The second fully-translated ‘story’ from Sarath.
This is a story about the time just before being liberated from the Khmer Rouge (in 1979). The lives of the people were a tale from hell. Most people try not to remember their horrible situation. Most people died because of starvation, and I thought that one day it will be my turn. Hunger came almost every second, and it meant that we could not sleep.
I often thought about what was happening to my Mother living at the village. And my sister was working in a young children’s mobile group. I tried to tell myself that my Mother and sister were fine, no matter what was happening to them. Normally, the Khmer Rouge broke apart families to live separately, and never gave an opportunity to stay together. We were always classified by age and gender to live and work as a group. The Khmer Rouge also used spies to detect anyone who was still romantically involved with family members.
Sometimes, it was very hard to cope, as I thought that I and other Cambodians would live like this forever. However, because there was no better option, I tried to work to please the Khmer Rouge, and after a while the difficulties had become more normal for me.
In the last three or four months before the Vietnamese troops came to my area, more terrible things were happening. The Khmer Rouge, who had moved from other provinces, started to kill the Khmer Rouge who ran the area where I lived. Almost every day, I saw people being taken to be killed. One day, I accidentally saw the village chief, who controlled my Mother’s village, and my wife and children, being tied up and carried away on an oxcart. I was shocked. What was happening in my village, where was my Mother?
One afternoon, four to five Khmer Rouge with machine guns arrested one person in my group, when he was sleeping in the hammock beside me. I was scared. They dragged him down over the hammock and screamed loudly (you are the enemy!). So I waited nervously, quietly in the hammock for a while. After a few minutes, the chief of my group called us to go to work in the rice field.
Such happenings made me as well as my friends in the group very tense. From that time on, we did not dare to look at the faces of the chiefs of our group, because we knew that these were the men who gave information to Khmer Rouge.
We had to change the way we communicated, by whispering in different ways, so that the chief did not notice. We whispered when we walked from our shelter to the work site. When we arrived at the site, we did not talk, we just worked hard. I remember at that time we had planned to escape into the forest, because ewe knew that soon the Khmer Rouge would kill us. We had hope that if we ran into the jungle we would survive, but we also knew that would not find something to eat, and so die eventually.
About a week later, the Khmer Rouge said they would send my group to dig a pond in the jungle. They told us not to bring any equipment, such as our hoes, knives or axes. We were told that there was enough equipment in the jungle. When we heard that, we were terrified, thinking that we would all be killed. Early next morning, a Khmer Rouge soldier took us from the shelter. They led us go to a jungle camp, far from anyone or anywhere else that we knew.
Upon arrival, a Khmer Rouge soldier took us to get equipment for digging the ponds. We put this in a hut made from a small trees. Then they took us to an area quite a distance from the camp, where the pond was to be dug. This took place for about 5 or 6 days. We were skeptical, because the tools used for digging the pond, the knives and axes, were stained with blood.It made us more fearful that the Khmer Rouge would kill all of us when the pond excavation has been completed.
About three days later, all of the Khmer Rouge team had left camp. We wondered why they were not there, but we still worked on the pond as we did not know what was happening.
One evening when we were going from the pond site to our shelter, we saw a lot of people traveling in groups – walking, running and going through the places where we had been staying. We were wondered why no Khmer Rouge accompanied them, even though we thought that these people were being led to their death like the previous groups. That night more and more people came from different directions. But I did not care about them, as I was so tired, and ready to go to bed so that next morning I could continue to dig the pond.
Early in the morning I met some of the old men who came from our village. They told us that the Khmer Rouge had run away, and that we could go back to our home provinces and towns. Our group felt so happy and but also so very anxious, as we did not know if this was true or not. The Khmer Rouge would kill us if they knew we were running away. If it was true, though. I was determined to find out about my Mother and my sister. Yet our group did not dare to follow those people, and we once more went to dig the pond that day.
Again, we did not see any Khmer Rouge, so In late afternoon when we came back to the shelter we knew that the Khmer Rouge had run away. So this time we did follow the people travelling, seeking family members and returning to their home provinces and towns. It was chaos. My team split up in different directions. I did not know where to go, so I just followed some of them with no direction. I did try to listen to what people were talking about, to learn the truth. Most people said that they would go back to their provinces. They were seeking people who were from the same provinces and towns, so that they could travel as group.
Whilst travelling for two weeks, I encountered a case where the people attacked, chased and killed the Khmer Rouge, because some of them had not escaped with their teams. People were so angry that the Khmer Rouge brigade had killed their parents and their loved ones whilst they were in control. I did see Vietnamese troops trying to stop people from attacking and killing the Khmer Rouge, instead capturing them and putting them in camps.
I went to the National Highway number 5. There, I met a family who had lived in my village. They told me that my Mother was staying in Moung Russei Pagoda, about 20 kilometers away. I hurried to meet her.
When we did meet, my Mother told me we had to go to Phnom Penh to find our relatives. She asked me to build a cart to transport rice and other cooking and sleeping materials. We did not have many clothes at that time. After we had made the cart, we departed from Moung Russei Pagoda to Pursat Province, again on National Highway 5. I dragged the cart, and my mum pushed it.
We travelled only short distances every day, because of exhaustion and we kept looking for food. I often went alone into villages far away from the national road, looking for fruits, especially mangoes because of the season. I also collected paddy from the stocks of the Khmer Rouge villages. But most of the food was burnt by the Khmer Rouge before they had fled into the forest.
Often I encountered mass graves in the jungle, near the villages. Yet there were many mango trees with flowers and fruits around these graves. The smell of dead bodies in the ponds was really bad, but because of all we had experienced, it did not seem so terrible as to stop picking mangoes. Once I did accidentally fall into a the pond. But instead of looking at the graves and the bodies, I focused on the mangoes on the branches.
From that time, whenever I see mango flowers and fruit, those mass graves appear in my mind. This picture will stick with me until I die.
Header Image: Two Abandoned Khmer Rouge Huts. Mick Yates, March 2000.