The Urban Life
We arrived in Kompong Cham City at about 7:00 p.m. The glimmering and glittering lights of the neon signs had completely captured my attention for the moment. Along the sidewalks, glamorous people walked back and forth as they enjoyed each other’s companionship. In the streets, automobiles and motorcycles dominated each other, pushing bicycles to the sides. It was quite a surprise to me that the city was in such a jubilant mood while the small towns and villages located on the other side of the river were falling into a chaotic situation.
While I was letting my soul wander out into the wondrous scenes of the city’s spectacular activities, I felt someone put his hand on my shoulder. It was my oldest brother, Hong, who had come to attend high school here in the city. He stayed with one of my paternal aunts, Om Ren, who had been running a business in the city for years. He used to come to visit us at home every semester break. I hugged him, and he lifted me up and put me on his shoulder as he walked toward a pickup truck parked nearby. My brother seated me in the truck’s cabin beside the driver, whose name I didn’t know, and went to the back of the truck to help my parents and other brothers load the bags and luggage onto the truck’s bed. After they had done the loading, my father told my mother to come and ride in the cabin with me while he and my brothers climbed onto the truck’s bed and rode amid the bags and luggage.
The driver started the truck, and off we went through big and small boulevards under the glimmer of the bright orange and white electricity’s lamps. The truck ran for about 15 minutes then pulled over and stopped in front of a fairly big residential house. I looked up at the house through the truck’s door windows and saw a television’s antenna sticking out from the top of its roof. As we got off the truck, several people came down from the house to greet us. Some of them I knew, but some I didn’t. They helped unload the truck and carry all the bags and luggage up inside the house. As we walked into the house, I noticed that there was a white car parked in the garage. “This must be a wealthy residence.” I thought. While walking up the stairs, I still had no idea whose residence it was until we went to the living room and met my aunt, Om Ren, that I realized it was her house.
Om Ren was about 55 years old--a healthy and stern-looking woman with an aristocratic appearance. My parents told me and my brothers to pay respect and introduce ourselves to her and her husband, Om Sen, who sat on a coach beside her. We were also introduced to other youngsters in the house. They were all related to us by blood. Like my oldest brother, Hong, all of them came from the suburbs and faraway districts to attend college or high school here in the city in a quest for higher education and better future. However, their quests for a better future appeared to be put on hold for the time being because the Lon Nol government recruitment agents had already enlisted three of them to join the army. One of the three recruits was my brother, Hong, and the other two were my cousins, named Long and Heng. All of them were in their senior year of high school; however, with the verge of a civil war looming so ominously, it was very unlikely for any of them to come back and finish their studies. They were awaiting and expected to be called up for the training camps very soon.
It was about 8 o’clock when we prepared to have a late dinner. Om Ren and her husband also joined us for dinner. They had a chit-chat with my parents about the volatile situation around the country and the perceivable tumult which could occur in the near future. They talked about the split among government officials who either supported or opposed Prince Sihanouk. They talked about the Khmer Rouge who played a wild card role inside the power struggle between Prince Sihanouk and the present government, the Khmer Republic. However, as far as I could see, for my parents, the real issue of concern for them was: How could they manage to start a new life in a big city with their empty hands.
After dinner, we went back to the living room and watched news on a black and white television. There was some news about the American bombardments on the Viet Cong bases in Cambodia, and the U.S. government’s aid and military support for the new government led by General Lon Nol. There were also reports that the U.S. would send some military experts and trainers to assist the Cambodian government in training its military. After the news, there was a show about military training on how to disarm an opponent in a hand to hand combat performed by actors and actresses. The TV program ended at about 10:30 p.m., and we all were ready to go to bed. We said good night to each other, and my parents brought me to sleep with them in a fairly large guest room located at the front corner of the house. They put me into a small bed and said good night to me. Afterward, they walked toward a small study desk and sat down in the wooden chairs beside it. They turned on the reading lamp on the desk and switched off the overhead light to make me go fast asleep. Through the soft white light of the reading lamp, I could see the sad expression on their faces. They sat still and appeared to be deeply thinking about every possible, conceivable plan to start their new lives in a city where everything seemed to be a challenge.
My parents faced hundred of obstacles and problems. They lost and left behind almost everything they owned and all the privileges they had prematurely to the political conflict and a civil war which had not yet fully emerged. Now, like a fish out of water, they had to start all over again with an uncertain future. As for me, my parents’ concerns seemed to become a part of my consciousness. Despite their attempt to keep the kids out of all the problems occurring to the family, I had the feeling that I could not disconnect myself from the facts around my family’s plight: My parents are now the refugees, the premature refugees who have to flee their home before conflict and danger were actually visible. They have lost everything they had and gained only fear and frustration. They played no role in the coup d’etat, which had driven Prince Sihanouk out of power. Neither had they taken any part in the political upheaval. But, they were among the first who lost and have to face hardship. For us, life was very unfair!
The following days my parents had sent my brothers and me off to attend a nearby primary school. They had also rented a grocery stand in the central market to start a small business. Every morning my mother would go off to sell groceries in the market while we were going to school. My father had another errand to tend to. He had to go around the city to look for a suitable rental apartment for the family to live in, and come to help my mother selling goods every now and then. He had contacted several rental agents and got a few available houses from their lists. But none of the houses was preferable because they were located either far from the main roads or from the school my brothers and I attended. However, one of his old friends had given him a tip about a flat available for rent. Its occupants had just moved out a few days earlier. My father went to see it and decided to take that flat, for it was located close to the school to where my brothers and I went. We decided to move into that flat the following week.
One day, before we moved to our new residence, an uncle from our hometown came to visit us. Along with him, he brought over some bad news for my father and every one of us. He said that a group of Khmer Rouge operatives had come to our house and confiscated some of our properties. They looked for my father and also offered reward for anyone who could bring him to them. It was a shocking news. By not supporting the Khmer Rouge, my father became a fugitive.
Reacting to the news, my father told my uncle to stay calm and keep the news of him (my father) being the Khmer Rouge’s fugitive from spreading further. He ordered my uncle not to come in contact with him too often, lest his visit to my father attract the Khmer Rouge’s suspicion and give them pretext to persecute our relatives who still lived in the areas under their influences. My father said that, here in the city, the Khmer Rouge wouldn’t be able to get him unless they could topple the government’s armies. It was at that time when I finally realized why my parents abandoned their house and fled to the city. I also learned that my father was an anti-communist activist who had been an outspoken critic of communism. That was why the Khmer Rouge blacklisted his name.
On that gloomy day, we also received another piece of news. The army had called on my brother, Hong, and my cousins, Long and Heng, to report to the recruitment center by late afternoon. Everyone had to put anxiety aside as we prepared to send the three brave young men to the military training camps. We accompanied my brother along with our cousins, Long and Heng, to the recruitment center where we met other families who accompanied their relatives as well. There was an open field in front of the center. Beside it, a line of military trucks were parked on the road nearby. My brother and cousins left us and went into the center as we stood and waited outside. About ten minutes later, they came back out along with other recruits and went to the field where a number of officers stood by and ordered them to stand in the designated areas. An officer came out after them with a clip of papers in his hands. He started to call the name of each recruit and tell them to stand in various specific rows. After the roll call was completed, the recruits were told to board the trucks. As they were walking toward the trucks, all recruits waved their hands bidding farewell to their fathers, mothers, brothers, sisters, and sweethearts. We all waved back to them and wished them luck. The recruits climbed up onto the trucks one after another and stood around looking at us with mixed emotions. When all of them had boarded the trucks, an officer blew a whistle and gave signal to the drivers to start moving. People who stood along the road started to applaud and cheer them on while many were breaking into tears. It was such an emotional farewell for many people whose loved ones began to depart for military services without knowing whether they would ever be able to see each other again.
My mother began to cry while the truck carrying my brother started moving. Emotionally, it was a very heavy atmosphere for everyone. My father watched the convoy in silence and stood still like a statue. Looking into my father’s eyes, I could see the concerns inside his head. He faced many challenges in the world around him. The Khmer Rouge had made him lose everything: privileges, dignity, and the right to live in his own home. They accused him, threatened him, and made him their enemy. They wanted to get him badly, so that they could torture him, mutilate his body, and kill him to show off their capability of destroying anyone who opposed their political ideology.
Despite the narrow world in which he lived, my father still had something to be proud of in life. He had a family with whom he could share his lament and laughter. He had kids to raise and find them a good future. And he had everything in the world to live for. In answering to the Khmer Rouge’s persecution on his life, he sent one of his sons and two nephews to join the army to fight against the political group that he opposed and to fight for the cause of his principle--opposing Communism.
(To be continued)