As a young teenager in the mid 1980s Mum sent me off to boarding school and suffered severe consequences for her sins. Noone is capable of shedding such sorrowful and persistent tears as the teenage me was. Then in 1989 I traveled to London and spent the following six years living, working and studying in England. Despite the amazing experience this turned out to be, I was still capable of regular tearful calls home to Mum.
On my first night in Kampong Cham almost exactly a year ago I went to my predecessor’s farewell party where a lot of dancing and frivolity went on around me. I sat next to a quietly spoken Cambodian colleague only a few years older than me, who told me that he had lived through the Khmer Rouge and experienced some terrible things before his family decided to escape across the border to Thailand after the so-called “liberation” in 1979. Thai authorities ordered them home through landmine-ridden jungle dotted with corpses, shot at them and they almost died from starvation. When I got home that night, I remember thinking “wow… I just met someone who survived the Khmer Rouge”, as though it was symbolic of the year I was about to have. I was right, it was symbolic and many of my colleagues have memories and scars from that era.
After working with and developing a very high regard for this particular colleague over the past year, last night at my final work function I found myself sitting next to him once more. He was already speaking with one of the other expats when I joined in on the conversation and he was talking about the American bombs which fell on his province when he was a small boy. The Khmer Rouge used villagers as human shields, forcing hundreds of people into their military headquarters while they inhabited the villages in order to survive the bombing of military targets. He told us about the shrapnel damage his father suffered from the bombs and how incredibe it was that none of them were killed, and returning to their village where every house had been razed by the Khmer Rouge, including his pigs which had burned alive. He had a young friend who attended a Khmer Rouge assassination in his village and returned telling a gruesome story about a man sliced open alive and having his liver ripped out. This friend was “marched away” by Khmer Rouge soldiers some time later and my colleague regularly wakes in the night even now, worrying about what went through this friend’s mind as he was marched to his death, or the manner in which he might have died, knowing the atrocities they were capable of.
The same day that the Khmer Rouge captured Phnom Penh in April 1975, my colleague’s 2yo brother died of Measles. “My brother was a very lovely little boy. To lose him like that was terrible. For one year I did not smile”. His family tried to move north towards the most peaceful area of the country, piling seven into a car with all of their belongings and traveling through hundreds of road blocks, each of which was manned by guards demanding bribes to allow them through. But the Khmer Rouge infiltrated the whole country and they spent the next four years separated into communes which were moved regularly, so he spent periods of time living near his mother, father or siblings, and periods apart from them, depending on where he was ordered to live at any time.
They lived on rice water. Rice was boiled and fed to the Khmer Rouge soldiers who controlled everyone. The citizens “ate” the water that this rice was boiled in. On one occasion it was raining very heavily and the rain was falling into his rice soup, In order to stop any further dilution of his only calories he tipped some of the rain water from his bowl and a Khmer Rouge soldier who saw him doing so accused him of being a capitalist who was used to eating well. This was a very dangerous accusation and could have seen him marched to his death. He remembers this soldier well and says “I last saw him riding a horse cart sometime after the war ended. To this day I would recognise him and I feel that I would be entitled to do absolutely anything to him for what he put me through. I would even follow him to Hell to ensure he got there”. His life from 1975 until 1979 was spent focused on survival from starvation and threats of death by the soldiers controlling his every move. “In the 1980s we saw pictures on television of Ethiopia and then Somalia during famine and I looked at these pictures of children and I recognised them because they looked like I had looked. I knew what they were experiencing. When you are so hungry that it is impossible to sleep and your belly swells and there is nothing between your skin and your bone”.
When Cambodia was liberated from the Khmer Rouge by the Vietnamese he was in a commune with his younger sister, but in the excitement and fear of events, she fled. He waited for her for a day before deciding he had to return to his family. “I walked back to my parents. It took me many hours to reach them and when I arrived I said to them, my sister is gone. We had to assume she had been killed and we were so sorrowful and then, after two days, my sister returned. It was unbelievable”. The family (parents and five remaining children) then decided that rather than remain in the Communist regime which had “liberated” them, they would escape to Thailand for a chance at freedom. They spent many days walking along a track which had been de-mined, so they knew it was safe to walk to the border. Along the way they had to look for food and water. At the Thai border, they entered a village and were held at gunpoint and robbed of all belongings.
They were then allowed to continue but upon reaching the border authorities told them they could not stay in Thailand. The border guards had also set up a search hut near the refugee camp in order to strip search people as they crossed the border but journalists arrived with cameras to report on the situation and this plan was abandoned (the power of scrutiny!). Almost immediately they were made to board a bus which drove all day. The driver and conductor were very kind men who looked sad the whole journey and like their passengers, did not eat all day. He now realises that they knew where they were taking their passengers. They were disembarked in an area, given food and water rations, and told to walk in a particular direction back into Cambodia. The area was heavily mined and there were corpses and injured people “one woman was trying to walk but her leg had been blown off and there was noone to help her. I don’t know how far she got but she fell and died”. They ran out of food and water and his father told them to wait while he went to a known stream to collect more water. While he was gone a mine detonated in the distance and they assumed their father had been blown up. They were mourning for him when he reappeared with the water he had gone for. It took them a day to walk not even 200 metres as they tried to make their way through the landmines.
Somehow they all survived but his sister died “from a disease, I think it was probably Tuberculosis” in 1986. His father died in the 1990s and his mother in 2008. His other siblings are still alive. Through all of these harrowing stories which I have rehashed via my memory of only a few of the things he talked about last night, he did not show any emotion, although he talked of his emotions, sadness and fear. But when he talked of his mother’s death the tears streamed out of his eyes as he continued speaking, explaining the tears as “I try not to talk too much about her and what she went through because when I do the tears just fall out of my eyes like this and I have no control of them”. Our eyes were streaming too and the thought went through my mind that “this is one time I am crying for a worthy cause” as I thought about where I was and what I was doing, and not to mention what I was probably crying about in my privileged world, as he was surviving his living hell.
As late as 1989, when I was probably roaming the cobbled streets of Covent Garden or seeing a West End show, he was in the mountains with his brother searching for gems, when they heard soldiers nearby who demanded they show themselves. They stayed still in the thick vegetation and a soldier commanded his team to shoot into the jungle at them. “This is the most afraid I have ever been. But then they did not shoot and they eventually left the area without finding us”. On other occasions he has been accused of being Chinese and of being Vietnamese, both accusations which at certain times, in certain places, have been life threatening. His family changed their name in order to escape the persecution of being Chinese, although they mistakenly changed from one Chinese surname to another! The Cambodian war actually only ended in 2000.
Now in his mid-50s he has four children, the youngest eight years old, who live in his home province in the north of Cambodia while he lives and works away from them, like so many other Cambodian men and women who I work with. Land ownership is a tenuous thing, so families are forced to stay with their land while the breadwinner goes to wherever they are able to find work. Women have three months of maternity leave and return to work many hours away from their tiny babies who are inevitably cared for by grandparents. This is a very common theme which I have seen many times in the past year, and the same goes for fathers who work away from young families who they see one weekend per month, finances permitting. These are the privileged Cambodians who can speak English or have other skills which make them attractive to employers, almost all of whom are Non-Government Organisations. Their c.$500 monthly salaries make this sacrifice worthwhile. Their situations are far more tolerable than the 80% of the population who work as subsistence farmers.
I like to think that things will only improve for Cambodia but there is reason to have doubt. The government, headed by an ex-Khmer Rouge who defected and returned in 1979 with the Vietnamese to “liberate” Cambodia, are all-powerful and very wealthy. The population are kept on their knees by systems which ensure survival remains the main focus – a survival which not everyone manages to win. Visiting the paediatric ward at the hospital is the most extreme example of the depravity around me. Dara’s mother is there with his big sister at the moment and I stopped to say hello yesterday just as a baby was passed to her from another mother in the bare concrete surroundings. This little floppy baby lay in her arms looking sadly into my eyes, his hand limp when I put my finger into it hoping to feel a grip. He just stared, silently expressing far more wisdom than any infant should ever have. I was told things about him which I could not understand but it was obvious that the other mothers in the room had a lot of concerns for him. A stark example of the lack of justice in Cambodia.
True peace is not merely the absence of violence, but the presence of justice ~ Martin Luther King
One thought on “Crying for Cambodia”
Heartwrenching. Love that MLK quote.