In the 1970s, the Killing Fields of Cambodia were a distant echo in news reports for most in the United States.
But for Sin Chhoeum, a mother, seamstress, and tobacco worker then in her late 50s, the daily struggle to survive the Killing Fields was real. The communist Khmer Rouge troops led by the dictator Pol Pot executed her husband in 1975 and seized the rural village in Battambang province near the Thai border, burning the home where the family lived.
“The soldiers tore our country apart and killed our people,” said her son, Leth Oun. “During their reign, we were forced into labor camps. We performed hard labor from sunrise to sunset. Their lunch for us was a quarter-cup of half-cooked rice in water.”
His mother saw many Cambodians killed by soldiers, and others die of starvation, disease, and exhaustion, her son said. She survived by assuming fake identities so as not to be linked with her husband, Oun Sueth, a Republic of Cambodia army lieutenant.
The Khmer Rouge regime arrested and executed anyone suspected of connections with the former government or with foreign governments.
Mrs. Sin, her son, 12, and a daughter, Dy Oun, 19, escaped in 1978 from the Khmer Rouge camp in Chhrou Sdao. They made a harrowing 100-mile journey to Thailand on foot and lived in refugee camps in Thailand and the Philippines before obtaining visas to come to the United States in 1983. It was a matter of luck that they were chosen, her son said. The journalist Dith Pran, who coined the term “Killing Fields,” also escaped from the Khmer regime. A 1984 movie about him, The Killing Fields, won an Academy Award.
Mrs. Sin, 100, who lived on the East Coast, including 11 years in Philadelphia, died Sunday, Aug. 5, at Frederick Memorial Hospital in Frederick, Md. The cause of death was old age, her son said.
The family first put down roots in Silver Spring, Md. “None of us spoke English,” her son said, “nor did we have even a penny to our name. It took us all some time to get accustomed to the new culture and learn a new language.”
She worked as a seamstress, and Leth’s sister and his wife, Sophy Oun, did housekeeping for a local hotel. “We worked together to ensure that we were able to pay for the things we needed,” her son said.
The family lived in Philadelphia from 1991 to 2002 so that her son could attend Widener University. While here, Mrs. Sin established a close relationship with Wat Khmer Palelai, a Buddhist temple in southwest Philadelphia.
Since 2002, she had lived in Frederick with her son, an officer in the Uniformed Division of the Secret Service.
In later years, she spent most of her time caring for her seven grandchildren, worshiping at temples, and volunteering for organizations that supported Cambodians. She loved gardening, cooking, and dogs. She never stopped missing Cambodia.
Her son once asked her how she survived the labor camps. She replied that since her husband was dead, she acted as mother and father. In that role, she vowed “to do everything she could to keep us alive and give us a good future,” her son said. “Every time I sit down and think about that, I get choked up.”
In addition to her son and daughter, she is survived by Poch Oun, her youngest daughter, who lives in Cambodia. Poch was an infant at the beginning of the Killing Fields era and was sent to live with her grandmother.
The mother and daughter were separated in the chaos of the time and did not reconnect until 30 years later. They spoke on the phone and in recent times communicated through FaceTime. They never had the chance to meet in person, her son said.
She also is survived by six grandsons and a granddaughter.
A viewing will be held from 4 to 9 p.m. Friday, Aug. 10, at Wat Khmer Palelai Buddhist Temple, 2701 S. 58th St., Philadelphia, Pa. 19143. On Saturday, Aug. 11, a Buddhist service starting at 6 a.m. at the temple will continue until 12:30 p.m., when a funeral procession will leave for a cremation service at West Laurel Hill Crematory, 225 Belmont Ave., Bala Cynwyd.
Memorial donations sent to the attention of Moeun Sam may be made to the temple at the address above.