Thursday, April 12, 2012

Khmer Rouge Re-Visit

To commemorate the events of the beginning of the Khmer Rouge’s reign of terror in Cambodia on April 17th 1975, I am posting below an excerpt from the book: WAR AND GENOCIDE: A Never-Ending Cycle of Human Brutality. For those of you who wanted to read this book in its entirety, you could go to amazon.com to obtain it in Kindle format. As a tribute to this event, the author will make it available for 24 hours at the cost of $0.99 (99 cents). The time for this promotion is between 8:00pm April 16th to 8:00pm April 17th Eastern Time Zone in USA.


The Last Gun Shot
After the Khmer Rouge’s artillery shell had claimed the life of a schoolgirl in the neighborhood, my father decided to stop letting me go to school for a while and wait for the safety situation to improve. As for me, having been so close to a fatal danger for the first time, the experience almost scared me to death. I sometimes had nightmares and kept hearing the word “Goodbye” the little girl had said to her friends. Though my parents still let me go and play around the house, I was so fearful of the Khmer Rouge’s artillery shell. I was even afraid to go down and swim in the Mekong River which was located just about a hundred yards from my doorstep. So instead of having fun swimming in the river, which I normally did, I spent most of my spare time sitting behind a pile of plywood on the ground floor of my house or playing marbles with the kids who lived next door. Life, for me, was again worrisome and confining. A few weeks had passed but the safety situation had yet to improve. The Khmer Rouge regularly fired their rockets into the city still to terrorize the people who lived across the river.
One day, a Khmer Rouge’s bullet hit the front pillar of our house at the ground floor and produced a small explosion. My brothers and I along with a few other people stood nearby the place of impact. Luckily, nobody was hurt. My father rushed to the scene and told us to go and stay behind a pile of plywood. Later on, as things were quiet, we went to see the spot where the bullet hit and found a fairly large scar on the pillar. We felt that scar with our fingers and thought, among ourselves, that if that bullet were to hit someone, it could have killed or caused serious injury to that person.

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On April 13, 1975, as people around the country were quietly celebrating the Cambodian New Year, the Khmer Rouge cold bloodedly delivered their final military assault on Phnom Penh. According to the government’s radio, the Khmer Rouge relentlessly intensified their attack on Phnom Penh. Four days later, on April 17, we heard that the government in Phnom Penh had surrendered to the Khmer Rouge.
The news of the Phnom Penh government surrendering to the Khmer Rouge created great hysteria or jubilation among the war-weary population. To most people, it was the end of an era, a milestone of a revolution, and a beginning of a somewhat uncertain future. The collapse of the Phnom Penh government offered not only optimism and hope for a peaceful future, but it also unified the country and put an end to a senseless bloodshed and carnage between Cambodians and Cambodians. So to celebrate that joyous moment, many people jubilantly went out into the streets waving little homemade white flags, some hugged each other, and some went to the City Hall to confirm the news.

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The End of a Beginning
The next morning, I woke up to the tumultuous sounds of gun shots and chaotic noises. There was a commotion of panic and emergency everywhere. I heard people scream and yell from every direction in the neighborhood. Some people told their children to pack up their clothes and blankets while others asked their neighbors what the hell was going on. Nobody seemed to know what was going on, but one thing everyone knew for sure was that the Khmer Rouge had just come into town, and that those sounds of gun shots were either a salute to victory or an act of intimidation.

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I looked up at the house for the last time as we stepped out into the street. In the midst of the crowd, we pushed our way northward toward the traffic circle in front of the old courthouse. As we approached the circle we saw some people traveling opposite our direction. At first we thought that they were just going the opposite way, however, as we arrived at the circle, we found that people were being turned away from crossing the intersection. Those who lived on the southern part of the intersection had to go south; and those who lived on the north had to go north. The Khmer Rouge used the intersection at the circle as a dividing point to direct people out of the city. There were several Khmer Rouge soldiers standing on every street leading to the circle. However, there were no signs or roadblocks of any kind to indicate to the people which way they should or could not go. Before word-of-mouth news about which direction people should follow to get out of the city spread among the general masses, those who had traveled the wrong direction had to go all the way up to the point where the Khmer Rouge set up their blockades to turn them around. Hence, the intersection around the circle were jam-packed with people who were either trying to ask the Khmer Rouge soldiers for permission to cross to the other side of the intersection or making their way around to follow the right direction.

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The Khmer Rouge’s harsh treatment and apathetic attitude toward the people whom they force evacuated from the city seemed to take everyone by surprise because no one had anticipated or foreseen that they would be that cruel and ruthless, especially toward civilians. But as reality began to unfold, we gradually realized that the Khmer Rouge had little or no regard for our calamity. To them, we were no more than a conquered population who was to be subjected to harsh treatment. Every time we met them, we saw a familiar stern, stoic, and indifferent look on their face -- a kind of chilling reception normally issued by one mortal enemy to another. As we walked pass the Khmer Rouge soldiers, who sometimes stood on the sides of the road, I couldn’t help but noticing their facial expressions. They were cold, reserved, and resentful. They were also full of hatred.
Life in the Communist Regime
Angkar’s Viney or the Organization’s rules (in short, the Khmer Rouge’s rules), were absolute, and they were not something to be questioned. As we soon learned, those who disobeyed or committed infractions against the Khmer Rouge’s rules would usually pay with their lives. Thus, we began to take great care regarding our daily conduct in order to avoid being seen as not obeying the organization’s rules. One dilemma for us and the rest of the evacuees was that those rules were not written. They were what local Khmer Rouge’s cadres and villagers told us. As a result, we had to follow whatever directions the local Khmer Rouge cadres and villagers ordered us to do.
One of the first steps we took to comply with the Khmer Rouge’s rules was to transform ourselves into farmers, for the new society envisioned by the Khmer Rouge was supposed to be classless. Unlike industrialized countries, Cambodia’s economy was largely based on agriculture; and the so-called proletarian class in Cambodia was composed mostly of farmers and peasants. Therefore, joining the ranks of farmers and peasants would be a good first step in integrating into and becoming members of the Khmer Rouge’s classless society. At first, we were rather confused as to what the term classless meant. But we soon realized that by classless the Khmer Rouge meant that people were no longer allowed to have options in making decisions regarding matters concerning their lives. Everything would be decided upon by the organization or Angkar, the almighty monster representing the collective Khmer Rouge’s leadership, from village’s chiefs to the head of state.

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During our stay in Prek Rumdeng, we were required to participate in agricultural work activities with local villagers so as to acquaint ourselves with the new lifestyle to which we would be subjected. By that point, the Khmer Rouge had classified the population into two categories: base people, and new people (Projeajun Moulathan ning Projeajun Thmey). Base people were those who lived in the countryside or under the Khmer Rouge’s control areas during the civil war. As for the new people, anyone who did not live under the Khmer Rouge’s control areas prior to their victory would fall into this category. All new people had to learn from and listen to base people in order to assimilate and integrate into the new society which would be based on socialism and communism. As we were to learn later on, the Khmer Rouge’s classification of our status was a cynical ploy to subjugate one group of people under the whim of another. In reality, this classification was a form of collective physical and mental punishment meted out to the new people whom the Khmer Rouge considered tainted with capitalist influences. So much for a classless society!
In addition to learning from and listening to base people, all new people were also subjected to weekly political indoctrination sessions on socialism and communism. Though these political indoctrination sessions appeared to be designed to help orient and integrate new people into the new society, the underlying rhetoric of the sessions was unmistakably aimed at persecuting them. The word enemy (khmang) had been prominently featured in every political indoctrination session. In the Khmer Rouge rhetorical jargon, enemy existed everywhere. Therefore, everyone must be vigilant and actively seek to rid himself or herself of this enemy. And what were the criteria for consideration as an enemy? Nobody knew for sure. But as we were to learn later, any infraction, be it going to work late or failing to attend a meeting, could be considered enemy of the organization or Angkar, which was the worst situation to be in since being considered Angkar’s enemy was like being put on death row.
Marching Toward the Inferno
After spending almost a year in Prek Rumdeng, we received word that all new people in the village would be sent to help cultivate lands in the northwestern regions of the country. Most of us, residents of the agricultural village, received the news with mixed feelings, for we didn’t know what would happen to us once we were sent to the new location. However, there was nothing we could do to change our fates. In the Khmer Rouge’s society there was only one choice for people to make regarding their destiny: following the organization’s directives. Angkar dak teus or the organization’s directives were more powerful than God’s commands that no one, not even the Khmer Rouge cadres themselves, dared question. As we were to learn later, many people paid with their lives when their impulses, be it questioning the rationale of the directives or just foraging for food to stave off death from starvation, had the misfortunes of colliding with the organization’s directives.

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At about 4:30 p.m., our truck made another stop in a small township called Staung, which was located in the western region of Kompong Thom province. As we disembarked the truck, which was, by then, becoming routine for us, we were told to unload our belongings from the truck, put them in one of the abandoned shop houses, and wait there for further instruction. We did as told, and, as soon as we emptied the truck, the driver took off without even saying goodbye to us. Just as we were about to settle down to prepare for our temporary stay in that township, we saw many oxcarts, apparently driven by local villagers, arriving in town. Some of them came to stop in front of the abandoned houses where we were staying. A few minutes later, we saw what appeared to be local Khmer Rouge cadres walking around telling people to put their belongings in the oxcarts and be ready for departure. Once again, we quickly loaded our belongings onto the oxcarts and stood ready for our departure. As we were loading our belongings onto an oxcart, we realized that it was too small to carry all of our things. Thus, my mother told Aunt Muoy and her husband to quickly claim one of the nearest oxcarts to carry their belongings. Her instinct was that the closer the oxcarts were to each other, the more likely they were coming from the same village. Therefore, we wouldn’t be separated from each other once we were transported to our next destination.

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Our oxcart came to a stop in front of a fairly large house built on stilts. There were a few water buffalos being kept under the house, as it was a common practice for farmers to use the ground under their homes as shelters for farm animals. As soon as we arrived in front of the house, a middle-aged couple, presumably the home owners, with torches in their hands came down to greet and welcome us into their home as if we were their long lost relatives. The couple told us to bring our belongings upstairs as they held up the torches to illuminate the staircase. One corner of the house had been neatly arranged for us as sleeping quarters. It appeared that our hosts had been prepared and properly choreographed by Khmer Rouge officials to provide hospitality for us. There was a small metal container flickering with flame inside, sitting in the middle of the house. The container was some sort of a homemade open fireplace that served as lighting for the house as well as keeping the inhabitants warm during cooler times. After we settled down, our hosts spent a few minutes to chat with us, telling us what to do should our needs, especially our bodily biological functions, arise. They told us to light up the sticks lying next to the stove to use as torches to find our way to the outhouse, which was located in the backyard behind the house, should we need to go use it during the night. As soon as the burning wood, which was the subject of our curiosity since our arrival in the village, was mentioned, my father took the opportunity to ask our hosts what kind of wood it was. Our hosts told us that those burning woods were cut off from a kind of pine tree called Srall which was grown deep in the jungle.

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The people of Ponlear Chey were probably direct descendants of the Angkorian Khmer population whose settlements stretched from the Korat’s plateau which is now the Issan region of Thailand, to the southern part of Battambang province, Cambodia, with Siem Reap province, and Angkor stood in the middle as the cultural center. One common bond among the people who settled along this corridor was the Khmer language spoken with a distinct dialect and accent which sometimes left other Khmer speakers searching for proper or equivalent meanings in amusement. Beside the primitive lifestyles such as using wood to burn as torches or as illuminating light at home at night and a lacquer-sealing basket to scoop water from the well, there were a number of odd and strange things that we needed to learn in order to readjust our lives to fit into yet another alien way of life on top of the Khmer Rouge’s utopian society. The first order of businesses for all of us, new people, who had been dropped off in almost every house in the village, was to quickly learn the village’s way of life. A quick survey of the materials being used around the houses and in the village revealed that we were being sent back in time to live in fourteenth or fifteenth century Cambodia. Because of the lack of materials, such as metal and plastic, which might have resulted from the civil war and the isolation of the village, people in Ponlear Chey mostly used wood and vines to forge some farm tools and household utensils. One of these marvelous utensils which impressed me the most was the water bucket called Kruos. It was made from bamboo skins weaved neatly in the shape of a rice measurement container called Tao. As a matter of fact, the two products looked identical except that Kruos had a lacquered coating over its skin to keep water from leaking out. Another indication of our traveling back in time to 15th century Cambodia was the way villagers dressed themselves. Perhaps due to the civil war which cut off access to commodities, many people in the village walked around barefoot and had few clothes to cover themselves. Most men used a piece of cloth called Kansaeng or Krama to wrap around the lower half of their bodies while leaving the upper half bare. As for the women folks, usually married women with children, they used a piece of cloth called Sampot to wrap around the lower half of their body and the Krama to wrap around and cover their bosoms. What was even more amazing to me was that people still used the ancient method to produce yarn from raw cotton. I remembered one day I saw our host, Om Po, bring out a small bag of cotton and a tiny homemade spinning wheel. She laid out a homemade mat, which was made from a plant leaves called Rumchek , right in the middle of the house and began to process the raw cotton into yarn. She used an instrument which looked like a bow to break the cotton fibers into individual strains and piled them up in a basket container. Afterwards, she set up the spinning wheel and began to twist the cotton fibers into yarn. Once all the cotton fibers had been spun into yarn, she brought out a tiny loom which looked nothing like the loom I had seen before and proceeded to weave the yarn into a small blanket. It has been more than 30 years now since I witnessed this rudimentary weaving, but I still remember vividly that Om Po tied one end of the yarn around her waist as she proceeded to weave that small blanket. What surprised me the most about this extraordinary scene was that 30 years later when I was doing research to write a book called The Cambodian Royal Chronicle (Vantage Press, 2009), I stumbled upon a report by a Chinese envoy named Chou Ta-Kuan who had visited Cambodia in 1297. His report, entitled The Customs of Cambodia, described the exact scene I had witnessed in this Cambodian village of Ponlear Chey as a teenager.
Trial and Tragedy
Following the universal policy of the Khmer Rouge, people were divided into work brigades according to their ages, not their abilities. My father once again went to work at the village’s crafting center, while my mother and the rest of my older brothers went to work in the rice fields. Once the rice harvesting was done, all the adults were mobilized to build dikes or dig small canals in preparation for the upcoming planting season. As for the children, we were once again ordered to go into the fields to collect dried cattle dung and bring them to the compost pits to be turned into fertilizer. Every morning, I set off along with Oss, our host’s son, to look after the water buffalos while, at the same time, collecting any dried cattle dung we might find in the fields to bring back to the compost pits. Oss taught me how to ride and handle water buffalo while we were out in the fields. Though I was still afraid of the beasts, my experience with the young oxen in Prek Rumdeng had given me some confidence to overcome my fear. So with Oss as my instructor, I climbed up on the back of one of the buffalos to ride along with him. It was my maiden ride on the back of a water buffalo, and the experience was rather exhilarating for me. However, as I belatedly learned upon the conclusion of my ride, the water buffalo’s back and its skin gave me the greatest surprise of a life time. Oss showed me how to ride on the water buffalo’s back, but he didn’t tell me how or where to sit on it. Naively, I sat close to its shoulder where the beast’s vertebra protruded upward. As a result, the end of my behind smacked right against the protruded vertebra which caused severe inflammation to that sensitive area. As soon as I dismounted from the water buffalo’s back, I knew that something was wrong with my rear end. The pain was so excruciating that it gave me renewed respect for the expression “pain in the butt.” In addition, I was wearing shorts while riding on the water buffalo’s back, and as my skin touched the beast’s hide, rashes and blisters developed all over my legs. Upon arriving home, I was in very bad shape and crying in pain. After inspecting the rashes and blisters on my legs, Om Po brought me a handful of rice kernels and told me to put the grains into my mouth and chew on them until they became milky powder, then sprayed it onto my affected legs. I did as told, and afterward, lay down on my stomach to recover from the ordeal.

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As the rainy reason began in full swing, the emergence of malaria-borne mosquitoes appeared to be everywhere. Because of our primitive living condition and the lack of protection from mosquito bites, there was little chance for us to protect ourselves from malarial diseases. There were a couple of old mosquito nets that we still had in our possession. Every night, we would crawl inside them to sleep. But that flimsy line of defense was no match for the cunning mosquitoes. Soon we were struck down by malaria one after another. The first person to succumb to malaria was my father. Each day he would suffer a few bouts of shivering and sweating before the disease gave him a short break. I remembered each time my father went into shivering, he would ask me to put a couple of blankets to cover him and lie on top of his uncontrollably shaking body to keep him warm.

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My father’s illness had become desperately critical. As we were helplessly watching my father suffering and dying, one of our neighbors suggested that we should approach the village’s authority and ask for permission to take him to the district hospital in case the hospital had medicines to treat him. It was a good idea but we were wary about the Khmer Rouge’s hospitals. Through the grapevine rumors, we heard that the Khmer Rouge’s hospital staff was notoriously unkind and careless toward patients, especially new people. In a sense, the Khmer Rouge’s hospitals were nothing more than places where sick people were sent to hasten their demises. After a long and hard thinking, my mother finally decided to send my father to the district hospital despite her awareness of what the Khmer Rouge’s hospital was like. It was so surreal to see my mother struggled to make a decision against her own will, a decision that could only happen in movies. Though I wasn’t closely involved with my mother’s decision-making, I could sense that she was torn between two forces — her love of my father and her love of the family as a whole.
In a somber mood, my brother, Hong, went to ask for permission to take my father to the district hospital. The village’s authority gave him a written pass and a bicycle to take my father to the hospital, for my father was too weak to be able to walk all the way to the hospital, which was located about six miles away. At about 10 o’clock in the morning, Hong and my father set off for the hospital. As my father was about to ride on the bicycle’s saddle behind Hong, my mother handed him a tiny bag containing a small blanket and a pair of clean clothes to change into when he washed the ones he was wearing. Without saying a word, my father took one last look at us pleadingly as if he was begging for mercy. We all tried to maintain eye contact with him as short as possible and acted optimistically in front of the many villagers who came to see him off. Amid well wishes from villagers, Hong pedaled the bicycle slowly with my father sitting precariously behind him. From the corner of my eye, I saw my mother turn around and walk back into the house with a heavy heart. Her eyes were filled with pain and sadness.

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At about 4:30 in the early morning hours, we all woke up to a rather strange sound. It was my father making painful sounds. At that instance, we all knew that something had gone terribly bad with his health. Through my mother’s trembling voice asking my father to respond to her, we all knew that the devil was about to claim his soul. Om Po burned a torch to give the house some illumination as my mother continued to ask my father to respond to her. But there was no discernible answer coming out of my father’s mouth. He continued to moan in pain. He arched his back up slightly and his body appeared stiff. At that point, his moan died out slowly. In his final attempt to stay alive, my father struggled to take in a gulp of oxygen; but it was in vain. He died in the middle of his breathing with his eyes still open as if his body refused to die. My mother put a white handkerchief to cover my father’s face and we all sat around his lifeless body to let reality sink in.
The Silent Genocide
About one week after my father’s death, all my older brothers (except Hong) were called up by the Khmer Rouge authority to join the youth work brigade. They would be away from home for months at a time camping in the fields where they worked. Perhaps out of sympathy, Om Po’s father, Ta Plaok, had secured permission for my mother to work with him and other elderly villagers growing vegetables along the bank of the Staung River for communal consumption. Ta Plaok also used his influence as a village elder to get me to work with him in the vegetable gardens as well, under the pretext that he and a few other elderly men, who had to stay at the gardens days and nights to prevent animals from going into the gardens and destroy the plants, were too old and feeble. They needed me to assist them in foraging for woods and vines to build fences around the gardens as well as climbing up and collecting palm tree sap to supplement their diets.
During my stay at the vegetable garden, the Khmer Rouge’s round-up of new people for execution intensified. Many families, all of them new people, began to disappear quietly. We were told that they were being relocated to live and work in some faraway communes. But, in reality they were sent to the execution sites somewhere in the region. It appeared that most of the people who were slated for execution were those whom the Khmer Rouge authority deemed unproductive, or they were suspected of working for the previous regime. To keep a low profile, Ta Plaok told me to avoid going into the village too often so that I would be out of sight of the Khmer Rouge’s vigilantes. As a gesture of help, Yeay Nhong, who had just been forced by the Khmer Rouge’s Angkar to relinquish her large home to be used as communal dining hall and lived on a small plot of land about a quarter of a mile from the village, agreed to take my little brother, Buntha, under her wing by having him help her son look after her cows. Hence, no one in our family was around in the village. We all were out and about doing work for Angkar every day.

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After learning of Ta Chim’s immoral behavior, I immediately thought about my mother’s earlier encounter with his flirtation. All of a sudden, I was having second thought about my mother’s story, that she might be a victim of Ta Chim’s misdeed as well. My greatest fear was that my mother might have been raped by Ta Chim, and that she did not report it to anyone, for fear of reprisal or, worse, being killed by the Khmer Rouge. The more I thought about the possibility, the more distressed I felt. I wanted to ask my mother to get to the bottom of it; but I somehow held back and hoped that my suspicion was unfounded. For years, I continued to live with that agonizing suspicion. But, the feeling that my mother might have been a rape victim during the Khmer Rouge regime never faded away from my mind. After the Khmer Rouge’s regime was toppled from power, I summoned my courage a few times to ask my mother about it. However, I fell short of doing so, for fear of opening up an old wound that my mother had spent all of these years trying to heal, or cover up. It took me 29 years to finally overcome my fear and ask perhaps one of the most unwanted questions to a person I loved and respected dearly. The day was August 22, 2006, during a layover in Singapore’s Changi Airport on our last journey to Cambodia together that I decided to ask my mother that painful question. Because of the reverse time of day, we couldn’t sleep. Thus, my mother and I sat next to each other in our hotel room and reminisced on our past. We talked about life in the old days, how we coped with the difficulty of living in refugee camps in Thailand, and how fortunate we were to be able to go and live in the United States of America. But the majority of our conversation focused mostly on our ordeals living under the Khmer Rouge’s rule. I was very impressed at how my mother recalled past events so vividly despite her having a mature Parkinson’s disease. While we were talking about our lives during the Khmer Rouge period, I gingerly and uneasily steered our conversation to the time we spent at Ponlear Chey village. After recalling our work at the vegetable garden and the names of people who were working with us there, I closed my eyes and agonizingly asked my mother if Ta Chim had violated her. In a calm and serene voice, my mother said, no. Beside his flirtatious talk, Ta Chim did not misbehave. I felt so relieved to hear that my mother had been spared from the cruelty of life’s circumstances.

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After about three months of working at the dam’s construction camp, we were moved to a different location to help finish up that portion. At the new location, we were able to see what the dam looked like. It was shaped like the curve of a buffalo’s horn. Our new location was at the tip of one end of it. A few days after we arrived at our new work location, Samoeun, Om Po’s nephew, Penh, the boy who taught me how to climb and collect palm tree’s saps, I, and a couple of other fellow slave laborers decided to run away from the camp and go home. Samoeun, the oldest among us and appeared to be knowledgeable of the area, was our ring leader. At the appointed time under the cover of darkness, we met up and sneaked out of the camp surreptitiously. Our escape route was to follow the bank of the Staung River walking upstream. When we encountered a village, we would make a detour and came back to the bank of the river again. By early dawn, we made it across National Highway 6 and were on our way toward Ponlear Chey. We kept walking along the bank of the Staung River or close to it and pretended that we were local kids going about finding vines and forest products to be used in making farm implements. At about noon time, we made it to Ponlear Chey and quietly slipped into the village. Despite the fact that we made it home safe and sound, I was quite scared afterward, for I didn’t know what repercussion I would face once the Khmer Rouge authority found out that I had deserted from a labor camp. Fortunately, the dam’s building children workforces were dismissed two days later, and nobody seemed to take notice of our early arrival. Though I was spared from the consequence of my foolish action, my mother scolded me for making such a careless decision.

Disobeying Angkar’s Viney
A few weeks later, I was called up to join the children’s work brigade again. This time, we were sent to the sub-district headquarters, Bonteay Staung, where we would meet up with other children from the surrounding villages. There were about 200 of us altogether, and we were divided into battalions called Kang Roy, Kang Ha (Group of 100 and 50, respectively) which were supervised by leaders selected from the youth brigade. We were further divided into groups of 25 which were headed by our peers. Though we sometimes crossed paths or worked side by side with the youth brigades, we were not allowed to commingle with them. However, there were some occasions when both the youth and children brigades were summoned to attend a meeting together which gave us opportunity to commingle briefly in the gathering place. During those meeting occasions, I met my brothers, Sokha and Sama, a few times. My brothers gave me some pointers regarding the youth leaders who were appointed to supervise us. They admonished me to be wary of those leaders and not to do anything that might displease them, for they had absolute authority over my life.

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One afternoon, after coming to fetch our lunch from the camp’s kitchen, I felt my legs shaking and a sheer fatigue throughout my body, a sign of weakness due to prolonged malnutrition. So I told my team leader that I didn’t feel well and would like to take the rest of the afternoon off. Afterward, I went to the hut which was our sleeping quarters and lay down to give my body a much needed rest. A couple of hours later, I heard someone yell at the far end of the hut calling everyone to come out and assemble in front of it. From the tone of his voice, I knew instantly that there was trouble ahead. I got up slowly and made my way to the gathering place. There I found a man named Chay, who was our brigade’s leader, and a few of my colleagues who, like me I presumed, were feeling unwell as well. Chay told us to sit in a half circle in front of him as he was preparing to interrogate us to inquire what were the causes of our staying in the hut while everyone else was out working in the fields. Among the six or so people who were being interrogated, I was the youngest and smallest. Hence, Chay picked on me first. He asked me what kind of sickness I had that warranted my absence from going to work. I told him that I had a temperature and that I felt fatigue so badly this afternoon. Chay put the palm of his hand on my forehead to feel my temperature and afterward chastised me that I was pretending to be sick, and that my sickness was not real. It was an emotional sickness, chheur sateh arom. As he vented his rage at me, Chay drew his hand in a motion of slapping me in the face for not convincing him enough of my sickness. Instantly, I closed my eyes and waited for the inevitable punishment. But Chay somehow stopped short of slapping me. He then turned to a young man named Met who sat next to me. “What is the matter with you?” he asked Met. “I am sick.” Met answered him matter-of-factly. “Liar!” Chay screamed. “You all are lazy pretending to be sick.” He went on. In an attempt to defend his innocence, Met interjected that if he were not sick, he would not stay away from work. Chay was enraged upon hearing Met’s rebuttal to his accusation. In a split second, he stepped forward and kicked Met right on the chest. Met fell backward and struggled to sit up again as he was assessing the damages to his mouth and chest from the impact of Chay’s kicking. His mouth bled profusely. But no one dared say a word. We all sat still as stones waiting for Chay to make his next move.
After venting his rage at Met, Chay seemed to have fulfilled his callous behavior. In a mood of contempt, he ordered us to get out of his sight and never again use illness as a pretext to stay away from work. Under Chay’s sharp gaze, we sheepishly and quietly went back into the hut. As we were walking into the hut, I stole a quick glance at Met to see how badly hurt he was. His lips were badly swollen as Chay’s knee might have hit them when he delivered his kick. Met was really in bad shape. But nothing we could do to help him. Not even a word of sympathy. In the Khmer Rouge’s silent code of conduct, anyone who was punished by a cadre or cadres should be shunned. Hence, it was prudent to stay away from a person being punished whether that person was guilty or not. With a helpless feeling, I went to my sleeping quarters and lay down waiting for the rest of the afternoon to pass by.
A World of Uncertainty
One day, out of the blue, my mother came to visit me during our noon time break for lunch. My mother, along with a small group of other younger elderly from Ponlear Chey, had been sent to work in a field near Bonteay Staung (the distance between Ponlear Chey and Bonteay Staung was a walk of about an hour and a half) and she took the opportunity to make inquiry of my whereabouts once she learned that the children’s mobile brigades had been stationed there. During her lunch break, my mother went to the place where the children from the mobile work brigades came to receive their meal ration and eventually tracked me down to the house where I was staying. I was both surprised and excited to see my mother. We talked briefly because my mother had to return to her worksite. Just as she was about to walk back to work, my mother took me aside, pulled from her shirt pocket a sweet yam, which she had steam-cooked in her kettle early in the morning before she came to work, and put it discreetly in my hand. Without waiting for her to tell me what to do with it, I gobbled up the whole yam and savored every bit of it. It was the tastiest yam I had ever tasted in my life. After seeing that I had eaten all the forbidden food (under Khmer Rouge’s draconian rule, possession of foodstuff other than that given by Angkar, even a yam, could get a person in trouble), my mother returned to her worksite.

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One evening, while I was returning from work, I felt extremely fatigued and my body temperature appeared to be high. Upon arriving at our lodge, I went to the homeowners to ask if they had any coin that I could borrow to use as a scratching device to scratch my skin in a form of Cambodian traditional treatment called kaus khchol. As I went into their quarters, I walked in front of a tall vanity mirror which was imbedded in the door of a six-foot tall cabinet. Upon seeing my image in the mirror, I was quite startled that my flesh and bones looked like a living skeleton. My eyes sank rather deeply into their sockets and the muscle on my face shrank to reveal the contour of my cheek bones which made my head looked more like a skull than a living human head. At that instance, I realized that my mother must have been moved by the fact that I was a walking skeleton which compelled her to use any means possible to find food to feed me and risk being punished by the Khmer Rouge’s authority just for the sake of saving me from starving to death.
Returning Home
By early January 1979, we began to hear the sounds of transport trucks going along the dirt road leading northwestward, which was unusual given the fact that that isolated dirt road rarely saw any motorized vehicles traveling on it besides the oxcarts. When Ret went to fetch our weekly rations at the communal warehouse, we asked him to inquire about those transport trucks as to why they were traveling through this isolated dirt road. To our surprise, Ret told us that those transport trucks carried loads of people and materials apparently on the run. That evening, Eav went to see the commune’s chief and other Khmer Rouge’s notables to find out what was going on. He returned to the camp at about seven o’clock in the evening and told us to pack up and go home because there was no one remaining in the commune’s office. Apparently, the Khmer Rouge’s cadres in the commune had run away or gone into hiding.
Not knowing what to do, Ret divided the rice rations among everyone, and we all went our separate ways toward home. Ponlear Chey, the village I came from, was located farthest away from the camp. To get there, I had to walk through three other villages, Phum Bonteay Staung, Phum Chonloss, and Phum Po. Between each village, there was an empty span of rice field at a distance of about one mile. Among the kids in my camp, two of them lived in Phum Po, and I was the only one who was from Ponlear Chey. This would mean that I had to walk across that empty span of rice field between Phum Po and Phum Ponlear Chey alone. But I had no choice. Staying in the camp alone overnight was out of the question. So with fear and anxiety, I returned home in the dark with the two kids who were from Phum Po. After the two kids reached their houses, I walked alone toward home in pitch darkness with only some stars overhead. That last few miles of walking home toward freedom was perhaps the scariest experience I had ever had in my life. I still have goose-flesh when recalling that particular experience.


The house in which I used to live at Phum Ponlear Chey

A reunion: The host, Om Po, and the sojourner (author) met again after 33 years.


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