After both of my older brothers, Heang and Sokha, had gone to the other side of the Cambodian political spectrum, our hope of seeing one another again was grim. First of all we didn’t even know for sure if they were still alive, for lives in those border camps were indeed “nasty, brutish, and short,” according to the rumors we heard from people who had gone to visit those camps. But, for us, life must go on no matter what happened to those family members whom we couldn’t see.
By late 1981, the government seemed to ease up a little bit as far as the informal market and economy was concerned. Taking advantage of the lax rule, many farmers in Phum Chi Ro, started to quietly add more farmlands to their holdings by clearing the wild bamboo forests behind the village. With the help of Om Ly’s husband, Om Seng, I was able to clear about two hectares of farmlands to add to our possession. Because I grew up in the city and had only been exposed to farming during the Khmer Rouge’s rule, I had little knowledge of vegetable farming. Hence, I had to spend some time learning from other villagers how to grow different vegetables within a certain timeframe of the season. Fortunately, vegetable farming wasn’t rocket science. With some guidance from Om Seng, I was able to make most farm implements I needed and get along with farming just fine. With the additional farmlands, my mother and I were able to get enough food to sustain our subsistent lives. However, despite having enough food to keep ourselves out of the jaws of starvation, I still missed one thing in life so badly. That was education. I had longed to go back to school since the day I was liberated from the tyrannical rule of the Khmer Rouge. But poverty and lack of schools had kept me away from education ever since we arrived in Phum Chi Ro.
Following the Khmer Rouge’s destruction of the Cambodian education system, the new government had re-established educational infrastructure immediately after it chased the Khmer Rouge away. But the efforts did not reach rural areas. Phum Chi Ro was only able to re-establish schools to teach village children in 1980. And classes were only up to the third grade. Anyone who needed to attend classes beyond the third grade had to go to either Kompong Cham City or Thbong Khmum District’s headquarters, which were located miles away. I had already completed the fourth grade when the Khmer Rouge took over and eliminated my education opportunity. Hence, if I wished to return to continue my education, I had to go to live in either Kompong Cham City or Thbong Khmum and left my mother to work on the farm alone. Our lives had already been a struggle at that point. Therefore, the choice was painfully clear for me that education was not as important as our livelihood. However, despite our dilemma, we were able to send Buntha, my little brother, to school.
Eking out a living as a vegetable farmer under a communist regime was tough. Though our lives were not as miserable as they were under the Khmer Rouge, our existence was not that much better. Year after year, our main concern was to gather foodstuffs to sustain our lives until the next growing season arrived. To make ends meet during those early years of our arrival in Phum Chi Ro, my mother made a dumpling dessert called Num Banh Cha Nirk to barter among the villagers for rice. (In those early days, the government had not printed money yet).
Num Banh Cha Nirk required glutinous rice production. However, because Cambodian people didn’t eat glutinous rice as their main diet, that kind of rice was hard to find during those early years following the Khmer Rouge’s collapse. To supplement the shortages of that special rice needed to make her dessert delicacy, my mother used corn kernels as substitute. I remember helping her mill those corn kernels and grind them into starchy powder, which she would then mix it with powder of glutinous rice. The final product tasted just fine. No one could tell whether those dumpling desserts were made from corn or glutinous rice powder.
Living under the occupation of foreign military forces was not and had never been peaceful. Our overlords, the Vietnamese soldiers, were anything but liberators. First they were very disciplined and friendly with us. They would keep to themselves and never touch anything that belonged to the villagers. They didn’t even take vegetables that we offered them. However, after a few years of living near us, they began to misbehave. Because of lack of food supplies, the Vietnamese soldiers began to invade our vegetable farms and appropriate anything they needed. With the AK-47 rifles strapped on their back, the Vietnamese soldiers conducted their vegetable robbery in broad day light. Many of us, farmers, whose farms had been intruded by the Vietnamese soldiers, reported our grievances to the village chief and those who were in charge of dealing with the marauding soldiers. But it was to no avail. Thus, we were left to dealing with the situation ourselves. In desperation, some farmers went to confront the Vietnamese soldiers who came to steal their vegetable produce themselves. One such farmer was my mother. One day, I saw her shoo away a Vietnamese soldier who was picking tomatoes on our farm. It was an extraordinary scene; a lone woman using only her finger to demand that a soldier with an AK-47 rifle on his back get off her property. With my heart pounding, I looked on from a few hundred yards away as the Vietnamese soldier walked away from our vegetable garden to seek loot somewhere else.
As though the Vietnamese overlord was not enough, our misery in life was compounded by yet another civil war. The liberation movements, along with the remnant of Khmer Rouge’s forces, had been conducting guerrilla warfare along the western border regions of Cambodia. Hence, to cope with the conflict, the government began to recruit young men to join its fledgling armed forces to help fight the rebel guerrillas alongside the Vietnamese troops. At 18, I was old enough for the government to conscript me into the armed forces. In an attempt to spare me from being forced to join the armed forces, my mother decided to send me to live with my older brother, Hong, in Kompong Thom province for the time being. Hong worked as a clerk for Kompong Thom’s city hall. Thus, using his status as a government worker, he was able to provide some sort of safe haven for me.
(To be continued)