A World of Uncertainty
It was around September of 1978 when my brigade was relocated to Bonteay Staung. Because the sub-district headquarter was located there, Bonteay Staung acted like a hub where workforces from different units would come to regroup and be sent to new worksites. Thus we frequently ran into people whom we knew. At Bonteay Staung, I once again reunited with two of my brothers, Sama and Sokha. Though we stationed at separate locations in the village, I occasionally had a chance to meet Sama in the field as our teams crossed path. We sometimes commingled during joint meeting of the youth’s and the children’s mobile brigades, which gave us brief opportunity to talk and to inquire about each other’s well being.
Because of shortages of camp sites to house the various groups of mobile workforces, the children’s brigades were allowed to lodge in villager’s homes in group of 10 or 15 people depending on the sizes of the houses. So after sleeping in camp’s huts, which sometimes had only leaky roofs over our heads for months, we had an opportunity to sleep in a house for the first time. Though we still crowded together to sleep like pack animals, the feeling of having slept in a house gave us some sense of comfort. However, despite having access to homes, our access to food had been increasingly diminished. Since the day we arrived in Bonteay Staung, our food ration had been reduced significantly. Sometimes we received corn kernels to eat as meal instead of the usual rice porridge. Given the fact that we had already lived with constant hunger since the day we were recruited to work in the mobile brigade, the reduction in the amount of our daily food ration put a tremendous strain on our health. Before long, many of us began to have swollen feet and bloated stomachs, a sign of serious malnutrition.
One day, out of the blue, my mother came to visit me during our noon time break for lunch. My mother, along with a small group of other younger elderly from Ponlear Chey, had been sent to work in a field near Bonteay Staung (the distance between Ponlear Chey and Bonteay Staung was a walk of about an hour and a half) and she took the opportunity to make inquiry of my whereabouts once she learned that the children’s mobile brigades had been stationed there. During her lunch break, my mother went to the place where the children from the mobile work brigades came to receive their meal ration and eventually tracked me down to the house where I was staying. I was both surprised and excited to see my mother. We talked briefly because my mother had to return to her worksite. Just as she was about to walk back to work, my mother took me aside, pulled from her shirt pocket a sweet yam, which she had steam-cooked in her kettle early in the morning before she came to work, and put it discreetly in my hand. Without waiting for her to tell me what to do with it, I gobbled up the whole yam and savored every bit of it. It was the tastiest yam I had ever tasted in my life. After seeing that I had eaten all the forbidden food (under Khmer Rouge’s draconian rule, possession of foodstuff other than that given by Angkar, even a yam, could get a person in trouble), my mother returned to her worksite.
After our initial meeting, my mother continued to come to visit me whenever she had the opportunity to come to work near Bonteay Staung. Sometimes, I think she might have come all the way from Ponlear Chey to see me. Every time she came to visit me, my mother always brought a yam or a small rice cake which she wrapped inside banana leaves for me to eat. I didn’t know where or how my mother obtained the food that she brought to me. As hunger had complete control on my reasoning, I just ate the food like a blind chick being fed by its mother. However, at one point, my conscience freed me from the grip of hunger when I started thinking about the possibility of how my mother might have obtained the food she brought me. If she didn’t steal the food from the communal kitchen, my mother must have bartered it from her neighbors by using jewelry or valuable clothes that she might have in her possession. Either way, it was illegal, for the Khmer Rouge did not allow people to barter with one another. People were not even allowed to have possession of foodstuffs which had not been provided by the communal kitchen. Every time my mother brought me that tiny piece of yam or rice cake carried the risk of grave punishment if she were caught. The more I thought about the consequences, the more concerned I became. One day, I told my mother about my concern and asked her to stop coming to visit me. But it was to no avail. My mother continued to come to visit me every time she got a chance.
One evening, while I was returning from work, I felt extremely fatigued and my body temperature appeared to be high. Upon arriving at our lodge, I went to the homeowners to ask if they had any coin that I could borrow to use as a scratching device to scratch my skin in a form of Cambodian traditional treatment called kaus khchol. As I went into their quarters, I walked in front of a tall vanity mirror which was imbedded in the door of a six-foot tall cabinet. Upon seeing my image in the mirror, I was quite startled that my flesh and bones looked like a living skeleton. My eyes sank rather deeply into their sockets and the muscle on my face shrank to reveal the contour of my cheek bones which made my head looked more like a skull than a living human head. At that instance, I realized that my mother must have been moved by the fact that I was a walking skeleton which compelled her to use any means possible to find food to feed me and risk being punished by the Khmer Rouge’s authority just for the sake of saving me from starving to death.
By about mid October, my unit was once again moved to a work camp located near the Staung River. At this new location, I met one of my brothers, Sama, again as our camps were next to each other. Though we were not allowed to go into each other’s camp for visit, Sama and I were able to see each other occasionally while working in the fields. One day, my brigade was assigned to work along side with Sama’s. By about mid morning, a Khmer Rouge cadre (courier) from the sub-district office came to visit the worksite, and handed our supervisors a note. After receiving the note, our supervisors summoned us to assemble in a designated area where the children’s and youth’s brigades were made to stand in lines opposite one another. Afterward, one of them read the note announcing that Angkar needed 25 people to help clear virgin forested lands for planting cassava. The new worksite located upriver far away from the village. Hence, those who are assigned to this new worksite must report to the sub-district headquarter immediately in order to board a boat which would take them there. After making the announcement, our supervisors walked around and selected 25 people from the youth brigade. Among those who were selected was my brother, Sama. Once the request has been fulfilled we were ordered to return to resume our work in the fields. I took a quick look at my brother and the rest of the people who were being selected to work in the new sites as we broke up. Most of them, including my brother, expressed apprehension in their eyes, for there was something fishy about this cassava-planting ploy. As it turned out, cassava planting was indeed a ploy. When they arrived at the sub-district headquarters, it was revealed that they were being sent to perform auxiliary function as ammunition transporters near the frontline where a conflict between Cambodia and Vietnam had been simmering for some time. Dumbfounded, several of the 25 people sneaked out of the sub-district headquarters and ran away. It was thanks to their courageous or risky behavior that we learned the truth.
Words of workforces from the youth brigades being recruited to join the frontlines or to become soldiers spread quietly among both the youth’s and children’s mobile brigades. Despite the fact that we all continued to go about our businesses as if nothing had happened, the thought of being sent hundreds of miles away from home kept everyone on edge. However, as we realized that our lives were basically under the absolute control of the Khmer Rouge’s authority and that nothing we could do if we were called up to be sent to the frontlines, everyone seemed to resign to fate. Each day, we went to work with constant worry. Even though we didn’t tell anyone that we were worried, the looks on our faces said it all. To cope with the anxiety, everyone appeared to take it one day at a time and mentally prepared for the inevitability.
(To be continued)