Deep furrows run from the corners of Dara Than’s eyes. They come from countless smiles that cause his face to contort as he bashfully covers his mouth, as wheezy explosions of laughter wrack his rotund body when something strikes him as funny.
His is a face created to smile and laugh; dark brown eyes dominating a round face topped by closely cropped hair. Yet a shadow creeps across his brow as he reflects on his past, his gaze drifting and his expression somber.
“The word refugee is a beautiful word,” he says. “It sounds lovely and it’s easy to say. But the reality of it is like being buried alive”.
Dara’s brown eyes cloud over as he recalls the 12 years he spent in a refugee camp on the Cambodia border in the 1980s.
Gone is the jovial laugh and constant sparkle which identify him among the expat community in Phnom Penh as a good-humoured Khmer teacher. Instead, there’s a rarely-seen seriousness and a touching poignancy to his speech as he talks about his past.
Small wonder, as this gregarious, fun-loving teacher recalls a past punctuated by loss, hardship and uncertainty. It’s a common tale among survivors of the Khmer Rouge. But what makes Dara special is where his life has taken him and what he has made of a future he often was able to define, let alone predict.
There were days when he was not sure if he’d see tomorrow. Hours spent working in rice fields, trying to survive. Months on the front-line, holding a gun, in defense of his country that was being torn apart.
“I never thought I’d return to this kind of life,” he says, sipping an iced cappuccino in a Phnom Penh coffee shop. “I just lived from day to day. There were no plans. It was all about survival”.
Today, Dara is a successful Khmer teacher in Phnom Penh and, in a field crowded with competitors, stands out not only for his remarkable teaching skills but also for his engaging personality and that bubbling, unforgettable laughter.
Years later, his students recall that quality.
“His style was encouraging and fun.” said Anji Loman Field, a British film-maker who worked with Dara more than a year ago. “We had a lot of laughs and – in contrast to my lessons with other teachers – the words Dara taught me have stuck with me to this day.”
Daniel Saver, an American law student, has a similar recollection.
“For me, the most memorable part of Dara is his characteristic laugh,” he said. “When he laughs, a huge smile comes across his face and he bounces up and down ever so slightly, sort of like a Cambodian Santa Claus.”
And, while Dara thought he’d never see the day when laughter would be part of his world, his eyes still twinkle when he talks about some experiences of days gone by.
Like the tattoo – a roughly-drawn picture of a mynah bird perched on a branch – which one of his fellow refugees etched onto his left forearm when Dara was 21.
“I wanted it to attract the girls,” he said. A mischievous glimmer flits across his face, his eyes start to twinkle and he erupts in a bellowing belly-laugh that rocks his body.
He’s not sure where the laugh came from but puts it down to having an appreciation for getting through the dark days.
“I look at what I have now and it makes me feel stronger,” he says. “In the camps, I was very low. I survived mentally by comparing my life to others and knowing I could get through it. That everything comes to an end.
“Sometimes when I talk about those days, I can’t stop the tears. After 30 years, it may be forgivable but will never be forgettable.”
Dara was only 10 when war broke out in Cambodia and 15 when the Khmer Rouge invaded. His mother had given birth three days earlier to a baby boy, who his parents named Santapeep (“peace”) because they thought the country’s troubles were over, but suddenly the family was thrust into the chaos and tumult of a country ripped apart by conflict. Dara’s mother was forced to escape with a newborn baby, his father was imprisoned in a labour camp and Dara sent to work in the rice fields.
Two years after the invasion, in an attempt to find his father, Dara was arrested by the Khmer Rouge. He was marched to an abandoned rice mill, shackled and locked in a dark room. Later that night, the door opened and he was pushed outside with an AK47 at his back.
Walking barefoot through a banana plantation, he feared his last moment had come. He’d heard the Khmer Rouge killed people in these fields because their decaying bodies made good fertilizer and he fearfully anticipated the gunshot.
It never came.
Instead, he was marched to a Khmer Rouge prison where he was chained together with dozens of other prisoners and shackled to a steel bar.
“I knew I had to escape,” he said. “I checked out the fence when I slipped away to urinate while the other prisoners were having lunch and decided I would try to get over it”.
Urged on by his desire to escape, Dara sprinted toward the fence, leaped over it and kept running. Once back in his village, he looked for his mother who’d been sent away to work and, after he found her, learned she’d been told Dara had been shot, his liver eaten and his body dumped in the river.
“I was so angry that I joined the army,” he said. “I had no experience or training in how to shoot a gun but I was right on the frontline every day. I saw several of my friends get shot and, one day, I was walking with three friends when a mine exploded, killing all of them. That was the day I decided to leave the army”.
In the meantime, his family was living in Battambang and starving – five people surviving on handfuls of rice. They heard they could get handouts of free rice from a town near the Thai border so Dara walked – at night, along with hundreds of people, barefoot, 100 kilometers to the border – to get rice for his family.
“We were allowed 15 kilograms at a time,” he said. “My shoulders were red and swollen from carrying it so far, but there was nothing else I could do”.
At that point, Dara moved to a refugee camp where, in 1983, be began learning English and applied for a job with the United Nations Border Relief Operation (UNBRO) to teach in primary school in the camp.
By 1989, he was working as a translator and interpreter, landed a job editing a bi-weekly bulletin and began teaching Khmer to foreigners who worked in the camp.
But his troubles were still not over.
He wrote a petition for a neutral refugee camp, signing it with a pseudonym as protection, since he could be accused of working for the Vietnamese for spearheading this activity. Later that year, he was interviewed by a Time magazine correspondent who promised to protect his identity, then broke his promise and revealed his name in the magazine. One month later, Vanity Fair magazine not only used his name but published his photo in an article, with the caption “This is Mr. Than Dara, who wrote the petition for a neutral camp.”
“I will never forget the name of that journalist,” Dara said. “I could have been killed for being identified and I did not expect to be betrayed”.
Since it was no longer safe to remain in the camp, he paid a guide to get him across the border and navigate a route through the mine fields. He finally made it to Phnom Penh, without ID documents ,where he found his uncle and grandmother but was turned away from their home as they feared for their own safety by harbouring him.
On his uncle’s advice, Dara went to the police and confessed he’d escaped from a refugee camp. He was immediately arrested and spent the next 17 days being interrogated before he was set free.
A week after leaving police custody, he found a job with Save The Children Norway where he earned $250 a month for translation services and, in 1991, started working as a contract teacher for the VSO after the Paris Peace agreement was signed. He taught the first group of eight volunteers who came to Cambodia and worked as a contract translator and language instructor for OXFAM, VSA, OSB and other organizations.
The rest, as they say, is history. Dara now lives in Phnom Penh, travels to the provinces on teaching projects several times a year and raises two children with Sarah, his partner of 17 years, who he met in a classroom. He’s been interviewed by the BBC about his life, written about in a number of publications and earned the respect of his peers and students.
So what about his heroes? Who does Dara look up to and respect?
“Oh,” he smiled, wistfully, his face softened in reflection.”There’s someone very special I admire most who lost a husband, raised four children alone and never remarried or left her kids to have a life of her own.
”That’s my mum”.