The Quest for Redemption
After the Mekong River crested, it began to gradually recede from the overflowed banks. Thus, we once again started to grow new crops for the dry, summer season, which consisted mostly of vegetables such as cucumber, bell peppers, tomatoes, eggplants, and all kind of squashes. Besides growing vegetable crops, the summer season was also a time when the government came to request people to donate their labor to help combat the insurgencies. The campaign was in the form of clearing forests where insurgent activities were rampant. And the code name of it was Kor Bram or K-5 in English. In the summer of 1984, I had the misfortune of going on a K-5 campaign once for about a month clearing forests in the district of Dombe, which was located about 45 miles northeast of Phum Chi Ro. It was a relatively safe place because Dombe was not a strong safe haven for the insurgent groups. For those who were sent to the western region of the country along the Thai-Cambodian border, which was an active war zone, many people lost their lives to landmines and diseases.
By late summer of 1984, my brother, Hong, came to visit us for the first time. He brought us three sacks of milled rice, about 100 kilograms in all, and some fine clothes for me. He also brought me a small Panasonic cassette player, which was the first luxury item I had ever possessed in life. Hong spent about three weeks with us before returning home, as he had to go back to work at his government post in Kompong Thom province.
After almost six year of hard work rebuilding our lives, living conditions for us had improved markedly. However, the fear of being conscripted to join the Cambodian armed forces or going on a K-5 campaign along the Thai-Cambodian border remained a constant threat for me. As a young man who did not attend school, I would be first in line when the government came to look for new recruits. Hence, personal security and freedom for me remained uncertain throughout those six years of post liberation from the Khmer Rouge’s reign of terror.
The break from uncertainty and anxiety came one day in late 1984. A friend of mine named Vuthda, who was also remotely related to me through marriage on my father’s side (Vuthda’s mother, Om Kin, was the younger sister of a man named Ok, who married to my father’s older sister), invited me to attend a Buddhist ceremony at his home to commemorate the anniversary of his father’s death. At the ceremony, I met Vuthda’s older brother, Noeun, who was living in one of the refugee camps along the Thai-Cambodian border. Noeun told me that he had come to take his mother and Vuthda to the border camp, where they hoped to go on to reunite with two of their other siblings who resided in the United States. He also told me that Om Ok, a man to whom my father’s sister married, was going with him as well. Noeun asked me if I wanted to go with him as I, too, had a couple of brothers who lived in the United States. It was a rather complicated and nervous situation for me. So I told Noeun that I had to discuss the matter with my mother first and would let him know of my decision later.
After returning from the Buddhist ceremony at Vuthda’s home, I told my mother about his family’s plan to take flight for the refugee camps along the Thai-Cambodian border and an offer his brother, Noeun, extended to me. We spent the entire evening discussing the costs and benefits, and all the possible dangers that I could face as a lone young man in the border camps where lawlessness was prevalent. We also brought Grandma Seung into the discussion to seek her advice. After mulling over the dangers of my being recruited to join the Cambodian armed forces or K-5 workforces and sent to the frontlines at the Thai-Cambodian border areas, we all came to the conclusion that I should go there and cross to the other side on my own terms, and let fate determine my life from that point on.
The next day, I went to see Vuthda and his brother, Noeun, again to tell them of my decision. Upon learning that I was going with him, Vuthda was rather happy and breathed a sigh of relief, for he had a minor problem which needed my help. It turned out that Vuthda’s wife, the only child of a humbly wealthy family, was unwilling to leave her parents behind and refused to go to the border camp with him. Therefore, I must add an extra name to my travel pass when I went to obtain one from my village’s chief as Vuthda’s wife had already requested his village’s chief not to issue travel pass for him. (In those days, we needed a travel pass to go from one place to another within Cambodia).
After obtaining the necessary travel document from Phum Chi Ro to Phnom Penh, our first stop, I told Vuthda that we were ready. He, in turn, told me to be ready at around four a.m., and listen for a horse-drawn carriage in which he would be traveling. As soon as I heard a horse-drawn carriage stopping in front of my house, I said farewell to my mother and brother, and quietly slipped away from Phum Chi Ro. The date of that fateful moment was December 27, 1984.
Vuthda and I crossed the Mekong River at Tonle Bet in a small boat which ferried us across towards Kompong Cham City. The carriage’s driver returned to Phum Chi Ro at that point. This was the second time I crossed the Mekong River in an anxious situation, as I recalled my earlier flight to get away from the Khmer Rouge’s persecution in 1970.
We arrived at the bus station in Kompong Cham City around five o’clock in the morning. After getting our bus fares and boarding one of them, we departed for Phnom Penh at about six o’clock. During our travel episode from Phum Chi Ro to Kompong Cham bus station, Vuthda was on the lookout all the time because he was worried that his wife would send someone or come to look for him when she realized that he had deserted her. He was only able to relax once the bus started moving toward Phnom Penh.
After several hours of bus ride, we reached Phnom Penh around 10:30 a.m., and went to stay at a safe house, which belonged to Noeun’s friend, near the Old Market (Psar Chass). We stayed in Phnom Penh for a few days to wait for travel documents so that we could continue our journey to Battambang province where we would find a way to cross into a border camp. During our stay in Phnom Penh, Noeun introduced me to another friend of his named Odom who was from Battambang province. Odom was a Meh Khchol, literally means Head Wind, or, to be unambiguously precise, a human trafficker. As a naïve young man who had only a fourth grade education, I had not the vaguest idea what human trafficking was. I only understood the concept after completing college in the U.S. and started reading news about human trafficking that I realized that I had been, in different shapes or forms, a cargo of human traffickers.
Odom had an uncle who was one of the most powerful men in Battambang province. Hence, he could vouch for anyone who needed to travel across Battambang by just invoking the name of his uncle. After a brief conversation with Odom, Noeun asked me if I had any gold with me that could be used to bribe officials in Phnom Penh to obtain travel passes for us to go to Battambang. Before I left Phum Chi Ro, my mother had given me some broken pieces of gold chain weighing about three-quarters of an ounce. I gave them all to Odom to use for bribery. After Odom left, Noeun told me that, in normal circumstances, Odom charged about two ounces of gold per person to bring his human cargo to the border camps. In our case, he was doing it for free because he wanted to do his friend, Noeun, a favor. My meager pieces of gold were only used to reduce the burden for him to obtain travel passes.
Just before I left for Battambang province, I went to visit my sister-in-law, Heang’s wife, Chanthy, and my niece, Chanthear, who lived about half a mile from where I stayed. I made a quick detour into the Old Market and bought a two piece coordinated sport suit for Chanthear. As I walked toward my sister-in-law’s house, I was thinking of telling her about her husband’s whereabouts and that I would arrange to have her and Chanthear go to the border camp as well, so that she and her daughter might be able to reunite with her husband. However, after I arrived at her home, I learned that my sister-in-law had already remarried. So I abandoned my thought and only told her that I was going to the border camps to look for my brothers. After spending a few hours talking with my sister-in-law and niece, I bade goodbye to them and returned to the safe house.
(To be continued)