The Silent Genocide (Cont.)
After learning of Ta Chim’s immoral behavior, I immediately thought about my mother’s earlier encounter with his flirtation. All of a sudden, I was having second thought about my mother’s story, that she might be a victim of Ta Chim’s misdeed as well. My greatest fear was that my mother might have been raped by Ta Chim, and that she did not report it to anyone, for fear of reprisal or, worse, being killed by the Khmer Rouge. The more I thought about the possibility, the more distressed I felt. I wanted to ask my mother to get to the bottom of it; but I somehow held back and hoped that my suspicion was unfounded. For years, I continued to live with that agonizing suspicion. But, the feeling that my mother might have been a rape victim during the Khmer Rouge regime never faded away from my mind. After the Khmer Rouge’s regime was toppled from power, I summoned my courage a few times to ask my mother about it. However, I fell short of doing so, for fear of opening up an old wound that my mother had spent all of these years trying to heal, or cover up. It took me 29 years to finally overcome my fear and ask perhaps one of the most unwanted questions to a person I loved and respected dearly. The day was August 22, 2006, during a layover in Singapore’s Changi Airport on our last journey to Cambodia together that I decided to ask my mother that painful question. Because of the reverse time of day, we couldn’t sleep. Thus, my mother and I sat next to each other in our hotel room and reminisced on our past. We talked about life in the old days, how we coped with the difficulty of living in refugee camps in Thailand, and how fortunate we were to be able to go and live in the United States of America. But the majority of our conversation focused mostly on our ordeals living under the Khmer Rouge’s rule. I was very impressed at how my mother recalled past events so vividly despite her having a mature Parkinson’s disease. While we were talking about our lives during the Khmer Rouge period, I gingerly and uneasily steered our conversation to the time we spent at Ponlear Chey village. After recalling our work at the vegetable garden and the names of people who were working with us there, I closed my eyes and agonizingly asked my mother if Ta Chim had violated her. In a calm and serene voice, my mother said, no. Beside his flirtatious talk, Ta Chim did not misbehave. I felt so relieved to hear that my mother had been spared from the cruelty of life’s circumstances. Though one might suspect that my mother was just telling me what I wanted to hear in order to spare me from a shared suffering, I had no reason to believe otherwise because, at that point, I had already been a chosen offspring who would have the opportunity to listen to many secrets of her life’s stories. Over the course of our lives spent together, my mother had probably shared more of her life’s trials and tribulations with me than anyone else.
One day, Ta Plaok called me to his side and told me that I was no longer allowed to stay and work at the vegetable garden. I was to report to the village the next day in order to join the children work brigades which were being called up to help build a dam across the Staung River. So I went up to the village the next day and reported my presence at the communal dining hall where all the children were gathering. After putting us into groups and assigning a group leader, we were ordered to march to our worksite which was located somewhere east of the National Highway 6.
We spend the whole afternoon walking from the village to our worksite which was about 10 miles away. At dust, we arrived at our worksite, which was a gigantic camp. There were a lot of long huts built in groups of four or six to house the workers. We were put into two huts among a group of huts housing the children from other villages. Before my departure for the work camps, my mother gave me a homemade pouch with a metal plate and a spoon inside along with a checkered scarf, krama. After going to receive my food ration that evening, I cleaned my plate and spoon, put them back inside the pouch and kept it next to me as I slept.
The next morning, we were ordered to go to the storage rooms to pick up hoes, hollow baskets, called bangkey, and balancing poles, called dangrek, as we would need them to dig up and transport earth for the dam construction. We were put together in a six-person team, with two people carrying hoes and four people carrying the poles and baskets. Each person was given a quota of one cubic meter of earth per day to be moved from the pit to the back of the dam. Thus, in total, we were given the task of moving six cubic meters of earth daily. If we failed to meet our quota, we would be forced to finish our task after dinner. A generator was run every evening to light up the worksites until 10 o’ clock at night. During the first few weeks, our team was able to complete our quota by dinner time. However, our rigors began to fade soon after once the stresses of this hard labor began to take a toll on our health. On top of that, our nutrition was meager at best, and we were constantly hungry as we worked. Eventually, our team ended up working at night as well. Sometimes, we had to work until the wee hour of 10 p.m.
After about three months of working at the dam’s construction camp, we were moved to a different location to help finish up that portion. At the new location, we were able to see what the dam looked like. It was shaped like the curve of a buffalo’s horn. Our new location was at the tip of one end of it. A few days after we arrived at our new work location, Samoeun, Om Po’s nephew, Penh, the boy who taught me how to climb and collect palm tree’s saps, I, and a couple of other fellow slave laborers decided to run away from the camp and go home. Samoeun, the oldest among us and appeared to be knowledgeable of the area, was our ring leader. At the appointed time under the cover of darkness, we met up and sneaked out of the camp surreptitiously. Our escape route was to follow the bank of the Staung River walking upstream. When we encountered a village, we would make a detour and came back to the bank of the river again. By early dawn, we made it across National Highway 6 and were on our way toward Ponlear Chey. We kept walking along the bank of the Staung River or close to it and pretended that we were local kids going about finding vines and forest products to be used in making farm implements. At about noon time, we made it to Ponlear Chey and quietly slipped into the village. Despite the fact that we made it home safe and sound, I was quite scared afterward, for I didn’t know what repercussion I would face once the Khmer Rouge authority found out that I had deserted from a labor camp. Fortunately, the dam’s building children workforces were dismissed two days later, and nobody seemed to take notice of our early arrival. Though I was spared from the consequence of my foolish action, my mother scolded me for making such a careless decision.
(To be continued)