The End of a Beginning
The next morning, I woke up to the tumultuous sounds of gun shots and chaotic noises. There was a commotion of panic and emergency everywhere. I heard people scream and yell from every direction in the neighborhood. Some people told their children to pack up their clothes and blankets while others asked their neighbors what the hell was going on. Nobody seemed to know what was going on, but one thing everyone knew for sure was that the Khmer Rouge had just come into town, and that those sounds of gun shots were either a salute to victory or an act of intimidation.
Still harboring a thought of going to see and welcome the Khmer Rouge, I walked into the living room with little concern about what was or would be happening. As I entered the living room, I saw my mother and brothers busily packing up clothes, food, and utensils. My mom told me to go hurriedly brush my teeth, take a quick bath, and put on good comfortable clothes because we might have to evacuate the city pretty soon. At first, I was a little skeptical about leaving the city, but after seeing most people in the neighborhood packing up, I became convinced that the situation was indeed serious. I went to the bathroom, quickly doing what I was told, and returned to the living room to help my brothers pack up. Minutes later, a man, who at the time shared the apartment with us, returned from investigating what was going on in the streets outside and told us that the Khmer Rouge were about to evacuate all the people from the city. He then hurriedly went up to his quarter to collect his wife and children.
Soon after the man went up to his apartment, my brother, Heang, a college student and part-time government auxiliary soldier arrived after spending the night guarding his post on the western edge of the city. Heang seemed a bit nervous and worried -- an unusual sign for a brave young man who usually expressed his bravado going off to work with a rifle strapped behind his back. In addition, he appeared to be psychologically terrified as if he had just seen a ghost.
Seeing that my brother, Heang, must have gone through a terrifying experience, both of my parents went up to him to find out what had gone wrong. My brother said that he had encountered a group of Khmer Rouge soldiers last night as they tried to enter the city before they were allowed to do so. After he and his comrades denied them permission to enter the city, the Khmer Rouge became angry and threatened to rope everyone (the Khmer Rouge didn’t use handcuffs) as soon as they got their way in. Hence, without taking any chance, Heang and his comrades secretly abandoned their post before sunrise, turned their gun in at a designated area, and went their separate ways through the back streets to avoid being spotted by their commander or the Khmer Rouge because uniformed soldiers or officers were supposed to stay at their stations or cantonment areas. Heang also said that, along the way home, he saw some Khmer Rouge carrying microphones announcing that people must evacuate the city immediately. Sensing that things might not change as smoothly as everyone expected, my parents told my brother, Heang, to take off his uniforms and put on civilian clothes as a precaution.
Now, as we realized that evacuation was imminent, we immediately turned anticipation into action. My father and older bothers began to load some of the most important things such as rice, cooking utensils, and other foodstuffs onto our bicycles and tied them securely. As for the rest of our belongings, we would take only what was deemed necessary, such as blankets and a few items of clothing, which we could carry on our backs. Everything else had to be left behind. To make sure that we would have at least the most basic things to support and sustain our livelihood during this uncertain exodus, my mother wisely packed things into different sizes of bags. She then entrusted them among us children to carry according to our physical strength. For example, my big brothers would carry bulky things such as blankets and mosquito nets, while my little brother and I would carry the smaller bags of clothes.
As we were surveying the weights on our backs and prepared to step out into the world of uncertainty, some of our next door neighbors began to depart from their homes. My father asked them whether it was time to leave and whether they knew where we were supposed to go. Our neighbors said that they did not know where the destination would be, but they knew for sure that everyone had to leave the city immediately. They also said that the sooner we departed the better off we would be because the streets were less crowded. After learning what had happened at my brother’s patrolling post the night before and sensing the unpredictable policy of the Khmer Rouge, we decided to take no chances. My parents told everyone to pick up his designated packages and, as soon as everyone was ready, we began our journey to the unknown.
I looked up at the house for the last time as we stepped out into the street. In the midst of the crowd, we pushed our way northward toward the traffic circle in front of the old courthouse. As we approached the circle we saw some people traveling opposite our direction. At first we thought that they were just going the opposite way, however, as we arrived at the circle, we found that people were being turned away from crossing the intersection. Those who lived on the southern part of the intersection had to go south; and those who lived on the north had to go north. The Khmer Rouge used the intersection at the circle as a dividing point to direct people out of the city. There were several Khmer Rouge soldiers standing on every street leading to the circle. However, there were no signs or roadblocks of any kind to indicate to the people which way they should or could not go. Before word-of-mouth news about which direction people should follow to get out of the city spread among the general masses, those who had traveled the wrong direction had to go all the way up to the point where the Khmer Rouge set up their blockades to turn them around. Hence, the intersection around the circle were jam-packed with people who were either trying to ask the Khmer Rouge soldiers for permission to cross to the other side of the intersection or making their way around to follow the right direction.
As more and more people arrived at the circle, the Khmer Rouge soldiers were getting tired of telling them to turn around, so they began to fire their guns into the air and made hand gestures to the people to turn around and clear the intersection. The sounds of gun shots caused panic in every one of us, especially the little children. Some children started to cry while others were screaming for their parents. We were just turning our heads around when the Khmer Rouge started shooting into the air. Thus, we quickly rushed away from the scene -- somewhat ahead of the panicky crowd. My parents told my brothers and me to stay close to one another and walk in group so that we wouldn’t get lost or separated from each other.
While we were pushing our way away from the circle’s intersection amid the chaotic crowd, we met my uncle’s wife, Vantha. Her husband was an officer in the Cambodian Marine Corps, Mr. Yin Bunleng, whom we once met during the siege of 1973. Vantha was alone with her little child and appeared to be in great distress. Her eyes were filled with tears. My parents asked her where her husband was. She said that her husband was sent off by his superior to navigate a high-speed patrol boat to receive the Khmer Rouge officials on the other side of the Mekong River and he had been gone ever since. She had waited for his return at his station all morning long only to find out that the boat with which he took returned to the shore without him. It was instead full of Khmer Rouge soldiers who immediately started to order all government soldiers to gather in a designated area. They ordered civilians to disperse. She then walked up to the circle’s intersection hoping to find someone who might have known of her husband’s whereabouts. However, she heard nothing about the fate of her husband and a few other marines who had gone with him.
After learning of my uncle’s disappearance, we all were shocked and began to worry a lot about the future. Though the Khmer Rouge had not yet shown any sign of violent behavior toward their newly conquered populace, their indifferent attitudes made us feel very intimidated and concerned. The most pressing concern for every one of us was the uncertainty of the present situation. We had no clue what might happen or would happen to us within the next few days. Neither did anyone else around us. Everything we could hear and see caused us anxiety and confusion.
(To be continued)