The City of Refugees
It had been two years since we moved to live in Kompong Cham City. We had adapted and integrated well into our new environment. Everyone had been doing fine. Though my mother had to work a lot as a groceries salesperson, she nevertheless earned plenty of income to support the family. My father had gotten a new job as a civil servant in the Khmer Republic government. My second oldest brother, Heang, had passed his exam and been admitted to college. The third one, Sokha, had also passed his high school entrance exam. There were only two people left in primary school, my fourth brother, Sama, and I. My youngest sibling, Buntha, was still too young to join us in the primary school; he had just turned four years old.
I had entered the third grade now and had done well in class. I received straight A’s in every subject and was promoted to become the class’s peer leader. It was the happiest moment in my life to have been recognized and received merit in education for the first time. However, my happiness in learning achievements was soon covered by disruption and distress because of the Khmer Rouge’s insurgencies.
Since late 1970, the Khmer Rouge had been doing so well in organizing small guerrilla’s attacks on the government’s troops who had been stationed around the country, that they had captured many districts and town centers in rural areas, and now mobilized their forces to attack key cities and towns. The Viet Cong and North Vietnam had also helped them (Khmer Rouge) to strengthen their capability. They (Vietnamese) sent military experts in guerrilla warfare and tacticians to train the Khmer Rouge inside Cambodia. They even provided the Khmer Rouge with armaments, medicines, and other military supplies. The Khmer Rouge, in turn, allowed the Viet Cong to use any Cambodian territory they occupied and travel anywhere in the Khmer Rouge controlled zones. Consequently, the cooperation helped the Viet Cong a great deal in terms of military strategy. The Viet Cong would attack the South Vietnamese and American military posts along the Cambodian-Vietnamese border at night and cross the border back to Cambodia to hide in the villages during the day. The U.S. and South Vietnamese soldiers who were stationed in those posts would never have found out where the hell those Viet Cong came from to attack such places where there was rarely any Viet Cong guerrilla in sight. As a result, the confused situation led the U.S. to bomb the hell out of every jungle or place of hideout it suspected. Needless to say, not many successes were achieved with those bombs.
The Viet Cong had been playing this cat and mouse game for years with the Americans and their South Vietnamese ally. They even passed the tactic along to the Khmer Rouge. As for the American service personnel who were in charge of operations, it appeared that the bombs that were wasted in the Indochinese jungles were not in vain; it achieved the objectives while soldiers in the fields along the Vietnam-Cambodian borders were dying every night under the Viet Cong guerrilla’s ambushes. In hindsight, it was such a tragic consequence which had to be paid with so many lives of both American and South Vietnamese soldiers.
While the Viet Cong were wreaking havoc in South Vietnam, the Khmer Rouge increasingly expanded their insurrection in Cambodia. So far, the Khmer Rouge had won more battles than they lost. They had captured and cut off some main national highways that link many key cities to Phnom Penh and forced the Lon Nol soldiers who were stationed in the areas to confine themselves to the perimeters of provincial headquarters. The Khmer Rouge had tightened the grip around almost every city. Communications between many provinces were cut off. Ground transportation was also unsafe. Relatives who lived in different cities were separated and unable to make contact or pay any visit to one another. Government supplies to provinces were limited. To some places, it could be made through airlift only. As a consequence, food shortages and starvation were widespread.
To reduce the tension and help the Lon Nol government, the U.S. decided to send some South Vietnamese troops to Cambodia in a joint military effort to counterattack the Khmer Rouge and the Viet Cong. Most of the South Vietnamese troops were assigned to operate in the provinces east of the Mekong River where the Khmer Rouge and Viet Cong had established numerous sanctuaries and been very active. However, this joint military venture seemed to create more problems than solutions. Instead of looking for the Khmer Rouge or Viet Cong, those ill-disciplined South Vietnamese soldiers, many of whom were pedicab’s drivers or bandits who were rounded up from the streets of Saigon and thrown into the military camps, were looking out for their own interests. After enduring years of being ambushed by the Viet Cong, these half-hearted soldiers had no inclination to confront their enemies any more. They would dig foxholes next to villager’s homes to cover themselves at night and stay close to the local people throughout the mission. In the meantime, with their American-supplied M16 rifles as weapons, they would relentlessly rob and rape women in the villages whenever an opportunity arrived. Eventually, those supposedly friendly South Vietnamese soldiers created more trouble for the local people than the Khmer Rouge and Viet Cong combined. As a result, the relief mission became the exodus. People fled their homes whenever they saw the South Vietnamese troops moving into their areas.
As the presence of South Vietnamese troops and their rampant abuses of the local population spread, people started abandoning their homes by the thousands. The hardship which they used to endure was now no longer endurable. Waves of refugees left their villages and headed toward the townships where authority and order were bearable to live with. They left almost everything behind except for their children. Along the way, these people crossed many perilous lines where all parties to the conflict had their excuses to abuse them. If they were found out by the Khmer Rouge that they were leaving their villages to seek refuges in the government controlled areas, the Khmer Rouge would accuse them of defecting to the enemy’s side and arrest them. In some cases, they were imprisoned and tortured or even killed by the Khmer Rouge for switching sides. In a similar fashion, the friendly soldiers, namely the South Vietnamese, mistreated them as well. The South Vietnamese troops, who scattered around the area and frequently checked those refugees for signs of linkages to the Khmer Rouge, would occasionally confiscate or rob valuable property in their possessions.
While arriving in the city, the refugees had to face yet another calamity. Since the war began, living condition in the city had increasingly worsened. As the Khmer Rouge had cut off so many routes linking the different cities together, especially to the central government in Phnom Penh, government help in the form of food and shelter had been scarce. The prices of commodities and foodstuffs were shooting up like a rocket. Inflation was widespread, and the refugees who poured into the city suffered the most. Those who had relatives living in town were considered lucky, for they could at least find temporary shelter by living in with their kin. However, for many refugees who had neither relatives nor friends, they ended up living under the shade of trees along the city’s streets. Many of them found refuges in pagoda compounds and lived in whatever spaces they could find.
Responding to the crisis, the government had diverted some of its American aid food supplies and commodities to help these desperate people. It had created a food stamp-like system to bring some relief to the refugees by issuing welfare coupons which they could use to get food and commodities from relief agencies. However, in a place like Cambodia where corruption was always endemic, this noble American-inspired idea of issuing welfare coupons to help the desperately poor people was eventually exploited by corrupt officials. Since many of the refugees were peasants and farmers, they were less adapted to the urban environment and soon becoming easy targets for the many government officials who wanted to get rich quick. In a sad twist of fate, the refugees were being cheated upon by the very party they had come to seek help from. Most of the valuable goods and commodities which the government and charity groups had sent to help alleviate the hardship of the refugees landed in the market instead. Like fish out of water, many of the refugees were left to wander in the city’s streets without any hope of gaining footholds in the new environ.
I remembered, as a kid, I used to wander with my friends around the city’s sections where refugees lived. One day, I sneaked out of the school ground during a break and went across a street to visit a pagoda compound where hundreds of refugee families lived. The place seemed cool and composed despite so many people scattering their make-shift tent houses all around. There were a lot of kids about my age playing under the shade of a mango tree near the temple. Some of them looked after their younger brothers or sisters while their mothers were selling banana rice cakes or waffles on the sidewalks of the streets. They looked at me with wishful feelings as I walked by. From the bottom of my heart, I could sense that these refugee kids were not as happy as other kids in town. Though they giggled and laughed while playing, their laughter appeared to be not as thrilled as happy kids would naturally expressed. Judging from the look in their eyes, I could somehow detect what they were missing. Comparing between them and me, the new and the old refugees, we had few things in common. I wore neat clothes and went to school every day; they didn’t. My parents earned enough income to support the family; their parents could barely make enough money for a day-to-day basic food supply. I would go to see the movies with my brothers or stroll around town every weekend; they would not, because not many of them could afford such leisure. What was most depressing was that they missed a lot of opportunities which kids their ages should deserve, especially, a chance to attend school.
It was depressingly sad for people who witnessed the essence of calamity which these refugee kids and their parents endured. They had been displaced by the conflict in which they played no part. They had crossed many dangers and encountered countless terrors as they fled their homes. They had chosen an alternative option by risking their lives to rally to the government side in search of safety and security. But safety and security seemed to elude them constantly. Their hopes of finding safety and security came to a halt as the hopeless government gave them no hints of any effective helping hand. Starting from scratch in a desperate situation, the refugees had to sacrifice everything they had in order to coexist within the corrupt Lon Nol government which was decaying from the core of its leadership.
(To be continued)