Khao-I-Dang (KID)

“There has to be evil so that good can prove its purity above it.”

                                                                  -Buddha

This

is a story about evil.

This

is also a story about good.

This is the untold story of my family’s journey during the Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia. The posts that will follow will contain memories and recollections of members of the En and Em families, along with our closest relatives and friends.  Some posts will contain stories of the unspeakable horrors that occurred during this time and some posts will be about family background.  They are all true as witnessed by my family and retold to me.  It is my hope that, by telling this story, I can bring to light the ultimate good in humankind, despite the evil that lurks below the surface.

To begin, let’s rewind to 5 AM Tuesday, April 1, 1980.  The location was Khao-I-Dang, a refugee camp located on the Thailand/Cambodia border.  This is where I was born, and where my part of the story begins. It is but a small part, and is essentially the end of long and amazing journey that really begins more than 18 years earlier in Battambang, Cambodia.

Khao-I-Dang, otherwise known as KID, was built in 1979 to house refugees of the Khmer Rouge/Vietnam war era. It served as a temporary home to approximately 150,000 Cambodians that were fortunate enough to escape the genocide that occurred under the rule of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge regime. KID was a bamboo village comprised of dirt roads, latrines, barbed wire and armed guards and what ultimately served as my delivery ward.

This

is a story of sadness.

This

is a story of hope.

Join me, as I try my best to pay tribute to my family and all the others who will never have a chance to tell their story.

Day Zero and Beyond: My Mom’s Perspective

In our last post, we asked you to take yourself back in time to April of 1975, where we detailed the experience of my Dad’s family when the Khmer Rouge took over Cambodia.  With this post, we will take a closer look at the experience of my mom, Sopheak, and her family during the same time period.

My mother was only 14 years old and a Freshman in high school when her parents had briefly left town to attend the funeral of a family member.  When they returned home, they started packing up the family after hearing the whispers of a possible complete Khmer Rouge takeover.  Her father, who was a teacher and principal of a local school, felt that it was important to bring educational materials, so initially, they packed mostly books and clothes, with the intention of being able to return home after only a short period of time.  They then left their home in Battambang and went to their country house in Phnom SemPeau; however, once they got there, other people began to warn them of the severity of the situation and urged them to return to Battambang for more of their supplies.  Before they returned to their house, some Khmer Rouge officers confiscated the motorcycle they had been using for travel, so they were forced to use her uncle’s ox cart to carry supplies.  When they returned to the house they gathered more food, clothes and cooking supplies.  My mom recalls that her mother had a beautiful serving set made of silver that she had to bury in the yard, because she knew it would have to be surrendered to the Khmer Rouge if she tried to keep it.  Upon their return to the country house, my mom was forced to cut her long black hair to above her shoulders in order to look like everyone else.  Under the communist rule, the idea was for everyone to look the same, act the same, and do as they were told without question.

They stayed at this country house for only a few days before they were relocated to a plot of land where they where they would remain for the next few months.  In this new location, there were three families living in one small hut, and everyone was put to work farming.  At this time, my mom was too young to work, so she was permitted to stay home to help her cousin with the cooking.  Every day, she and her cousin would venture out around the mountain in search of food for the family.  Some days, they were fortunate enough to have things to trade, while other times they were at the mercy of farmers who were generous enough to give away some of their produce.  With no means to carry anything, they had no other option but to carry everything back to their hut by hand or on their head.  Unbeknownst to my mom, it was around this time that she first laid eyes on her future husband.

After a few months, they were forced to move again to join a group of seven other families.  They were forced to construct another hut to live under, this time just for their family.  At this point, the Khmer Rouge began to frequently take an “inventory” of sorts.  They would ask each person the details of their lives-name, age, grade, occupation, and names of family members.  It was also at this time that the Khmer Rouge deemed my mother old enough to start working, so she began working 4-5 hours/day bringing water to the rice fields and helping with other farming-related duties.

Additionally, the Khmer Rouge held weekly meetings, which everyone was expected to attend.  Here, at these “meetings,” the officers would attempt to brainwash everybody out using fear.  The people were told that they must do what the soldiers said, and that they were not allowed to form any sort of romantic relationships.  They were also told to only trust the Khmer Rouge, and not to believe any friends or family.  In this way, they began to plant the seeds of suspicion and mistrust between friends and family alike.

Fast forward to rice harvest time.  My mom’s brother, Saorith, was away working with my dad in another area when he fell very ill.  The two of them had become the best of friends, so it was my dad who returned my uncle, Saorith, back to his parents’ house.  This small detail is very important, as it will prove to be essential in their story of survival…

The Khmer Rouge was so incredibly sneaky and suspicious of everyone…so sneaky, in fact, that some of the officers actually disguised themselves as Freedom Fighters (those working against the Khmer Rouge) and began going from hut to hut to talk with some of the men.  They put on a well-played act, saying that they were looking for people to join them in fighting the Khmer Rouge.  They were very convincing to many, but fortunately, my mom’s father was very cautious, and did not buy into their act.  He was a very smart man, so he just sat quietly and listened to the men, but never showed any interest or divulged any information.  Unfortunately, the man living next to them was not as skeptical of the “Freedom Fighters.”   He believed the disguised men, and told them that he had guns and ammunition hidden in his hut.  This proved to be a mistake of epic proportion.

Bear in mind that, because it was rice harvest time, it was typical for all of the men to return home after work for dinner and then head back out to continue to harvest until 2 or 3 AM.  A few nights after the “Freedom Fighters,” had come around, my mom’s father had decided to stay home to tend to Saorith, who was still very ill. A fortunate decision, because that night, a storm of Khmer Rouge soldiers came riding in on horses, capturing the men from all 10 families living on their plot who were out working in the fields.  Basically, they assumed all were guilty by association.  My mom vividly recalls being able to hear the thunder of the horses as they rode into the field.  Hearing the commotion and convinced that he would be captured as well, her father wanted to run, but her mother pleaded with him to stay.  For a reason we’ll never know, the Khmer Rouge never came looking for him.

The rest of the men were not so fortunate.  By this time, many schools had been turned into Khmer Rouge prisons, and the captured men were all taken to the closest prison where they were then tortured and interrogated for days.  My mother’s uncle was among the men that were captured, but luckily he was released.  The neighbor who so willingly spoke to the false Freedom Fighters was also released, as he was a very smooth talker and was able to talk his way out of trouble.  All in all, the Khmer Rouge ended up imprisoning 4 men and 1 woman from their group.

The next part of the story is horrific, but essential to illustrate the horrors that the people of Cambodia had to endure during this time.

One night, after working all day, everybody from the area that my mom and dad were living in was called to a big “meeting.”  Here, they were forced to stay awake all night while the officers tortured and brutally executed the people they had found guilty of conspiring against them, including the five people from my mom’s group.  They used this opportunity to preach the importance of compliance and obedience, and pushed the people further into submission.  After working all day and being forced to attend the meeting all night with no rest or food, the people were finally permitted to return home early in the morning for breakfast and a few hours of rest.  They were then expected to report to work as usual.

After that ordeal, the family was forced to relocate to a second area and the people were further divided up.  My mother’s father and her brother, Saorith, were separated from the family and transferred to another location to work.  At this point, the Khmer Rouge had started to collect some of the most educated people who might pose a threat to their organization, but luckily, my mom’s father was a very well-known and well-respected man, and a hard worker, and the Khmer Rouge were unable to find any fault with him or any reason to arrest him along with the others.

She remembers her father speaking very kindly about my dad, but there was still no real interaction between them at this point.  Saorith was still very ill, and her father took him to a nearby house that was serving as a hospital.  Unfortunately, they had no medicine and very limited supplies. He stayed there for a week with no improvement.  He became delirious, and the only hope for him was to send him to the real hospital in Battambang for further “treatment.”  This was a huge risk, but they knew it was the only chance for him to survive.  The family asked the Khmer Rouge to bring him to the hospital in their truck, and shockingly, they agreed.  Saorith does not remember much from this trip, except that the Khmer Rouge soldiers transported him in the back of the truck and used him as a footrest.  He was gone for a few months, during which nobody knew if he was dead or alive.  (There will be a future post that will focus more on this)

The day Saorith returned home is a day that my mom will never forget.  She had been sent to work with a group of girls, and was working out in the field when another one of the girls came running to tell her that he had returned.  She could barely believe that it was true!  He was, in fact, alive, but he was so skinny and weak from illness that it took him one year to recover, and he was not asked to return to work.

After that, my mom was removed from her family, and sent to work with a group of about 500 girls.  They served as a sort of mobile unit, going from location to location, to help with whatever work needed to be done.  They camped everywhere they went, having only a hammock, a thin blanket, 1 plate, 1 spoon and 3 sets of clothes.  They woke every day when the rooster crowed, and were ready before sunrise.  Sometimes they spent hours walking to their assigned location, then forced to work all day only to walk hours back home at night.  They only allowed to eat twice a day.

The next part of her story is the hardest for her to tell…

My mom’s father had been out fishing one evening when he decided to stop by her camp to share some of the fish with the girls and visit with his daughter.  On his way home, he was involved in a crash that sent him flying off of his bike.  He hit his head, but was still able to make it home in time for the nightly meeting that was required of them.  For some reason after the accident, he was struck by a fever almost immediately.  One of my mom’s friends came to her camp and informed her that he was ill, and she was granted permission by her group leader to return home to see him for only 3 days.  Unfortunately, his condition did not improve, and the group leader told my mom that she would have to ask the Khmer Rouge soldiers if she wanted to be granted more time to be home with him.  She knew this was the only way that she could spend more time with him, so she gathered up her courage and approached a house filled with Khmer Rouge soldiers.  After a brief inquisition, she was surprisingly granted permission to return home to care for her father.  He was rapidly declining, and was only ill for seven days before he passed away at the age of only 41.  Due to their close proximity, my mother and father’s families had become very close in the months leading up to his passing.  My dad’s mother, An, was with the family shortly before my grandfather passed away, and he asked her to please look after the family.  My mom didn’t know it then, but she now suspects that he was referring specifically to her marrying my father.

After my grandfather passed away, his body was cremated and his remains were put in a can and brought to a nearby mountain for safekeeping.  My mom was allowed to stay home with her grieving mother for only one month before she was forced to return to work.

Months passed, and then…the Vietnamese invaded Cambodia.  Everybody was cheering and celebrating the end of the Khmer Rouge, and they all started to leave their assigned camps to return to their families.  Since everyone else was doing it, my mom joined with a group of 4 other girls and fled the camp she was in.  The girls hid among the trees in fear of being spotted by Khmer Rouge officers but were fortunate enough to find refuge in a couple’s hut for the night.   The next day they returned to their families without incident.

The Vietnamese soldiers informed the people that the Khmer Rouge was moving toward the West, so their safest bet would be to flee to the East. A bunch of families gathered together on the outskirts of Battambang, and that’s where my mother and father would really see each other for the first time.  They had crossed paths many times before, but this marks the time that they actually began to get to know each other. Little did they know, but they were about to embark on a journey that would end up fulfilling my grandfather’s dying wish.

Day Zero: my dad’s perspective

Mid-April, 1975.

Think back…

Do you remember where you were or what you were doing?

Chances are it was an ordinary time for you, and you were probably going about your life as usual.  Maybe you were working, or going to school, or taking care of your children & enjoying life’s little pleasures…perhaps you weren’t even born yet. 

For my father, Sophorn, and mother, Sopheak, April of 1975 was a time that was anything but ordinary and that will never be forgotten.  “Day Zero,” as it has come to be known, was the day that the Khmer Rouge swept through Cambodia forcing people from their homes in the cities and turning lives permanently upside down.  This is the story of Day Zero from my father’s perspective. 

They knew change was coming.  They weren’t sure what kind of change it would be, and they certainly had no idea the toll it would take on the country and my family over the next several years.  Armed conflict and civil war between pro-communists and US-backed government forces was coming to an end. The Cambodian New Year had just passed, and the Cambodian people were celebrating peace. Offerings were made and tribute was paid as per traditional Buddhist beliefs. Many had turned in their arms, hopeful for a return to normalcy.  Most people were living under the false pretense that things in the country were ok.

Then, like the ominous start of a nightmare, the day before Day Zero happened.  The Khmer Rouge took over the local hospital in my dad’s hometown of Battambang.  Any patients who could eventually be of use to the Khmer Rouge were spared, and those who weren’t well enough to work were left behind to be “dealt with” later.  The Khmer Rouge then proceeded to kill all of the doctors and leave the bodies strewn along the sides of the road to serve as a warning to all.

April is a very hot time of year in Cambodia.  It was probably between 80-100 degrees.  On Day Zero, early in the morning, trucks full of Khmer Rouge soldiers came rolling through Battambang, shouting into megaphones- “The Americans are going to start bombing the cities! You must gather whatever you can and leave the city in the next 24 hours!”

Similar scenes were taking place across the country in all major cities. 

My family wasn’t sure if this threat was true or not, but they did know that, either way, their lives were at stake.  My dad’s mother, An, packed up her 8 children, ranging in age from 19 (my dad) to just one year old, and fled the city to my great-grandfather’s house in the country.  It is extremely important to note that, at this time, my dad’s father, Hem, was away in the capital, Phnom Penh.  He was a well-respected member of the US-backed Cambodian armed forces coordinating with other anti-communist leadership.  In fact, a few days prior to Day Zero, my father received a letter from him that warned of the coming unrest in the country.  As my dad recalls the memory of this letter, his eyes begin to swell with tears.  “The letter…he told me…he was not coming home because the Freedom Fighters were going to head North to re-group for the inevitable fight… good luck & take care of the family.”  Hem was a top target for the Khmer Rouge and returning home at this time would have put his family at an even greater risk. This was the last that anybody ever heard from him.  To this day, Hem is classified as MIA.  When the Khmer Rouge took over, my grandmother, An, used to carry around a small picture of him folded up and tucked into her bra, but after many years of facing the elements, the photo faded away.  A few of my uncles, his own children, do not even know what he looked like.

On Day Zero, my Dad’s family walked about 10 miles to my great-grandfathers house in the country.  My father and another person used a cart they found to carry one 220 lb bag of rice, books, and a Honda generator.  My Dad then made another trip back to the house for another 220 lb bag of rice and anything else that could be of use for the family.  He walked approximately 30 miles that day, in the blistering heat, because he knew it would be their last chance for supplies.  My family had been stockpiling  rice in their house prior to Day Zero, but unfortunately, most of this rice would end up in the hands of the Khmer Rouge.  There were around 20 family members gathered at the house that night, and my dad recalls everyone having an overwhelming fear of what was to come.

A few days later, Khmer Rouge officials called for everyone to attend a meeting at the temple.  With everyone gathered, they started preaching their vision of a new, improved Cambodia.  They spoke of a country where everyone would be equal and work together for the greater good.  For this reason, everybody was required to give up their cars, bikes, and motorcycles for the use of the Khmer Rouge officials.  Next, everybody was reassigned to live in a new temporary location in the country.  At this time, they were allowed to bring whatever they could carry.  They also were instructed to bring supplies to build themselves a shelter to live under.  Once they were settled in at the new location, a Khmer Rouge leader demanded that all their food, goods, and supplies be turned over to Khmer Rouge officials for oversight and rationing purposes. A few months passed and they were once again uprooted and forced to reorganize with new families.

The new location was on top of a hill in the middle of a rice paddy.  Everybody was divided into groups, and each group of approximately ten families was assigned to about a 25 acre plot of land, and each family was then assigned about 2.5 acres to cultivate.  The very first and most important order of business was to outline their plot of land by building a water containment system for the rice. Luckily, my dad’s group contained a few farmers who were able to help everyone. Unfortunately, they were not equipped with enough tools for farming such a large plot, so my dad and others found some empty oil drums, cut them into pieces, and attached a bamboo stick so that they had a makeshift hoe for digging.  Everybody was expected to work.  Even my grandmother, who had small children, was sent to work in the fields, leaving my 10 year old aunt, Saovary, to watch over 8 year-old Vanna, 6 year old Sovanna, 3 year-old Nimith,  and 1 year-old  Sambath.

This was only the beginning of a horrific era of mental and physical exhaustion. There was little food, and my family survived mainly on rice fish, snakes, toads and whatever else could be scavenged or grown from the land.  The people were so desperate for food that they learned to catch and eat whatever they could find.  Buddhist teachings advise against killing any living thing, but my dad knew it was their only chance to survive.

 The Khmer Rouge officers would show up at night, taking people from their homes and killing them for whatever reason they chose.  Unfortunately for my family, they were especially hated and targeted by the Khmer Rouge due to the status of my grandfather.  There were many nights that my dad had to climb up in a tree to hide because there were rumors that the officers were coming for them.  My grandmother would tell him not to come home after work that day for fear that they would be the next to go.  She figured that, this way, it would allow for at least one of them to survive & take care of the family. People became increasingly suspicious of everyone around them.  Nobody knew who was friend or foe, and the only people you could really trust was your family.  Money was completely worthless by this point, even less than newspapers, which could at least be used for smoking.  The only things of use for trading purposes were gold, salt, clothing and medicine.

Everyone was expected to produce a successful harvest.  They were told that this was going to be shared by all, but ultimately it was confiscated for use only by Khmer Rouge officials.  Unfortunately, there were groups that lacked the skill, knowledge, and strength to farm, and my dad recalls walking by their plots not filled with rice, but with their dead bodies. Luckily, my family was successful in cultivating their plot of land, but after all of his hard work, my dad would never see his efforts come to full fruition, as they were again divided up and reassigned before the rice harvest occurred.

My dad didn’t know it at the time, but this next reassignment would be the turning point that would lead him to my mom, Sopheak, and into the next chapter of their lives.

Coming up next: Day Zero from my mom’s perspective