The Silent Genocide
By dawn, words spread out that my father had passed away. Our neighbors came over to say their condolences and help prepare for his funeral. Some of them brought planks of woods and carpentry tools to construct a coffin while other went to the forest to gather wood and build a pyre to cremate my father’s body. By noon, the coffin and the pyre were ready for my father’s funeral. Because the Khmer Rouge had abolished religion and forbidden all kind of ceremonies, we did not have any ritual conducted for my father’s funeral. When it was time to cremate his body, several people just placed his corpse in the coffin, carried it to the pyre, and set fire onto it. As my father’s body was being cremated, a village elder who was, in his former life, a clergyman (the achar) told my mother to have one of us shaved our head as a gesture of bereavement. I volunteered to have my head shaved. However, my mother insisted that she should have her head shaved as well. So both of us had our heads shaved in front of my father’s funeral pyre. It took the whole afternoon for my father’s body to be burned into ashes. As the flame died down, we poured water onto the pyre and began to pick up the remains of my father’s ashes, put them into an urn, which we buried near the base of a palm tree.
As we returned from cremating our father’s body, Om Po and several of our neighbors had been busily preparing foods to serve the people who came to attend and assist in carrying out his funeral. The village’s authority had given us some rice for the occasion. And with the two turtles my brothers brought from their fishing expedition the previous day, we were able to provide relatively sufficient food for all the guests who came to attend the funeral.
About one week after my father’s death, all my older brothers (except Hong) were called up by the Khmer Rouge authority to join the youth work brigade. They would be away from home for months at a time camping in the fields where they worked. Perhaps out of sympathy, Om Po’s father, Ta Plaok, had secured permission for my mother to work with him and other elderly villagers growing vegetables along the bank of the Staung River for communal consumption. Ta Plaok also used his influence as a village elder to get me to work with him in the vegetable gardens as well, under the pretext that he and a few other elderly men, who had to stay at the gardens days and nights to prevent animals from going into the gardens and destroy the plants, were too old and feeble. They needed me to assist them in foraging for woods and vines to build fences around the gardens as well as climbing up and collecting palm tree sap to supplement their diets.
The vegetable garden was located on the bank of the Staung River about two miles from the village, where an ancient settlement used to be. We built a hut under a grove of mango trees. Some of the mango trees might have been a hundred years old with trunk circumferences as large as an oxcart’s wheel. Amongst the elderly people who were assigned to work at the vegetable garden were Ta Plaok, Ta Chim, Ta Chhong, Ta Kim, Yeay Nhong, Yeay Ngo, and my mother. Ta Plaok, Ta Chim and Ta Chhong stayed at the garden day and night to prevent animals, wild or domestic, from going into the garden, while everyone else would go to work there as day trippers. Occasionally, one of the three elderly men would go to visit his family in the village and spend the night there while the other two stay behind. On my first day of going to work at the vegetable garden as a helping hand, I instantly fell in love with the place; therefore, I asked my mom to let me stay at the garden with the three elderly men. My mom agreed to let me stay there, and I spent about five months working as a palm sap collector and vegetable grower.
During my stay at the vegetable garden, the Khmer Rouge’s round-up of new people for execution intensified. Many families, all of them new people, began to disappear quietly. We were told that they were being relocated to live and work in some faraway communes. But, in reality they were sent to the execution sites somewhere in the region. It appeared that most of the people who were slated for execution were those whom the Khmer Rouge authority deemed unproductive, or they were suspected of working for the previous regime. To keep a low profile, Ta Plaok told me to avoid going into the village too often so that I would be out of sight of the Khmer Rouge’s vigilantes. As a gesture of help, Yeay Nhong, who had just been forced by the Khmer Rouge’s Angkar to relinquish her large home to be used as communal dining hall and lived on a small plot of land about a quarter of a mile from the village, agreed to take my little brother, Buntha, under her wing by having him help her son look after her cows. Hence, no one in our family was around in the village. We all were out and about doing work for Angkar every day.
Administratively, Ponlear Chey Village was divided into three groups. Each group was overseen by a headman. We were living in Group 2 while Aunt Muoy and her husband were living in Group 3. Out of the three groups, Group 1 was the most unfriendly place for new people to be in, for it was overseen by a callous man named Choy, who had the least sympathy for new people. Of all the new people who lived in his group, about two-thirds had been sent away for execution. We were sort of lucky to be dropped off just a few houses away from that brutal man.
Every day my mother would come to tend the vegetable garden early in the morning along with Yeay Nhong and Yeay Ngo and return home to the village late in the evening just before dark. For about five months, she was my only link to the village’s life as to what was going on. Aside from telling me what my brothers, Buntha, Hong and his wife were doing, there was not much else she could divulge to me since my three other brothers, Heang, Sokha, and Sama had been sent to work in labor camps away from home.
One day, as I was climbing a palm tree to collect its sap, I saw my mother tending the vegetables in the garden alone very early in the morning. After climbing down from the palm tree, I walked over to ask her why she came to tend the vegetables alone without everyone else working alongside with her. In a rather upsetting tone of voice, my mother told me that she just wanted to avoid seeing Ta Chim, who had been flirting with her lately. She was afraid that he might act inappropriately toward her. Naively, I asked her about Yeay Ngo, with whom my mother always walked back and forth from the village to the vegetable garden. Couldn’t the two of them swat off Ta Chim’s unwanted behavior? In a somewhat irritated mood, my mother retorted my question with another question of her own: “What could Yeay Ngo do, if Ta Chim decided to rape me?” Speechless, I returned to finish my round of collecting palm sap for that morning with a feeling that my mother was a bit paranoid about Ta Chim’s behavior. However, a couple of months later late at night, I was woken up by a commotion made by someone coming into our hut. It was Ta Chim. He was out of breath and appeared to be in fear. Ta Plaok inquired what was happening to him. In a bombshell, Ta Chim told us that he had just raped a woman and was caught by her little brother in the act. He wanted to kill both of them to cover up his crime but didn’t have the courage to carry out his plan. In a panic, he decided to run away and came here first to seek some advice. After a lengthy discussion, Ta Plaok finally persuaded Ta Chim to stay put and wait until the next morning while he (Ta Plaok) would go to the village to find out how widespread news of the incident had been disseminated.
Ta Plaok went into the village very early in the morning while Ta Chim went to hide in a nearby forest. He (Ta Chim) told me where to find him when Ta Plaok returned from the village. I went about my business collecting palm sap as usual, while pretending that nothing unbecoming had happened last night. Though I was just a kid at that time, I knew full well that the repercussion of Ta Chim’s misdeed could reach far and wide. In the Khmer Rouge’s scheme of legal structure (if such a thing existed) adultery and rape were punishable by death. All involved, including Ta Plaok, Ta Chhong and I, who had the misfortune of knowing what Ta Chim had done and did not report it to Angkar, would not be spared. As luck was to be on our side, the victim went to report the crime to one of the village’s leaders who happened to be Ta Plaok’s relative. After learning of the extent of whom and how many people could be implicated in the death trap, a cover up scheme was hatched. Ta Chim was to stay at the vegetable garden and keep a very low profile. Everyone who knew of the incident must swear to keep it a secret. It was perhaps one of the greatest cover-ups in Ponlear Chey’s history.
(To be continued)