Disobeying Angkar’s Viney
After returning from the dam’s building labor camp, I was ordered to go look after farm animals again while waiting for my next assignment. Hence, I went to do cowboy’s work for the time being. One day, as I was herding water buffalos with Oss in the fields, I saw a skinny man struggling to make a small mound with a hoe. Sitting nearby was a little girl about six years old. Oss and I went over to ask him what he was doing. The man told us that he was burying his deceased father who had died of starvation. As he was talking to us, the man leaned heavily on the hoe’s handle, using it to support his body from collapsing. Oss and I asked him why he didn’t get some other villagers to come and help him bury his father. The man told us that most of the people in his village were dying of starvation, so no one was willing to come and help him bury his father. He was only able to beg the village’s chief to provide an oxcart and bring his father’s corpse to that spot. After dropping the corpse off, the chief returned to the village leaving him and his little daughter to deal with the task of burying the corpse alone. After listening to the man’s story, we took pity on him and decided to help him bury his father’s corpse. Oss and I took turns filling in the grave and we eventually made a decent mound to mark the grave’s spot.
While we were making the grave’s mound, I noticed that the man’s eyes were fixed on a frog Oss had caught earlier in a pond and had hung it on his waist’s band. After we finished making the grave’s mound, the man thanked us profusely. Afterward, in a rather hesitant voice, he asked Oss if he (Oss) would skin his frog now and give him the discarded frog’s head, skin, and stomach’s contents. Oss agreed to the man’s request, and, as soon as he got the frog’s head, skin, and stomach’s contents, the man built a small fire, wrapped the frog’s head and stomach’s contents in its skin, and tossed it in the fire. A few minutes later, he picked it up and ate the whole thing. Oss and I were dumbfounded to see the man actually eat the frog’s skin and stomach contents. If we didn’t see it with our own eyes, we would not have believed it. Seeing how hungry and desperate the man was, Oss decided to give him the frog as well. I also gave him a few snails and crabs which I had caught in a stream earlier. At that point it was late afternoon. We said goodbye to the man and the little girl and went to herd our water buffalos home. That day we went home empty handed, without any wild critter to supplement our diet. However, Oss and I did not feel bad at all because we knew in our heart that we had done something right to help a desperate man.
A few weeks later, I was called up to join the children’s work brigade again. This time, we were sent to the sub-district headquarters, Bonteay Staung, where we would meet up with other children from the surrounding villages. There were about 200 of us altogether, and we were divided into battalions called Kang Roy, Kang Ha (Group of 100 and 50, respectively) which were supervised by leaders selected from the youth brigade. We were further divided into groups of 25 which were headed by our peers. Though we sometimes crossed paths or worked side by side with the youth brigades, we were not allowed to commingle with them. However, there were some occasions when both the youth and children brigades were summoned to attend a meeting together which gave us opportunity to commingle briefly in the gathering place. During those meeting occasions, I met my brothers, Sokha and Sama, a few times. My brothers gave me some pointers regarding the youth leaders who were appointed to supervise us. They admonished me to be wary of those leaders and not to do anything that might displease them, for they had absolute authority over my life.
During the first few days after our arrival in the labor camp, we were ordered to pull rice seedlings from the nurseries. It was my first time performing such a task. Since our arrival in Ponlear Chey, I had somehow been spared from doing the rice transplanting chores. But this time there was no way out for me. Therefore, I had to confront the challenges head on. To keep my clumsiness from being noticed, I worked next to my best buddy, Penh, the boy who taught me how to climb and collect palm tree sap, and studied his every move. When I ran into something I did not know how to do, such as tying the seedlings into a bundle, I would ask Penh to show me how. It was such a nerve wracking time for me. However, thanks in part to Penh’s instruction, I was able to master the tasks in a relatively short time.
The children brigade, to which I was assigned, was a mobile work unit. Hence, we moved around constantly from village to village. The worse thing about these constant moves was that it usually occurred in the evening hours after we got off from work, which meant that, in order for us to reach the new camp, we had to walk throughout the night. Occasionally, when Mother Nature decided to add her wrath to our misery, we would have to walk in the rain and in pitch darkness since the cruel youth leaders would not let us stop and seek shelter from the inclement weather.
Like the previous labor camp in which I was assigned to dig and carry earth to build a dam across the Staung River two baskets at a time, the works at this new labor camp were just as intense. Though we were only children, our youth’s leaders made us work like adults. For instance, if we were to transplant rice seedlings, we would be allotted almost as many acres of land to toil per day as the adults. Therefore, everyone had to work strenuously to complete the daily quota.
The work which the children brigades were assigned to do varied from village to village. Sometimes we were assigned to dig small canals or build dikes in the rice fields. But frequently we were ordered to spin the wheels of a primitive wooden water scooping device, called Rohat Teuk, to get water into the rice fields in preparation for rice seedlings transplantation. This Rohat Teuk looked somewhat like a stationary exercise bicycle. To get the water into the rice field, one would sit on the wooden saddle and pedal the wheel constantly to maximize the flow of water along its wooden tunnel. Otherwise, the water that was scooped up by the wooden plank propellers (like those on a steamboat) would leak out along the way which could render much of the human energy being put into the tasks a waste. Though it looked like fun for people who ride and pedal on those spinning wheels, it was certainly no fun operating those devices. I had the misfortune of working with this Rohat Teuk dozens of times. The worst part was when there was an urgent need for water in a rice field where people began to transplant the seedlings, which would put tremendous pressure on the spinning wheel’s operator to spin the wheels as fast as he could to get the necessary water into the field.
After the rice seedlings transplanting period was concluded, my brigade was sent to clear new lands and transform them into rice fields in an outlying village called Phum Po Rong. It was in late July of 1978 when we arrived in Po Rong. As usual, we were placed in a labor camp located about a mile or so from the village. By that point, I began to notice that the Khmer Rouge’s authority did not allow the children whom they recruited to work in the various mobile work brigades to maintain any contact with their parents. Hence, they rarely let us stay in the village where we worked. The camp was a way to isolate us physically and emotionally from our parents. We were no longer our parent’s children. We were now Angkar’s children. Therefore, whatever we do, we must obey and follow Angkar’s Viney (the Organization’s rule). If anyone were caught sneaking out of the camp to visit his parents overnight, he would be reprimanded with verbal warning, or, in some cases, beaten by the brigade’s leaders. I imagined similar discipline applied to the girl’s work brigades as well (the Khmer Rouge did not allow commingling of the opposite sexes, even for children).
We spent about one month working on clearing forested lands and turning them into rice fields. Our work condition was harsh. First, we had to clear cut and burn the forests and scrubs. Then, using hoes, we uprooted any scrub and tree stems that remained underground. Once the land was cleared of scrubs and tree stumps, we would go around and flatten any termite mound to even out the landscape so that a rice field could be created. Sometimes, we had to work in the rain as our leaders would not let us stop or seek shelter from the inclement weather. We were basically forced to work like animals. No sort of inclement weather could keep us away from the forced labor that the Khmer Rouge instituted we perform. However, those harsh working conditions were probably not what concerned us the most. The lack of food had been one overwhelming concern for all of us who had been forced to join the children mobile work brigades.
Since the end of the rice planting season, some time around July, our food ration, which consisted of a bowl of porridge and some bland soup, had been reduced significantly because of the shortage of rice. Hence, we went about going to work hungry all the time. As a child who had been through perhaps one of the worst starvation experiences that had ever happened to the humanity in the Khmer Rouge labor camps, I could say with certainty that hunger could take rationality away from one’s thinking.
(To be continued)