The End of a Beginning (Cont.)
After spending about one week at Chamkar Samseb, we were told by the Khmer Rouge cadres to get ready for our transport across the Mekong River. In the next day, we were taken to the riverbank where several boats were waiting to transport us across the river. After we were all on board, the boats took us around the northern tip of Koh Kok (Egret Island) and eventually brought us to a small township called Chi Hae which was located on the mouth of a small river called Tonle Toch, a tributary of the Mekong River.
Chi Hae was a picturesque town. It straddled Tonle Toch and the Mekong River. After spending a night or two at Chi Hae, most evacuees with whom we traveled went their separate ways, either to resettle in their hometown or with their relatives if their hometown were in Kompong Cham City or other major cities, which they were forbidden to enter. Originally we planned to return to our hometown as well, which was located about seven miles north of Chi Hae. However, because our hometown, Phum Chi Ro, became a battleground and was not inhabited by its residents during the conflict between the Lon Nol’s and Khmer Rouge’s regimes, we were not sure if any inhabitant had returned to resettle in the area yet. So we decided to seek temporary shelter with one of my mother’s distant relatives who lived in Phum Prek Rumdeng Lech (West Prek Rumdeng Village), which was located on the bank of Tonle Toch a few miles southeast of Chi Hae.
When we arrived in West Prek Rumdeng village, my mother started asking local people if they knew of the residence of her third cousin named Voan, as there were no addresses in rural Cambodia. Since her last visit, my mother had not been back to West Prek Rumdeng for at least several years and her memory of the place was also vague. However, her persistent search finally paid off when someone in the village directed us to a fairly large farm house. As we entered the premises, a middle-aged couple and a young lady came out to greet us. My mom introduced herself to them, and they instantly recognized her despite many years of separation during the turmoil and civil war. While we were taking turn introducing ourselves to each other, I couldn’t help but reminiscing the same scenario five years ago when we went to seek refuge with Om Ren in Kompong Cham City. It was so surreal. The only difference this time around was that we came out of the city to seek refuge in a rural village.
Om Voan and her husband, Om Seng, were prosperous farmers. They were able to send two sons to attend college in Phnom Penh. One of their sons even went on to train as an air force mechanic in the United States of America. During the civil war, West Prek Rumdeng village fell under the Khmer Rouge’s control since the early stage of the conflict. But instead of running away to live with their sons in Phnom Penh, Om Voan and Om Seng, along with their youngest daughter, Nam, decided to stay in West Prek Rumdeng until the bitter end of the war. Though West Prek Rumdeng was not a battleground area, it had nevertheless been occasionally bombed and machine-gun attacked from the air by the Lon Nol and U.S. air forces during the conflict. So people dug trenches near their homes to use as shelters when the air raids occurred. Om Voan and Om Seng showed us their trench as they talked about life during the war. Through their experiences, we learned for the first time what life was like living in the Khmer Rouge’s territory during those years of fighting.
After we arrived in Prek Rumdeng for several days, my father decided to go to visit our hometown, Phum Chi Ro, to see if it was possible for us to return to resettle there. So one morning, he took a bicycle and departed for Phum Chi Ro by pedaling his bike along a dirt road which ran parallel the Mekong River. When he arrived at Phum Chi Ro, my father found most of the villagers had returned to resettle in the area. As luck would have it, among the people my father met were those of his close friends who, upon seeing him, were stupefied. They were both surprised and scared to see my father in the village because the local Khmer Rouge cadres were keeping an eye out for him. In a genuine concern for his safety, some of my father’s friends told him to hustle out of the village immediately before word of his presence spread and reached the local Khmer Rouge cadres. In a rather risky escape, my father decided to elude the Khmer Rouge cadres by going forward instead of retracing his routes on his return journey, for he was not sure who else had seen him. On the other hand, if word of his presence in the village were to reach the local Khmer Rouge’s cadres, they would be sure to wait for him at the entry point where the road led into the village. My father pretended that he had seen or heard nothing about his being a wanted person and hustled his way across the village. He met my maternal grandma, Yeay Seung, along the way and stopped only to tell her of his and his family’s whereabouts. From that point on, my father pedaled his bicycle as fast as he could to get away from Phum Chi Ro. After passing several villages located along the Mekong River, my father reached the township of Peam Chi Leang, where there was a road junction that led to the rubber plantation town of Chub which was located about 20 miles to the east.
Chub was my father’s birthplace. Before he married my mother, my father spent his childhood and teenage years there. Many of his immediate family members remained living in Chub throughout the years, before and during the civil war. As a matter of fact, one of his older sisters still lived in the house where he was born. Without wasting any time, my father set off for Chub to seek refuge with his sisters there for the time being. By evening, my father made it safely to Chub. He spent the night at one of his sister’s home. The next day, my father left his sister’s home and departed for Prek Rumdeng via National Highway 7 West. After another full day of traveling, he arrived home at Prek Rumdeng with a rather scary look on his face.
At our living quarter in one corner of Om Voan’s house, we sat around a tiny lamp to listen to my father’s account of his trip to Phum Chi Ro and of his escape from the local Khmer Rouge’s cadres. He spoke at a very low voice, barely loud enough for all of us to hear. From his initial encounter with the villagers to his hustling away from Phum Chi Ro, my father recounted his harrowing experiences of eluding the Khmer Rouge’s capture step-by-step for us as we listened with worries and concerns. After learning from my father’s account of what the local Khmer Rouge’s cadres at Phum Chi Ro had in store for us, we lost all hope of returning to our hometown. On top of that, we sort of instinctively knew what our fate would be if those Khmer Rouge cadres found out where we lived. Though at that early stage we had only heard rumors about people being taken away to be re-educated by the Khmer Rouge’s Angkar and never again seen, there were plenty of concerns for us to be cautious. The distance between Phum Chi Ro and Prek Rumdeng was about ten miles or so. The fact that we lived only about a half a day’s walk away from the people who might want to persecute us made us feel very worried.
The next day my mother dispatched my brothers, Heang and Sokha, to surreptitiously go to Phum Chi Ro again to inform my grandma, Yeay Seung, that my father had returned home safely and to inquire further how serious the situation was if we were to return to Phum Chi Ro. The news was grim. Grandma Seung sent the two young men back home immediately, as soon as she served them a meal, so that they wouldn’t go hungry on their way home. Grandma Seung’s advice to us was to never have anyone linked with the family appeared in Phum Chi Ro again lest it attract the attention of local Khmer Rouge cadres. Thus, after learning of the seriousness of what would happen to us if we were to return to our hometown, Phum Chi Ro, we decided to stay in Prek Rumdeng and hope that someday the Khmer Rouge would let bygones be bygones.
While we were staying at Prek Rumdeng, Grandma Seung would come to visit us every other week or so. She would time her travel by getting up in the predawn hours so that she could make it out of Phum Chi Ro by sun rise. That way she could avoid inquiries by villagers, especially local Khmer Rouge’s cadres, about her destination or who she was going to visit. In addition, it was also prudent for her to travel during early morning hours because she was traveling on foot without shoes along a dirt path which was baking hot in the afternoon. I remember seeing Grandma Seung for the first time after having been separated from her since the early 1970s. She remained the sweet little old lady who had always had treats for her grandchildren. On her first visit to us at Prek Rumdeng, Grandma Seung brought us some preserved and fresh fruits, collected from her garden, as well as some other food. We were elated to see her. However, our joys seemed to last only as long as our initial reaction to seeing each other again. Once Grandma Seung sat down and began to tell us that the Khmer Rouge’s cadres at Phum Chi Ro were looking for us and that their motives were to persecute us, sadness and anguish started to settle in. There seemed to be no way out for us except for continuing to live in Prek Rumdeng, keeping a low profile.
(To be continued)