After returning to join our work brigades, we were ordered to go back to work in the rice fields again. It was near the end of 1978, and the main rice planting season was over. Our tasks were to tend the rice shoots and to ensure that there was sufficient water in every plot of rice fields which was one square hectare each surrounded by small dikes. Because tending rice fields needed a smaller labor force, many of us were sent to cut wood or transport logs in the jungles. I was spared from going to the jungles by the kindness of a man named Eav, who was tasked with caring for about 40 hectares of rice fields until the rice shoots bore crops. Eav was allowed to select 20 kids to work under his supervision, and I was one of those 20 kids. We were stationed in a small camp located about a mile from the main village. It was built in the middle of rice fields. Because our camp was not in the proximity of the village, the commune’s chief allowed us to cook food on site, so that our travel time to eat meals in the communal kitchen could be used for working in the fields instead. Eav appointed a boy named Ret to be a cook. He was tasked with going to the communal warehouse to receive our weekly rations and to find whatever edibles were available in the fields to supplement our diets.
Tending rice shoots was a rather leisurely task. Some of us went around spraying pesticide in the fields where there were pests invading the rice shoots, while other ensured that the water in the fields was kept at a proper level. We had a lot of time on our hands to do some extracurriculars, such as looking for crabs and snails, and other edible critters to bring to Ret to prepare as a supplement to our weekly rations we received from the communal warehouse, which contained only rice, salt, and the fish paste called Prohok. Eav was a very tolerant man. He not only allowed us to find edible things in the fields but also encouraged us to do so whenever no Khmer Rouge cadres were around. After all, as our supervisor, Eav benefited from our efforts tremendously. Because of our semi-autonomous living, we somehow managed to feed ourselves rather well relative to what the Khmer Rouge fed us so far. For the whole month of December 1978, I felt, for the first time since joining the children mobile work brigades, that I had not starved.
By early January 1979, we began to hear the sounds of transport trucks going along the dirt road leading northwestward, which was unusual given the fact that that isolated dirt road rarely saw any motorized vehicles traveling on it besides the oxcarts. When Ret went to fetch our weekly rations at the communal warehouse, we asked him to inquire about those transport trucks as to why they were traveling through this isolated dirt road. To our surprise, Ret told us that those transport trucks carried loads of people and materials apparently on the run. That evening, Eav went to see the commune’s chief and other Khmer Rouge’s notables to find out what was going on. He returned to the camp at about seven o’clock in the evening and told us to pack up and go home because there was no one remaining in the commune’s office. Apparently, the Khmer Rouge’s cadres in the commune had run away or gone into hiding.
Not knowing what to do, Ret divided the rice rations among everyone, and we all went our separate ways toward home. Ponlear Chey, the village I came from, was located farthest away from the camp. To get there, I had to walk through three other villages, Phum Bonteay Staung, Phum Chonloss, and Phum Po. Between each village, there was an empty span of rice field at a distance of about one mile. Among the kids in my camp, two of them lived in Phum Po, and I was the only one who was from Ponlear Chey. This would mean that I had to walk across that empty span of rice field between Phum Po and Phum Ponlear Chey alone. But I had no choice. Staying in the camp alone overnight was out of the question. So with fear and anxiety, I returned home in the dark with the two kids who were from Phum Po. After the two kids reached their houses, I walked alone toward home in pitch darkness with only some stars overhead. That last few miles of walking home toward freedom was perhaps the scariest experience I had ever had in my life. I still have goose-flesh when recalling that particular experience.
I arrived home at about nine o’clock in the evening. My mom was a bit surprised to see me coming home in the dark. By watching the Khmer Rouge’s truck convoys fleeing through the dirt road in front of the house, she sort of already knew that the Khmer Rouge regime was collapsing and that my returning home was just a matter of time. She asked me why I didn’t wait until morning to come home. I told her of the situation in the labor camp where everyone was eager to get away from that dreadful place, that we couldn’t wait for another minute to take flight for our freedom. My mother took the rice from me, which I had tied into a ball on both sides of my checkered scarf, to put it aside as the rice in those days was more valuable than gold. After eating some leftover food that my mom fixed for me, I went to bed and slept peacefully for the first time.
The next day, I went out into the fields along with other villagers to collect rice stalks which were put in piles in the fields after they were harvested. We threshed the rice crops from those stalks and put them in sacks, and we would use oxcarts to transport them home afterward. For a few days, I went around with my little brother, Buntha, collecting rice crops in the fields and amassed about three or four hundred kilograms of rice. At that point, two of my older brothers, Sokha and Hong, had also returned home from their work camps. My other older brother, Heang, had been staying with his wife’s family in Bonteay Staung. The only one sibling that was still missing was Sama, who had been conscripted by the Khmer Rouge and sent to the frontier with Vietnam.
The new people who had been deposited in Ponlear Chey and many other villages along the Staung River’s corridor were preparing to return to their hometowns or birthplaces. We were also preparing to go along with them, but because of Sama’s disappearance, we had to linger a bit longer. My older brothers went to other villages to inquire whether any of the people who had been sent to the frontier with Sama had returned home. To our absolute shock, among the 12 people who had been sent to the frontier with Sama, all had returned home except him. We spent about one more week in Ponlear Chey to wait for Sama’s return. But as each day passed, our hope began to fade away. We finally decided to leave Ponlear Chey for good. However, Aunt Muoy and her husband, Kun, along with their three-year-old son, Lote, decided to remain in Ponlear Chey for the time being to safeguard our rice crops, for we didn’t have any means to bring those crops along with us. They were also to keep looking for Sama in case he returned to Ponlear Chey.
Our returning home journey was a somber event. We arrived in Ponlear Chey as an intact family. However, upon our departure, two of our family members were absent. Without daddy and Sama, we felt that there was a void in our souls. Hong’s wife, Narath, had also been separated from him in late 1977 when she went to visit her parents in Tang Krosang and was unable to return to Ponlear Chey due to some unknown reasons. We didn’t even know whether she was still alive. We walked from Ponlear Chey to Kompong Thom City, the provincial capital, which was about 50 kilometers distant. We spent a couple of nights along the way. Upon reaching Kompong Thom, we set up camp on the eastern outskirts of the city. From Kompong Thom to Tang Krosang, it was about 30 more kilometers further east. Hong was missing his wife, so he asked Mom to let him go look for her. My mother was a bit reluctant to let Hong go look for his wife because the state of war between the Vietnamese occupying forces and the Khmer Rouge was not yet over. However, keeping a restless young man, who had been separated from his wife for almost two years, from going to look for his soul mate was next to impossible. Thus, my mother pleaded with Hong to return to Kompong Thom in the evening whether or not he found his wife. Hong was gone for three days, and we all were worried sick. He returned in the evening of the third day along with his wife, beaming with joy.
After finding his wife, Hong, too, was staying with his wife’s family in Kompong Thom province. Hence, there were only four of us -- my mother, my older brother, Sokha, my little brother, Buntha, and I left to continue on our journey home. With help from people who could speak Vietnamese, we were able to hitch-hike on a Vietnamese military transport truck back to Kompong Cham City where our roots were. The Vietnamese truck brought us to the edge of the Mekong River where the old ferry crossing port was located. We got off there and took shelter in one of the abandoned shop houses nearby. We walked to the edge of the river and looked across to Phum Tonle Bet Leur and Phum Chi Ro to see if there was any sign of life out there. We saw some smoke rising up on the horizon which indicated that people had been returning to reside in the area.
The next day, my mother told us to stay put in the abandoned house while she was braving the danger alone to cross to the other side of the river to see if any of our relatives still lived in Phum Chi Ro. Using some rice as a bartered fare, she asked an ethnic Cham fisherman to ferry her across the river. On the edge of the river, we all sat and watched the boat take Mom across the river toward Phum Chi Ro until it disappeared in the horizon. By late afternoon, Mom was back along with Uncle Lai Hea, her youngest brother. Uncle Lai Hea brought along a small boat. We all were very excited to see him. After giving one another a hug, we brought our meager belongings onto the small boat and rowed it back to Phum Chi Ro.
(To be continued)