VILLAGE LIFE UNDER THE KHMER ROUGE
One villager said that under the Khmer Rouge "a person's worth was measured in how many cubic yards of earth he could move."
Survivor Sopheak Try reported: “On 17 April 1975, I was three years old. I was born on 12 March 1973, in Kroch Chhmar Leu Village, Kroch Chhmar Sub-District, Kroch Chhmar District, Kampong Cham Province... At that time, I was only a young child. Therefore, my memories of that time are not very clear until 1979 and 1980. My mother and father have often told me stories about these bitter times that continue to bear meaning until now. I have three brothers and sisters, two girls and one boy. I am the second of three children. My father was 34 years old. ...My mother and father were tailors since the old regime... On 17 April 1975, they began to evacuate people from Phnom Penh. In Kroch Chhmar District, when they heard that the city of Phnom Penh had broken out and that people were being evacuated out of the city, everyone began to get excited and extremely scared. My family was especially startled and terrified. They ordered us out of the village like they ordered out the people in Phnom Penh. But all the villagers in the district waited to see what would happen to the country. A few days later, the people dressed in black prepared a plan to evacuate the “new people” out of the village and forced them to live somewhere else. Some of the “old people” were also evacuated. [Source: Sopheak Try, Documentation Center of Cambodia, dccam.org =]
“My family was not evacuated out of the village. They allowed us to continue living in the village. They considered us “base people.” At the end of 1975 and in the beginning of 1976, they assigned everyone to eat in a collective. People were no longer permitted to eat along their houses. They had created a cooperative. From that time on, according to a villager named Ta Lok, who worked as the mess hall leader from 1976 to the start of 1978, he did not suffer like others because his family had enough to eat. The people dressed in black never used him to do anything but cook rice. =
“At the end of 1978, the people dressed in black announced for all the “base people” to leave the village. My family left our homes with the other villagers. My father argued with my mother as well as with the other neighbors about leaving our homes to live in another place without any particular destination. After that we helped each other gather our clothes, our dishes, pots and other things we wanted to take with us. We walked towards the west. My father talked and walked at the same time, “They are leaving and we are leaving without any specific direction.” My father said that he didn’t know where our lives would lead if we continued to travel without direction. We traveled from morning until afternoon and arrived in Trea Village, Kroch Chhmar District. We stopped and rested here for a short while before we continued our journey again with many other people. We rode a boat across to the far bank of Stung Throng District. When we got there we all walked to the center of Stung Throng District. Each person had dry and bitter expressions on their faces, because they were uncertain how their life would end up, as they journeyed from the district center in groves. Some were pushing ramok, some placed their belongings on a bicycle and pushed it along, while others carried their things on their shoulders, their heads, and their backs. They looked so miserable. Everyone walked without any sense of direction. We crossed over on a boat to Stung Throng because there were many mountains and forests in this area and it would be easy to live and hide ourselves in the forest. We walked a long way until we reached a field, then we continued walking to Meat Village, Srah Vil Sub-District in Stung Throng District. We all decided to rest in the villager’s homes for fifty days. The villagers were very kind and cooperative. =
“When we knew that it was peaceful again in our native village, we began our journey back to our native village, crossing over Beoung Ket rubber plantation. Then we took a boat back to the far bank of Khsach Pracheh Village, Kroch Chhmar District. When we reached the far bank of Kroch Chhmar District, we were not able to rest. We decided to travel towards the eastern direction until we reached our native village. When we were halfway there and had reached Khsach Pracheh Kandal, we stopped and rested with many other people. My father kept saying, “We must return to our homes because the people who evacuated us said that we would only have to leave for a short period and then they would allow us to return to our native village.” While my father was speaking to my mother and a neighbor, we saw a large boat parked in front of the temple. When we saw this, my family was immediately terrified, because we did not know what else would happen to us. A moment later, we saw children dressed in black with rubber tire shoes and carrying rifles, come over and say in a slurred voice, “Go ahead and climb on the boat! If you don’t climb on we have another plan.” Everyone gathered together waiting to climb onto the boat. When my father heard this voice, he gathered all of us together and we climbed on the boat. The boat took us to Prek Sangkah and back to Stung Throng District. After we reached this place for a few hours, my family gathered some of my neighbors and we stole away from the large crowd of people. We walked along a field of sand and towards the east until we reached our native district. We then waited for a boat to take us back to Kroch Chhmar. When a boat arrived, we got on the boat. =
“When we reached our native village, which was still quiet, each person said that they still did not dare return to their homes. They decided to travel towards the North and to the fields behind their homes. Behind our homes was a large lake that was about 1000 meters square. It took us a long time to walk around the lake before we reached our destination called Tuol Kvet orchard. We rested here for about 27 days. Almost every day my father stole into the village to observe the situation there. When he saw that there were some people there, he gathered all of us who had gone to live in the orchard to return to the village, because things had normalized. My mother told me that at that time, “I lived next to the rice pot almost every day.” She continued, “I am clever at eating. If there was rice porridge, I would only eat the solid rice. I would not take any of the soup. I would rather cry then eat the soup.” My family and the villagers lived in the orchard behind the houses for a long time before we decided to return to our native village. From that time on, my family was no longer evacuated from the village. The villagers lived as normal until the Vietnamese army entered and liberated us from the people dressed in black, “the Khmer Rouge,” on 7 January 1979. After the liberation, the villagers, like all the people throughout the country, believed that the country had achieved peace and we would no longer have to be afraid. =
Life in a Khmer Rouge Camp
Denise Affon wrote: “First Camp: Koh Tukveal: After the first day’s work, I am so tired and stiff that I can barely swallow my precious bowl of rice. It’s precious because it’s the last bowl of good white rice we’ll be allowed. From tomorrow it’ll be consistently mixed with corn. Angkar has supply problems, so we must tighten our belts and feed the children first. Within a few weeks both the young and old lose several kilos. The children no longer have any vitality, no inclination to play or to laugh. My husband, by nature quite robust, used to his daily whisky and his cigarettes, sees his spare tyre melt away in the space of a few days and must submit to a diet of rainwater and bartered tobacco, rolled in dried banana leaves. His face wrinkles quite noticeably. [Source: Excerpt from “To the End of Hell” by Denise Affon, Reportage Press, www.hmd.org.uk, Holocaust Memorial Day. Affon is a survivor of the Cambodian genocide. In 1975, Denise was a civil servant living in Phnom Penh and mother to two children when the Khmer Rouge forces all city-dwellers into the countryside in their attempt to create ‘year zero’. Denise’s husband was taken away and never seen again, and she was separated from her son. Her daughter died of starvation.~~]
Back on the island at the end of the afternoon, the village chief calls us together, as he does every evening after work; we must be well educated...He announces to us that, from now on, it is formally forbidden to speak anything other than Khmer. I, who haven’t yet mastered the language, will have to keep quiet as I learn on the job. As night falls, Mr Thien also advises us not to reminisce, as Angkar doesn’t like the spirit to be led astray by the life of corruption that we used to know. But for the moment, we haven’t got into this habit, as we have neither the inclination nor the time to upset ourselves with yesterday’s pleasures. The memories will come later, when we are truly hungry; during our work in the fields, my sister-in-law and I will reminisce in lowered tones about our favorite foods, and our surreal whispers will make us drool. But the chief has spoken. We are not allowed to talk about the past. As for as the future is concerned, it seems truly dark. ~~
According to Angkar’s commandments, each village is ordered to house between fifty and a hundred families. On the island, Mr Thien continues to take in refugees; five totne families arrive every day, always the well off, and the more profitable to shakedown. Days, weeks, months pass. How many? We no longer have a calendar. Since our arrival, I have tried to keep a sense of time by writing the date on the wall of our straw hut with a piece of charcoal. There’s still no news about our return to Phnom Penh. My life as a peasant goes on; a life without electricity, without running water; rising daily at five in the morning, a quick wash in the river, then, on an empty stomach, it’s off to the cornfields, to the sugar cane or to the tobacco fields, to water, weed or to plant manioc, sweet potatoes, peanuts and a variety of vegetables–marrow, pumpkins, cucumbers, beans and aubergines. I learn to plant tobacco, and extremely precious and sought after commodity. The island produces precious and sought after commodity. The island produces it to exchange for the palm sugar it lacks. Tobacco production is paramount and requires a lot of work; gathering, drying and cutting. The there is the cultivation of rice which is of fundamental importance. For this I must learn to turn over the earth, sow, weed, transplant, harvest and thresh the stalks to get the grain and then pound it to obtain the totally white rice. There’s no time for idling. When the land on the island runs out, the inhabitants work the mainland, to the west, where there are several hectares of paddy fields to which we are sent–men, women and children. ~~
I learn to work the earth. Bit by bit, I learn how to deal with my gaolers, how to navigate in their troubled waters and how to play at being submissive to escape death. Because of my French nationality, the converted Khmer peasants and the Khmer Rouge, particularly their women, make fun of me viciously and call meye barang(old Frenchwoman) orye ponso(old ponso–it’s a corruption of my family name, which Cambodians can’t pronounce):‘So, ye barang, in your country, would you work like this?’‘Oh no, comrade!’‘Are you happy to be here?’‘Yes, comrade! Thanks to Angkar I’ve learned lots of new things. In my country, I would never have learned all this. Yes, yes, I’m very happy to do what I do here because otherwise I’d have never known any of it.’It is what they want to hear and I gibber it at them–in Khmer, of course. I bend in the direction of the wind, like the reeds. ~~
Village Life of New People in Khmer Rouge Cambodia
“New people” was a term generally used by the Khmer Rouge to refer to people who were educated or had some skill and were transported from the towns and cities to work in the countryside. Describing he situation of two such men, Sophearith Chuong reported “After Angkar evacuated the people living in Phnom Penh to the rural areas and to their native districts, Tiv Mei returned to live with his family in his native district in Takeo Village, Sangkat Kor, Prey Chor District, Kampong Cham in the South. At that time the village chief recorded the occupations of each person who were evacuated from Phnom Penh or the 17th April people. Tiv Mei was only a worker in a sugar factory in the previous regime before 17 April 1975. The villagers had also heard of him before. Otherwise he would have already been killed at that time, because in Tiv Mei’s village, Angkar had already cleared out many people, including soldiers, policemen, and military policemen. No one was left. [Source: Sophearith Chuong, Documentation Center of Cambodia, dccam.org ]
“The job of the revolution at that time was very severe. The village leader had strict control over the new people or the 17 April people and the revolution’s process of purification was also very strong. When there was a meeting, the village chief talked about the work that needed to be done in order to eliminate the enemies. This frightened Tiv Mei so much he did not dare move. Everyday, when Tiv Mei saw traitors of the revolution being sent to the Security Office in a region in Takeo Village, he became so scared he trembled. But he did not dare commit activities or stage a movement. He remained still and tried to do anything in order to stay alive. The Revolutionary Angkar’s plan to evacuate was one potent medicine because it closed Tiv Mei’s CIA connection. Since the evacuation until the day he was captured, Tiv Mei never met anyone who worqked with him. In the cooperative, Tiv Mei worked hard to be responsible in his work. He never did anything to offend the district leader. Finally, on the afternoon of 11 May 1977, Tiv Mei asked the unit leader if he could soak the leaves in order to cover his house. In the afternoon, around 4:00, while Tiv Mei was laying the leaves onto the cart, the cooperative leader and two or three other people Tiv Mei did not recognize came and told him that Angkar wanted to meet him. After that he disappeared forever.
Outside of Tiv Mei’s story I have also learned about the story of Ke Munthit. Mr. Ke Munthit was still a child when the Khmer Rouge had entered the city of Phnom Penh. Ke Munthit’s father remembered the time of panic and frenzy when people quickly tried to gather their family members together so they could evacuate. Ke Munthit’s family was very fortunate because one Khmer Rouge leader, who was a relative of a neighbor, was responsible for their area. This Khmer Rouge leader was kind. After the Khmer Rouge leader met with his older sister, he helped Ke Munthit’s father gather all their family members so they could be united. Ke Munthit’s father’s name was Ke Sauth. Now he is 63 years old. He heard his older neighbors say, “If there are no women we will definitely never see each other again.” The Khmer Rouge leader and his two soldiers drank Pepsi that they had taken from the factory nearby and escorted Ke Munthit’s uncle. He crossed the city to the temple in order to receive the members in his family. Ke Munthit’s family reunited in joy. But that time demonstrated that it was the beginning of a tragic life that would last for four years. The Khmer Rouge plan to transform Democratic Kampuchea into a communist country of peasants began at this time. Everyone either lived or died inside within an equal society.
“Many people decided that they needed to carry enough food to eat, at least enough for three days. But some wealthy families only brought money stuffed into pillows or rice bags. When they discovered that the Khmer Rouge had abolished money, all the money they had saved lost value. They became disappointed and went mad. Four days later, when they could hear the sound of American bombing, Ke Munthit’s father realized the people had been deceived into evacuating. Two or three days later the Khmer Rouge took away Ke Munthit’s family’s car. Ke Munthit’s father said, “I knew it was going to be like this. I began to prepare myself to forget everything that we have left behind. Everyone is encountering the same destiny, not only us. In front of us lies the question: Will we live or die?”
“Eight days later, Ke Munthit’s family reached a village about 55 kilometers northeast of Phnom Penh. They were considered the 17th of April people. Ke Munthit’s family struggled as members of the lowest class inside a society that considered itself classless. Their livelihood quickly deteriorated and became increasingly difficult. After being accustomed to living in a large and luxurious home, Ke Munthit’s family had to force themselves to live in a small hut only 4m X 6m wide and with a leaking roof. Privacy within the house was removed. Families could not have the same kind of privacy they enjoyed in their own homes. They were continuously watched and spied on. Whenever Ke Munthit’s family acted arrogant, Ke Munthit’s was called to a meeting to be discipline. The families who were evacuated from the city lived in constant fear. At one time when Ke Munthit’s father was suffering from such heavy diarrhea he could not stand, the village chief told Ke Munthit’s mother, “We will probably have to eliminate him if someone finds out that he is lying or that he is pretending to be ill.”
Ke Munthit’s father, who had studied accounting with the French and was able to work with the Ministry of Industry, was sent to a center to be re-educated. All the members of Ke Munthit’s family, except his youngest brother who was only four years old, was forced to endure heavy labor. In the evening, Ke Munthit’s youngest brother caught small frogs so he could fill his empty stomach. Many children died from lack of food, nutrition, and starvation. Ke Munthit’s mother always cried, feeling pity for her children who had to work so hard but did not have enough food to eat. This was one of the reasons why over 1.7 million victims were killed during the Khmer Rouge regime. Ke Munthit’s father said, “The people transformed into true slaves. The people had to work according to the command of their leaders. No had the right to argue or criticize. We could only work for watery rice porridge.”
“Among the nearly 200 families who lived in the outskirts of the city who had come to live in the village, there were only about 50 families who survived when the Khmer Rouge were removed from power during the Vietnamese invasion on 7 April 1979. There was not one family who survived that did not lose a family member. Ke Munthit lost his grandfather. This was only one small loss compared to the losses of other families. Even Ke Munthit’s father was still alive. He was one person among a small number of people who was able to survive the re-education centers posted throughout the country. He said that, “When I think about my patience and the heavy labor I endured, I’m very pleased that I was able to save my own life.” Everyone in Ke Munthit’s family joined in the heavy work without complaint. This probably convinced the Khmer Rouge that Ke Munthit’s family had successfully integrated into the revolution. This family had effectively sacrificed their lives for the policies of a collectivized society. This is why Ke Munthit and his family were able to live until now.
Women Losing Their Husbands to the Khmer Rouge
Kalyanee Mam of the Documentation Center of Cambodia wrote: “Before 1975, Theeda and her husband lived in Phnom Penh. She sold things at the market, while her husband worked as a servant in a hotel. When the Khmer Rouge ransacked Phnom Penh and evacuated the city, Theeda and her husband were sent back to their native village in Setbo. There, she was placed in the full labor force (kamlang sreuk) in Beoung Tnaot and forced to carry dirt up to the Toul Krasang dam while her husband worked in Chansa Cheang Kul, plowing the fields at night and carrying dirt in the daytime. They rarely saw each other since it was policy that husbands and wives only meet once a week. When Theeda and her husband did meet, he would help her complete her quota of five square meters of dirt per day, so that they would have more time in the evening to devote to each other, before separating again at the crack of dawn. Theeda only met her husband nine times this way, before he disappeared from her life forever. In March of 1977, they dragged him from his work site in the evening and took him to Koh Kor, the largest prison and execution site in Sa-Ang District. They accused him of being a 1st Lieutenant. During the Pol Pot regime, soldiers, military officers, civil servants and anyone educated were considered bitter enemies of the regime and it was necessary to eliminate them. Although Theeda’s husband worked as a simple servant in a hotel in Phnom Penh, his connection with urban life made him a perfect candidate for execution. [Source: Kalyanee Mam, Documentation Center of Cambodia =]
Theeda did not get to see her husband leave, but she and her children were forced to endure the consequences of his execution. Even before Theeda and her children were sent to Koh Khsach Tunlea, they experienced the bitter contempt of Angkar. They were forced to dig with fixed quotas, they received the heaviest and most difficult work, and their food was rationed differently from the others. Despite her husband’s death Theeda continued to work hard. “If you don’t work, they will kill you,” she said, “because they have already killed your husband. But they did not allow you to cry. Anyone who dared cry would be killed.” =
When her husband was taken away, Chantou was also forced to cry alone. Like Theeda, Chantou was a native of Setbo village. During the months of fighting, Chantou moved with her family to Phnom Penh, before she eventually evacuated to her native village in 1975. Chantou was a widow with one child, before she was forced by Angkar to re-marry. Chantou did not want to marry, but knew she would have to bear the consequences if she did not: “In my heart I did not want to [marry], but if you did not marry they would take you to be killed. They would kill you, so you just forced yourself to get married.” Like Theeda, Chantou only saw her husband once a week or every ten days. Their meetings were monitored and they were not allowed to visit each other freely: “When we went to work, we met each other like this, but we never spoke a word to each other.... We just steal glances at each other, but they never let us talk to each other.” Thousands of marriages were arranged during the Pol Pot period, but it is not clear why people were forced to marry since couples were denied the right to live together and were sometimes separated forever. Chantou was forced to endure such a fate while she was already seven months pregnant with a child. In 1977, she was helping to raise a dam in Beoung Tnaot when they sent her husband to Koh Kor. Only a week later, did Chantou discover her husband had disappeared. =
Davy, on the other hand, witnessed her husband’s departure and even staged a small resistance to challenge the policies of Angkar. Davy was a “base person” who had lived in Prek Ambel ever since she married her husband. Her husband was poor and weak and they only had a small hut in the village. they raised only enough ducks to live on and they had some wood they were saving with which to build a house. In 1974, the militia leader came to ask Davy for some ducks and wood. She refused since it was all they had. A couple of days later, they came to take her husband away. “We are only taking him to be educated,” they said. Davy understood the consequences of being educated, “Being educated. It will not be quick. I know that if he goes, he will go forever.” She asked who would support her and her four children of her husband was taken away? They answered, “Angkar will support you.” =
“During the Pol Pot regime, relationships were shattered, families were separated and emotional and sentimental ties disappeared. Angkar became the parent, the husband, and the family that one should only pledge allegiance and absolute loyalty to. Davy refused to accept this reality. She sat in the road in protest and dared them to kill her entire family, “Okay, why don’t you just shoot and kill everyone in the house. Shoot and kill everyone, including myself, my children, my husband, everyone, because if you take him away, I will definitely starve and die.” Few people were willing to be as confrontational as Davy was. When asked why they did not dare to resist Angkar, Theeda answered, “How could you run away? If you run, the punishment is even greater, It will even touch on your children. I tell you, if your husband challenges them...he will live, but we will lose with their warning, “It the husband dares to resist, we will take the entire family. At this point, your husband does not dare to resist.” But Theeda, quickly added, “If we knew that all our families would die anyway, we would have all resisted.” Davy’s husband did not resist. He resigned himself in order to save his family. =
“Bopha’s husband’s departure was less dramatic, Bopha lived for a short while in Phnom Penh, before returning to her native village in Svay Brateal. When they returned, her husband planted vegetables while she worked near the village. It was 7:00 in the morning in 1977, when they called her husband from the house. Bopha was two months pregnant at the time. They said that they were taking him to help plow the fields. Bopha remembered how her older brother, in 1976, also left in this way. Many different tactics were used at that time to deceive family members from the truth. Although one of the most popular methods used was to say they were taking the individual to be educated, Angkar also used other means of deception. According to Theeda, “They would pick at you and say, ‘Come on, fetch your earth basket.’ When you went to fetch your earth basket, you knew that they were taking you to be killed. And we knew. Inside our heads, we already knew.” When Bopha’s husband left, he also knew. He did not take anything with him. He kept everything for his wife, knowing that he would never return, A month after her husband was taken to Koh Kor, Bopha suffered a miscarriage while digging a canal. =
“Sopheap was also two or three months pregnant when her husband was taken away. In 1975, Sopheap and her husband were evacuated from Phnom Penh, where her husband worked as a motorcycle repairman. They arrived in their native village of Svay Brateal carrying a baby only 20 days old. Sopheap and her husband were divided into separate units. Sopheap entered a mobile work brigade for married women (Kong chalat sehtrey), transplanting rice seedlings and clearing forests, while her husband worked in a mobile work brigade for plowing (Kong chalat pchoor). It was broad daylight when they took her husband to Koh Kor and she was not able to see him go. He was not alone. Four or five people were dragged along with him. Like Bopha, they said they were taking him to plow the fields and to carry wood. =
Koh Khsach Chunlea: an Island of Widows
Kalyanee Mam of the Documentation Center of Cambodia wrote: “Cambodia is a land of widows. The Pol Pot regime left behind many enduring legacies. One of the more striking reminders of this horrific period are the vast number of women who are left widowed and children left orphaned by their husbands and fathers. Where did all the widows come from and how did they come to be? Five women from Sa-Ang district, Kandal province seek to answer this question by re-telling their own bitter stories of hardship, endurance, and survival on an island called Koh Khasach Tunle, where recent widows were ostracized and sometimes, even murdered. These stories reveal another determined effort by the Khmer Rouge to sever family ties and to uproot the traditional relationships that existed between the Cambodian husband and wife and between the Cambodian mother and her children. Abandoned by a hopeless future, the women wonder who will avenge their past and who will remember their story. [Source: Kalyanee Mam, Documentation Center of Cambodia =]
“After their husbands were sent to Koh Kor prison, each of the women above was soon taken to Koh Khsach Tunlea. They were certain they would never see their husband again, not only because Koh Kor was an infamous execution center, but also because Koh Khsach Tunlea was an island reserved mainly for widows. “I could not say that we would be able to reunite again,” said Bopha. “If they take you and put you in that place....It is filled with widows.” =
“Sopheap was almost ready to give birth when they took her to Koh Khsach Tunlea. They told her she was going to meet her husband. “When I left, I didn’t even know they were taking me to this island. Only after they pulled the boat in, did I know. When they took me, they didn’t tell me where I was going. I just kept walking. They said, ‘We are taking you to be with your husband.’ …They just lied, They already killed my husband. They just lied to me. They gathered everyone. Everyone, who’s husband they had killed, they took to live on this island.” Theeda was also told she would go meet her husband .She was so happy she tried to walk faster while she advised her own child, “Go easily. We are to meet our Pa; we are going to meet your father. Look, your father is waiting to welcome us,” On the way there, Theeda saw many women crossing the river. But there were no men. “Whenever they sent you anywhere, they always said it was to go meet your husband. Go here, and we will meet. Go there, and we will meet. We were all so happy to hear that we were going to meet our husbands. But until the day we broke out, I still do not know where my husband went.” =
“The five women never met their husbands again, but on the island they met many women who confronted the same fate they did. It was uncertain where all the women came from, but there were thousands of them. Chantou was surprised to see how many widows there were on the island. Each of them had one thing in common. They were widows, left stranded on an island because of their suspicious connections to their husbands. When Sopheap reached the island, the unit leaders announced to the women, “Those who come to this island, do you realize what’s going on? You are all wives of soldiers and the military police. We bring you and put you on this island.” Sopheap asserted that there were no wives of soldiers of military officers present on the island, They were all just regular people. This line of reasoning, however, was used simply to justify their own classification schemes.” =
Life on the Island of Widows
Kalyanee Mam of the Documentation Center of Cambodia wrote: “Koh Khsach Tonlea wa an island 6 kilometers in length and 2 kilometers in width and was divided into six mess halls. Three mess halls formed a row on the western side of the island, while another three formed a row on the western side. Homes were built surrounding the mess halls. “Base people” who were native to the island and widows who were re-married by Angkar, lived on the western side in mess halls #1, # 2, while the widows without husbands, lived on the western side. “They wanted to distinguish between the ‘old’ and the ‘new’ people,” explained Bopha, “They ‘new people’, whose husbands they had taken away , they put in one place. They didn’t want us to remain mixed with the ‘base people’. They did this to make it easier to supervise (kapear) us. If we commit a crime, they are able to take us away quickly.” The Khmer Rouge was a paranoid and systematic lot. Classification gave them the ability to manage their ‘enemies’ and away to keep their revolution pure from contamination. Although the widows committed no crimes, they were still guilty by association. Davy was a ‘base person’ entitled to rights and privileges, but she was eventually sent to Koh Khsach Tunlea for her guilty connections, “I’m also a base person, why wasn’t my life good?” she asked. “What is the reason? It’s because I have guilty connections, guilty connections with my husband who was taken away. So they also grouped me with the 17 April people.”[Source: Kalyanee Mam, Documentation Center of Cambodia =]
“On this island, the Khmer Rouge created a new society, a brave new world that consisted only of women. In this world, there was no concept of privacy and ownership, there was no concept of family, and there was no concept of community. Each person’s actions were dictated by an absolute fear of Angkar, a fear that they too, would be taken away and killed. At the outset, the Khmer Rouge sought to destroy any representations of uniqueness and independence, any symbol that could distract the women from their work and from their uncompromising loyalty to Angkar. These representations consisted of physical ties to property, emotional ties to family, and intellectual ties to ideas and freedom. As Davy appropriately recalled, “They didn’t let me have anything, not even a word.” When Theeda first arrived on the island, they discarded everything personal to her. “From here on, they removed all the dishes and pots from us. Even our clothes were removed from us. They would not let us take them with us. They only allowed us to take one bundle. There was nothing in that bundle. We had just one pair of pans and a skirt we wore there. We had nothing.” =
“The women did not even have the right to express their uniqueness from others in their appearance. Their clothes were piled away and they were forced to wear black clothing and cut their hair short, up to their necks, Korean style. If they did not have black clothing, many would soak their clothes in mud to dull the colors or in a dye called makkloeu. It was important that the clothes did not distract attention and did not look better than the clothes of the “base people” who had clean back shirts, rubber-sole sandals, and red kramar to wrap around their necks. Any attempt to look different from others on the island was met with punishment. “Everyone had to wear black.” said Chantou, “No one had color. If we wear color they’ll harass us and they’ll call us to be educated. If they call us once or twice, we don’t listen, and we continue to wear this kind of clothing, they’ll take us to be killed. We could not do this. We had to soak it in mud until it was black and dirty.” =
“Not only were the women deprived of their own self-concept, they were also robbed of their traditional, nuclear concept of family. When the women made the trip from their native village to Koh Khsach Tunlea, they were allowed to bring their children with them. Their workdays were so long and regimented, however, that the women rarely saw their children. When Dvay arrived on the island, her youngest daughter was only five months old and still required breast-feeding. At four o’clock in the early morning Davy would leave her children with the old grandmothers in the children’s unit and ferry a boat across the river to work. She worked in Prek Raing planting rice seedlings in front of Phnom Tun Mun. After her afternoon meal with the other workers, Dvay would row the boat back across the river, and feed her five-month-old baby then take leave again. “All day, I never get to stay, “ said Davy. She could only return in the late evening. Davy would finish her evening meal first before picking up her children to return home. “At night when we return from work, the grandmothers would give each of us our children and we would return to our respective homes. They let us live in a house and in that one house there were four or five families. There were large houses and small houses. The large houses had ten families. They just laid our rugs and let us sleep with our children.” =
“Chantou also arrived on the island soon after she gave birth. Her baby was only one month old. Instead of forcing her to work in the fields immediately, Chantou had to serve as a wet-nurse for seven to eight months. Within that period, she watched and breast-fed ten children in her group. There were many other women, in many other groups. Chantou did not have a lot of breast milk, but she continued to watch the children. She watched them from six in the morning to six in the evening. The mothers would drop off their children in the early morning and then leave for work. Sometimes, like Davy, if they could break from their work, the mothers would come to check up on their children. “Some people see their children and they cry. They embrace their children and cry. They feel sorry for their children because they’ve been away for so long. Some hug their children and cry because they have nothing to eat.” When asked how she felt about having to look after other people’s children, Chantou said she did not really think about it. She just kept doing her job. “ Angkar had already assigned a job for me to watch [after the children]. If I don’t follow they will kill me. If I argue they will kill me. And if I don’t look after the children carefully, that will also not do.” During the Pol Pot regime, the personal and private duties of motherhood were reduced to a collective and impersonal event. In traditional Cambodian families, mothers watched after their own children, especially during the initial stages following birth. During this period of collectivization and no-privatization, mothers could no longer care for their own children but had to depend on others to look after them. Certain mothers, like Chantou, were even forced to serve as a “collective mother” for other people’s children. Her personal duties as a mother were transformed into a public good for Angkar. =
“Sopheap, who gave birth soon after she arrived on the island, only served as a wet-nurse for a short while. Her baby died one month after she gave birth and immediately they placed her in a special unit and sent her away to work in Prek Raing and Prasat. Most of the women were sent to Prek Raing, a village across the river and on the western side of Koh Khsach Tonlea, to work. They woke up early in the morning to cross the river. There, they transplanted rice seedlings, cut down forest, pulled grass, planted corn, and harvested rice. They women there even plowed the land, a job traditionally reserved for me. After a long day at work, the women did not return until late evening. They took their meal in a collective mess hall before returning to their sleeping quarters late at night. =
“Although the Khmer Rouge sought to destroy traditional notions of family, they still wanted widows on the island to remarry. Many of the married ‘base’ women on the island viewed the single “new” widows as a threat to their own marriages and hoped to alleviate any problems by marrying them off. According to Davy, “Sometimes they would bring soldiers and those who were handicapped to marry.” The marriages took place at a temple at the end of the island and couples were lined up row by row. Women stood on one side while men stood on the other. Women on the island were rarely threatened or torture into marriage. Most of the time, the unit leaders came to ask the woman personally if she was willing to remarry or not. Most of the women, however, agreed to marry for fear of their lives. According to Bopha, “Even if they weren’t forced [to marry], it was as if they were forced. They were afraid they would die. During that time, if you did anything to offend them, you were afraid you would die. So those who had children, just endured it. They went along with it because their husbands were already taken away. If they tried to resist and they also died, they would leave their children. So they just endured it.” Although Sopheap managed to resist remarriage, she wondered why marriages were arranged if families continued to be separated from each other: “Why should I take [another husband]. I already had children and they were not yet even fully-grown and they forced me to work myself to death. My children are not yet fully-grown and they separated them [from me]. They did not get to live with me. Why should I give birth? I give birth and they take them all away and use them and starve them.” When asked whether the life of those with spouses were much easier than the life of those unmarried, Dvay answered, “The lives of those with spouses do not seem to be much easier than the lives of those who were unmarried. Sometimes, after they married them, if they did anything wrong, they would take them away.” It remains a mystery why the Khmer Rouge felt it necessary to force couples into marriage only to break them apart again.
Death, Fear and Disease on the Island of Widows
“The women from the island described Koh Khsach Tunlea as a prison surrounded by water and enveloped by fear. Although women were not physically tortured on the island, they were tormented by the loss of their husbands. “They did not torture me or put me in prison with chains and shackles,” said Bopha, “but [when they took my husband away] it is also like putting me in prison.” With the loss of their husbands, the women also dreaded the loss of their own lives and the possibility of leaving their children behind. Bopha explained, “If I don’t work hard, I am afraid they will take me away and I will leave my children. So I tried to work hard.” Not only were the women forced to strain themselves in labor, they were also compelled to restrain themselves in speech. The women became mute figures deprived of the freedom to express themselves or even to relate to each other. Militiamen (chlop) and young children would sneak up underneath the house to make certain nothing inappropriate was being said about Angkar. It was safer not to speak at all. Chantou remembered, “During the Pol Pot regime, every night, people would just enter their mosquito net. No one joked around or laughed, because we were afraid we would say something wrong.” The fear on the island was so pervasive, that every night for Theeda, became a night of judgement: “In one day, if I can sleep one night, I say that I am alive. If I sleep one night and I wake up the next morning to see the light of the sun, I say that I am alive. One night I die, one night I live. When it is night, I know I am dead. I don’t know if they are coming to get me, because I keep seeing them come to get people.” [Source: Kalyanee Mam, Documentation Center of Cambodia ]
“Although people were not being killed on the island, many women disappeared from the island. The Khmer Rouge set up an intricate system of informants. Besides the numerous militiamen posted throughout the island, there were unit leaders responsible for ten people within their group. The unit leaders were familiar with each member of their group. When a problem arose with one member, they would inform the group leader and the group leader would inform the higher officials. The member would then be taken away. Chantou remembers one woman who was taken away to be killed. They were shelling corn together and while they were shelling, they called out to her and told her they wanted her to return to her district. When she heard this, the corn fell from her hands and the women urinated in her pants. Two or three days later, Chantou saw her body floating down the water. This woman was probably taken to Koh Kor, the largest prison and execution site in Sa-Ang. According to the five women, Koh Khsach Tunlea was the island for re-education, while Koh Kor was the island for execution. “They would put them in a rowboat and cross them over to Koh Kor....Koh Kor is full of dead people.” During the flooding season, the women would see dead bodies floating in the water from the direction of Koh Kor. =
Although executions accounted for many deaths, most of the women and children on the island suffered or died from disease and starvation. Instead of the Cambodian staple diet of rice, the women were only fed lotus stem soup, somla machoo thacuan, wood potato, and small cobs of corn. Many of the women had to look for other foods to supplement their diet. Chantou remembers the first few months while she was there: “When we arrived there in the beginning, they starved us. We did not have any rice to eat for months. We had no rice to eat. We ate only leaves, like potato leaves, any leaves. Whatever leaves as long as we could eat it and not get poisoned.” The health of the women on the island quickly deteriorated from lack of food and adequate nutrients. The women failed to menstruate and mothers barely had enough breast milk for their children. Many of the women became sick with swelling because they lacked salt in their bodies. According to Theeda “I was so skinny, you could see my bones. I was really skinny, everyone was. In Koh Khsach Tunlea, people were mostly sick with swelling. They would swell up and die, swell and then die, because there was not enough to eat.” The people on the island suffered especially during the wet season when much of the island fell victim to heavy flooding. Chantou, who was a wet-nurse on the island, noticed that many of the children died during this time. “So many people died on this island,” she says, “especially the young children because they did not have anything to eat. So many kids died, none of them remained. Some developed bruises, some developed....I don’t know what it is, but they would sleep on banana leaves. Some developed large sores this big and they would lay on banana leaves...and die. Many children died...When [people] returned their hands were empty. When they went hey had their children, but when they returned each person lost their children.” =
“With numerous executions and with the threat of disease and starvation, the island population was in constant flux. Although most of the women estimated that there were thousands of women living on Koh Khsach Tunlea (Theeda and Chantou asserts there were tens of thousands), it is difficult to asses how many women and children were still alive after the Vietnamese invasion and liberation of Cambodia in 1979. Theeda claimed that, “Close to 1979, close to the time of liberation, they really killed a lot of people. There were very few when we returned from Koh Khsach Tunlea.” At the same time, Theeda also recognized the chaos of that period: “There was too much confusion. They sent some over here and some over there; so how are were supposed to know? We didn’t know. They would say, ‘Okay, we need people to work over there.’ The fill up two or there cars and go...When we were being sent over [to Koh Khsach Tunlea] there were a lot of people...At the end, in 1979, there were very little people left. We don’t know where they put them. We were all separated.” With the slow encroachment of the Vietnamese on Cambodia, the Khmer Rouge panicked and evacuated many women from the island, forcing them to travel west. =
‘From an island of widows, Cambodia became a country of widows. Currently, 20 percent of the female population in Cambodia is widowed, according to the UNDP’s statistics. The stories of the five women in Kandal Province speak volumes of the suffering that occurred during this brutal period, but yet, they represent only a fraction of the suffering endured by women during this time. What of the other widows and how will their suffering be remembered? At the end of her interview, Bopha pointedly answered, “I wanted the organization to seek justice for widows. The name Pol Pot-he is the one who killed the husbands of widows.” =
Childhood Under the Khmer Rouge
Sophearith Chuong reported: “The Khmer Rouge were most kind to the young people. The Khmer Rouge believed their mind was still blank. It would be easy to indoctrinate them with the ideology of the Khmer Rouge leader Pol Pot. The children of the “old people” who were country peasants and had already lived under the control of the Khmer Rouge for three or four years were accorded a position in the militia unit. Cultivated and nurtured in the mind of the Khmer Rouge, the children were considered the strength that would transform society. Ke Munthit remembers one boy beating his own mother, without understanding the consequences of stealing potatoes from the collective garden. The teachings the Khmer Rouge indoctrinated him with challenged the life he led with this family. This young boy spoke proudly, “I am beating the thief. I am not beating my mother.” [Source: Sophearith Chuong, Documentation Center of Cambodia]
The survivor Sok Sunday reported: “As for me, I was just seven years old and was separated from my older siblings and mother and forced to work very hard. Everyday at 4 am I walked 3 or 4 kilometers from the village to collect manure for the rice fields, then I dug a cubic meter of earth to build a road. In the afternoon, I led four cows to eat grass along farm dikes. I was pulled to the ground many times by the cows. [Source: from petition was forwarded from the UN’s Cambodian Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, Documentation Center of Cambodia]
One afternoon the sky darkened and it began to rain. My four cows were hungry and started eating rice seedlings in a field [near Prey Sva pagoda]. I could not stop them, so I let go the ropes. I was cold and afraid of ghosts since I was close to the pagoda crematorium. So, I left the cows and hid in a toilet near a cattle shelter and waited for someone to bring the cows to the shelter. A moment later my grandmother brought the cows into the shelter and left. Because I was very hungry, I left the toilet and returned home to look for something to eat. The son of the chief grabbed my shirt and blamed me for letting the cows eat the seedlings. He said he would keep me in a stupa in the pagoda. I was scared like a sheep [caught] in [the teeth] of a wolf. He dragged me to the kitchen of the cooperative. As we moved I put my palms together and begged him, “I felt dizzy that I let the cows do what they wanted. Please have mercy on me, don’t keep me in the stupa. I won’t do it again.”
Being a Kid in a Khmer Rouge Camp
Survivor Sidney L. Liang reported: “Having been forced to be an adult at the age of nine was extremely difficult. Basically, I tried to find food for my family as best I could. I was good at frog-fishing and catching frogs in the dry season. I remember there was a time when I caught a big frog in a private pond and the owner of the pond started chasing me, as did the other villagers. On my way home, a neighbor approached me and said, “my husband is starving, needs food, can I have one of your frogs?” I said yes, and gave her the smaller frog that I had caught that day. She refused and wanted the bigger frog; I felt saddened by her situation and finally gave her that frog. [Source: Sidney L. Liang, Documentation Center of Cambodia]
“I am glad I still have some of these good memories. There were times when, with my eyes closed, I could hear footsteps next to my house dragging victims with their mouths covered, unable to make any sounds other than those of struggling for life. Over the thick darkness of the rice fields I could hear the sounds pos pos then oye, then quiet. Was this the sound of beating people to death? I did not know, but people seemed to disappear from my village of Ro Luos. I was scared. In addition, every night there were sounds of wolves crying all over the village. The sounds stopped as daylight covered the earth. There was not much comfort. I only saw my parents once in a while, because they had to work.
“They placed me with a group of kids of about the same age (six or seven years old) and only allowed us to see our parents once a month. We could not show any emotion at all. No one could cry, laugh, or become excited about seeing or leaving their parents. Every day a leader would bring us to work to collect cow manure and water plants at the farm. Our regular workday started around 6:30 a.m., and we returned at 7 p.m., but were not allowed to sleep until we attended the regular scheduled meeting, which lasted until around 9 p.m. Some people called this “the brain washing session.”
“Walking by, holding hands, parents are talking to their kids and teaching them ways of life, as life should be. I am so sad because I do not remember my dad’s face, what he was about, or who he was. On top of not knowing and unable to remember, the only memory I have of him is the sight of a white sheet covering his body. It is unfortunate, but it is the only memory I have.
The morning was unusually cold in November 1976. I can see smoke from the fire and the fog of the morning mist. My five-month-old sister was crying. My mom was very busy, and the marks of tears scarred her face. She looked very tired. I did not understand and was lost in the commotion. My dad was dead; his body was laid in front of the house for people to pay respect and was lying there the entire day. People came and went, unable to stay long for fear of violating the curfew forced on them by the Khmer Rogue.
“Things were quiet toward the end of the day, people were returning to their homes. As the sun set, so did another chapter for my family and my life. Dust from the sun set onto our village, as my older brother gasped for air. Why? As night fell, it consumed my brother’s breath. The muscles in his body knotted and hardened. He died that some evening. I did not understand why he died, but I knew that by the end of that cold November day, I saw two bodies covered in white sheets and then never saw them again. My father died in the morning and my brother died in the evening. I was alone taking care of my mom and younger sister. Life is sometimes cruel and unfair.
“After that day, I was not scared of death. I remember there was a time my mom asked me to wake up my grandmother for dinner. When I got to her, I noticed a smell that I had known. I was unable to wake my grandmother because she died in her sleep. She had been dead for almost one day. I had no feeling, but sat next to her for a moment. Even though we were farmers, some of my uncles were educated in Cambodian temples, France, and other foreign countries. One of my uncles, Pu Tok, was well educated in Khmer and French. One day people in black clothes came to his house and told him to be ready to be picked up to study abroad. As they were leaving, one comrade uttered to my aunt, “You can look at him now...this is the last time you are seeing him.” He never returned home to his daughter and wife. About a month later, a villager told my aunt that he saw Pu Tok hung from a tree. Months later his wife was taken too. To this day I don’t know what happen to their daughter; she was alone.
“I remember these incidents clearly; I cannot shake them from my mind. Sometime it was so painful that out of frustration, I hid myself alone and cried. Sometimes, I see places, events, and times, but am unsure of what they were. Were they just dreams or realities? I cannot talk to my mom; I’m afraid it might make her pain and suffering return. Last year (2000) during an interview, I found out my mom lost 17 relatives during the Khmer Rouge era. She has been keeping this suffering and heartbreak to herself for over twenty years. Sounds of firecrackers, tire explosions, or people banging scare her and bring back many memories. My mom and I are American citizens, but won’t be able to celebrate the 4th of July [Independence Day] like everyone else.
“My mom is the strongest woman I have known. She took care of both of us through the worst and cruelest of times. Relying on faith, we struggled, walking at night and sleeping during the day on our way across Cambodia to Thailand. We saw people killed by land mines, starvation, and exhaustion along the way. Through her strong will and determination, we went to Khao I Dang camp, where our new lives began. I am sad and angry. I was deprived of my youth and childhood experiences, and was basically put on a journey of uncertainty. I am not the only one who has had these life changing events. The leaders of these times should be held accountable to all my relatives, my countrymen, and my home.
Minorities Under the Khmer Rouge
The Khmer Rouge also targeted minorities. Chinese, Muslim Chams, Vietnamese, and Thais—who were part of families that lived in Cambodia for generations—were killed as part if the effort to make Cambodia "pure." The mostly Muslim Chams were singled out because they were one of the few groups that actively resisted the Khmer Rouge.
The Khmer Rouge's treatment of minorities seems to have varied from group to group. The Vietnamese endured the greatest suffering. Tens of thousands were murdered in regime-organized massacres. Most of the survivors fled to Vietnam. The Cham, a Muslim minority who are the descendants of migrants from the old state of Champa, were forced to adopt the Khmer language and customs. Their communities, which traditionally had existed apart from Khmer villages, were broken up. Forty thousand Cham were killed in two districts of Kampong Cham Province alone. Thai minorities living near the Thai border also were persecuted. [Source: Library of Congress, December 1987 *]
Despite the fact that Chinese and Sino-Khmers had dominated the Cambodian economy for centuries and could be considered exploiters of the peasantry, the Khmer Rouge apparently did not single them out for harsh treatment. The war drove most rural Chinese into the cities, and after the forced evacuations they and their urban compatriots were regarded as "new people." They shared the same hardships as Khmers, however. Phnom Penh's close relationship with China was probably a factor in the regime's reluctance to persecute them openly. *
“In the late 1980s, little was known of Khmer Rouge policies toward the tribal peoples of the northeast, the Khmer Loeu. Pol Pot established an insurgent base in the tribal areas of Rotanokiri Province in the early 1960s, and he may have had a substantial Khmer Loeu following. Predominately animist peoples with few ties to the Buddhist culture of the lowland Khmers, the Khmer Loeu had resented Sihanouk's attempts to "civilize" them. Cambodia expert Serge Thion notes that marriage to a tribal person was considered "final proof of unconditional loyalty to the party." Khieu Samphan may have been married to a tribal woman. *
Survivor Sopheak Try reported: “In 1974 and at the beginning of 1975, there was a lot of disorder in Kroch Chhmar District, because it was under the control of the Lon Nol people. Ta Chea served as the district leader. He harmed and tortured the Chinese people, the Chams, and the Vietnamese. He called many of them to be executed. Another group was forced to live somewhere else. He had a right-hand man named Heang Ka Pong, who was the most brutal man in the village. He could take anyone to be killed; it was up to him.All the way until 17 April 1975, the district leader and his right-hand man were accused of being traitors and Angkar on the higher level took them to be killed. Later on they installed a new district leader. [Source: Sopheak Try, Documentation Center of Cambodia]
Khmer Rouge “Prison without Walls”
Survivor Samondara Vuthi Ros reported: “My family and hundreds of others were sent by train to Battambang Province, where we were taken by tractor to Phum Tra Laok, located in Rum Duol Village, Preah Net Preah District. Along the foot of the mountains, there were about ten families of base and new people living together. The people were assigned to clear forests for growing potatoes, yam, and other vegetables. As for the base people, they were assigned to monitor the “new people” and to rear silkworms for the weaving section. As time went by, we realized that we had been sent to this place for punishment. My father was ordered into the jungle, where he had to walk to the top of a mountain in search of rattan and Rum Peak (a kind of vine) for weaving baskets for moving earth. My mother was assigned to clear forests and dig out huge tree trunks. My brother and sister were sent to build dams and dig canals in a mobile front unit. As for me, I was assigned to look after cattle and cut Tun Trean Khet, a common kind of small plant, to chop and mix with cow dung for the making of compost fertilizer. From then on, my family members were separated. My father and mother were gone from home from dawn to dusk. My brother and sister were sent away to the mobile front unit. We didn’t know where it was. We were provided with a bowl of thin porridge as a daily ration. At night, we were not allowed to talk. Lamps and lanterns were not allowed to operate. Any one who broke the rules would be “sent to cut bamboo”. Those who had been sent to do such work had little chance of returning; they were ‘sent to be killed. The place we were living was as quiet as a graveyard throughout the day. [Source: Samondara Vuthi Ros, Documentation Center of Cambodia]
“My family spent almost a year there in pain and starvation. My father came down with malaria. My mother’s illness gradually became worse. I myself had scabies covering my entire body and was emaciated. Still worse, my mother was told that my sister had died. Then my father was executed on the grounds of having been a puppet of the contemptible Lon Nol’s traitorous administration. I still remember that until he was brought away to be killed, and even though he was made to do hard work without sufficient food or rest, my father had never complained, nor told his wife how exhausted he was. He seemed aware of his impending death, and told me before he was taken away, “When I am gone, you will have to look after your mother and elders. We all face the same fate-death. It is just a matter of time, sooner or later.” He used to tell me that he was so sorry. He expressed his regret for his elder brother, an army chief for the Khmer Republic, and his youngest brother, a pilot for the Khmer Republic. My father expressed his regret that he didn’t believe his elder brother, who was a soldier, and his youngest brother, who was a pilot, in the Lon Nol regime. ++
“His youngest brother died during a bombing mission at the Vihea Sour battlefield in 1974. My uncle used to say to my father, “What benefit will you gain from the Khmer Rouge when they win the war. Why do you support them?” Since then my family has endured much suffering and separation, and only I and my mother together have survived. As for my brother, we don’t know what happened to him. He disappeared. In the blink of an eye, my mother lost her husband and two of her children. That night, my mother and I were told to go to the district office for new place assignments. Yet, they told us not to bring along so many things as some people had already arranged matters for us. I and my mother were taken by ox-cart to the district office. I didn’t recognize the way we went because it was so dark. At the district office, a man told my mother: “You have to spend a night here. At dawn you will be taken”. In the morning, the district office appeared to be vacant, with no one present except my mother, myself, and three or four Khmer Rouge. A man approached my mother and said in a belligerent tone: “Go to your village! People here are very busy. They won’t have time to take you until later”. Then we left the office and returned to our homestead on foot. We walked from dawn to dusk. That night, my mother remained awake. She sat with her knees upward in the bamboo-lattice hall. When the morning came, she carried a hoe and a long-handled knife to the farm, saying to me: “My son, take my rationed porridge to eat when they deliver. I will not return until the evening”. As she had promised, in the evening she returned home. She was so sad and said nothing. She had only two or three cans of rice to cook. After cooking, she asked me to eat rice with her. While eating, she glanced at me very often. Suddenly, a village militiaman came to ask my mother to attend a meeting in the Village Office. My mother told me: “Son, sleep after eating. I will be back soon.” I spent one night waiting for my mother. I seemed to have no soul in my body. I thought my mother might have been taken to be killed. In the morning, I went to the house of the village chief to ask for information about my mother. The village chief said: “Your mother is being held at Tuol Kok Kor. If you want to meet her, you can ask people around there. They will tell you.” ++
“Tuol Kok Kor was a hill, surrounded with small rivers, used to detain middle-age women who had broken their regulations, like my mother. They accused my mother and the other people being detained there of secretly digging potatoes, stripping rice and of having the spirit of previous regimes, especially in their relations with their husbands. I was left to the vast field alone. A week later, I received information about her. Villagers next to my house told me that my mother still survived and she really wanted to see me. It took me half a day to walk from the village to the place where my mother was being kept. I had to swim across rivers to reach Tuol Kok Kor. There, I saw hundreds of middle-age women clearing forests, digging out tree-stumps, and carrying tree branches to burn down. There was no sound of singing. For nearly an hour, my eyes searched for my mother. Unable to find her, I felt despair and uncertainty. I cried as I ran away. Fortunately, I met a woman of about the same age as my mother, sitting under a tree along the way. She asked me: “Where are you running to, child? Who are you looking for?” I replied: “I want to find my mother”. She went on: “What’s her name? From which village?” After describing my mother to her, I learned that on the previous day, my mother had been sent to work site where they were digging canals. Returning to the field, I felt a great relief. ++
Surviving a Khmer Rouge Camp
Youk Chhang wrote: ”On April 17, 1975, I was a boy of 14. When the Khmer Rouge began evacuating Phnom Penh, I was home alone; my mother and another family member had left for a safer location the day before, telling me they would come back for me. But the road was blocked and on April 18th, the Khmer Rouge told me that I had to leave. I went outside, but I had no idea of where to go because our neighborhood was completely deserted. So I started walking. Along the way, I heard people saying they were going to their home villages, so I decided to go to my mother’s home in Takeo province. Because I had no food with me, I asked the Khmer Rouge soldiers for some, and they gave me round palm sugar cakes. After some weeks of walking I arrived at the village. In the meantime, my mother had tried to cross the border into Vietnam, but was blocked. About four months later, she too came to her village and we were reunited. [Source: Youk Chhang, Documentation Center of Cambodia^]
“My family was evacuated to Battambang province next. After we were there for a few months, I was separated from them and put in a teenagers’ mobile unit to dig canals. For about a year, I was able to sneak home at night to visit my family, but later our unit began working too far away. I was alone more and more, and grew more lonely than ever. As a city kid, I didn’t have many survival skills, but hunger can make you learn a lot of things. I taught myself how to swim, for example, so that I could dive down and cut the sweet sugarcane growing in the flooded rice fields. And I learned how to steal food, how to kill and eat snakes and rats, and how to find edible leaves in the jungle. ^
“Food became my god during the regime. I dreamed about all kinds of food all the time. It would help me fall asleep and gave me the strength I needed to return to the fields to work each day. Even today, when I see hungry children in the streets, it upsets me. I wonder why they cannot have enough to eat now that we no longer live under the Khmer Rouge. I see myself in their hungry faces. I was angry, too, and this got me into trouble with the village and unit chiefs. But I was saved from being killed by many people and their small acts of kindness. Once the Khmer Rouge put me in the subdistrict security office, where I was beaten and tortured. A man who had grown up in my mother’s village went to the subdistrict chief, telling him that I was still very young and begging him to have me released. Two weeks later, I was let out of this prison. This man was later accused of having relatives in enemy areas and has not been seen again. And another base person named Touk gave our family food when we needed it most.” ^
“Trapeang Veng, the village where we stayed in Battambang, had a chief who came from the West Zone; her name was Comrade Aun and she was only 12 years old. My mother begged her not to send me out to the fields to work, and gave Aun her shiny scissors from China as a favor. My mother treasured these scissors because they had been a gift from her youngest brother, but she sacrificed them for me. The scissors saved me for a few days until Angkar ordered Aun to send me away with the mobile unit. ^
At the end of 1978, rumors started flying around Cambodia about the large numbers of people dying (Trapeang Veng once had 1,200 families, but only 12 survived Democratic Kampuchea), and people began stealing and taking many other chances. A base person told my uncle at that time that he should run away to Thailand because he had worked for the National Bank of Cambodia and would be certainly be killed if he stayed. My brother-in-law left a little later. After he walked for a few days, my brother-in-law turned back because he missed his wife. And I was told not to escape. I agreed, which may have prevented me from meeting the fate of my uncle. He continued walking to Thailand, but was never seen again. I suspect that he stepped on a mine. ^
These acts by members of my family and even total strangers may have saved my life more than one time. These were people who saw the value of life and did their best to assert their humanity during a time when it was difficult to do so. They gave me a reason to hope. Reporters and others also ask me if I still have any nightmares about the Khmer Rouge. My life then was a living nightmare, but I do not dream about the regime today. My mother had a dream about me, though. I was sitting on the Buddha’s Eye Mountain, looking far away. She said this was a sign that I would survive, and it gave me hope. So I never thought of dying, even once, during Democratic Kampuchea. Instead, I hoped that I would have a good night’s sleep and enough to eat one day. This hope was always with me and encouraged me to fight for life.
Dying in a Khmer Rouge Camp
Survivor Sam-An Keo reported: “When my family had finally reached my father’s home village, we suddenly found ourselves on a Khmer Rouge hit list due to my father’s previous occupation as a police officer. Even though he was a poor policeman, he was still on their list. My father tried very hard not to expose his identity. As more and more people moved into the village, Angkar (Higher Organization) had asked people to volunteer for relocation. After hearing the announcement, my father had signed up. He hoped that by moving away from a familiar territory, he could completely hide his identity, and therefore, escape death. To me, that was a very smart move! [Source: Sam-An Keo, Documentation Center of Cambodia + ]
“I remember very well when we were on the train heading toward Battambang. I was very hungry and my mother had to do what she could to find something for me to eat. When we finally reached our destination of Mong, Battambang, food was very scarce. Both of my parents had traded gold and US dollars for food from the local people. Life was very hard in our district. The Khmer Rouge forced all adults and teenagers to work in the fields every day, rain or shine. People died every day of starvation or were executed. I was fortunate not to be put to work because of my age and sickliness. My father, especially, worked very hard with very little to eat. When he had food, he did what he could to save it for his children. From what I can remember about my father, he was a decent person. +
“Early one morning, my father left home to catch fish in the stream. Two Khmer Rouge soldiers saw him and asked him to come out of the water. They questioned him and tied him with a rope. He was left there alone for hours. When the local people found out about him, they immediately rushed home to tell my mother. She was able to get help from the neighbors to bring my father home. The events of that morning had struck with my father forever, and he was traumatized by them. He began to have nightmares and we could see death in his eyes. He became every sick. As our conditions worsened, my mother sacrificed all her belongings to keep my father alive by trading for food and medicines. Most men living in the village were killed. My father knew that it was just a matter of time before his turn would come. +
One night, while everyone was sleeping, he quietly passed away. Everyone in our family had their heads shaved to honor my father’s soul. His body was laid on the floor of our home for three days before my mother was able to find people to carry him to the field for burial. Most people were too weak and too afraid to come and help. While my father was able to escape execution by the Khmer Rouge soldiers, he could not escape his ordeal. My father’s death completely changed the life of my family. My mother could not function properly for a couple of years and my brother, sister, and I had to do the best we could to survive.
Death of Family Members One by One Under the Khmer Rouge
Describing what happened to Pom Sarun: Joanna R. Munson wrote: “Sarun would have graduated from the Faculty of Pedagogy and the Faculty of Law in 1975. Instead, the Khmer Rouge arrived. Her brothers and their wives had already come from outside the city to escape the bombs, and so the "liberation" found the entire family under one roof, mother, brothers, sisters-in-law, husband, son and daughter. They were evacuated to Sarun's mother's home village of Kompong Krasaing. After only three months there, the Khmer Rouge murdered her younger brother, who had worked as a soldier at the Department of Finance in the Lon Nol regime. They came to ask the brother to work in another village, a poorly disguised beckoning to death. He was murdered in the Koc Kak pagoda, leaving behind a pregnant wife. His death heralded the beginning of the horrific downsizing of Sarun’s family, from nine to four to two left alive in 1979. [Source: Story of Pom Sarun told by Joanna R. Munson, Documentation Center of Cambodia** ]
“After his death, they were transferred to the region west of Phnom Penh. One sister-in-law died from diarrhea and the other sister-in-law, having given birth to a baby boy, was sent away from the family. Sarun's son was also sent away, to work, at six years old, in a children's work unit. A few months after their transfer, Sarun's husband committed suicide. The physical cause of death was ingesting the poisonous fruit of the sen tree, which makes one's tongue bleed. But that was just the outward cause of death. He committed suicide because he was a rich and well-educated man who found himself incapable of taking care of his family, because of the shame of seeing his wife hit by a Khmer Rouge soldier, because he was starving and skinny, and because of guilt. He felt deep guilt, anguished guilt as heavy as a bomb, because before 1975, Sarun had told him that Cambodia would become communist, had begged him to move the family abroad. He had refused to believe that Cambodia, with all its riches, would ever turn communist. **
“Impotent in the face of the Khmer Rouge, with no skills to speak of, Tain Hak Khun was a defeated man. Sarun told him, "Don't worry, I can do. Just follow me." But he said he could not live in this world, it was too hard to adapt to the situation. The day after Sarun was beaten with a cattle prod, for hiding her watch in a palm leaf (the neighbors must have told the soldiers on her), her husband ate the poisonous fruit. The blood from her beating at the hands of the KR soldier was little in comparison to the deep red river that welled up on her husband's tongue after eating the fruit of the sen tree. **
“In 1976, her older brother died. Sarun explains in English: "Because of no food and the men eat a lot and no energy, no power, skinny, skinny, skinny, works so hard, and so die. Not just our family, all family, every family, sometimes whole families." Sarun was left with her mother and her daughter. At three o'clock in the morning, she would go to the field to work, leaving her daughter to be taken care of by her mother. Her group would work at rice planting or picking, at digging the dams, or fishing the Tonle Sap until 12 noon, when they would stop for a meal. At 1:30 or 2:00 PM, they would begin work again, working until the sun set over the rice fields, a red globe of flame. Sometimes, they would continue work until midnight, lighted by the electricity from a generator. At dinner, Sarun would save her food for her mother and daughter, wrapping it in a lotus leaf, and running without stop from her work unit to the base camp. The fastest route to the camp was through a mass gravesite, "but I never worry about corpses, worry only about food to eat and the soldiers of Pol Pot," Sarun says. At night, the lightning bugs would look like the lit tips of soldiers' cigarettes and send fear into her heart. The corpses were buried in shallow graves and wild dogs would dig them up. Sometimes a leg would be visible, gnawed on by the dogs and insects. The smell was awful. Water was scarce, so the corpse-filled dirt caked on Sarun's legs could not be washed away. Instead, they used the useless city-clothes brought with them from Phnom Penh to wipe away the death smell. **
“Once in the cooperative, Sarun would cook for her mother and daughter and they would be happy eating together. After eating, she would run a few kilometers away to a lake that still contained water and fill up her family's water pitchers. After delivering the water to her mother and daughter, she would then run back to her work unit camp and, sometimes with no sleep, begin her day all over again. Her mother stayed alive so long because they had jewelry, Sarun explains. At four or five at night, Sarun would pretend to go looking for something. Instead, she would scout out the way to the Muslim community 12 kilometers away, where she could exchange her jewels for rice, cane sugar, and bananas. Later, under cover of darkness, Sarun would steal away from the cooperative, with the jewelry hidden in a kramar beneath her too-large black shirt. She would have a bamboo jug tied around her body in which to collect crabs and keep palm water. Two kilometers to the west of the camp, train tracks bisected the landscape, with Khmer Rouge soldiers policing it in groups. Sometimes she would wait two or three hours before it was safe to cross. Sarun says, "I do it alone. I believe, I trust only myself, since I can keep myself alive until now." **
“The night her mother died, Sarun returned from the Muslim community with rice, cane sugar, and banana to feed her weak mother. Her mother was lying in bed with her head to the east, and her granddaughter, daughter, and a cousin surrounding her. As the others slept, Sarun began to cry and the tears fell onto her mother's skin. Her mother said to her, "Do not regret the jewelry. We can only buy the things if we have the life. When we die, we cannot take these things with us. You have to sell all the things that you have to get the life." She said, "You have to sleep, ko-an (daughter). You work so hard and have only a half-hour to sleep more. No need to wait up with me. There are many people around me now." Her last words to Sarun were, "Do not hit your daughter. Be gentle with her." She said this because the girl had been born the same year (the year of the Pig), same day, and same month as Sarun's youngest brother, who had drowned in the river at age six. Now Pich Chan Mony was almost six. Her mother believed that the little girl was his reincarnation and worried about the girl's fate. **
“After the death of Thou Am, Sarun carried her daughter, papoose-style, on her back while she worked. Her daughter could not walk, so skinny was she. Sarun walked with a child on her back and her belongings on her head. One day she was so tired that she told her daughter, "So, daughter, you walk." Her daughter scolded her, "But I cannot walk." One night before her daughter died, Pich Chan Mony begged for sugar. Sarun climbed the palm tree, a kramar around her waist, a knife secure in its folds, and a bamboo jug to collect the water. She boiled the palm water and made sugar, and then cooked rice with the sugar and maize. She cooked this food to help the swelling in her daughter's limbs. The next day, it rained and rained. Her daughter slept in a separate hammock from Sarun. Tired, hungry, scared, sad, Sarun tried to sleep. "Mum, I want to sleep with you." Sarun was up from her hammock, across the hut, and then with daughter in her arms, back into her own hammock to rest. "Mum, I want to go to toilet." Tired, hungry, scared, sad, Sarun hit her daughter. One slap on the head. One slap only. Two hours later, her daughter was dead. **
“She was given one day off of work to bury her daughter. Later, she was sent far away from the cooperative to work, since she no longer had any dependents to take care of. Of children's deaths, Sarun remembers two stories: sometimes when a child would die, the family would not tell anyone, in order to continue receiving the child's food rations. Second, she recalls that if a child died, sometimes they would cut the body up into small pieces and fry the flesh, in order to exchange the meat, which they pretended was from mice or other small animals, for rice and other food. Three or four months after her daughter's death, it is harvest time and there is more food for everyone. If only her daughter had held on. **
Reunited with Mom in a Khmer Rouge Camp
Survivor Samondara Vuthi Ros reported: “During this period of my childhood, I did not receive the care of parents. I lived alone in a leaf-roofed cottage at the foot of some mountains. Often I would ask myself how long I would be alone, and wondered if I would live such a life forever. One day, when I was walking back from cutting Tun Trean Khet (kind of plant used to make compost) and collecting cattle dung, an aged woman, who was a “base person”, told me that she had met my mother at the dam work-site east of the mountain. But, she didn’t tell me where it was. She just instructed me to walk eastward. [Source: Samondara Vuthi Ros, Documentation Center of Cambodia /\ ]
“After receiving this information, I left that morning, walking eastward as instructed. I spent a whole day reaching the work site, where I found hundreds of middle-aged men and women. There was a long hall being built on the top of a tall dam. In the hall, the people were taking a rest, sitting in rows along the edge of the low roof. The gap from the ground to the edge of the roof was approximately one-third of a meter. The people had to crawl to enter the hall. I spent many hours bent over, walking the length of the enormous hall in search of my mother. Suddenly, I saw a pair of feet which seemed to belong to my mother. Then I walked straight toward those feet and found myself looking into my mother’s face. She was patching some torn clothes, and when I called out, “Mum, Mum, Mum”, she looked up and her tears started flowing. She hugged me and fondled my head as she cried. That night, my mother asked a chief of the mobile unit for permission to have me stay for the whole night. I remember her painful words to me that night. “From now on it will be hard for you to find me! We will be separated with no idea when our family will be reunited.” Looking back, I know that my mother had been warning me not to stay with her. I felt doubtful and asked her why I could not stay with her. Instead of answering my question, she only cried and told me to escape from the village, to go away, and not to worry about her, because she could take care of herself. I could not think, but cried out and hugged my mother, pleading to live with her. I hugged her close that night until I fell asleep. At dawn, I heard the shrill sound of a whistle, calling the people to their work. Then my mother asked me to return home and prepare things for escape. She kissed my forehead three times and uttered softly: “From now on you have to know how to lead your life, and we don’t know when we could meet again! If you have free time, please come to visit me”. Then she walked away with tears. I stared at her with tears until she was out of my sight. /\
“About two days after my return, I met an adolescent who was also categorized as a ‘new person’. He was assigned to a ‘front mobile unit’ constructing a dam at a place called “Tum Nup Daem Kor Bei”, located in Phnom Chunh Chaing District, Battambang Province. I asked him if there were any children working in the unit. He said there were about ten but that they didn’t allow many children to work there. I asked if I could go with him, and, one morning shortly after waking, we left. /\
“As a child, I lived a vagrant life, like that of a plant floating in the ocean. My life was the same as the other ten children in the mobile unit “Daem Kor Bei”. I had only two shirts, a rice spoon, and a small pan left to me by my mother. I used them to receive my rationed food every afternoon and evening. All of us children were assigned to build fifty meters of dike or three cubic meters of dam each day per three children. If anyone failed to fulfill their assignment, their food ration would be reduced, or they would be punished. To live for one day in this dark era seemed like one hundred years. I always remembered my mother’s words: “You have to learn how to live without me.” I never received any information about her after she left. I always thought that she was living in the village like the others. One time, I and few friends were asking each other about our families: “When can we see our parents?” Suddenly, an adolescent about the same age as my brother told me that my mother had already been taken to be killed. Although he lived with our group, this boy had just secretly visited his parents in their village. His news brought tears to my eyes. I felt I had nothing. I wondered if I would survive or not. It is only now that I realize the aim of my mother had been for me to escape the extermination of our family. If I had failed to escape to the mobile unit, our entire family would have been killed. For fear of death, even though I had been told that my mother was killed, I dared not return to the village to learn if my mother had been killed or not. To this day, some twenty years later, no word from my mother has been had. /\
Reunited with One’s Family Under the Khmer Rouge
Survivor Yimsut Ranachit reported: “I stared at a few very familiar faces in the crowd of new people. My heart skipped a few beats. I know these people! I know these people! I almost screamed and wanted to rush out to meet them right then. I got up and was about to rush out to them, but logic and common sense held me back. I did not want to jeopardize anything, certainly not at this notorious place. My heart was still skipping a few beats and my adrenaline was pumping very hard with a sense of extreme joy. Words cannot explain my tears of joy, which were flowing like waterfalls on my face. [Source: Yimsut Ranachit, Documentation Center of Cambodia ~~ ]
“My dad look very, very old and so did my dear mom. They had both changed a lot, but I knew in an instant that it was they. They wore just rags, much like the rest of us. My siblings were behind them. I was so pleased knowing that my family was almost intact after all these years. All of them were there, except two. I counted them again and again to make sure. My oldest brother Larony, and my older sister Mealenie were not among the group. But most of them were right here, quite close to me. They looked terrible, I thought, just skin and bones. It took a little while to recognize my younger brothers, who were not wearing shirts, but they were all there. They had grown taller. After more than three years of separation, most of them were right there before my eyes and I hesitated. I had dreamed of and waited for this day for years. Now that they were in front of me, I hesitated. ~~
“Their hopeless eyes just stared down to the ground, oblivious of their surrounding. They did not see or recognize either my brother Serey or myself in the crowd. They looked just awful, like dispirited people with little hope. They did not appear to be the same people I knew. Serey walked by and grabbed my left arm tight. He was breathing down on my face. “Don’t stare, Ah Knack!” He spoke sternly into my left ear, using my nickname to emphasize that he meant it and I had better obey. “That’s mom and dad! And our brothers!” I whispered back to Serey with excitement. “I know, wait a while,” he pleaded with me now. I saw tears on his cheeks. I knew then that he wanted to rush to them as much as I did. However, we had to exercise a little discipline and be very cautious, then more than ever. We did not know our fate or theirs, not at that moment. ~~
“I made eye contact with one of my little brothers, Ah Long. I wryly smiled at him, hoping that he would recognize me. He did not respond, to my disappointment. He just looked away into thin air. I knew it was they! Had I changed so much that none of them recognized me? Were they being cautious like Serey and I had been? I still wanted to risk it all and rush to them and give them all a great big hug. I wanted to tell them how much I missed them in the past years. I could not and I was just as frustrated as hell. ~~
“The trek went on until we reached National Highway 6, the main drag between Battambang city to the west and Siem Reap to the east. The soldiers ordered us to camp for the night, while they picked prime spots to tie their military hammocks to sleep. There was no food, absolutely nothing from Angkar Leu for us to eat. We had to take care of ourselves. People just crashed and fell asleep after the exhausting march. A few even snored loudly while some children cried. It didn’t matter. I had experienced this before. I took my small sack of cooked-dried rice; a commodity reserved for an emergency like this one, and casually walked over toward my parents and brothers. Hesitantly and nervously, I walked past them. I could see and feel their eyes fixed on me as I walked past. Perhaps they were looking at what I was eating and not me? They were still looking at me quietly when I returned. ~~
“Mom, dad, everyone. It is I, Nachith,” I tried to stroke my long hair into the back of my head to show my face to them. What happened next surprised me. They all just looked at me blindly and said nothing. They did not recognize me after just three years. “It is me, your son, Nachith,” I insisted. “Do you all still remember me?” I cried with a sense of desperation and frustration. Mom was the first to grab and feel my face with her hand in the dim campfire light. She looked as though she had just seen a ghost. She then wept quietly, trying to suppress an outburst that could be heard by the soldiers. She did not recognize her own son after three years. My dad did not fare well either. No need for words. Tears of joy were enough. Everyone else soon surrounded me. They would not let me go, afraid that I might be gone again. ~~
My two little brothers, Monica and Seiha, had forgotten who I was. Only my two younger brothers Long and Nosay still vaguely remembered Serey and me. The four of them got my emergency rice. I would have given my right arm if it would help ease their hunger and suffering. “Where are Serey and Sa-Oum?” Mom asked nervously, still weeping. “I’ll go get them, stay here,” I said and walked quickly back to my campsite. My younger brothers followed. They were more interested in looking for something to eat than being curious. I grabbed two of them by the head and would not let them go as we walked. ~~
“We met Serey halfway. He was also yearning to see our family again. When I disappeared from the camp, he knew exactly where I was. He had to follow to make sure I did not stir up trouble for all of us. We went back quietly to bring Sa Oum to see our family. The reunion was bittersweet for all of us. We did not sleep much that night, but were quietly chatting and sharing our memories. Good and bad memories were flooding back and everyone was in tears most of the time. We were lucky to be alive, up to that point, and to have found each other again. The recent loss of my friend Laive and my favorite hen were momentarily forgotten when I found my family. I still deeply missed Laive, but I now had my family to comfort me once again. However, as fate would have it, it turned out to be a short reunion under Angkar Leu’s genocidal regime. ~~
Evacuating a Khmer Rouge Camp
Survivor Yimsut Ranachit reported: “People began to pack up their meager belongings in a great rush to get ready to leave as ordered. Angkar Leu cadres told everyone not to take everything at once. All property would be delivered to the destination of each owner, according to the cadres. I wanted very much to take all of my personal belongings, which had little real value, but it was not possible. I had to travel by foot and I remembered very well how difficult it had been in the past. I spent hours looking for the old hen that I had raised, the only thing I owned that was connected to my past life with my family in Siem Riep. I could not find this special hen, which provided me with numerous large eggs and chicks. Anguish ruled my spirit as I spent the remaining time I had searching for my hen to no avail. I was so distraught; it was as though I had just lost a dear family member as the march out of Tapang progressed under armed guard. [Source: Yimsut Ranachit, Documentation Center of Cambodia~~ ]
“Before the evacuation my brother, Serey, was allowed to come home because since his wife Sa Oum was about to give birth to their first child. Everyone in the family was worried about the possibility that she might deliver the baby on the road. But what could we do? She had to wait until we got to wherever it was we were going. Since many people were working away from town, many members of the family were still far away. The cadres told us that everyone would be reunited at our final destination, wherever that may be. Early that day before we began the journey, everyone was ordered to gather along the main road out of town. Only the soldiers escorting us knew our exact destination. Most of the elders were very concerned that they might be killed at a place called Wat Yieng, a former Buddhist pagoda about ten miles South of Tapang. Wat Yieng was a well-known torture and processing center, a place where most people were killed. “If we pass through Wat Yieng, we’ll be OK,” I heard one of my neighbor say quietly and hopefully. The rest just sat quietly under a shade tree and prayed very hard. All wanted to live and see another sunrise. The sooner we get out of Wat Yieng, the better we would be. I continued to pray. ~~
“The trip was difficult on my sister-in-law. Her pregnancy had not been easy, physically speaking. She had had a miscarriage earlier and was hopeful that this one would make it. Her father was very old; he couldn’t walk far from home due to his swollen knee joints. Serey helped his pregnant wife walk while I helped his father-in-law. There wasn’t much room for our essential belongings, such as sleeping mats and blankets. I carried most of our sleeping mats and blankets by tying a long cotton cloth, the Khmer kroma, around them. Some families were dragging their small children along by the arms; they were crying along the way. It was a scene we had witnessed numerous times under Angkar’s “great leap forward.” ~~
“When we arrived at Wat Yieng, after what seemed to be a very long and exhausting hike, the leader of our escorts ordered us to stop along the road and wait. He then went inside to meet with Angkar Leu (High Organization) cadres in charge of the facility. While waiting we all prayed and prayed. I then remembered the words of my neighbor: “If we pass through Wat Yieng, we’ll be OK.” I have never been one to pray much, but I began to pray in earnest as well. I was hoping that we could make it through the process. About 20 minutes later, our escort returned with the cadres in charge and more families with them. There were more Mith Tmey families, about 15 in all. I watched the group from a distance of about 20 yards, close enough to see people’s faces. ~~
“After about an hour of sitting along side the road, we were ordered to move out again. The soldiers began to count the people as they passed by. I kept on looking back to see my long lost family. To my absolute joy, they followed my original group of Mith Tmey people from Tapang. I was so happy that I briefly forgot the threat of execution by Angkar Leu as we were marching away from this execution center. I was careless about that. I was so very happy to see my long lost loved ones again. They were right behind my group! Nothing would matter now, I thought. I am with my family again at last. ~~
“This march retraced the trip I made to Tapang town. People were more at ease and felt a little better after we were away from Wat Yieng. We have passed gate one. Nonetheless, everyone was unsure of what would happen next or what to expect ahead of us. I was simply very happy to have my family nearby again, even if I had not yet made direct contact. I knew I would soon. “Be very patient, Ah Knack!” I reminded myself sternly. ~~
Escaping from the Khmer Rouge to Thailand
In August 1977, Pom Sarun decided to escape to a Thai border camp, but she became sick from malnutrition and malaria. "Now I recognize I near die," she remembers, "Sometimes I know nothing around me." She could not stand or even sit. But she recalled what her mother had told her, that she had to be an optimist and that the jewelry should be used to "buy the life." Sarun begins to test the Khmer Rouge nurses to see who would accept the jewelry in exchange for better food and protection, and not kill her for possessing it. "Sometimes they like, sometimes no, they kill us. So I do the test, one week, two week." She watched one nurse who had continued to wear makeup, despite the Khmer Rouge control, "she wear the makeup and she like herself." One day Sarun said to her, "I am near death. I have one souvenir to give you, and when I die, this is the price you can pay to hire someone to bury me near my mother's grave." She was being deceptive, since she did not really want to be buried near her mother, but rather wanted to pay for the protection of the nurse. At first the nurse refused. Sarun told her that if she said it was a mistake and killed Sarun for it, that was okay, but if not, then she should keep the jewelry. During the next week, Sarun was given better food, and at the end of the week, she was selected to be transferred to a larger and better-equipped hospital. Of the seven people transferred, only Sarun was not a Khmer Rouge cadre. Of the nurse, Sarun says, "I think she is not the pure Khmer Rouge. Sometimes family is Khmer Rouge, so children just follow." [Source: Story of Pom Sarun told by Joanna R. Munson, Documentation Center of Cambodia]
“The hospital Sarun was transferred to was reserved for Khmer Rouge soldiers. The doctors were Chinese and the food more plentiful and better than anything in the cooperatives. Sarun says with a laugh, "There I became well and looked so nice!" It was here that Sarun accomplished her "achievement," as she calls it. Her eyes light up in the telling. The hospital was divided into work groups, just like the cooperatives. Of the seven groups, the third group was the most corrupt, "very stingy". They were supposed to be administering to the pregnant women, but would instead use the supplies for themselves. Since arriving at the hospital, Sarun had been very careful to conceal her education and background, acting as if she could read and write only a few words of Khmer. Now she decided to use her education to expose the corruption. On small pieces of paper, she wrote a note condemning the practices of the third group. She gave one note to a doctor's daughter who slept next to her, who in turn gave it to her father, without revealing its author. Other notes she passed surreptitiously around the hospital. Soon the leaders of the third group were exiled from the hospital and sent to work in cooperatives. Sarun laughs at the memory of her achievement.
“Three or four months after arriving at the hospital, Sarun was sent back to her cooperative. But she never got there, "I run away and visit the graves of my family. I see bones but never scared." Instead of returning to her work group, she ran to the home of a middle-aged Khmer Rouge female cadre, who had been her group chief at one point. Sarun says, "In one hundred people, maybe one, two are gentle. She like me because I work hard, industrious." The chief had explained to Sarun how to find her, should she ever need her help. It took Sarun three nights and four days to make it to Battambang, but before she was able to reach the woman's home, she was arrested. She told the soldiers that she was the group chief's daughter, as the chief had instructed her to do, and they dragged her off to the chief's home. The group chief accepted her into her home without hesitation.
Sarun said, “I managed to survive by disguising my identity and slowly working my way westwards toward the border with Thailand, Finally in February 1976, I crossed into Thailand, joining other Cambodians in a refugee camp...Of the 16 members of my family, I was the only one to make it to Thailand.”
Escaping from the Khmer Rouge Pretending to Be Vietnamese
Cam Youk Lim told to Sophal Ear: After April 17, 1975 we were evacuated from Phnom Penh to Pursat province by the Khmer Rouge. They sent me to work, plowing land. When I came back from the field one day, the Khmer Rouge called the commune to a meeting; they said that the Vietnamese Government wanted its citizens back. When I heard this, I thought, “I have to lie, I have to tell them I’m Vietnamese, to get away from this place.” I had seen so many dead people from overwork and illness. So I told your dad to put our names on the list. “They’re letting us go to Vietnam” I told him. He answered “Okay, yeah, let’s do it. We can’t stay here. If we stay here, we’re going to die. We have to go.” He didn’t know how to speak Vietnamese. [Source: Cam Youk Lim as told to Sophal Ear, Documentation Center of Cambodia]
“I wasn’t afraid. When your grandmother was alive, she went to live in Vietnamese neighborhoods. My older sister and I liked to hire Vietnamese cooks and cleaners. I also liked hiring them as nannies. As a result, I spoke some Vietnamese. If I stayed I would die, everyday I’d see dead people. They got bloated and would die.In other communes they had also reported the same news of Vietnamese people being returned. People in our commune said, “Auntie, auntie, they’re lying, they’ll kill you…” I told them: “To stay is to die, to go is to die, so might as well go.” I couldn’t see any future here.
“Three months later, the Khmer Rouge told us that we were to go to Vietnam, a big truck had come to take us, but we had to walk to the large road, because the hospital was located deep (in the countryside). Your dad walked with a walking stick. He nearly couldn’t walk, he had diarrhea, and you too were having diarrhea. By the third night, he died in the middle of the night while sleeping on some hay. You were just bones. It was now just your brothers Cheng and Boun and your sisters Da and Moum, and you. Five. Plus me, six. There was no light, and we had to make dinner in the forest. Everyone was afraid. No one dared to express their fear. Some were real Vietnamese. Some were happy, some were scared and fearful. Thinking that if they got to go to Vietnam, they’d be happy. Or to get somewhere, who knew? What if they took us to be beaten to death? We did not know. But we just kept quiet and washed our pots and plates to make dinner. There were a lot of people.
“I met some people that worked in our military clothing business before the KR took power. One asked me to help him by pretending to be his wife in order to pass the exam. I wanted to help, but I couldn’t do much. The guy was totally Chinese and didn’t speak any Vietnamese. Whoever passed could cross, whoever didn’t was sent back to a place the KR called Phnom Penh Thmey (New Phnom Penh, a euphemism). That’s when I met Ms. Teuv, a Vietnamese woman married to a Khmer lieutenant in the army, who had been killed. I told her I had changed all the children’s name. She said the names were wrong, that I had given boys’ names to girls and girls’ names to boys.
“For the older kids, Cheng and Da, I wrapped them in blankets and had them pretend they were sick and could not answer questions, lest they ask “What kind of Vietnamese kids are these that can’t speak Vietnamese?” For two days, Ms. Teuv took me to the forest. She screamed “Sister what is your name!!!???” and would go on with her lesson. Finally, when it came time to be tested, the Vietnamese cadre asked “Sister what is your name?” I answered “My name is Nguyen Thi Lan.” I didn’t use my real name, I just made it up. “How many kids do you have?” “Five.” “What did your husband do?” “He was an entrepreneur.” They just kept asking “what did your husband do?” They wanted to know if he had been a soldier or a big shot, to figure out why he was dead. I kept answering “No, he was a trader, that’s all.”
“When I passed I ran with the white paper only given to those who passed they had given me and I was so ecstatic! I nearly fell on my face; I was so happy, so very happy. From there they took us by boat to Hong Ngu, Vietnam. They served us rice on the boat, they gave you canned milk. I fed it to you until you became bloated. I hadn’t warmed it up and I overfed you. In Hong Ngu we were made to stay in a pagoda, someone was selling noodles and your sister Moum cried and cried “I want noodles! I want noodles!” I had no money and was heartbroken, I asked a passerby about selling some of my possessions jewelry to get some money.
“The Vietnamese authorities announced that they were going to send us to “build a new life(style)” if family didn’t come to retrieve us within a week’s time. With the KR, you couldn’t move around. The Vietnamese weren’t evil in that way but they too had their euphemisms. We’d been in Hong Ngu 4-5 days when Granny Ky, who had lived in our neighborhood in Phnom Penh, came to get her family at the pagoda. She said “Oh, Ouk my childhood nickname, you also came???” I answered “Granny Ky, can you get word to my sister and her husband uncle Tu?” Their address was in your dad’s pocket, and we didn’t take it with us when he died. Uncle Tu had to get to us in time.
“By the sixth day, around 6PM, I got to a market by boat where I could sell my stuff. I sold a ring, got 200,000 Vietnamese Dong, I bought a pot, some three-layered fat pork to make a stew. That’s when uncle Tu got to us, just about that time. We’d already put up the mosquito net. So we gave everything to those staying in that pagoda. You were all very sick, especially you and your sister. I had acute malaria. It was very hard. Before leaving Vietnam in 1978 I found Ms. Teuv and I gave her a present. I hugged Ms. Teuv for her help at Kaoh Tiev. I was alive because of her. And she said “It was nothing/You’re welcome.” Looking back on this recent trip/retrace now that we are Americans I was scared, thinking of the past. Thinking that one should be afraid, afraid of such a life we had. Going back scared me, but I was happy that my children were grown-up. It was unlikely that I’d see this type of life again; there was only a different path from now on.
Escapee Caught By the Khmer Rouge
Survivor Yimsut Ranachit reported: “All the time that I knew Laive, which was just under three years, he taught me so much about life and about survival in this town. Now, it was his turn to go. This time it was another plot to kill the families of servicemen, or what was left of them. My friend Laive was one of them. Three days later, I overheard shocking news from Mith Chass people who assisted in moving the group. They said that Laive had escaped. I was stunned by this news. I knew right then that Laive’s family and others were killed, but Laive had escaped! The cadres and soldiers started a sweep search to capture Laive. I heard a rumor that Laive had come back to Tapang and hid out in the woods just outside the town. Fresh leaves were found in the thick bush. According to the soldiers, the escapee had slept there. The massive search for Laive continued. [Source: Yimsut Ranachit, Documentation Center of Cambodia ~~ ]
“I believed then that Laive had outsmarted and frustrated the Khmer Rouge for a while, but then was captured and killed on site. He never gave up. He gave the Khmer Rouge a run for their money, that’s for sure. He was a brave soul, my buddy Laive; I was praying hard for him. ~~
“One morning over a week after they had been looking for Laive, the search team cheerfully returned to town. I knew then that Laive had run for his freedom, but his life had ended abruptly. I wept and wept after that. My best friend was gone, chased and butchered like a dog. If I could only help him, I surely would have, even if it meant risking my life too. My friend’s courage and spirit would be instilled in me for the rest of my life. A mere two weeks later, on 22 December 1977, the other Mith Tmey families in Tapang and a few other families in nearby villages were notified to leave town. Angkar Leu gave us a mere 5 hours’ notice. This notification included my brother, other members of our family, and myself. The order was little surprise to anyone after what had happened to Laive, his family, and others. Some people started to cry after they received the notification. Deep in their hearts, they knew that they would be killed sooner or later. The time had come for them to go and there was not much time to pack the essentials. ~~
Text Sources: Documentation Center of Cambodia, dccam.org, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Tourism of Cambodia, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Global Viewpoint (Christian Science Monitor), Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, NBC News, Fox News and various books and other publications.
Last updated May 2014