A Personal Narrative
By Soy Gemza
Cambodia, a country in Southeast Asia, unknown and unfamiliar to many Americans and the rest of the world before 1979, is now part of modern day history. After the Nazi German leader Adolph Hitler and his program of Jews genocide, one may think that such horrible crime against humanity can never be repeated. Could it be possible? History, horrible such as the Jews genocide, government-sponsored killings, repeated itself in Cambodia. For a period of almost four years, it seemed that The United Nations and the rest of the world ignored and turned their backs on the people of Cambodia. The year 1975 was the beginning of one of the most horrifying and disastrous war in Cambodia and the world! Between 1975 and 1979, over 1.5 Cambodians died of overwork, starvation, torture and execution. There was no transition period for the people. Overnight, the entire population in the country became farmers.
The Communist Party of Kampuchea, Khmer Rouge, led by Pol Pot, took full control of Cambodia on April 17, 1975. This was the beginning of the most radical social reformation in the 20th century in an effort to form an absolutely classless society. The educated, the wealthy, civil servants or anyone who did not cooperate and follow the new communist leadership was executed. The Khmer Rouge's ultimate objective was to eradicate different class of people and create one society of peasants. Cambodian currency (Riel) was worthless and was eliminated overnight. There was no more banking and finance, no private ownership of property, and no religion. People can no longer use money to buy merchandise. Only goal was valuable for trading. Many people buried gold and diamonds to try to preserve their life because having something of value meant one was rich and therefore is a potential target for the Khmer Rouge to execute.
I was 8 years old when the Khmer Rouge reigned. During the war, I've witnessed many horrible sights. Dead, swelled, naked body floating down the river where we bathe and drink. I remember body in a bag floating down the river. On one occasion, I found a human bone in the river while I was searching for clams. I saw people committing suicide by hanging. It was a choice of killing themselves or killed by the Khmer Rouge. Many people simply felt that it was better to end their lives sooner than to be suffering. The terror and dreadfulness of the Regime was only beginning. The people were to endure over 3 _ years of the nightmare.
One day my mom came home from the market place, in Pursat, very terrified. She announced that we had to leave our house and city immediately. "The soldiers are coming", she screamed, "and if we don't leave, they will kill us." We took what we could carry by hands and wagons and departed for our other home in the country. The exodus was slow and mentally painful. All I remember was people crowded in the streets and bound for small towns outside of the city. As a child, I can only imagined what were on the people's minds when they had to leave all their belongings behind. For some that meant leaving their life behind because they've invested so much of their life trying to make a better life. All this was gone, literally overnight. My family had to leave a brand new house in Pursat.
We arrived at our country home in Kracheh after walking 15 miles and settled there. It was a comfortable house. My immediately family was big, a family of 12, my parents and five brothers and sisters our house had to be big enough to accommodate all of us. We were ordered out of the house when the soldiers needed our house temporarily as a base. We were forced to move into my uncle's house up the street and live with his family. Our house was used as a holding place for young children after the soldiers left. We were not able to move back into it because the government decided that the house should be used as a permanent housing for children, somewhat like an orphanage. All the children were forced to leave their parents and live together like orphans. I was later forced to go back to my own home and live there with a group of children my age. This time though, I was with a big group of children without my parents being there. It was no longer 'home' to me.
In order to have total control over the people, the Khmer Rouge utilized segregation. They broke up family units to weaken family ties and indoctrinate the people in their own thinking. By segregating the children, the Khmer Rouge was able to brainwash them. Young children and young single adults were separated from parents and placed by age and sex category. All activities were controlled and strictly monitored by group Khmer Rouge leaders. In 1976, three of my brothers and three sisters were forced to go to labor camps. One sister, one infant brother, and I were allowed to stay nearby.
I was forced to live with children my age in a home without my parents. When I was at the home, I would get so homesick that many nights I tried to escape when the desire to be with my parents was at its height. Although terrified because it was dark and quiet (sometimes I couldn't even see what was in front of me), I would still sneak out and ran home to my parents. A couple of times, the leaders found out about my sneaking away; they chased and physically forced me back to the home. Although the home was ours originally, without my parents there, I did not want to be there.
I was later transferred to another home further away from where my parents were living. It was harder for me to sneak away and make the trip home. To get home I had to walk quite a long distant and pass one section of the road where tall, big trees overshadowed the road, blocking the moonlight making it literally black and scary. I still remember vividly how scary it was. When there was a half or a full moon out, the street was lit up enough for me to see my way home. Even that was dreadful for me. It meant that people were able to see making it easier for them to entrap me. Regardless of the weather conditions, I stood a chance of getting caught and forced back to the home. As expected, I was caught and forced back numerous times. My parents were almost imprisoned for trying to protect and nurture me. One particular time, I had boils all over my head and neck and they had to shave all my hair off. I still have scars on my neck from the infection. Although I was in such terrible condition, they almost charged my mother for being possessive and wanting to nurse me back to health.
All the children who were old enough to understand and can work were put to work. I was required to chop bushes and pick up sticks and branches every day. At night, we were forced to go out in the fields to kill field rats that would eat and destroy the vegetation. We'd kill them with sticks. Most of the time, I fell asleep in the field during rest period and was awakened by a whip or a yield. The lack of food, sleep, and nutrition had its toll on my body. Everyone was given measured amount of plain liquefy rice porridge each meal (a cupful at best). Vegetable, salt, and sugar were considered special treats if one was to receive or allowed to eat. Once in a while the Khmer Rouge would allow an all-u-can-eat meal to the people, though with cruel intentions; some people died from overeating.
I sometimes fell asleep on dirt in the fields during the day, and at night I had to sleep in bamboo sheds infested with lice and ticks. And the mosquitoes were no strangers to my body.
In November 1978, after several years of border conflict between Vietnam and Cambodia, the Vietnamese army with invasion force of 120,000, came through the towns in victory over the Khmer Rouge. Many people decided to leave the town with the Vietnamese soldiers fearing that the Khmer Rouge would return to town and capture them. The people were encouraged to follow the Vietnamese soldiers because the Khmer Rouge would return to town to capture and execute the people who stayed behind and if they suspected that the people were siding with the Vietnamese. If the people were kept alive, the Khmer Rouge would force them to go along with them into the jungle and would use them as human shields against the enemy.
My family and those few of us, who were not sent to labor camps, followed the Vietnamese soldiers to a camp called Cha Carp, where we can be safe. My uncle (my father's older brother) decided to stay behind. The Khmer Rouge returned to town, captured, and took him. He escaped and came back to his home, but they caught up with him and executed him behind his house. Some people who returned to town in search of food found him. His children sneaked into town and buried him. One of my aunts (my mother's youngest sister) died of malaria. She was in her late 30's. She left behind three young children for my grandmother to take care of because her husband was executed earlier in the war. He had been a general under President Lon Nol, whom the Khmer Rouge overthrown. My sister-in-law lost a young sister who was jailed for stealing a corn from the field. Her sister was imprisoned and was later executed with many other prisoners who were jailed for minor offenses. They were all buried in mass graves.
While in the Cambodian camp where the Vietnamese soldiers brought us, we struggled everyday to find food. I went out everyday into the rice fields and searched for tiny baby crabs and frogs to catch and bring back home for my mother to cook. Disease was rampant among children from infancy to five years old because of poor diet and polluted water supply. We shared the same water supply with the cows and animals. Everyday, I heard of some families losing a child. A measles epidemic killed many children. They would develop high fever, then diarrhea and would die within 3-5 days. Little graves were everywhere. One of my cousins lost a son during the epidemic.
One major event occurred when I was in the camp. There was a big commotion going throughout the camp. I was guarding cows in the rice fields when I heard people running and shouting in the unpaved streets: "A Khmer Rouge spy is caught, we will torture and kill him just like he did to our relatives." I ran to the street to see. I saw a man bound and placed on a bicycle behind the rider. I saw him briefly. I later heard that the people tortured the Khmer Rouge spy by slicing his body, put salt on him, and made him suffer terribly. The people later killed him.
After the epidemic, we thought that we were safe, but that thought was proven wrong. One day when the Vietnamese soldiers were not in the camp, the Khmer Rouge invaded the camp, captured, and executed many refugees. They also shot at the people from tall palm trees and, if they were close enough, they threw grenades. We were able to escape the first couple of shootings. For those people who stayed behind and took the underground shelter, the Khmer Rouge threw grenades through the door, killing all occupants. We ran for our lives when they were shooting, and returned to camp when the shooting stopped and the Khmer Rouge left.
One day after
the shooting, we returned to camp and I found a bullet
shell on a net; I picked it up and said to myself aloud,
"I wonder how it feels to be wounded by one of these
bullets". Regrettably, the Khmer Rouge showed up
again the following day, shooting at the refugees from
palm trees again. Bullets were coming at us like rain
coming down from the sky. I was struck on the right side
of my body. We later found out that the bullet entered
the back of my body, penetrated the skin, and exited
the front, barely missing my ribs. Needless to say, I
fell unconscious. I regained consciousness when my mom
picked me up and carried me into an underground shelter
further away from the shooting. She could not go any
further. By now, both of us were drenched with my blood.
My dad joined us later. The nightmare began for both
of my parents because they did not know how severe the
wound was. Was the bullet still in my body? Were the
organs damaged? How long would I survive? It was hellish.
In addition to the pain, I felt thirsty from losing so much blood. They quickly put together fabric scarves to form a hammock-like carriage and carried me further into the rice fields where we camped that night. Many wounded people died that night including the one who settled next to us in the rice fields. By now, I was no longer bleeding, and I was still alert. That was a good sign.
The Vietnamese soldiers did not return to the camp until the next day when we were able to get help. The fighting continued the next day even while I was lying there under the protection of the Vietnamese soldiers. This time, the Vietnamese soldiers fought back and were able to win the battle over the Khmer Rouge. There was no medical equipment to assist the wounded. All they could do for me was to pour alcohol into the injured area and wrap it up with gauze. I was kept with the soldiers until they were able to transport my mother, my little brother, and me to Pursat where there was a hospital. My dad couldn't come because they didn't have enough room on the truck, and he had to care for my sister.
On our arrival at the hospital, there was no room for us to stay other than the hallway. There were hundreds of people who were wounded. The cries of the wounded and the mourning of relatives for lost lives were almost unbearable. The hospital did not have enough supplies to assist the wounded: no medicine, no food, and understaffed with doctors and nurses. The staff tried their best to help us. I was comforted only by my mother's presence. One boy, who was wounded the same day as I, had to have his leg amputated died at the hospital. Screams of people in surgery without any anesthetic became common sounds.
I was paralyzed for about 10 days. They never stitched my open wound or tended to it regularly. Infections occurred because no antibiotics or penicillin to help heal the wounds were available. One day, a nurse came by to clean the wounds; unknowingly opening the area where the bullet had entered, and found out that the infection was spreading. They literally pushed open the area and released the pus. I felt relieved after the painful procedure that I had to endure without any anesthetic. I was able to slowly get up and take small steps within a few days. My mom, somehow, was able to barter and get some penicillin for me to take to help heal the wounds. I slowly recovered after many months.
After I recovered, my family made Pursat our home and my father and one sister were able to join us. We found an empty home in the city and made it our temporary home. Even in Pursat, the Khmer Rouge were shooting and trying to gain back control of the city from the Vietnamese army. There was not a city in Cambodia that was considered safe. It was a question of whether one city was less dangerous than another.
In Pursat, the Khmer Rouge were shooting and trying to invade one area of the city on the opposite side of the river where we were living. The people on that side tried to escape but many drowned in the crossing in the river. Some swam too close to the flowing dam and were pulled into the dam by the currents. The dead were found in the morning when the shooting stopped. I am thankful to God that my family was on the safe side of the river.
After the Vietnamese took control of the country, although there were still many Khmer Rouge, all the people (including my brothers and sisters), who were sent to labor camps were allowed to join their families. My sisters and brothers returned, except for my 23-years-old brother. My parents searched around the city for him but to no avail. Later my mom found out through a friend of my brother's that he was axed to death and that my other brother would have been killed also if he had not run and hide. The reason my brother was axed to death was because he did not want to hand over his watch to one of the Khmer Rouge leaders. Therefore, they killed him for having the watch in his possession. Axing and clubbing people to death was a system that the Khmer Rouge used because they did not want to waste ammunition. My other brother, who is alive today, would have been killed also for searching for my brother's watch and trying to find out who the killer was. A human life was worth nothing to the Khmer Rouge.
Now that the survivors were united with their families, the problem was how to find food. There were many people and not enough food in the city. Many people took risks and crossed over into Thailand and bought merchandise to sell and trade. My parents, who had six dependent children at the time, were not able to make enough to feed all of us. On November 13, 1970, they decided to take the journey into Thailand. My father stayed back with one of my sisters. We came closer to the Thai border through the city of Battambang and stayed there until we found a guide who could take us across the border into Thailand for rice as a trade off. We gave him the rice and he guided us one night, supposedly, to Thai border. However, after walking all night, the morning came and we discovered that we were in the same area where we started out. We just went in circles in the jungle and never made it to Thai border. The following night we took a risk and followed some people who knew their way into Thailand. We crossed the border by foot, and it took us two days on foot to get into Thailand. On the trip, silence was a must. Children were not allowed to speak or cry in the night in order to hide from the Khmer Rouge. I remember falling asleep that night in the pouring rain in inch-deep water. We finally made it across into a Thailand camp called New Camp. We were not safe there either because it seemed that the Khmer Rouge were everywhere. They even bombed the camp at the Thai border.
My father and sister joined us at the camp later. We were transferred by trucks into another camp in Thailand called Khao I Dang. This camp was further on Thai land. This was probably the best camp to be in because the Thai people provided water, food, and shelter through the support of international relief agencies. The Red Cross was there. We were safe at last!