The Last Gun Shot
After the Khmer Rouge’s artillery shell had claimed the life of a schoolgirl in the neighborhood, my father decided to stop letting me go to school for a while and wait for the safety situation to improve. As for me, having been so close to a fatal danger for the first time, the experience almost scared me to death. I sometimes had nightmares and kept hearing the word “Goodbye” the little girl had said to her friends. Though my parents still let me go and play around the house, I was so fearful of the Khmer Rouge’s artillery shell. I was even afraid to go down and swim in the Mekong River which was located just about a hundred yards from my doorstep. So instead of having fun swimming in the river, which I normally did, I spent most of my spare time sitting behind a pile of plywood on the ground floor of my house or playing marbles with the kids who lived next door. Life, for me, was again worrisome and confining. A few weeks had passed but the safety situation had yet to improve. The Khmer Rouge regularly fired their rockets into the city still to terrorize the people who lived across the river.
Despite the danger of being hit by the Khmer Rouge’s rockets, my father decided not to move the family out of our river front home, for he thought that the Khmer Rouge’s rockets could have fallen down anywhere regardless of the location. Also, he figured out that, by staying close to the water, there was a natural protection from the water itself. The rockets which fell into the water usually caused little damage or harm to the people who lived nearby as the shrapnel could not travel out of the water. However, my father’s rationale, though it appeared somewhat logical for escaping the Khmer Rouge’s artillery attacks, proved to be an end in itself. As soon as the Khmer Rouge made their way down to the very edge of the riverbank, they put up machine guns along the shorelines and started shooting across the river. This time, the Mekong River was no longer a natural barrier but an empty space which provided easy view for the Khmer Rouge’s gunners to aim their machine guns at the houses which lined the shoreline on the other side of the river. Periodically, the Khmer Rouge would fire their machine guns, a few rounds at a time, at the houses which stood in front of them. Though the Khmer Rouge’s machine guns attacks rarely claimed casualties (because the distance across the Mekong River was too far for machine gun’s bullets to hit their targets effectively), it caused a great deal of panic and terror among the people who lived in the houses located along the river front as bullets fell on the roof or hit the walls of their houses.
One day, a Khmer Rouge’s bullet hit the front pillar of our house at the ground floor and produced a small explosion. My brothers and I along with a few other people stood nearby the place of impact. Luckily, nobody was hurt. My father rushed to the scene and told us to go and stay behind a pile of plywood. Later on, as things were quiet, we went to see the spot where the bullet hit and found a fairly large scar on the pillar. We felt that scar with our fingers and thought, among ourselves, that if that bullet were to hit someone, it could have killed or caused serious injury to that person.
After the incident, it appeared clear that the only safe haven for us to temporarily avoid the Khmer Rouge’s artillery and machine gun’s attacks was to move back into the concrete house in downtown Kompong Cham. So in January 1975, we left the comfort of our picturesque riverfront home and moved back to live in a three story flat in downtown Kompong Cham. After we moved back to live in downtown Kompong Cham, I was able to resume my schooling. However, things appeared to be abnormal everywhere. There was a sense of anxiety and nervousness in everyone’s mind, young and old alike. At school, we were no longer made to gather around the flagpole and sing the national anthem because of fears of the Khmer Rouge’s rocket attacks. Instead, we just gathered in front of our classroom, formed double lines, and entered our class as the bell rang indicating it was time to begin our daily lessons.
As everyone was anxiously coping with the daily danger, the Khmer Rouge appeared to once again step up their attacks and tighten the noose on Kompong Cham City. We could hear their machine gun and rocket exchanges with the government troops from across the river almost every day and night. By early 1975, the Khmer Rouge had captured all government fortresses located along the Mekong River opposite Kompong Cham City, except one in Tonle Bet, a town which was also an important ferry crossing port that linked the rest of Cambodia to its northeastern territory and Vietnam.
The government fortresses across the Mekong River opposite Kompong Cham City were supposed to be the protecting belt for the city itself. Now that they were captured by the Khmer Rouge, there seemed to be nothing left to protect the poor city, which was struggling to survive on a day-to-day basis, from another possible Khmer Rouge blitzkrieg. If there were no Mekong River to block the way, the Khmer Rouge could have marched into downtown Kompong Cham within hours. In fact, we could even see them walking along the riverbank with our naked eyes. If they wished to bombard Kompong Cham City with artillery shells, we were helplessly at their mercy. But the Khmer Rouge somehow chose to ignore Kompong Cham City and concentrated their attack on Tonle Bet, the last government outpost on the eastern bank of the Mekong River which bordered the city.
The presence of the Khmer Rouge lurking nearby across the river made everyone nervous and edgy. Though government officials and authorities appeared to act cool and calm, there was a sense of panic throughout town. The fact that the Khmer Rouge could have easily boarded boats and quietly crossed over to downtown Kompong Cham any time they wished at night made most people feel uneasy. It would cause tremendous chaos if the Khmer Rouge decided to send a dozen or so suicidal combatants to cross to downtown Kompong Cham on a terrorism mission at night. However, for some reason, the Khmer Rouge seemed to be more interested in playing psychological warfare with the government than embarking on a conventional attack.
To prevent a possible Khmer Rouge crossing the river at night, the government had put its tiny marine troops on high alert. The marines closed the Mekong River to all activities from sunset until morning. They would send their patrol boats up and down the river along the edge of downtown Kompong Cham throughout the night. But despite all the fear and anxiety of a possible Khmer Rouge terrorizing attack, the situation in Kompong Cham remained relatively calm. All of a sudden, the Khmer Rouge mysteriously ceased their mortar and machine gun’s attacks on downtown Kompong Cham. However, this seemingly calm before the storm situation made us even more nervous and fearful, for we knew quite well that, if the Khmer Rouge wanted to mount machine gun and artillery attacks on downtown Kompong Cham, they could do it with ease. Nothing could stop them. We were helplessly at their mercy!
(To be continued)