Disobeying Angkar's Viney (Cont.)
One afternoon, after coming to fetch our lunch from the camp’s kitchen, I felt my legs shaking and a sheer fatigue throughout my body, a sign of weakness due to prolonged malnutrition. So I told my team leader that I didn’t feel well and would like to take the rest of the afternoon off. Afterward, I went to the hut which was our sleeping quarters and lay down to give my body a much needed rest. A couple of hours later, I heard someone yell at the far end of the hut calling everyone to come out and assemble in front of it. From the tone of his voice, I knew instantly that there was trouble ahead. I got up slowly and made my way to the gathering place. There I found a man named Chay, who was our brigade’s leader, and a few of my colleagues who, like me I presumed, were feeling unwell as well. Chay told us to sit in a half circle in front of him as he was preparing to interrogate us to inquire what were the causes of our staying in the hut while everyone else was out working in the fields. Among the six or so people who were being interrogated, I was the youngest and smallest. Hence, Chay picked on me first. He asked me what kind of sickness I had that warranted my absence from going to work. I told him that I had a temperature and that I felt fatigue so badly this afternoon. Chay put the palm of his hand on my forehead to feel my temperature and afterward chastised me that I was pretending to be sick, and that my sickness was not real. It was an emotional sickness, chheur sateh arom. As he vented his rage at me, Chay drew his hand in a motion of slapping me in the face for not convincing him enough of my sickness. Instantly, I closed my eyes and waited for the inevitable punishment. But Chay somehow stopped short of slapping me. He then turned to a young man named Met who sat next to me. “What is the matter with you?” he asked Met. “I am sick.” Met answered him matter-of-factly. “Liar!” Chay screamed. “You all are lazy pretending to be sick.” He went on. In an attempt to defend his innocence, Met interjected that if he were not sick, he would not stay away from work. Chay was enraged upon hearing Met’s rebuttal to his accusation. In a split second, he stepped forward and kicked Met right on the chest. Met fell backward and struggled to sit up again as he was assessing the damages to his mouth and chest from the impact of Chay’s kicking. His mouth bled profusely. But no one dared say a word. We all sat still as stones waiting for Chay to make his next move.
After venting his rage at Met, Chay seemed to have fulfilled his callous behavior. In a mood of contempt, he ordered us to get out of his sight and never again use illness as a pretext to stay away from work. Under Chay’s sharp gaze, we sheepishly and quietly went back into the hut. As we were walking into the hut, I stole a quick glance at Met to see how badly hurt he was. His lips were badly swollen as Chay’s knee might have hit them when he delivered his kick. Met was really in bad shape. But nothing we could do to help him. Not even a word of sympathy. In the Khmer Rouge’s silent code of conduct, anyone who was punished by a cadre or cadres should be shunned. Hence, it was prudent to stay away from a person being punished whether that person was guilty or not. With a helpless feeling, I went to my sleeping quarters and lay down waiting for the rest of the afternoon to pass by.
That evening, as we gathered to get our rationed dinner, Chay ordered the cook to make sure that those who were sick should get only half the food ration because it was the rule that sick people shall receive only half as much food as those who were able to go to work. Thus, he once again summoned all of us, who were sick and unable to go to work that afternoon, to line up and get our ration together while he was watching over the cook’s shoulder to make sure that our ration was properly cut in half. It was like adding insult to injury. Our ration was not only being cut, but it was done in such a high profile way to humiliate us in front of our peers. Though we didn’t know what made Chay behave callously toward us, it was apparently clear that we were being used as an example for those who might want to take a break from work because of not feeling well. The message was clear: If you are sick, you will be punished for being sick by having your food ration cut. In the Khmer Rouge labor camps where we lived with constant hunger all the time, food was the greatest weapon of motivation and punishment against us. We would do anything just to get our meager ration.
After receiving my half ration, I went to sit next to Teav, a boy with whom I used to herd the water buffalos before we were conscripted to join the children work brigades. In a whisper, Teav told me that he was so hungry and wanted to sneak out of the camp after dark to go to our village and seek out our parents to see if they had any food to feed us. He needed someone to go with him as a companion. Without giving it much thought, I agreed to his proposal, even though I was not sure if my mother had any food for me once I came home. But the power of hunger seemed to overcome my rationale.
Just before sunset, Teav came to get me. Under the pretext of going to wash ourselves in a pond nearby, Teav and I surreptitiously walked away from the camp and lingered by a bush near the pond waiting for darkness to arrive. All of a sudden, black clouds started to form on the horizon, and there were some strong winds indicating that a thunderstorm was imminent. As all the creatures rushed to their shelters to seek refuge from the imminent storm, Teav and I hesitated about following through our going home plan. But we somehow thought that the storm presented a good opportunity for us because most of the people would be going into the huts to seek shelter from it, and if we made a run for it, we could probably make it half way to our village before the rain arrived. Using some bushes as cover, we made our way toward a path which led to our village and started running as fast as we could. After we ran for about a few hundreds yards, we heard someone yelled at us to stop. From the corner of his eye, Teav saw several Khmer Rouge cadres having a meeting under a tree located about a couple hundred yards from the path on which we ran. Sensing that we were in trouble, Teav told me to run faster and pretended that we didn’t hear anything. Seeing that we didn’t slow down, one of the cadres named Khoeun ran after us in an attempt to arrest us but he was unable to catch up with us. We kept on running for about ten minutes; then the rain started to fall. We stopped to catch our breath and walked the rest of the way home in the rain. The distance from the camp to our village was about four miles, but it felt like eternity for us. We knew that we had been spotted going home without permission, which was a serious offense. The Khmer Rouge called such infraction “disobeying Angkar’s Viney” or not upholding the organization’s discipline. Those who were found guilty of disobeying Angkar’s viney could be punished by torture, physically and mentally, at best, or be executed at worst. Thus, with this worrisome knowledge in our heads, Teav and I went our separate ways upon arriving in the village and planned to get up around three o’clock in the morning to sneak back into the camp while everyone was still asleep.
My mother was surprised to see me coming home in the dark and soaking wet. I told her that I came home to have her mend my torn shirt which I was wearing. But my mother seemed to know that my real motive was not only to have that torn shirt mended but rather to have some food in my stomach. After giving me some dry clothes to change into, my mother went to the kitchen and opened up a crevice where she hid some rice. She cooked the rice and a piece of dried fish in a kettle as the Khmer Rouge authority did not allow people to have any pots and pans at home, beside a kettle to boil water. After the rice and the dried fish were cooked, my mother told me to go to the kitchen and eat the food quietly lest there was Khmer Rouge vigilante called chhlob spying on us while she was mending my shirt.
Despite enormous hunger, I lost my appetite for food because of the overwhelming fear and anxiety about the consequence of my action once I returned to the camp. Khoeun was one of the camp’s supervisors. The fact that he spotted Teav and me running away from the camp was a serious cause for concern. Although the Khmer Rouge had, at that point, stopped classifying people as being new or based, my predicament was compounded by the fact that Teav was the child of base people who had some privilege while facing disciplinary action regarding wrong doing. Hence, should there be any punishment for our act of disobeying Angkar’s Viney, I would certainly be the one who would bear the brunt of it. The more I think about the consequence and punishment I might face, the more worried I became. All of a sudden, my stomach began to churn and my throat tightened. The fear had finally broken me down, mentally and physically. I struggled to swallow the food in my mouth and left the rest uneaten while sitting quietly in the kitchen to regain my composure.
As I was pondering the consequences and possible punishment I would face when I returned to the camp, my mother came into the kitchen to see what had taken me so long to finish the meal. She was surprised to see that I had only eaten half of the rice she cooked for me. Usually I would have eaten twice as much. Responding to her inquiry, I told my mother that I was not feeling well, and that my appetite had somehow diminished. I tried my best to hide my fear and anxiety from my mother and the fact that I had been caught breaking the Khmer Rouge’s rule, for if she knew what kind of a situation I was in she would be worried to death. My mother told me to go to sleep and, whenever I woke up, I should come to eat the rest of my meal which she put in a bowl and covered it with a rice basket called L’Eiy.
(To be continued)