”
Tears of My Soul and After the Heavy Rain, both published by Monarch Books, are available to buy in bookshops and online.