A World of Uncertainty (Cont.)
One morning, as we were working in the rice fields, all the children brigades in the area were called up to assemble in a clearing. We were told that Angkar needed 42 people to go to the district headquarters, Staung, to help doing some works there for a short period of time. As to what kind of works we would be doing, nobody knew. We had to wait until we arrived there to find out. Amongst the 42 people being selected, I was one of them. After everyone was dismissed to go back to work in the fields, we were ordered to fetch our belongings and report to the sub-district headquarters, Bonteay Staung, immediately.
At the sub-district headquarters, all of us were interviewed one by one by a clerk. In addition to our names, we were asked about our backgrounds, especially what our parents did before the Khmer Rouge took over the country. After giving my biography to the sub-district’s clerk to record, I felt that going to work at Staung was just a pretext. The memory of my brother’s, Sama, disappearing was still fresh in my mind. So I decided to plot my moves to run away before the boat came to take us to Staung. At first, I asked the security guards for permission to go to the outhouse to relief myself. They told me to go to the backyard where the outhouse was located. I went to the outhouse to look for ways to escape. Unfortunately, the area behind the sub-district headquarters was fenced securely that it was impossible for me to get out of the compound without being noticed. Calmly, I returned to the office to think of a different means of escape. Looking inside my tattered bag, I saw a hammock, which my mom had made for me from a piece of cloth. Using that hammock as a ploy, I approached the security guards again and tell them that I had borrowed that hammock from my sister-in-law, Heang’s wife, who lived just across the street from the sub-district’s headquarters, and that I would like to return it to her. To my absolute surprise, the security guards let me go to return the hammock to my sister-in-law. Assuming that they were watching me, I walked across the street to my sister-in-law’s house which was located a bit off to the side opposite the sub-district headquarters. There was no one there except for two little boys, my sister-in-law’s brothers, along with their paralyzed father. I told the old man and the little boys that I needed to leave the hammock for my brother, Heang, to keep because I would be sent away from the area.
I left my sister-in-law’s home through the back door and, using surrounding trees and shrubs as cover, made my way to the rice fields. Fortunately, the rice fields in that area were dotted with shrubs and small trees. I walked quickly and carefully away from the village for about a half mile before turning eastward toward Ponlear Chey, my home village, which was located about four miles away. As I was making my way across the rice fields toward Ponlear Chey, I picked up a small stick and pretended that I was looking for lost oxen if anyone asked me what I was doing alone in the rice fields. Luckily, I was able to elude most people going about their business in the fields.
I arrived in Ponlear Chey at about one o’clock in the afternoon but was afraid to go home, for I felt that the Khmer Rouge’s cadres would certainly come looking for me there once they realized that I was missing. So I went to hide in Yeay Nhong’s home, which was located about one quarter of a mile outside of the main village. (As you might recall in an earlier passage, Yeay Nhong’s principal home in the village was converted into communal dining hall).
Upon learning that I was running away from the Khmer Rouge’s recruitment, Yeay Nhong began to worry about her complicity with me. Hence, she suggested that I hide in a bush nearby, and she would pretend that she didn’t know that I was hiding in there if my presence on the premises of her home was discovered. I did as told and, in a gesture of help, Yeay Nhong went to see my little brother, Buntha, who was looking after her cows in the fields, and told him of my predicament and whereabouts. She took the cows from Buntha to look after them and told him to go find my mother and tell her of my situation.
At about three p.m., Buntha came to see me at my hiding place and handed me a tiny bag which contained a handful of roasted corn kernels. He told me to stay put until evening as our mother was trying to figure out what to do next. I tossed a few corn kernels into my mouth and chewed on them to give myself some nutrition but, despite having eaten nothing all day, I felt no appetite for food. I spat the corn kernels out of my mouth and left the rest next to me. Meanwhile, Buntha returned to the village.
As evening arrived and darkness was about to fall over Ponlear Chey, Buntha came to see me again and told me that it was an ideal time for me to go home because all the villagers were going to fetch their food rations at the communal dining hall. Thus, with caution, we went home surreptitiously. Buntha and my mother gave me half of their food rations, so that I would have something to eat. Om Po, our host, didn’t inquire much about my being home that evening as it was not unusual to have kids, who had been sent to work away from the village, come and spent a night at home. After eating our evening meals, I told my mother that I would return to join my work unit early in the morning and face whatever consequences for my running away from the Khmer Rouge’s recruitment. My mother was deeply concerned about me being mistreated or punished by the Khmer Rouge’s cadres for disobeying Angkar’s Viney and wanted me to stay in the village for a couple more days. However, that would associate her and Buntha with my guilt as well once my runaway story was known. To limit the damages, I insisted that I must not stay in the village more than that one night.
Once again, I spent another worrisome night at home with my mother. The only difference between this night and the other was that my mother knew of my predicament. Thus, she, too, was unable to sleep. At about midnight, we heard a commotion in the street. It was the 42 kids (or rather 41, without me of course) who had returned home from the district’s headquarters, Staung. Among them was Samoeun, Om Po’s nephew, who lived next door. Upon hearing his voice calling for his parents to open the door, I jumped up and went to see him immediately. Samoeun told me that it was a clerical error. The district’s headquarters had requested for only two people to serve as couriers. Therefore, after selecting the two people, they let all of us, including the two lads who were being selected, return to our work unit. But, as it was late at night now, we all were going to spend the night at home and report back to our unit in the morning.
The news of a clerical error was a godsend for me. I felt like a big burden had been lifted from my shoulders. I asked Samoeun about what time he planned to return to his unit tomorrow so that I could time my return accordingly. Turning from worry to relief, I somehow could not fall asleep that night. Thus, just as the sun was about to rise, I walked back to join my work unit at Bonteay Staung. A few people who had been recruited along with me noticed my absence, but they didn’t talk much about it except for telling me that they knew of my running away. To that end, I thank them to this day for their consideration because my action was still punishable despite the clerical error.
(To be continued)