*April 17, 2015 commemorates the 40th anniversary that the Khmer Rouge entered the capital of Phnom Penh and forced the entire population (an estimate of over 2 million people at the time) out of the city to the countryside. This day triggered the beginning of the three years, eight months and twenty days of the brutal Khmer Rouge regime, where an estimated 1.5-2 million Cambodians died under their bloody reign. In this story, my mother recalls the traumatic events that day that led to the mass exodus of Phnom Penh and the beginning of the Khmer Rouge nightmare for our family. *
The morning started off like any other day. Yey Om, my aunt, woke up at 5AM to make babor (rice porridge) for the family. The house was quiet with only the sound of the children’s breath rising and falling gently in their peaceful slumber. I admired their innocence and ability to forget that the world was falling apart around us.
Over the last few months, there was heavy bombing and rocket fire approaching closer and closer into the city center. I would wake up in the middle of the night to the thunderous sounds of rockets and gunfire in the distance, followed by a sense of panic, wondering when the next one would come. A few times we prepared our belongings together; gold, jewelry, money, anything of value, in case we had to leave the city, but we never had the courage to leave. We hoped for a miracle that one-day soon, the fighting would end, and we could go back to our normal life.
But life was all but normal. Schools were closed, which meant, my husband could no long work, and the children could no longer go to school. The hospital was still open but the day before, the government issued a 24-hour curfew. We were to stay home. I could hear the bombings were getting closer and closer and plumes of smoke in the distant sky choking a city under siege.
An elderly woman walks upon the stage, hunched over, carrying the burden of a life traumatized by war. She sits down on a stool contemplating the pain and sorrow of a time gone by, a stolen youth, of lost innocence. The somber music fades in slowly, evoking mournful regret, a deep sadness. She opens a book and looks at the empty pages. One by one, young men circle around her, unpeeling layers of her clothing to unveil her youth; her gray hair now shiny, long and black, her shawl and long brown sampot now unraveling into a student uniform; a white shirt and black skirt. The music speeds up in a whirlwind with heavy percussions and breathes new life into this old woman. She is now reborn to a time before war, a happier time in her youth. Her name is Sokha.