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.