*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.
Around 7AM the house soon came alive with the children waking up, foraging for food and running around the house. I counted and all my children were up, even the birthday girl; the only girl amongst the brood of five boys, but there was nothing to celebrate, no birthdays, not even our traditional Khmer New Year. Everyday, we had less and less food and supplies. Everyday there were more and more refugees coming from the provinces to escape the battles. The city was overcrowded.
Everyone ate their breakfast of plain borbor, then I helped Yey Om to cleanup. There was so much chaos in the house with the six children. I tried to keep myself busy, to not think too much of what would happen to my country, to my family. Surviving meant taking it one day at a time.
It was around 9AM when I looked for my husband to ask him a question, but he was nowhere to be found. I assumed he was out playing chess again with his friends, something they did to pass the time while the schools were closed. I knew he must not have been far with the curfew.
“Where is Soeung?” I asked Yey Om.
“There’s something going on in the streets. He went to go see,” she said with indifference. Then I went to check on the children again. All were here except one.
“Where’s Sovanna?” I said to Yey Om.
“He went with Ah Leng somewhere, I think to Olympic Market”. And in that instant, I panicked. I was missing my husband. I was missing my oldest son.
I walked outside to see what was going on. There was so much commotion in the streets. Some people were jubilant. “What is going on?” I asked a young man who was smiling and waving a paper white flag.
“The war is over Neak Ming! Lon Nol’s soldier’s surrendered and the Khmer Rouge soldiers have won. We can finally be at peace!” he exclaimed as he happily walked faster towards the crowd heading down Mao Tse Tong Boulevard.
Before I knew it the children swarmed around me and took advantage of the opportunity to play outside. But there were too many people. It was too crowded. I ushered them back in the house. I couldn’t believe it. It seemed to good to be true. Five years of fighting. Five years of war and now we could have some semblance of peace. But I was overly cautious. I could not celebrate yet. I needed my husband and son back. I brought the children inside and closed the door. I was worried that trouble would be coming on our doorsteps.
It was 11AM before my husband came back. Finally I could breath a half sigh of relief.
“Where did you go for so long? I angrily asked.
“I walked down on Mao Tse Tong towards Psar Dam Kor to see what was going on,” he said with a serious and almost frightened look on his face.
“What did you see?” I asked.
“There was a parade. People were shouting victory. They were celebrating like it was a party, waving white flags. But the victors, the Khmer Rouge they marched in emotionless in their large tanks. They wore black pajamas a red krama and black tire sandals. Some were smiling, but mostly they had hardened faces and vacant eyes. They told the Lon Nol soldiers to put their guns in a pile. Some were even putting their arms around each other as if they were friends. But something is not right. We have to be careful”.
“Are all the children here? he asked.
“No Sovanna is gone. He went with Ah Leng.”
“How could you let him go at a time like this?” he accused me.
“Do you think I would let him go? He left without my permission! I didn’t know he left. I went outside to see what the commotion was about and when I came back he was gone.”
“I’ll go find him,” he said. And once again they were both gone.
Not soon after he left, a relentless thumping pounded our door. For a moment I was relieved, hoping he ran into Sovanna on his way out. I opened it and it was a young boy around the age of my oldest son. He was wearing the very attire my husband described.
“Pack your belongings!” he screamed at me. “You have to hurry up and get out of the city. The Americans are going to bomb the city. You have to get your family out of here”.
“For how long” I asked?
“Two to three days, that’s it. We will return when it is safe”.
Now I was really scared. My husband was gone. My oldest son was gone. I was terrified we would be separated. I couldn’t leave without them. I closed the door, frightened for my family’s life.
Rattana came up to me and asked me if everything was ok. I looked at her and tried to give my best smile. But I knew it wasn’t.
“Yey Om, pack your things, we have to leave the house. But don’t take too much. He said we would only be gone three days”.
I rushed into every room trying to get the bare essentials. The medicine, syringes, clothes, while Yey Om packed the food. In this flurry of activity I became sick, nauseous and dizzy. I ignored my body and went about packing. I didn’t know what to take or where we would go.
Then after what seemed ages another pound at the door. It was my husband with Sovanna.
“Where did you go?” I yelled at my son. “Don’t you know it isn’t safe out there!”
“I found him at Olympic Market with Ah Leang who was trying to loot the shops since everyone is evacuating the city.”
There was no time for discipline and moral lessons now. I was just relieved to have my son and husband back.
“They told us to pack up our things. That the Americans were going to bomb the city” I said. “We have to get out of here.” Then everyone scattered to grab their belongings.
I scrambled to finish packing and grabbed anything I could; food, gold, clothes, a photo album, money, and medicine for the family, while my husband gathered his clothes and his most prized possession, his diplomas. Then another knock came at the door. It was Sean, my husband’s youngest brother who was a cyclo driver, who came with his family. We stuffed our belongings in his small cyclo. Then another soldier showed up at the house again.
“You must leave now!” He said, pointing his gun at us.
He was pushing us outside of our house. It was a wooden, modest house, a small house for a family of seven. But it was still my house. The house my husband and I worked so hard to save up and buy. And now we had to leave it. I took one look back. I said goodbye to the memories of my beloved house, unsure of when I would see it again. I tried to take a mental photograph and remember exactly how it was, the rooms, the tables, the chairs, the children’s belongings. I tried as hard as I could to remember, the house my children grew up in. Then we left our house. I tried hard not to look back.
We started off at the Chinese Embassy with the cyclo on Mao Tse Tong. We had our family and Sean’s family. Along the way, I’m not sure where, we met up with my brother and my parents, who were living close to each other at the time. I was worried but at least we were all together. The only person that was missing was my youngest brother Poev, and for whom I was most worried about.
Poev was a soldier working in Battambang. I knew his life was in danger, and I had hoped that he and his wife, and their newborn son escaped Battambang before the Khmer Rouge got to him. I found out later that when the Khmer Rouge took over there, a group of soldiers were told to pick up Prince Sihanouk at the airport. He went with them and I knew he would be gone forever. It would be one of the many string of lies they told.
It was a surreal scene walking along Mao Tse Tong, something I thought I would never see in my lifetime. The streets were flooded with a sea of people, the dredges of humanity rushing us out of our home and out of our city with one massive exodus. Some were dragging a cyclo like our family; some on bicycles or oxcarts, there were some riding in cars, the richer folks. Some were forced to leave the hospitals in their stretchers and IVs. and crutches. It seemed impossible that we would ever escape the wall of bodies.
We marched straight from Mao Tse Tong Boulevard to Monivong Boulevard. My beautiful city was being destroyed, littered with swollen bodies, trash, guns piled high in the streets, chaos. My people were turning against each other. I had never witnessed the ravages of war firsthand, but what I saw as we left my once beautiful city was a country fallen to pieces.
I didn’t know where we were going. They didn’t tell us. They only told us to get outside of the city. We headed towards closest place that we thought would bring us safety, Takeo, our birth province. Along the way so many people died; men, women and children. There were bodies strewn out along the side of the road. Some died by bombs, others by gunshots. Some collapsed along the way exhausted from the heat. The bodies would just collapse and lie there. No one would pull them to the side. People just walked over them as if it was just a log in the road.
We were approaching closer to Kbal Tnal, the bridge that would bring us to Takeo. Before the bridge, we came across a checkpoint. Like a barricade, the Khmer Rouge soldiers blocked the road halting our journey. Could we go forward? Where would we be sent? A sea of people were waiting in line, waiting to hear their destiny. I was glad to have a bit of a reprieve from walking. We could stand, even if to sit for a moment gathering our thoughts and energy. The journey seemed endless but it was only the beginning. My children were tired, weary, and hungry.
Then it was close to our turn. We heard them asking people for their IDs. Checking meant that they asked what you did before this new regime. We knew better than to tell them our real identities, our real jobs, or the extent to which we were educated. News had reached us about their true motives. A Khmer Rouge soldier had asked my sister in law’s cousin what he did for a living. He pretended to recognize his face and had asked if he worked at a factory making bombs and rockets. Foolishly he admitted to it, and was taken away. We heard gunshots in the distance. Fearing for our lives, we knew not to give away too much information. Right before him, a young man said he was a Paramilitary (PM) and they took him away. My brother, Chan, was the first in our group to answer their questions. He told the Khmer Rouge soldiers that he was a cyclo driver, when in real life he was a PM and a teacher. He had witnessed first hand the perils of telling the truth.
Then it was our turn. My husband, who was a professor, was next. He secretly held his diplomas under his shirt, while I hid syringes in the fold of my pants. Suddenly, I felt foolish in bringing these things. We wondered if they would kill us if they found out. The solider, a young man, not much older than my eldest son, spoke to my husband in a friendly voice.
“I remember your face. You have a handsome face. Didn’t you use to shoot guns with me a few years ago?”
He was accusing my husband of being a government soldier. But the irony meant that he was once too a soldier for the government. But it was a trick. This was the way the Khmer Rouge operated. They sweetened you up, made it seem like they were your friend before they violently turned on you.
“No” he nervously said without making eye contact. “I am just a teacher.” he said. But it was a lie. He was highly educated, and just received his second Masters Degree in Khmer Literature two years before they took over.
Soeung took his national teacher card out to show him. I didn’t know what was worse, admitting to being a teacher or being a soldier. The soldier held the card, turned upside down, felt the edges, turned it around back and forth before finally giving it back to him. It was clear he didn’t know how to read it, but our lives were held in the palm of his hand. Then he waved our family through. They didn’t ask me any questions. It was the men they feared and were suspicious of. They wanted to catch those who were former soldiers, former workers for the government.
After the checkpoint we walked further and finally crossed the Kbal Tnal bridge to go to Takeo. As soon as we got on the bridge I knew it wasn’t safe to hold on to possessions that marked our educated past. My husband knew this too. As soon as we were far from their sight, in a moment of panic I threw our photos into the river. Gone were the pictures of my children, my wedding, my days as a student, my childhood. As it fluttered in the wind gliding like paper airplanes it slowly drowned into the river like a delicate flower. I felt a part of me died, a past I had to forget as if we never existed before this moment.
With that one moment, the pieces of my life were gone. I tried hard to remember those photos in my mind. My husband, who had worked so hard for his Masters Degree, threw his diplomas into the river. He took it out of his shirt, looked at it, and threw it in the river. All those years of hard work, was now gone. I knew it broke his heart. He loved his diplomas, his education. And like that, our photos, our diplomas, our life was gone. And with that we walked on to our uncertain future.
*All events are recalled to the best ability and any misstatements are unintentional*