Goodbye Forever (Cont.)
For the first few months following the Khmer Rouge’s withdrawal from downtown Kompong Cham, I saw airplanes flying to Kompong Cham City very often. Sometimes, they dropped parachutes from the sky with big square boxes of emergency supplies dangling under them and swaying back and forth. With their green or multi-color features, the chutes looked awesome and marvelous. They soon became an instant inspiration for local kids, including myself, to invent parachutes of their own. I remembered joining with a group of youngsters and learning how to make a miniature parachute to play with as a toy.
In order to make a miniature parachute, each of us kids would have to find either a fine piece of plastic bag or a thin linen or silk cloth and cut it into a circle or octagonal shape with a radius of about one foot or so. We then tied small nylon strings, preferably the kind made of tiny fibers like threads, around the edge of our parachute at equal intervals. At the other end of the strings, we tied them to a piece of small rock or heavy object so that it would pull the parachute down as it opened up in the air. However, our copycat ingenuity didn’t seem to go far enough. We lacked the capability of inventing a miniature airplane which could be used to drop our parachutes from the sky. But that didn’t stop us from having fun playing with our parachutes either.
To make our parachute float in the air longer, we would fold it in a conical shape, bend it in half, wrap the strings which we attached to a rock around it, and then throw it into the air. As the projectile slowed down and stopped in mid air, gravity would pull the rock down faster than the parachute. Subsequently, the wind would blow the parachute up, unroll it from the strings, and eventually open it up higher in the air.
As children of a war torn country, whose lives were shaped by the deplorable condition of conflict, violence, and the absence of conventional toys and games, I must admit that we were so thrilled playing with our newfound game. Some of us even took our ingenuity further by, in the absence of our parents, climbing up to the top floor of our three- or four-story homes and throwing our parachutes down from there, while others, impressed and fascinated with the beauty and effectiveness of parachutes, made from fine, thin silk or linen clothes, would take their mother’s scarves and cut them apart to make the desirable parachutes. But our antic did not go unnoticed. Since we were no experts, like those American servicemen whose precision dropping of parachutes carrying emergency supplies that inspired our enthusiasm, a great number of our miniature parachutes, which we crazily launched from the top floor of a flat or from the ground, had landed off our desired course. Some were landing and hanging on tree tops, while others became entangled in electrical cables along the streets throughout the city. Worse still, many more of our miniature parachutes landed on rooftops and, as rain falls came, they floated down the shingles and clogged the gutters which resulted in flooded roofs. In addition, some of our parachutes failed to open up in the air and the rocks which we attached to them fell down so hard onto the ground and caused great damage to both breakable and unbreakable objects that stood in the way.
As more and more of our miniature parachutes fell off course and became a nuisance in town, people began to complain and make their anger and displeasure heard among those whose children played with miniature parachutes. Of course, no one would fuss about the real U.S. parachutes which brought emergency relief and supplies to Kompong Cham and whose appearance became the inspiration of the children’s miniature parachutes. However, as the resentment against miniature parachutes spread, so did the rancor against kids who played with them. Soon we were chased away or barred from playing in nearby residential areas. Moreover, some of our parents discovered that many of us had taken household items such as nylon strings and fine clothes to make our miniature parachutes without asking them first. When they found out that their missing scarves or nylon strings were appropriated by us and used in the manufacturing of our miniature parachutes, many of us became the subjects of scorn, scolding, and even corporal punishment, for as we took things from homes without prior notification to our parents we had broken one of our parents’ cardinal rules.
After having created a great deal of headaches, anger, and nuisance among our parents and neighbors, our enthusiasm with miniature parachutes began to wane. The sad thing about this parachute phenomenon was that neither our enthusiasm with miniature parachutes nor the real parachutes which brought emergency relief and supplies to Kompong Cham would last very long. As the number of kids who played with miniature parachutes diminished, so did the number of airplanes that dropped parachutes or brought emergency supplies to Kompong Cham City. By the end of 1973, the number of airplanes bringing foodstuffs and other essential life-sustaining materials for the displaced population in Kompong Cham grew smaller and smaller every day. By early 1974, one could hardly see any parachute or hear the airplanes flying over Kompong Cham City. Thus, the hardship and hunger which plagued Kompong Cham since the days the Khmer Rouge laid siege to the city continued to mount on an even larger scale. Soon the threat of hunger and starvation loomed, and many people began to feel the impact.
The meager food and emergency supplies, which the government in Phnom Penh brought in to help avert hunger among the displaced population in Kompong Cham City, had been the only life-sustaining resources for tens of thousands of people who were uprooted from their homes and businesses by the fighting. Once the supplies were reduced and eventually ceased to come, living conditions in Kompong Cham turned from bad to worse. Just within a short period of time, following the Khmer Rouge withdrawal and the cessation of food and emergency supplies from Phnom Penh, food and commodity shortages had been widespread. There were not enough of almost everything -- from consumer goods to basic foodstuffs such as meat, fish, vegetables, and rice. Moreover, foods and commodities were so scarce that even if one had the money, there was not much of anything to buy. Essential foodstuffs such as rice and meat were in great demand that people would go after them instantly as soon as they appeared in the marketplace. As a result, many essential goods were sold at inflated prices. For example, a kilogram of beef or pork cost about ten times the price that existed prior to the Khmer Rouge’s attack, and it continued to rise every day.
The inflation and food shortages were so serious that, by early 1974, many desperate people were driven to the countryside, where it was still relatively safe from Khmer Rouge’s incursion, to look for a kind of wild cassava (known locally as Kduoch) to supplement their diets. Kduoch was a kind of starchy yam which grew naturally in Cambodia’s countryside. However, despite being edible, it was also dangerously poisonous if improperly prepared. One scary thing about eating kduoch was that there was no properly written formula for preparing it. If you did not know how to prepare it, the only way you could turn the poisonous kduoch into food was to ask your neighbors or someone who knew how to prepare it, and hope that the preparing method he/she told you was the correct one; otherwise, the kduoch you prepared could cause sickness to everyone who ate it and, in some cases, death to those who were too weak to withstand the poisoning effect. However, despite this grave risk, hundreds of desperate people were forced to turn to kduoch to supplement their diets, for they had no choices but either eating kduoch or suffering starvation.
Our family was fortunate enough to have never gone through the kduoch-eating experience because my parents owned a groceries stand, and rice, the main staple of our diets, was one of the commodities they sold. When the Khmer Rouge attacked the city and the central market where my parents sold groceries was no longer safe for the conduct of business, they locked up about a ton of rice along with other foodstuffs in the shop. Thus, after the Khmer Rouge withdrew and the city began to experience food shortages, my parents quickly allocated a sufficient amount of rice and other foodstuffs for our family’s consumption. Thanks to their wisdom; otherwise, we might have suffered a great deal during that food shortage.
Throughout the second half of 1973 and early 1974, living condition in Kompong Cham City remained deplorable. Almost every family was struggling to make ends meet. Also, beside hunger and hardship, a lot of people were separated from their family members. Many families, including some of our close relatives, had had members living on either side of the conflict. For instance, one of my aunt’s sons and two of my mother’s siblings were separated from their parents during the tumult and came to live with us as their parents were forced to evacuate out of the city. This separation caused great anxiety among those whose loved ones had been evacuated by the Khmer Rouge, for there was no means of communication between civilian people who lived on opposite sides of the conflict. The Khmer Rouge, in particular, did not allow people to send letters to or make contact with their relatives who lived under the Lon Nol regime.
After spending about a year or so in downtown Kompong Cham, my parents decided to move the family to a bigger house, for there were too many of us to fit into that little flat. The new house was located on the bank of the Mekong River near the old abandoned French tobacco processing plant. Our new home was spacious and beautiful. We all loved it because its location was almost in front of our village, Phum Chi Ro. The only thing that separated us from the village that we used to live in was the Mekong River. Every evening, we would go down to sit on the edge of the riverbank and look with nostalgia across the river to gaze at the abandoned farmlands where reeds and weeds grew undisturbed. Lying beyond the farmlands were the villages where some houses could be seen amid the greenery.
Since the siege of 1973, the Khmer Rouge had moved all the people living in villages located along the eastern banks of the Mekong River opposite Kompong Cham City to resettle in areas where they had complete control. Thus, the entire areas along the eastern bank of the Mekong River bordering Kompong Cham City became a no man’s land. In order to build a defensive perimeter around the city, the government established military posts or fortresses at about one mile or so intervals in every village that ringed the eastern shore of the Mekong River. Starting from the southeastern flank of the city, the government set up military fortresses at Phum Prek Chik, Tonle Bet Krom (Lower Tonle Bet), Tonle Bet Leur (Upper Tonle Bet), Phum Cham, Rokar Thom, Chi Ro Krom (pronounce Jee Ro Kraum), and Chi Ro Leur. Aside from the soldiers who occasionally ventured out of their fortresses on missions to ensure that no Khmer Rouge had come into the villages, the entire areas on the eastern bank of the river looked pretty much like a ghost town. There were more abandoned houses than people.
By late 1974, the Khmer Rouge started attacking the government fortresses along the eastern shore of the Mekong River. Before long, a few outlaying fortresses were overrun by the Khmer Rouge. As soon as they moved in within range, the Khmer Rouge began to fire mortars from across the river into the city, which caused a great deal of terror among the population, especially those who lived along the riverbank. Occasionally, the Khmer Rouge would launch artillery attacks, a few rounds at a time, just to terrorize and create panic among the city’s inhabitants. Because our house was located on the bank of the Mekong River, we found ourselves living just beyond the frontline separated only by the body of the river which was nothing but an empty space barrier. During the summer months, when the lands were parched dry, the sky was clear, and the vegetation was withering, people could even see each other walking on either side of the riverbanks with their naked eyes. Subsequently, the Khmer Rouge would take the dry season as an opportunity to step up their terrorizing attacks on the civilian population who lived on the other side of the river.
The Khmer Rouge’s artillery shells landed in the city indiscriminately, regardless of time or location. So people took all the precaution they could to cope with the danger of being hit by mortar shell’s landing. The scary part about the Khmer Rouge’s artillery attack was that no advanced warning or sign of their attacks could be detected. There could be quiet and calm on one day; and the next day around, a couple of artillery shells were landing on someone’s home. Each time an artillery shell landed on or near someone’s home, it always claimed people’s lives and resulted in casualties. The sad reality about the Khmer Rouge’s artillery attacks was that one could be alive and active in the morning, and a few hours later he or she could be hit, maimed, or killed by a Khmer Rouge artillery shell. Life was as unpredictable as the Khmer Rouge’s artillery attack itself.
One day I walked home from school amid a group of small girls who were attending the same school with me. We were all about the same ages. As one of the girls arrived at her residence, she bade goodbye to her friends and walked toward her house. Minutes later, I heard a sharp whistling sound over my head and, all of a sudden, a loud explosion occurred nearby like a lightening strike. Following the explosion, a plume of dust burst up, and I felt little pieces of gravel falling around me. The next thing I knew was that people in the vicinity, including the girls who walked with me, screamed, cried out loud, and ran for help in a maddening panic. I, too, was terrified and scared. Without wasting a minute of time, I ran home, along with other school children, as fast as I could. About an hour or so after I arrived home, I learned that the explosion, which I had just witnessed, was indeed a Khmer Rouge’s artillery shell. It landed about a few meters from the girl who had just said goodbye to her friends with whom I walked. She was hit by shrapnel and was killed right on the spot. According to the people who came to her rescue, she had just stepped up the stairs as the mortar landed. I was so saddened and shocked by the news. It could have been all of us who walked from school together that day. But the poor little girl died alone so that the rest of her friends could live on.
(To be continued)