Marching Toward the Inferno
After spending almost a year in Prek Rumdeng, we received word that all new people in the village would be sent to help cultivate lands in the northwestern regions of the country. Most of us, residents of the agricultural village, received the news with mixed feelings, for we didn’t know what would happen to us once we were sent to the new location. However, there was nothing we could do to change our fates. In the Khmer Rouge’s society there was only one choice for people to make regarding their destiny: following the organization’s directives. Angkar dak teus or the organization’s directives were more powerful than God’s commands that no one, not even the Khmer Rouge cadres themselves, dared question. As we were to learn later, many people paid with their lives when their impulses, be it questioning the rationale of the directives or just foraging for food to stave off death from starvation, had the misfortunes of colliding with the organization’s directives.
By early January 1976, all new people living in the agricultural village were ordered to pack up their belongings and prepare for departure to be resettled in a new place. To keep us under complete control, the Khmer Rouge’s leadership didn’t even tell us to where we were being sent. However, some sympathetic local Khmer Rouge cadres told us that we would likely be resettled in the following provinces: Kompong Thom, Siem Reap, and Battambang, which were located in the northwestern part of Cambodia. With this limited information, my mother dispatched one of my brothers to tell Om Voan of the destination to where we might be sent and asked her to relay the message to Grandma Seung if she chanced upon anyone who might be able to get in touch with her.
We were told to meet up at a gathering place, whose name I don’t remember, on the bank of the Mekong River. There were hundreds of thousands of new people being gathered up in the area. Some of them were being loaded onto river ships and barges which were moored along the shoreline. After spending one night at that gathering place, we were ordered to board one of the ships. When all the ships and barges were filled to capacity with their human cargo, they departed, first upstream and then across the Mekong River. A couple of hours later, the river convoy took us across the river and we arrived at a small township by the riverbank called Peam Chi Kong. Surprisingly, we were almost back to where we began, for Peam Chi Kong was located only about a couple of miles down river from Chamkar Samseb Village, a place we used as a springboard to cross to the eastern area of the Mekong River during our evacuation from Kompong Cham City. Also, Peam Chi Kong was the place where my brother Heang and Uncle Lai Hea were detained during their failed attempt to go and stay with my mother’s older sister, Om Ly, in Chamkar Leur district.
As we disembarked from the ships and barges, the Khmer Rouge cadres who were overseeing our transport told us to temporarily settle in the abandoned shop houses which were lining a small single paved road leading from the port. We settled into one of the abandoned shop houses whose owners were probably being banished into the countryside or possibly being transported among us. Despite lack of upkeep, the houses were reasonably habitable. As we swept the dust and cleared away some furniture and debris for our sleeping quarters, we found many things such as water faucets and the indoor toilet that remained intact, though not functional because of lack of running water. In one of perhaps the cruelest ironies, the house reminded us of what life was like, or at least used to be like, before the Khmer Rouge enslaved us in their utopian society.
We stayed in Peam Chi Kong for about one week before the Khmer Rouge authority ordered us to pack up our belongings and prepared to move again. One morning, a convoy of cargo trucks arrived to transport us to the next destination. After the trucks came to a stop, we were told to board them immediately so that the convoy could leave promptly, for our travel might take many, many hours to complete. To ensure that we would not separate from each other, Aunt Muoy and her husband, Kun, traveled with us as one family unit. We all boarded a truck along with a few other families. We put our belongings on the floor of the truck and climbed on top of them to sit precariously. As soon as each of the trucks was filled to capacity, they began to depart one after another into the unknown. Luckily, we were traveling during day time, which gave us an opportunity to follow our progress and see where we might possibly be heading.
Our truck and the entire convoy headed westward on a rutted highway that was full of potholes. The highway appeared to have been built when the French were ruling Cambodia as a colony (1863-1954). From the size and shape of it, the highway was of secondary importance as far as transportation and commercial were concerned. During the civil war from1970-75, this stretch of highway, which led from Peam Chi Kong westward, was abandoned and neglected. It had probably seen little motorized traffic, except for the occasional oxcart convoy of villagers who lived along its length. Hence, many of the potholes were as large as a buffalo’s wallowing pond. Thanks, in part, to the drivers, most of whom appeared to be Khmer Rouge soldiers, our safety had never been compromised whenever the truck negotiated through those large potholes. Our driver seemed to take utmost care whenever he drove the truck through road obstacles.
At about midday our truck arrived in the town of Skun. There the driver stopped the truck to give us a short biological break before continuing on our journey. After a brief stop, our driver started the truck’s engine to signal to us that it was time to leave. We climbed back onto the truck without even being told to do so. Our behavior was quite automatic and it was not clear whether our prompt responses to the Khmer Rouge nonverbal communication were due to fear or anxiety. But what was painfully clear was that we all resigned to our fate. The lack of information regarding our future destiny was powerful enough to keep us behaving like automatons. The two Khmer Rouge soldiers who drove our truck seemed to know that very well. They rarely made eye contact with us, and hardly ever talked to us. They would pick an appropriate spot to stop the truck to let us have a break and restart the truck’s engine when they determined that it was time for us to leave.
After everyone was on board, our truck started moving again through the tiny town of Skun which was also devoid of people. Just like any other township, its residents had been banished to the countryside where they were forced to work in agricultural fields. Our truck went half way around a tiny circle located in the middle of town and turned onto National Highway Number 6, which led northwestward toward the provinces of Kompong Thom, Siem Reap, and Battambang. At that point, we sort of had a vague idea as to where we were heading. As our truck moved out of Skun and into the open rice fields, we saw our convoy stretching as far as the eye could see. Our truck was only one of many. There must be hundreds of thousands of people being sent along with us to the northwestern region of the country. Our truck lumbered along the potholes highway like an overburdened fire ant. It made a few stops along the way to let us have biological breaks and stretch our limbs.
At about 4:30 p.m., our truck made another stop in a small township called Staung, which was located in the western region of Kompong Thom province. As we disembarked the truck, which was, by then, becoming routine for us, we were told to unload our belongings from the truck, put them in one of the abandoned shop houses, and wait there for further instruction. We did as told, and, as soon as we emptied the truck, the driver took off without even saying goodbye to us. Just as we were about to settle down to prepare for our temporary stay in that township, we saw many oxcarts, apparently driven by local villagers, arriving in town. Some of them came to stop in front of the abandoned houses where we were staying. A few minutes later, we saw what appeared to be local Khmer Rouge cadres walking around telling people to put their belongings in the oxcarts and be ready for departure. Once again, we quickly loaded our belongings onto the oxcarts and stood ready for our departure. As we were loading our belongings onto an oxcart, we realized that it was too small to carry all of our things. Thus, my mother told Aunt Muoy and her husband to quickly claim one of the nearest oxcarts to carry their belongings. Her instinct was that the closer the oxcarts were to each other, the more likely they were coming from the same village. Therefore, we wouldn’t be separated from each other once we were transported to our next destination.
As soon as we finished piling our belongings onto the oxcarts, they once again departed along a dirt road in a form of oxcart convoy. We asked the drivers of the two oxcarts, in which Aunt Muoy’s family and we put our belongings, to go one after another so that we would be traveling close to each other. Our oxcart’s driver told everyone to walk behind the cart while asking my mom along with Buntha and me, the children, to climb up and ride in the oxcart with him. As we were moving along with the oxcarts convoy, we had no clue where we were heading. The only sense of direction for us was that we were going northwestward from Staung, for the sunset was in front of us tilting a bit to the left.
(To be continued)