After a few weeks of turmoil and chaos around the country, everything began to turn back to normal. People started to go about their businesses as usual. By looking at people’s activities, there appeared to be no sign of civil conflict in sight except for the occasional thunder-like explosions occurring in a faraway distance, presumably American bombs which might have been dropped by the U.S. Air Force on the Viet Cong’s bases somewhere between the Cambodian and South Vietnamese border. However, the tranquility around the community where my family resided seemed to have something suspicious going on. Each day, my father would go to work surreptitiously in the morning and return home late in the evening as if he was probing every move he made. The socialization among neighbors seemed to be less cheerful as well. People seemed to be on guard and very cautious in their interactions with one another as though they were being watched. In fact, the community was experiencing something mutually fractious among its inhabitants. There were rumors that those supporters of Prince Sihanouk, who had joined the Khmer Rouge, would come to raid the villages and get those who refused to join or support them. There were also rumors about certain people’s names that they already had put on their black list.
One day, I heard a strange noise moving over my head. It was an airplane flying at a very low altitude above the villages located along the eastern bank of the Mekong River. I looked up and saw thousands of pieces of papers falling from the sky. Obviously, they were dropped from the airplane. As a kid, curious and naïve, I ran out into the open fields and picked up as many flyers as I could and brought them to the house. Some people came over and took a look at the flyers. The flyers were government propaganda and campaign tracts to stop the people from believing in Prince Sihanouk and supporting the Khmer Rouge. Each tract had a caricature picture of Prince Sihanouk wearing black pajama uniform and Ho Chi Minh’s (former North Vietnamese Communist leader) sandals, opening the gate of a typical Cambodian home, and making gesture to the Viet Cong guerrillas to come inside. Beside the pictures, there were several lines of hand-written statements saying that Prince Sihanouk was a traitor who sold Cambodia to the Communist Viet Cong and North Vietnamese. He had betrayed the Cambodian people by illegally opening the Cambodian border and allowing the Viet Cong to use Cambodian territories as military bases. The messages had caught many Cambodians by surprise. However, the government’s campaign to win the hearts and minds of the jittery population seemed to have little impact on those who lived in the countryside and rural areas. Many of these people had already gone to join the Khmer Rouge, and they had little chance of returning back to where they were before except for going along with their commitments. Some villagers who were not interested in supporting Prince Sihanouk or the Khmer Rouge but lived close to the Khmer Rouge’s operating areas had to move away from their homes and go find refuges somewhere else. But for those who were unable to get away from the Khmer Rouge, they had no choices except to stay where they were and mutually cooperate with or tacitly lend their support to them.
One morning I saw my mother begin to pack our belongings. She looked anxious and worried. I quietly approached her and was about to ask her why she started packing stuff, but my instinct held me back. Without saying a word, I went to my room and picked up a basic Cambodian textbook for elementary school pupils to read.
Later on in the afternoon, I learned that my family was about to move to Kompong Cham City, the third largest city in Cambodia which was located just across the Mekong River about four or five miles from my house. Before we left for Kompong Cham, I remembered asking my mother several questions:
“Why do we have to move?”
“How about grandma, uncles, aunts, and their families; aren’t they going to go with us?”
“Are we going to abandon our house, our farms, and all the livestock here?”
No answers, but tears. My mother did not respond even a single word to me. Some of my uncles had come over to help carry the bags and luggage to the riverbank where a small boat was waiting to transport us across the river. I was in shock and couldn’t believe it. My parents abandoned their newly built house, a huge beautiful traditional Cambodian house, which they had just finished building a year before, and all the property they had. It was emotionally painful for every one of us, especially my parents. From the calm expression on their faces, I could see the anguish and uncertainty which they were to face in the future. But strong as they were, my parents had revealed little of their worries to us kids, for, psychologically, they did not want us to get involved in the situation which could affect our future.
As we headed toward Kompong Cham City, my uncles remained standing on the bank of the river. Emotionally, it was a painful moment as we bade goodbye to each other. The boat took us across the river; and under the glaring sunset light of that gloomy evening, we sadly waved our hands to bid farewell to our relatives who stood motionless on the shore. They slowly waved back to us. Some of them wiped away their tears. They stood there and watched us until the boat took us far away from the shore and disappeared into the darkness of the night.
(To be continued)