Trial and Tragedy (Cont.)
By January 1977, one year after our arrival in Ponlear Chey, the local Khmer Rouge’s authority sent out directives to all families in the village to prepare to send any unmarried family member between the ages of 14 to 40 to work on building a dam across the Chinit’s River which was located about 55 miles from where we lived. All four of my older brothers, Hong, Heang, Sokha, and Sama were recruited to work on the project. With great anxiety, my mother packed a mosquito’s net and some provisions for my brothers before sending them off to join the workforce. All of a sudden, our family members were reduced by half. With all the older children gone and my father’s health deteriorating (he was given permission to stay home at that point), I found myself becoming the man of the family. All the heavy household chores such as milling rice grains, finding and chopping firewood for cooking, and fetching water from the well fell flat on my shoulders. Also, to supplement our diets, I would forage for edible vegetables and creatures such as water lily, crabs, snails, etc., during my daily cowboy outings in the fields looking after farm animals.
The burden of foraging for edible things in the fields and forests, or doing heavy household chores was not a major cause of concern for me because, at that point in time, I was experienced enough to handle the tasks. What worried me and my mother the most was my father’s illness. After recovering from malaria, my father seemed to grow weaker and weaker every day. On top of that, he had an unrelenting cough which appeared to be a sign of tuberculosis. Before long, my father began to cough up phlegm mixed with blood. At that point, we knew with little doubt that my father had contracted tuberculosis. But there was nothing we could do, for tuberculosis was not something that could be cured with herbal or homemade remedies. To help alleviate my father’s coughing, a villager brought him some herbal remedies to try out. He also told me to go look for certain tree bark and grasses and put them in boiling water until the liquid became almost like jelly, then have my father consume the concoction lest it help cure his illness. In such a desperate situation, I did as told. But, my efforts were in vain. My father’s condition got worse and worse. As the disease progressed, his coughing became more intense and the blood in his phlegm appeared to increase in quantity. It looked like Baci de Koch had destroyed my father’s lungs beyond repair. Each night, he was painfully moaning in his sleep. With all four of my older brothers away from home, my mother, my little brother, Buntha, and I huddled in the corner next to my father in despair.
By mid June, my four older brothers along with the rest of the workforce that had been recruited to build the dam across the Chinit’s River were sent back home to recover from their six months of hard labor. They all were skinny and could barely walk. It was a classic case of malnourishment and overwork. Everyone in the village was shocked to see these healthy young men reduced to walking skeletons as each one of them stumbled into the village, one after another. The images of skinny young men and women walking about the village moved the village’s officials into action. They slaughtered a couple of buffalos and distributed their meat to every family in the village. They also gave generous rice rations to those whose sons or daughters had just returned from the dam’s building mission. The generous rations had been both a blessing and a curse for these skinny fellows who had been starved for several months. Because of their deflated stomach, the influx of food caused their stomachs to bloat and resulted in both stomachaches and severe diarrhea afterward. For the first several days after they arrived home and wolfed down the food, which were provided to them by the village’s authority, all four of my brothers became sick with bloated stomach and diarrhea. They lay down in one corner of the house like patients in a hospital ward. It took them about a week to recover from their ordeal.
After they were at home for a few weeks, all four of my older brothers were once again told to be at a ready to join the youth mobile work brigades. At the same time, the Khmer Rouge’s Angkar had announced that it would conduct mass wedding ceremony for those who would like to get married. Hence, any prospective couple who would like to be wedded and recognized by Angkar must present themselves in front of the local authority, and declare their intention to form a union in order to get prior permission. Taking the opportunity the Khmer Rouge’s authority offered, my parents decided to have one of my older brothers get married so that he would be able to work and stay close to home. The Khmer Rouge’s policy at that time was to send only unmarried individuals to work in faraway places. Hong was the chosen one because he had already had his sight on a girl named Narath, who was separated from her parents and living with her distant relatives. After experiencing hardships in performing hard labor in faraway places with little food to eat, many youths were more than happy to get married in order to avoid being recruited and sent to work away from home. Thus, there wasn’t much proposition for Hong to do. He went to ask permission from Narath’s guardians and, before long, the two youngsters were in front of the village’s chief declaring their intention to form a union. After receiving the chief’s blessing, they joined a horde of other young couples in a mass wedding conducted by the communal officials. It was a crude wedding ceremony, no music, no reception or celebration of any kind. Each couple stood next to each other listening to admonitions given by Khmer Rouge’s officials who presided over the ceremony. Once the last Khmer Rouge cadre finished his speech, all the couples were sent home as husbands and wives.
Narath moved in to live with us. Our host family was kind enough to build Hong and Narath a small partition at one corner of the house so that they could have some privacy as a couple. By that time, my father’s illness had become desperately critical. As we were helplessly watching my father suffering and dying, one of our neighbors suggested that we should approach the village’s authority and ask for permission to take him to the district hospital in case the hospital had medicines to treat him. It was a good idea but we were wary about the Khmer Rouge’s hospitals. Through the grapevine rumors, we heard that the Khmer Rouge’s hospital staff was notoriously unkind and careless toward patients, especially new people. In a sense, the Khmer Rouge’s hospitals were nothing more than places where sick people were sent to hasten their demises. After a long and hard thinking, my mother finally decided to send my father to the district hospital despite her awareness of what the Khmer Rouge’s hospital was like. It was so surreal to see my mother struggled to make a decision against her own will, a decision that could only happen in movies. Though I wasn’t closely involved with my mother’s decision-making, I could sense that she was torn between two forces — her love of my father and her love of the family as a whole.
I should point out that, at that critical period in our lives in Ponlear Chey, the Khmer Rouge had already begun to massacre new people whom they suspected of being officials of the former regime, or of being counterrevolutionary -- a term which covered a range of misdeeds, from not working hard enough to simply being a nuisance to the base people. For all the new people in Ponlear Chey, and throughout the country for that matter, our lives depended pretty much on the whim of our base people hosts. Their words alone could determine whether we should live or die. My father’s illness presented two dilemmas for us. First, tuberculosis was a contagious disease, and our hosts knew that. Second, we had been told to take our father to the hospital to let Angkar’s medical staff take care of him. Hence, if we did not send him to the hospital, we risked being perceived by our hosts as a possible source of spreading tuberculosis among them, a scenario which could motivate them to get rid of us all by simply just reporting to Angkar that we were rotten bourgeoisie. On the other hand, we could be viewed by the Khmer Rouge’s Angkar as counterrevolutionaries for not following the suggestion of base people from whom we were supposed to learn.
In a somber mood, my brother, Hong, went to ask for permission to take my father to the district hospital. The village’s authority gave him a written pass and a bicycle to take my father to the hospital, for my father was too weak to be able to walk all the way to the hospital, which was located about six miles away. At about 10 o’clock in the morning, Hong and my father set off for the hospital. As my father was about to ride on the bicycle’s saddle behind Hong, my mother handed him a tiny bag containing a small blanket and a pair of clean clothes to change into when he washed the ones he was wearing. Without saying a word, my father took one last look at us pleadingly as if he was begging for mercy. We all tried to maintain eye contact with him as short as possible and acted optimistically in front of the many villagers who came to see him off. Amid well wishes from villagers, Hong pedaled the bicycle slowly with my father sitting precariously behind him. From the corner of my eye, I saw my mother turn around and walk back into the house with a heavy heart. Her eyes were filled with pain and sadness.
We sat quietly for the rest of the day waiting for Hong’s return, so that we could learn what the condition at the district’s hospital was like. By about 4 o’clock in the afternoon, Hong returned from the hospital. Surprisingly, and to my mother’s great relief, my father also came back with him. Hong told us that the district’s hospital was overflowing with patients. The hospital had run out of spaces to accommodate new patients. Therefore, the hospital staff just simply refused to admit my father, despite his urgent need of care. In a rather cruel twist of fate, the hospital’s refusal to admit him was a blessing, for in a crowded Khmer Rouge’s hospital, my father would certainly be left to die like a vermin. By being back at home, my father could at least die knowing that his family was nearby.
A few days later, the villagers organized a fishing expedition to Tonle Sap Lake. Two of my brothers, Hong and Heang went along with them hoping to catch some fish to supplement our diets. In a desolate place like Ponlear Chey, the prospect of having some fresh fish to add to our diets excited everyone. We couldn’t wait to see the return of those who had gone fishing. Even my father who was on the verge of dying was longing to see my brothers’ catch. He inquired about their return almost on a daily basis. Five days later, all the fishermen returned to the village with their catch. My brothers brought back two large live soft-shell turtles (kontheay) which they caught on the last day of the expedition. Each turtle weighed about 14 pounds. Everyone in the neighborhood was very pleased and excited because those turtles could provide a feast for at least 50 people. That night, we all went to bed with a sense of excitement thinking that the next morning, we would have a feast of turtle’s meat.
At about 4:30 in the early morning hours, we all woke up to a rather strange sound. It was my father making painful sounds. At that instance, we all knew that something had gone terribly bad with his health. Through my mother’s trembling voice asking my father to respond to her, we all knew that the devil was about to claim his soul. Om Po burned a torch to give the house some illumination as my mother continued to ask my father to respond to her. But there was no discernible answer coming out of my father’s mouth. He continued to moan in pain. He arched his back up slightly and his body appeared stiff. At that point, his moan died out slowly. In his final attempt to stay alive, my father struggled to take in a gulp of oxygen; but it was in vain. He died in the middle of his breathing with his eyes still open as if his body refused to die. My mother put a white handkerchief to cover my father’s face and we all sat around his lifeless body to let reality sink in.
(To be continued)