Nightmares in Cambodia – Part One
By Chhorvy I. Pin
Edited by Vannoroth Imm
I woke up one morning and couldn’t figure out what went wrong. At such a young age, I remembered everything in bits and pieces when the Khmer Rouge took control of the country. The four years of torture, starvation, being terrified, and separation from family members seemed endless. I was robbed of security, warmth, love, and the right to ownership of any kind. I lived life day by day wondering what will happen tomorrow or whether there will be a tomorrow for me. My nightmare of four years seemed like a decade.
It was April 1974 when the Khmer Rouge took control of the country; I had just turned 4 years old. I don’t remember the time frame, but the first thing I remembered was when my family took all of our belongings to store in a warehouse. Once the belongings are in the warehouse, they then belong to the Khmer Rouge. They can come in and out of our house to check as they please. We were not allowed to own anything besides a few changes of clothing each.
My father was the first in the family to disappear. He was the town mayor and therefore was a very visible target of the Khmer Rouge. Their intention was to get rid of all educated and professional people. They had no intention of keeping any Muslims alive; they killed all Muslim families. In mid-day one day when I passed by a Muslim family, I heard them screaming for help. The screaming was so horrifying that I ran as fast as I could to get away from it. All of my seven older siblings were taken away from home to stay at camp; the youngest of the seven was only 9 years old. The younger ones were assigned to stay at the camp in town, whereas the older ones were sent away out of town as needed elsewhere. Only me and my youngest brother, who was barely 1 year old, were at home with my mom.
My mom was in her late 40’s and was put to work at a daycare to care for other young children and infants whose parents (younger parents) were sent away to work in rice fields or whatever the assignments were. The daycare was at the same location where the town’s cafeteria is. We were not allowed to cook on our own; if we got caught cooking, the Khmer Rouge would kill us. They offered us lunch and dinner. In the beginning, they served us each a scoop or two of white rice with stew or soup. Towards the end, the last year of their control, they served us plain rice porridge that barely had any rice and was mostly just water. We were really starving at this time; they were cruel to us in every way.
At some point around 1977 when I was about 6 years old, I remember going to work at a rice field every day. I was supposed to be a living scarecrow to scare all the birds away so that they don’t eat the rice crop. I thought it was fun, but when it’s every day under the hot sun and there is a lack of food, I got pretty bored and restless. During the harvesting season, after they harvested the rice, I was supposed to walk the whole rice field to pick up stalks of rice that the adults missed. Many times I got so hungry from working under the extremely hot sun that I would just eat the raw grains of rice that I found. If I got caught doing that then I would have been punished, but I was lucky.
All I can recall was working in the rice field. My older siblings were never even in the picture. After a long day of working, I usually went straight to the daycare center to hang out with my mom until she was finished for the day. My home was so empty; it was just my mom, me, and my little brother. My dad was sent home once at some point long after they took him. They told him their intention was to kill him, but they just couldn’t do it for some reason. But they took him away again shortly after his return. This time my mom lost hope that she would ever see my father again.
As the years went by, I started to remember more. I still continued to work in the rice field. At the end of each day we were instructed to meet at certain field north, south, west, or east of the town. I remembered there was a time I ended up working in the rice field alone because I went to the wrong field. There were a couple of times when the group leader (one of the Khmer Rouge) threatened to kill me. One of the last warnings I remember was him pointing his gun to my head and saying, “If you’re ever late or don’t show up again, I will shoot you.” After that last warning, I accidentally went to a field with no one. I got so frantic that I ran from one field to another, searching for the group. I almost drowned a few times because I had to cross some streams that were too deep for me. I was between 7 and 8 years old and was just a little confused with directions. To make a long story short, I never saw that evil man again, and later on found out that he was struck by lightning in one of the rice fields and killed.
At some point in mid to late 1978 the Khmer Rouge got rougher on us; killing and starvation was the main cause of death. One of my older brothers was taken away because he was a teacher. They tied him up with rope; there was a group of men all tied together in a chain. The men were waiting to be killed for days without food. At night time when the guards fell asleep, my brother and a few of his friends made a decision: if they try to escape, then there is a chance for them to survive; if they don’t, then there’s no chance for them to stay alive. So they did escape, and they were so lucky that the Vietnamese invaded the country shortly after their escape and scared all the Khmer Rouge away. Otherwise, the Khmer Rouge would’ve come back to hunt for them. There was no way to escape them.
It was early 1979 when the Vietnamese troops invaded the country. They patrolled from town to town, village to village to make sure there were no more Khmer Rouge soldiers. People could finally reunite with their families and return to living their lives normally, if there was such thing. Some lost a few members, some lost more; some families were completely wiped out. My dad miraculously appeared from the dead. We thought we had lost him, but he showed up about a week after the Vietnamese invaded. They had taken him out of town and held him in prison. I barely recognized him; he looked like a dead man walking. We were so lucky that all the members in our family were able to reunite shortly after.
The Khmer Rouge were scared away deep into the jungle. At night, they would just do a shooting spree in a town or village to scare people out of town so that they could come in and steal food or items they needed to survive in the jungle. Some people got killed while trying to flee the town. I remember hearing gunfire at all distances, sometimes near the town. Every time I heard gunfire, I held on to my mom as tightly as I could. At this point we were always prepared to flee the town. We packed just some necessary items to survive temporarily.
One terrifying night in late 1979, when the gunfire moved in closer and closer, my parents gathered all of us and fled the town to the side opposite the gunfire. The main road of the town was packed with people on foot and oxcarts to hold some items for survival. Traffic moved slowly while the sound and smell of gunfire was right above our heads. We were under a manhunt attack. That was the most terrifying night of my life. We went to stay in a nearby town for about a month.
Another horrifying night, the gunfire roared closer and closer to the town we were temporarily staying in. Once again, we fled towards the opposite direction of that town. My older sister got dragged by our oxcart when the cows, startled by the loud noise, shook her off the cart. She was saved by my dad—he stopped the cows in time. My other older sister just had a baby the night before. If she stayed behind she would have been ambushed and killed. She wanted to stay behind and die because she was still in pain from giving birth. My dad and her husband forced her onto the oxcart.
We camped out in a field far away from that town for a few days while my dad and some other men secretly went to check our town at nighttime to make sure it was safe to bring the family back home. It was finally safe to return to our town. So much damage had been done to the town. When we returned, I never again saw my best friend whom I used to play with every day. I asked around for her but never got any answers. My sister had developed an infection from childbirth due to lack of medical care and the rough transition of moving around before her wounds healed. She was never able to heal from them completely; she later on passed away in her late 20’s in 1980. She left a young baby girl behind. She was like a second mom to me—I always bounced around between my house and her house. She adored me, and I loved her. I was not there when she passed away.