SOKPHAL Din was a teenager in the Cambodian capital Phnom Penh when the war between North and South Vietnam spread into his country.
An American-backed coup intensified a growing civil war in which the North Vietnamese backed Khmer Rouge were victorious, establishing ‘Democratic Kampuchea’ under the dictator Pol Pot.
In a bid to establish an ‘agrarian revolution’ tens of thousands of people, including Sokphal and his family, were driven from the cities in what became a death march.
Pol Pot said that ‘the first step in progress was deliberately designed to exterminate an entire class’, with the refugees forced to dig their own graves before being shot or hacked to death.
Somehow Sokphal and his family managed to escape the killing fields.
Later, when the North Vietnamese army invaded, the Khmer Rouge press ganged him into the army.
“I was in two battles – in the first one they gave me two cartridges but I didn’t want to kill anyone so I didn’t fire my gun,” said Sokphal.
“Later I gave the cartridges to a friend so he could fire them because if I’d returned with the bullets I would have been shot for cowardice.”
In the second battle, with the roar of approaching tanks in his ears Sokphal and the rest of his unit broke and ran, returning to his village where they threw their rifles into a pond.
He was later arrested by the Vietnamese Army, imprisoned and tortured into telling them everything.
“The prisoners with muscles were sent into the forest to cut trees which was terrifying as many stood on mines and were blown up,” he said.
“Luckily they sent me to look after the vegetable gardens and I survived.”
He was saved by contacts he made in prison and the incredible arrival of his mother who had tracked down his prison.
“I saw my mother on the other side of the barbed wire – it was incredible – without my mother I would not be here.”
Freed, they moved to refugee camps on the Thai border before finally crossing over and eventually making his way to the West.