Life in the Communist Regime (Cont.)
Toward the end of July 1975, all new people who settled in Prek Rumdeng Village were no longer allowed to live with or accept shelter from their counterpart base people. We didn’t know what prompted the Khmer Rouge’s authority to make such move, but it appeared that their motives were to cut us off from leaning on the base people, who were mostly our relatives, for moral, emotional, and material support. Also, putting us, new people, in a segregated group would be easier for the Khmer Rouge authority to spy on us and look for any counter-revolutionary spirit we might exhibit. Counter-revolution was another colorful term we learned from our political indoctrination sessions. Any action or behavior that was not in conformity with the Khmer Rouge’s codes of conduct could be construed as counter-revolution, which was punishable ranging from public criticism to execution depending on how serious the infraction was.
After receiving the directive from Angkar, all new people in Prek Rumdeng were rounded up to be resettled in an agricultural camp which was located on the fringe of the village. The camp was actually the village’s annex built by the people who were evacuated from the suburb of Kompong Cham City earlier during the siege of 1973. After the Khmer Rouge’s victory in April 1975, most of the camp’s inhabitants had either returned to their native villages or moved to a more desirable location. Thus, the houses and huts in the camp had only been abandoned for a few months. Many of the houses were in good condition and required only minor repairs before they could be used as shelters again.
With the help of local villagers, we began to rebuild the agricultural camp into a satellite village of Prek Rumdeng. Each family was given a house or a hut to be repaired and used as shelter depending on the number of people within it. The largest houses measured about 18 by 25 feet. Because we had eight people in our family, we were allocated one of the larger houses to occupy. Aunt Muoy and her husband were given one of the smallest houses located about 100 meters across from us. Our house was located on the very far end of the camp near a man-made lake.
The agricultural village in which we were resettled was built on an empty field. However, despite the emptiness because of lack of trees and garden vegetables, it looked somewhat beautiful. From our vantage point, we could see two rows of equally spaced houses built to face each other over a grassy landscape the size of about two football fields. There were about 30 families or so living in the new village. Most of them were not natives to Prek Rumdeng. They probably stayed in Prek Rumdeng because they couldn’t return to their native villages just like us, or they were city dwellers who were dispersed to the countryside. Besides their immediate or extended family members, none of the new people living in the agricultural village had known one another before. We were a community of strangers who were forced to bond with one another by circumstances. Though we had never explicitly acknowledged it, everyone in the agricultural village knew that we were being made outcasts in a classless society. By making us lived in the agricultural village, the Khmer Rouge authority had, in effect, put us in a proving ground to see who would be suitable to join their revolution, and who would not. To put it in plain language, the Khmer Rouge’s motive was to weed out the enemies of Angkar amongst us, new people.
Once we got settled in the agricultural village, the Khmer Rouge authority started to divide us into groups of workforces according to our ages, not abilities. There were four categories of workforces: children, youth, adult, and elderly. Except for my little brother, Buntha, who was too young at that time, my immediate older brother, Sama, and I were assigned to join the children’s workforce; Sokha, Heang, and Hong joined the youth; mother joined the adult; and my father, because of his weakening health, was allowed to work within the elderly workforce. As part of our daily work, Sama and I were assigned to look after and feed two young oxen; Sokha, Heang, and Hong were assigned to work in the youth group clearing lands to plant yams and cassava near Mount Pean Jeang; mother was assigned to work in the rice fields, while father joined the elderly workforce building baskets and other farming tools in the village center. Every morning, my mother would get up very early to prepare food for my three older brothers, Hong, Heang, and Sokha to take along with them as they were working far away from home. The rest of us were working nearby the village, so we would come home at noon to have lunch together.
On our first day of work, Sama and I showed up at the villager’s barn, where the young oxen were kept, to take them to the fields to graze. The two oxen were about one year apart in their birth dates, and the older one was about two-and-a-half years old. The owner gave us a short prep talk on how the two oxen behave. He assured us that they were very easy to handle, despite their playfulness. After the man finished his prep talk, we took the two oxen to graze in the field. Sama took the older ox and led the way while I follow him with the younger one. It was my first time handling farm animals. I felt both nervous and excited. However, my anxiety began to subside as we arrived in the grassy patches where we let the two oxen graze.
During our stay in Kompong Cham City, between 1970-1975, Sama had an opportunity to spend some time on a farm belonging to our aunt, Om Ly, in Chamkar Leur where he had been exposed to farm animals. So he gave me some pointers on how to handle farm animals while we were watching the oxen graze. The day went by rather uneventfully. When the day drew to a close, we took the oxen to a lake near our house to wash them. Afterward, we brought them back to the barn. We told the owner how easy-going and obedient the two oxen were. The man nodded his head approvingly.
Everyday, Sama and I would go to the village to pick up our beasts of burden to look after. Sometimes we were assigned to care for a different pairs of oxen. However, most of the time, we were given the two young oxen to look after. After several days of doing cowboy’s work, Sama and I noticed that most of the villager’s kids, with whom we were working, were handling multiple animals at a time. Each kid had at least two oxen or cows to look after while we, children of new people, each had only one cow or ox to take care of. One day, Sama and I brought our observation of the differences in our work habits to our father’s attention. After listening to our observation, my father suggested that if we wanted to look more like villager’s kids we could have only one person going to the barn to fetch and return the oxen. That way, the villagers would see only one of us handling the two oxen. Once in the fields, each of us would take care of an ox. The plan sounded good. Hence, we followed through by having Sama gone to fetch the two oxen in the morning and I would return them back to the barn in the evening.
On the first evening when I was returning both oxen to the barn by myself, I had a rather hard time handling the two beasts alone. The small path, which led into the village where the barn was, was flanked by rice fields. Just before I took charge of the two oxen, Sama showed me how to give commands to the oxen by flipping the harnesses over their backs and pull them gently. If I wanted them to turn or veer to the right, I should flip the harnesses to their right and jerk them gently. After receiving the instruction, I set off alone along the small path with the two oxen in front of me. Just as I was about to reach the village, I saw another person herding a couple of oxen in the opposite direction. Because the path was too small, the animals had to walk in a single file as they walked pass one another. In a rather nervous situation, I tried my best to flip the harnesses over the oxen’s backs and nudged them gently to keep them from walking into the rice fields. Somehow I lost control of the situation and let loose one of the oxen which was walking far ahead of me. I tried to reach for its harness but it was a few steps ahead of me. So I dropped the other harness and made a dash for it. Once I got hold of the runaway ox, the other one decided not to walk forward; and taking advantage of the chaotic situation, he turned to graze on the young rice shoots nearby. I was both worried and furious at the behavior of that sneaky ox. If someone had seen that I let the ox eat the rice shoots, I would surely be criticized or disciplined. Quickly, I rushed back to pull that sneaky ox out of the rice field. As I was pulling it away from the rice shoots, the mischievous ox gave me a surprise attack by charging at me. In a fight or flight reaction, I jumped out of the way and ended up in the muddy rice field. Determined not to let the beasts get the best of me, I made my way back onto the dirt path, summoned whatever courage I had left, and brought the two oxen to the barn.
When I arrived home that evening, I told Sama and everyone what happened along the way while I was bringing the oxen to the barn. After listening to my ordeal, my father told me to carry a small tree branch which could be used as a whip to deter the young ox from charging at me, for he thought that the ox’s charge was just a bluff. He told me to whip it with the tree branch if the mischievous ox dared to challenge my commands. Also, to avoid any mishap I might encounter in the future, like the one I encountered this evening, I should make the older ox walk in front of me and pull the younger one behind me. In this way, both the oxen and I would walk in a single file; and it would be easy for me to pass by any oncoming ox traffic. So with the new instruction and renewed confidence, I took up the challenges of bringing the oxen to the barn alone, by myself again.
The tug of war between the young oxen and I continued to play out almost every evening, despite my new strategy in commanding them. The problems appeared to arise from misunderstanding between man and beasts about who was in charge. The beasts seemed to know perfectly that I was the boss. But every time I made a mistake, be it failing to flip the harnesses over their backs in time to make them turn toward a desired direction or slipping off the rice field’s dike, one of them, especially the younger one, always took the opportunity to grab a mouthful of the rice shoots which were growing along the path. As soon as I raised the tree branch to threaten it with punishment for grazing on the rice shoots, the mischievous ox would jump back and run away from me. In the process, I would be dragged along with it as I didn’t want to let go of the harness. Adding insult to injury, the young ox occasionally charged at me whenever it felt that I was giving it a hard time. Despite my father’s assurance that the young ox’s charges were very likely just bluffs, my instinctive reactions to them were to jump out of the way first and find out later whether those threatening charges were real or bluffs. As a result, I found myself in the muddy rice field wading in knee deep water very often while the two oxen were standing on the dike or the dirt path looking on rather amused.
As our struggle for supremacy went on for a while, the young oxen and I reached a mutual understanding when I decided to follow my instinct and used a different approach in dealing with their behavior. Instead of using tree branches to discipline them when they were misbehaving, I would just pull them by their harnesses and persuade them not to act according to their impulses. In addition, I would frequently pat them on the back or scratch their necks when we were relaxing under the shade of trees during midday siesta. The new approach worked surprisingly well. Despite occasional rancor, the two oxen seemed to follow my commands rather readily; or at least they were less resistant to them.
(To be Continued)