The Siege of 1973
It was the beginning of the rainy season. Pushing by the seasonal Monsoon winds, thick black clouds occasionally rose from the Indian Ocean and moved toward Southeast Asia bringing along with them violent tropical rainstorms that would sometimes knock out electric power in the city. However, the rain had nevertheless regenerated new life around our rental home. The jasmine flowers which were planted in a clay pot beside the staircases had grown up beautifully with new stems shooting up and blooming flowers. About a few feet from the fences, banana trees had produced new leaves providing shade for their new shoots which were growing up from their bases. But despite the cool spray of the first seasonal rain which Mother Nature had brought about, the lively blossom of the greeneries seemed to last only as long as the morning. As the rain drops dissipated, intense heat waves had brought back the dry and dreary scenery which seemed to epitomize the cheerlessness of a country at war and of the people whose lives were just as changeable as the scenery itself. Today, the garden plants grow because of the rain. But, tomorrow, they would have to withstand the heat that beat upon them by the hot climate of the tropical sun. In a sense, our worrisome lives under the shadow of a civil war appeared to be not much different from the lives of these heat-beaten garden plants.
One afternoon, as I was feeding my goldfish on the ground floor of my house, I saw my brother, Hong, who was in the army, come home. (I used to go to the nearby lake with other kids in the neighborhood to catch those goldfish, put them in a bottle or jar filled with water, and hide them somewhere near the house as my parents didn’t want me to keep such pets; they knew that I and other kids would make the fish fight while they were not home. Of course I did it regularly). With great excitement, I jumped up and ran toward my brother. Since he had gone to join the army, my brother paid a few visits home but never one unexpected like that. He smiled wanly as I approached him. I looked at his expressionless face and grabbed him by the hand. He was very calm; his hand was cold and felt like something else rather than a hand. The first question my brother asked me was: “Are Mom and Dad home?” I told him that they were probably at the central market where mother sold groceries and would be home around 5 or 6 o’clock in the evening.
While we were walking upstairs, I sensed a chill from the apparent terror emitting from my brother’s body language. I knew that my brother must be up to something because his home visit this time was quite different from the ones before. He looked awful. Instead of wearing the elegant American-supplied camouflage uniforms, he wore a short sleeve civilian T-shirt with a pair of dirty green pants and a pair of old flip-flop sandals. There was a small, almost empty sac on his back. Psychologically, he seemed to be in a terrifying state of mind. His face was pale. There was a hint of fear in his eyes. As he lay down on the coach, my brother told me that he had just suffered a defeat under the Khmer Rouge’s attack.
Like lightening struck nearby, I was shocked and quite startled by the news. My first reaction was to ask my brother whether he was all right. He nodded his head and told me to bring him a glass of water. He promised to tell me and everybody about his defeat when Mom and Dad came home. I brought him a glass of water and after drinking it, my brother rested quietly.
As my brother rested, I was sitting nearby and wondering about how he had managed to elude capture by the Khmer Rouge and get away from the chaotic situation when he was defeated. I used to hear people talk very often about soldiers who faced defeat and had to retreat. They said that it was a matter of life and death. If a retreat were disorganized, it would be a complete disaster. Few soldiers would have the chance to survive the enemy’s attack under such circumstance because they would usually run for their own lives. No one cared about the plight of others. As a result, they became easy targets for their enemies who pursued them. The best chance for defeated soldiers to survive was to be fully organized and properly retreating. Their commanders had to be with them and give proper instruction during the retreat. I heard people say that a wise officer would divide his troops into three groups called the left wing, right wing, and the body. The body would have about half of the total troops, while the two wings have about one fourth each with a radio to communicate with the body. The two wings were to counterattack the enemies while the body was retreating and to retreat while the body was counterattacking the enemies. Though it sounded somewhat simple, this story of military tactics was nevertheless very interesting and entertaining for me as a kid growing up in a war torn country to listen to. It showed how people coped with the stress of facing danger some day by telling stories about that danger which could very well happen to them. In a sense, this war story served as a practical lesson, I guessed.
My brother’s unit was part of Operation Chenla II, the only short-lived successful military operation the Lon Nol government had ever achieved for the entire period of its existence. The Operation was intended to reopen National Highway 6 and bring relief to the besieged city of Kompong Thom located about 104 miles north of Phnom Penh. Chenla II was led by Colonel Oum Savuth, a reckless, little drunkard who was known around the country as a daredevil that liked to drive his car at terrifying speeds. After the Operation reached Kompong Thom, my brother’s unit was stationed at one of the strategic areas between the town of Tang Kok and Rumlong that the Viet Cong used as a crossing passage to avoid detection by the American bombers. The unit was placed under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Ith Suong, one of the least competent officers of the Lon Nol regime.
When the Viet Cong and the Khmer Rouge crossed Highway 6 to reach their sanctuaries in the south central part of Cambodia, they came upon the many military outposts of the Lon Nol soldiers, which were located along the highway. Fierce fighting between the Lon Nol soldiers and the two communist guerrilla forces broke out immediately. However, the often neglected and unpaid Lon Nol soldiers were no match for the well-disciplined Khmer Rouge and the superior, well-trained Viet Cong. Within days, the Khmer Rouge and the Viet Cong destroyed many of the government’s fortresses, which were established along National Highway 6 in the aftermath of the Chenla II’s Operation, and cut off that lifeline to Kompong Thom City again. My brother’s unit was badly hit during that fighting. He and his comrades endured intense attack from the Khmer Rouge and the Viet Cong for two days and nights. Despite the neglect and lack of support from their commanders, the soldiers fought back courageously. My brother recalled that, in the wake of retreat, his immediate commander deserted the troops by hotfooting it away on horseback without notifying any of the soldiers under his command.
In a tumultuous situation, my brother and his fellow soldiers abandoned their post and ran across the rice fields to seek some sort of safe haven in a distant village. Like a herd of wild animals being chased by predators, my brother and his comrade in arms dodged the Khmer Rouge’s bullets until they finally reached a small hamlet. During this tumultuous retreat, some unfortunate soldiers were hit by the Khmer Rouge’s sniper bullets and left to die in the rice fields.
After narrowly escaping death from being captured by the Khmer Rouge (they rarely took or kept prisoners), my brother and his comrades made it safely to an isolated town. Exhausted and terrified, some of them collapsed and lay down under the shade of trees. However, despite the fact that they were away from the battlefield, danger and death were still within reach of those soldiers. My brother recalled that as he and his fellow soldiers were resting under the trees’ shades, some villagers had driven oxcarts up to them and offered them ride to reach a nearby town which was still under the control of the government. Some villagers even helped providing directions to the soldiers who wanted to take a short-cut toward the regional government’s enclave.
Many soldiers, exhausted and tired, were very grateful to the villagers. Some of them climbed up on the oxcarts and hitched a ride with the villagers while others took off through the short-cut routes provided by the villagers. As though by instinct, my brother sensed something suspicious in those villager’s offers of help; therefore, he decided not to hitch a ride with them. Neither did he follow the short-cuts those villagers pointed out to him. He chose to take an alternative route along which he felt safer to travel.
When he arrived at the regional government outpost, my brother learned that the soldiers who hitch-hiked on the villagers’ oxcarts or followed the short-cuts given by the villagers had never made it to the government controlled areas. In fact, those villagers were Khmer Rouge’s sympathizers who came to lure the soldiers into the Khmer Rouge’s traps to be captured.
My brother’s harrowing experience with defeat and danger seemed to be an omen for the people of Kompong Cham. Several months later, Kompong Cham City was besieged by the Khmer Rouge’s attacks from all directions. At first, the fighting appeared to be far away from where we lived since the sounds of artillery and mortar explosions seemed to take place on the distant horizon. However, several weeks later, the rumble of artillery rounds and mortar explosions moved closer and closer to the city limits, which indicated that the Khmer Rouge had made their advance toward Kompong Cham City. Soon, we began to hear the sounds of machine guns and small rifle exchanges mixing with the heavy explosions of rocket propel grenades which signaled that the fighting was coming near our doorstep. Most people, who lived on the perimeter of town, including our family, began to pack up their vital belongings and prepared for the inevitable flight, either to the Khmer Rouge’s controlled areas or toward downtown Kompong Cham where the government was bringing in more reinforcement troops to protect it from being taken over by the Khmer Rouge.
(To be continued)