Tuesday, December 3, 2013

We are innocent, Comrades!

November 30, 2013

I cannot imagine I haven't touched my blog for more than two years since I posted the last piece. Not that I've been too busy to write, but where to begin again really matters. Now, I have to urge myself to be more diligent. Now, I'd like to write down a horrible incident that is still in my memory. Here is what happened:

One day in 1975 in Khtum Prahaong, my mother and sister got a permission from Angkar to go to a village nearby to barter for food. They both got up early in the morning, and joined some other settlers who also had a permit. In a starving situation, I was very hopeful that I would get some good food to eat when they come back. My sense of good food those days was not anything much more than "rice" because for so many months after being evacuated from Phnom Penh and located in that haunting village, my family as well as other settlers were starving. It was a very long day waiting for my mother and sister. Very often I went to stand at the pathway expecting their return. Lunch time came, my father cooked porridge (very little rice with a lot of water without other ingredient, even salt) and distributed a small portion to each of the kids, who at that time included one of my big sisters and two brothers. My other two younger brothers already left the world from starvation. Our meal did not last long as the porridge that we ate contained mostly water. I was very hungry while expecting food from my mother and sister. I was loitering around the hut suffering from hunger. Suddenly, I saw a lizard crawling by the bush. I immediately thought if I could catch that lizard, it could release my hunger.  Within a moment of effort, I was able to kill it. Without waiting too long, I grilled that lizard on a small fire that I had made, and ate it. I still remember the taste --- it tastes almost nothing but the smoke from the fire -- no flesh, but all the bone, so after all, I remained hungry.

The sun almost set, my mother and sister still did not return, I was very anxious, and so was my father who was ill. I continued to wait on the pathway. Suddenly, I saw three people appearing from far. I looked at them with great attention trying to figure out whether they were my mother and sister. Part of me thought it should not be them as there were three people, but when they came nearer, I realized it was my mother and sister. I was shocked when I noticed that both their hands were tied up to their back, and they were escorted by a man who carried a big knife like a sword. What should I do? I felt so reluctant to walk toward them, but I did. Instead of heading toward our hut, the man ordered them to walk toward their office. My mother told me not to follow her, but to go back to our hut to let my father know that she and my sister were arrested. She whispered to me not to worry, the problem will be solved.  I felt shocked and sad at the same time; my heart was crying, but tears did not come out for so many reasons, and I think the main reason was that I was too weak to even cry. 

With exhaustion, I walked back slowly to tell my father what I saw. He walked slowly out of the hut, and told all the kids to stay calm and not to follow him.  We all were very anxious to know what was happening while waiting at the hut.  About an hour later, my father came back, but not my mother and sister. We all curiously asked father what was happening. Father told us that mother and sister were accused of stealing beans from the farm, which is the act that cannot be tolerant by Angkar.  "What will happen to them?", we all asked; "I don't know, but they ordered me to come back", replied my father. We all became even more worried.  About an hour later, after going through the so-called education, both my mother and sister were released and back to see us. We were so happy to see them back without any harm.

According to my mother, this was what happened. On the way back from the village where she was only able to barter for a small portion of salt of about 200 grams with a small piece of pumpkin of about 300 grams, they found wild beans that grew along the fence of a small farm. They picked those beans with the understanding that they grew wild. They guy, who was known as "Chhlorb", literarily means police, arrested them with the charge of stealing. On the way after she was arrested, my mother asked permission to go for pee, where she got a chance to hide the salt as she was concerned that it would be confiscated.  My mother and sister had to beg the apology for their wrong doing due to their innocence. They thought the beans grew wild, which in reality it was true that no one grew it. However, they could not go against Agnkar.  The next day after all this hassle, my mother went back to collect the salt that she had hidden.  That was the first time of all those several months in this haunting village, my family had the chance to taste salt again for a short time.

Whatever had happened to them, we finally knew that they were safe and back with family. However, my hope of having food to fill up my stomach remained in vain, and my hunger continued.

Mother, Nou Yeb, born 1933 died 2006                              

                                                                                                  Sister, Moul Varun, born 1955, died 1977

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Becoming a stranger on my own homeland

After the Khmer Rouge regime, all the Khmer Rouge survivors in my family including my mother, my brother and myself could not afford to come back home in Phnom Penh. The main reason for this was that we did not have means of transport, and most of all, we totally lacked of food supplies to feed our mouths for our journey back home. We decided to go to the border as it was nearer to travel by foot. From Battambong province, we walked for at least one whole week to get to Sisophon district where we stayed there for so many months before we continued our walking to Cambodia-Thailand border. We finally ended up in the border camp, where we stayed for over 13 years. There is a lot to tell you about life in the barbed wire camp on the border. I will need to write one whole book to describe what happened in the camp. In this regard, I decided not to talk about it here in this chapter. What I would like to tell you about now is my repatriation from the border camp.

After 13 years living and growing up in the Cambodia-Thai border camp, here comes the repatriation process under the auspice of the United Nations as the result of the Paris Peace Accord, in which all the Cambodian conflicting parties were signatories. It was in July 1992, when my family together with thousands of the camp people were transported back to Cambodia. Believe it or not, it was the first time that I set foot in Phnom Penh again after 17 years on evacuation. It was full of excitments and anxiety, the feeling of uncertainty, not knowing what to expect as I hadn't been back to the city since 1975 when the Khmer Rouge had taken control of Cambodia.

My mother, my brother and I packed all our necessities, which was not that much, to be honest, as we were not allowed to bring too many baggages, and of course, we did not really have so many valuable belongings. What we brought along were some clothes, and some food stuff and kitchen utencils. The most precious belongings that we brought along were books -- the books that we studied for over ten years in the border camp... my brother got quite a number of medical books and I brought all my English books together with piles of cassettes. We had to stay over night in a transit center waiting for a bus to transport us to Cambodia.

The next day came, about 10 buses arrived, and our names were called and we boarded one of the buses, which transported us from Site Two through Aranyaprathet and then headed throught the border at Poi Pet. The bus finally dropped us in Sisophon. Where we had to wait not less than 10 hours until after mid-night for a train to transfer us to Phnom Penh.

It took us 14 hours on an old, slow train that crawled on an old and partially damaged railraod. The train departed Sisophon at 2:00 a.m., and arrived a Reception Center at the outskirt of Phnom Penh known as Kop Srov at 4:00 p.m.

If you've never experienced traveling on an old train through an old railroad, good luck for you, we were totally lost after 14 hours trip. We felf as if we were swinging all the time even though we sat still. After three days there at the reception center, we were transported to our final destination in Phnom Penh. While we were ready to load our belongings on the bus, this is what happened:

Hi Samneang, I am glad to see you here
Hi Sister Denise, me too, I am glad to see you again here on my home country
Samneang, these are my friends. Sister Denise introduced a few friends of hers to me while she also introduced me to them. Her friends started to converse with me with curiosity.
How long were you in the border camp? One of her friends asked.
13 years, I replied
Where was your hometown?
Here in Phnom Penh, but I haven't been here for the last 17 years since the Khmer Rouge took control of the country, this is my first time coming back to Phnom Penh.
Are you by yourself?
No, I am with my mother and my brother. They are over there safeguarding the luggages as we are waiting for a call to board the bus.
Where is your father?
I was totally stunned when hearing this question. My emotion started immediately as I was trying to tell the guests that my father lost his life during the Khmer Rouge, but my words never came out of my mouth. Those words were dried up and they were replaced with tears dropping from both my eyes. I did not even think about my father until this question was asked. All the memories had come to my mind -- I left this city with a whole crowd of 10 family members which included my father. Now only three left. The other seven had left this world because of starvation, over workload and they were falling very ill and they all died. Now that we came back, they were not with us anymore... they were burried in the forests, which I had no clue how to go back there to find their graves.

I definitely did not want to show this kind of emotion, but I couldn't do any better than this no matter how much I tried to show that I was strong. I know that my emotion had put the guests in a difficult position. They must have felt bad to ask me such a sensitive question.

Understanding my emotional feeling, sister Denise quickly patted my back to console me. She continued with "where are you going to go now?"

Her question even made me more emotional as I had no idea where I was going to go. I was sobbing while answering Sister Denise'question with my deep emotion.... "I have nowhere to go". It was too bad, I made the whole group feel emotional as well. But I had to apologize that I could not handle the situation any better. I should have been proud and happy that I was finally able to come back to my home city. But it was completely the opposite. I felt so much as being dumped into the sea where I could not see the horizon, particularly for that moment.

Sister Denise quickly offered me to go to her house. She immediately went to the bus and explained to the bus driver her address where later he brought me and my family there.

Sister Denise was a catholic nun. She was my former teacher in the camp. But she moved to Cambodia earlier with the Jesuit Refugee Services (JRS) to do a project to help Cambodia.

It is not an easy situation when you are in your own country but you felt as if you are in a new world where you cannot find any support network, which you need so badly to at least give you some orientation in terms of what you can and cannot do. But in my case, I was totally unstable.

I left Phnom Penh when I was 11 years of age, and at the time I returned, I was 28 years old... So it was 17 years away from home. I can hardly put in words how sad I felt at the time I arrived Phnom Penh, and how much I appreciated Sister Denise' s offer for us to stay at her house for one whole week before we could figure out where our next destination.