The End of a Beginning (Cont.)
As more and more people pushed their ways out of the city, we were compelled to move along with them. My parents asked Vantha to come along with us so that we could help look after her child, but she did not feel ready to leave the city yet, for she wanted to spend some more time seeking news of her husband’s whereabouts. So after wishing her luck, we moved on with the masses of people.
Along the way, hundreds of thousands of people filled the streets. We would see column after column of people, young and old, walking in every street leading out of the city like a mass march. Some pushed carts, cars, and bicycles while others were crisscrossing from place to place looking for lost relatives. The exodus looked somewhat spectacular. It was probably the largest mass evacuation I had ever seen or heard of in modern history. However, what made the evacuation of the Cambodian people out of every city and urban center unique and horrific was the decisiveness and absolutism of its mandate. Everyone, without any exception, had to get out of his/her home and leave. Those who were wounded, sick, old, or crippled were also forced to go along with everyone else without any regard whatsoever of their health and capability of movement. If one were too sick or too exhausted to move along with the exodus, there was nothing one could do to get out of the dilemma except to wait for nature to take its course -- dying a slow and painful death. The Khmer Rouge did not set up resting stations or organize any medical personnel to assist or care for the sick and the injured among whom they forced to evacuate the city. Neither did they care if anyone died because of exhaustion and sickness. The Khmer Rouge didn’t even pay attention to those who came begging for help as their loved ones were seriously ill or dying. Instead, they turned those people away and told them to move on, for help would be provided further down the road. As we evacuees were to find out later, there was no help at all down the road; they made that up as a scheme to move people along.
The Khmer Rouge’s harsh treatment and apathetic attitude toward the people whom they force evacuated from the city seemed to take everyone by surprise because no one had anticipated or foreseen that they would be that cruel and ruthless, especially toward civilians. But as reality began to unfold, we gradually realized that the Khmer Rouge had little or no regard for our calamity. To them, we were no more than a conquered population who was to be subjected to harsh treatment. Every time we met them, we saw a familiar stern, stoic, and indifferent look on their face -- a kind of chilling reception normally issued by one mortal enemy to another. As we walked pass the Khmer Rouge soldiers, who sometimes stood on the sides of the road, I couldn’t help but noticing their facial expressions. They were cold, reserved, and resentful. They were also full of hatred.
After spending a whole tumultuous day walking chaotically in a crowded street, we came upon an open area on the outskirts of the city where the Khmer Rouge had set up a checkpoint. We were told as we approached the checkpoint to turn in any electronic and communication devices such as radios, cameras, and wrist watches to the soldiers who manned the checkpoint. The soldiers asked if we had any electronic item in our possession. My parents told them that we did not possess any electronic device. At that point, two of the Khmer Rouge soldiers came to inspect our bags. They poked their hands into our bulky bags which were filled with blankets and mosquito nets. After seeing that we had nothing they were looking for, the two soldiers let us continue on our journey. We passed the Khmer Rouge checkpoint just before sunset. Exhausted and disoriented, my parents and some of our neighbors who had traveled along with us decided to look for a suitable place to rest and spend the night. We stopped near a tiny township which was located along a little dry canal known as Prek Doeum Chan. There was a small abandoned marketplace nearby which was burned down and riddled with bullet holes. The town itself was partly deserted because, during the war, soldiers from both sides used the canal as a buffer zone which, in effect, turned the town into a no man’s land.
We found a resting place under the shade of a tree. After setting up a temporary make-shift shelter, we settled down in a dim candle light to eat our pre-cooked dinner that my mom had prepared in the morning before we left our home. It was our first dinner in the Khmer Rouge’s liberated post-war Cambodia. The evening was filled with silence and sadness. Although there were many other families settling along side with us, we hardly heard anyone say anything to disturb the eerie atmosphere. Even little children stopped crying, as if they knew that their daily routines were undergoing a traumatic transformation. As darkness fell, we built a small fire near our shelter to keep wild creatures such as snakes and scorpions away from our camping ground. We lay down around the tree trunk and went to sleep under the bright blue sky which was filled with millions of stars and a crescent moon.
The next morning, we continued on our journey without knowing when or where the Khmer Rouge would want us to stop and stay or if they would want us to return to the city. After another day of walking, we arrived in a village called Kokor. At that village, we were told by local Khmer Rouge cadres that our evacuation from the city was not temporary but permanent. We were no longer allowed to return or to live in the city because the new (Khmer Rouge) leadership believed that the city was a corrupt symbol of Capitalism, Feudalism, and Reactionary ideas, which were the antithesis of Communist society. Also, we were told that to help Angkar clean up the corruption of the old regime, it was necessary for everyone to abandon the old habits or way of life and begin anew by embracing Communism and Communist ideas as guidelines.
In addition to telling us what the Khmer Rouge’s motive was behind the evacuation of the population from the cities, the cadres went on to reveal the details of Angkar’s vision. We learned that market and money had been abolished. Private property was no longer allowed. Everyone had to work and live in communal communities where materials and foods were shared and put under collective ownership. In short, the Khmer Rouge abolished virtually everything they deemed contradictory to their perception of Communist ideology. They even banned all forms of religious practices and forced monks and priests to leave their places of worship and join the Communist revolution just like everyone else throughout the country. From now on anything un-communist would be eradicated regardless of the significant value it might have. The Khmer Rouge appeared to have no tolerance of things they perceived contradictory to their revolutionary ideas. As one of their slogans suggested: “The revolutionary or historical wheel is moving forward; anything stands on its path will be smashed to pieces; nothing could stop it.”
The die was cast! What used to be many people worst fear, especially critics of Communism like my father, had now become a reality. Communism had finally taken center stage in “Cambodian politics”. The Khmer Rouge had not only succeeded in putting an end to the Cambodian civil conflict but also brought Communism in its purest form to Cambodia. Now that Communism was being implemented and everything related to Capitalism was being denounced, the remaining question was what would happen to those who had been born a capitalist and used to live the life of a capitalist? There seemed to be no comprehensible answer to such a question. However, if one were to look at the history of the former Soviet Union, Eastern Europe, and China as they undertook Communism endeavors, the future of Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge’s Communist vision could very well end up with similar outcomes – destruction of a significant segment of population and society.
Upon learning of the Khmer Rouge’s policy and what would be in store for us in the near future, we decided to move to the eastern part of the country, the area where we were originally from, and where most of our relatives were residing. But our request to the Khmer Rouge’s cadres for permission to cross the Mekong River was temporarily put on hold, for lack of means to transport people across the river.
A few days later, we were told to move to the next village called Chamkar Samseb (30 Farms Village) where local Khmer Rouge cadres would organize boats to transport people across the Mekong River to the eastern part of the country. So we, along with many other families, went to stay at Chamkar Samseb village to wait for the Khmer Rouge to transport us across the river. While we were at Chamkar Samseb, the Khmer Rouge cadres had ordered every family to write down an autobiographical report to Angkar. At first everyone was sort of puzzled about the Khmer Rouge’s directive as to whether one should write a detailed life story or just highlight major accomplishments in life. Just as my father was preparing to write the family’s autobiography, a fellow evacuee surreptitiously told him not to report anything that might implicate the family with the widely denounced capitalist and bourgeois classes. That fellow evacuee told my father that he had just met one of his relatives, a high ranking Khmer Rouge official, who solemnly told him to be very, very careful when reporting the autobiography to Angkar, especially anything that Angkar denounced should not be mentioned on the record.
Before long, we heard rumors that the Khmer Rouge’s leadership wanted to recruit former civil servants and educated people to help rebuild the country. There were places where people could enlist their names and be recruited. Upon hearing the recruitment rumors, my father wanted to report to the Khmer Rouge of his public servant background and seek job opportunity with them. However, when he discussed his idea with my mother, she vehemently objected it, for there was so much suspicion about the Khmer Rouge’s motives. As we were to learn later on, the Khmer Rouge’s recruitment was just a ploy to round up former Lon Nol government officials and those whom they deemed as class enemies to be executed. Thank heaven for my mother’s gut feeling; otherwise, my father would have been dead under the Khmer Rouge’s hands at that point.
(To be continued)