The Sad Reunion
We arrived at Phum Chi Ro just before sunset. But in order to reach the village, we had to trek about one mile, crossing the farmlands along the Mekong River’s bank. Once we arrived in the village, many villagers, mostly our extended relatives, came to welcome and greet us. We went to lodge at Grandma Seung’s home, or rather hut, for all the houses in the village were destroyed during the civil war in the early 1970s. When people returned to Phum Chi Ro after the Khmer Rouge’s victory in 1975, they could only build small houses as shelters because there were no big trees in the area for people to use as building materials. All they had were wild bamboo and thatch grasses which they used as building materials for their shelters.
Though aged, the diminutive Grandma Seung was healthy and alert. She was very happy to see us again. Upon learning that the Khmer Rouge had killed millions of people, she thought that we were amongst those who were killed. Hence, our survival was no less than a miracle for her. As we reminisced on our existence and struggle to survive under the Khmer Rouge’s brutal regime, we were surprise and thankful to find that all of Grandma Seung’s children survived the ordeals relatively intact. Aside from my father and Sama, no one else lost his or her life to the Khmer Rouge atrocities. This was probably due in part to the fact that all of Grandma Seung’s children, except for my mother, Aunt Muoy, and Uncle Lai Hea, were captured by the Khmer Rouge and brought to live under their control in 1973. With a combination of hard work and keeping a low profile, they all were able to escape the Khmer Rouge’s killing machine. However, other families were not as lucky as we were. One third of my father’s siblings, including him, had perished in the Khmer Rouge’s killing fields. At least half of the population who lived in Phum Chi Ro lost loved ones in the Khmer Rouge’s reign of terror.
Because of destruction inflicted upon it during the civil war in the early 1970s, Phum Chi Ro became a desolate place. Beside farming and fishing on the Mekong River to eke out a living, there was not much else for people to do to alleviate the poverty following the collapse of the Khmer Rouge. During down times after the farming season was over, some people went into the wild bamboo forests located behind the village to extract bamboo and make them into various products to barter with inland farmers for rice.
About one month after our arrival in Phum Chi Ro, my brother, Heang, had also arrived to find out if we were here safe and sound. He told us that when he arrived at Skun, which was located about 25 miles west of Kompong Cham City, he decided to leave a note for his wife and her extended family to continue on their journey without him as he would go to pay a visit to his birthplace, Phum Chi Ro. After having two strong young men in the family, we began to build a house on the land where our old house used to stand. Each day, Heang and Sokha would go into the wild bamboo forests to cut and collect both bamboo and small trees to be used as building materials. I was amazed to learn how versatile bamboo was. We could use them as building materials for columns, flooring, walls, and many other fixtures for the house. With the help and expertise of our neighbors, we were able to construct a small house about 35 feet by 25 feet.
A few months after we moved into our new home, Heang’s wife, Chanthy, arrived to fetch him. Her family had moved back into Phnom Penh and learned that the new regime was looking for educated people to help run and rebuild the country. As a former college student, Heang could easily find a job in Phnom Penh. Thus, his wife was urging him to go to Phnom Penh as soon as possible. However, after witnessing the Khmer Rouge’s persecution of educated people, Heang was skeptical and wary about going to work for the new regime which, after all, adhered to communism as a mode of operation. Unable to convince her husband to return to Phnom Penh with her, Heang’s wife was stuck living with us in Phum Chi Ro for a few months. By about August of 1979, Heang finally relented and agreed to go to Phnom Penh with his wife.
After Heang left for Phnom Penh, we continued to struggle to make ends meet along with the rest of the villagers. Because of shortages of human powers, materials, and foods, the new regime made people form solidarity groups in order for them to help each other out and stave off starvation. Each solidarity group would receive a plot of land, and it would divide the land further among the families within it according to the number of people within each family. As a family of four, we received about one hectare of land on which to grow vegetables and find a way to make a living out of it. Life was really tough.
During the early stage of the Vietnamese occupation, Cambodia was a messy place for people to exist. Hunger and hardship were constant companions for people, especially, those who live in the countryside. When one added hunger and hardship to the rigidity of communist ideology, by which we all had to abide, it made a perfect misery out of our existence. By the end of 1979, people began to travel about the country to conduct some petit trades within the framework of what was allowable by the new communist government. During that period of time, my older brother, Sokha, along with some of his peers, went to the Thai-Cambodian border areas to buy some smuggled goods from there and bring them back to Kompong Cham to sell and make some profit out of the transactions. The trip to the border areas was very dangerous for Sokha and his peers. They sometimes got robbed by bandits. Many traders lost their lives in the venture. However, to make a living, people continued to take the risks.
By early 1980, Heang return to visit us one more time. It was his last visit. During his stay with us for about one week, Heang told us that he now worked for the state run Cambodia’s Electricity in Phnom Penh. However, the biggest news that made everyone feel on edge was that he had secretly joined a liberation movement led by a Mr. Son Sann, who was building up armed forces along the Thai-Cambodian border. Upon learning of Heang’s dual associations, my mother was very concerned about his safety. But there was nothing she could do to dissuade him from his pursuit except for telling him to be super careful on everything he did.
After Heang returned to Phnom Penh for a few months, we learned that the government had rounded up many liberation movement agents in Phnom Penh. It was bad news for us indeed, for Heang was one such agent. We sent a message to his wife asking how Heang was doing. There was no response. About mid 1980, Heang’s wife along with her new born daughter, Chanthear, and his mother-in-law came to visit us. They told us that Heang had escaped arrest and had gone to join the liberation movement in the border areas along with one of his brother-in-laws. Because of the urgent situation, Heang had to leave for the Thai-Cambodian border about one week before his daughter was born. He didn’t have a chance to see or hold her. (Chanthear reunited with her father when she was 12 years old).
During one of his trips to buy smuggled goods on the Thai-Cambodian border areas in early 1981, my other older brother, Sokha, had disappeared. Based on information from people who had gone to the border areas with him, we learned that Sokha and two of his friends were robbed by bandits and that, after losing everything, they decided to stay in one of the camps which had sprung up along the border. Having no means to verify the news, we just accepted it as true and moved on with our lives.
(To be Continued)