Nightmares in Cambodia – Part Two
By Chhorvy I. Pin
Edited by Vannoroth Imm
There was a chicken pox epidemic sometime during late 1979 in our town. It infected children around my age group. My little brother got it a day before me; we were so ill. There was absolutely no medical treatment available. Since tomatoes have such strong antioxidants, my mom believed that it would help to fight the sickness, so she fed us tomato soup at every meal with white rice. My recovery was faster, while my younger brother stayed ill long after I already recovered; maybe it was because he was young and refused to eat tomato soup? He was all skin and bones. We came close to losing him, but thankfully after a long battle, he defeated the disease. Children in town were dying fast. I don’t remember anyone I knew well except for my two twin cousins. I lost both of them. They were wonderful boys; I had played with them almost every day.
One day after the chicken pox epidemic, one of my older sisters took me to say goodbye to some folks. My dad was out of town for a meeting. My mom and I were told at the time that I was going to visit my brother’s wife’s family in another town. My brother is 20 years older than me. On the way to my brother’s house, at the open market on the main road, I saw the body of a lady who had hung herself from a humongous tree. Her tongue was sticking out. I was on the back of my sister’s bike, clinging to her waist as she rode her bike. I asked my sister what the lady was doing. She replied, “Nothing, just let us be on our way and let her do her business.”
I was clinging on to my sister when we arrived at my brother’s house. My sister-in-law’s younger sister, who is 5 years older than me, offered to take me to play in the backyard. I hesitated to leave my sister’s sight since I felt something didn’t seem right, but she insisted. In the backyard, I was having so much fun climbing their coconut tree that I completely forgot the fear that my sister may leave me behind. Just as I suspected, my sister was gone when I returned from the backyard. I realized then that my brother and his wife’s family were planning to flee to Thailand with me. My brother had originally brought my 4-year-old brother but he was afraid that he wouldn’t cooperate during the trip, so he returned him home and asked my sister to bring me instead.
That evening, I cried the whole time until I felt asleep. I had never been separated from my mom before, so I just wanted to go back to her. Around midnight was when my brother woke me up and explained to me that we have to leave and that I have to stay quiet or the Khmer Rouge will catch us and kill all of us. As we left the house in the pitch dark, in my mind I thought if they turn left at the main road, that means they are going back home. But I feared that was not going to happen, otherwise they wouldn’t be leaving in the middle of the night. So my plan was that if they turned right, I’d just sneak out and turn left so I can go back home—no one would see me since it was pitch dark. But when I got to that main road, I got goose bumps all over. I remembered the lady in the tree. I was terrified of the dark to begin with, so I decided to follow them and think of other ways to come back home during the daytime.
There were eight of us in our group: a man who was hired to guide our way, my brother, his wife, her parents, and her younger brother and sister. We passed from town to another on foot in silence; it seemed like we were the only souls that were awake. Before sunrise’s first gleam of light, we had passed through all of the towns. We continued to walk on foot in an open field of dead rushes. The sun was beating on us in the middle of the day. By evening we had to camp in the middle of the open field on the dead rushes—it was too dangerous to cross the wooded area so we had to stay a good distance from the woods. My in-laws had packed us some rice and dried food, which was our only meal since we left that night.
In the morning we continued our journey. I think it took us a good while before we reached the woods. We continued on a small dirt path in the woods almost the entire day. We reached the border of Thailand by late afternoon around 3:00. That was where all the Cambodian refugees stayed, waiting to enter the refugee camps in Thailand. We were so fortunate that we didn’t run into the Khmer Rouge along the way. That was the main reason why my parents decided not to flee the country. It was just too dangerous for my father to take his chances on such a big family, and he was older so he didn’t want to leave his hometown.
Every night I cried myself to sleep, and hearing gunfire in the distance made it worse. I was so attached to my mom and missed her badly; all I wanted was my family back. My uncle came a few weeks after we arrived at the border. He demanded to take me back home—that was an order from my dad, he said. If my brother didn’t send me back then my dad would come and get me himself. My dad was so furious at my brother for taking me; he said he wouldn’t have minded as much if he had taken one of the older siblings since they are more independent. He was even furious at my mom for letting me come, and of course my mom had no clue that my brother was taking me away. My brother told my uncle that if my dad wanted me back then he had to come and get me himself. We never knew if he ever came since my brother decided to leave the border the next day to go to the refugee camps in Thailand.
Early that morning before we left, I decided to run away since I knew we were going farther and farther from home. I walked around not having a clue of where I was heading. I chose a direction which I thought we came from and that would lead me home. I kept on walking until I saw a small narrow path into the woods. I said that’s it, that should take me home. As I entered the narrow path into the woods, there was a loud sound back where all the refugees stay. I turned to see what that loud noise was and found something so cool that I’d never seen before in my life: an excavator, a long-necked machine that moved up and down digging dirt! It was so cool! It looked like a giant steel praying mantis. I turned around and walked towards the cool machine that stood against the wooden fence and just enjoyed the show. I completely forgot about running away. Next thing I knew, my cousin who I had just met grabbed me. I fought with him; my sister-in-law’s brother was there too, helping my cousin since I was struggling quite a bit to get away. My cousin hoisted me up on his shoulders; I grabbed his hair and smacked his head to put me down. He grabbed a tiny stick and whipped me a few times. It hurt a little, and I calmed down, but still kicked and screamed on his shoulder. He felt bad, but he had to stop me; I didn’t blame him since I was a feisty little one.
My brother was scared to death after his unsuccessful search for me. When he saw me, he was mad and at the same time, I kicked and screamed and refused to cooperate. He finally ran out of patience and gave me a little slap to shut me up. I wasn’t mad; I was just angry with the fact that I failed my mission of returning home. I knew my brother and my cousin love me. We didn’t come from a violent family so I knew they were just trying to scare me for my own good. I wasn’t kicking and screaming anymore, but I still sobbed until my tears dried out.
We got on a dump truck; that was our transportation on our next journey to the camps in Thailand. They jam-packed us in there standing up. There was a soldier in the truck with us; he kept on staring at me, at my earrings. I was so afraid of him since he had a big gun. My brother had exchanged my gold earrings and put in fake ones instead; the soldier took the fake earrings from me. What a relief, he left me alone after he got my fake earrings. It was a long bumpy and very uncomfortable ride, but we made it to the camp the same day. At least it was better than walking on foot for two days in a danger zone.
In 1980 I was 9 years old; Kao-I-Dang was the name of the camp where we waited and hoped to come to the U.S. The refugee shelter, food, school, and hospital were all provided by the U.N. Knowing that it was too far from home, I stopped crying myself to sleep since that was getting old—but I still missed my family dearly. I still heard distant gunfire at nighttime now and then. It was still a horrifying sound even though my brother assured me that we are safe. There was no mom to cuddle with for comfort so I just cuddled next to my cousin the entire time.
The U.N. kept on bringing in more refugees to the camp. Every time there were new people, I would go by myself to the drop-off point and just watch truck after truck to see if I could find my family. I would return home crying each time disappointed. There were kids in the neighborhood to play with after school and on the weekends—that helped to distract me from missing my family so much. My brother understood that I missed them a lot, but he knew what was best for me.
The camp was fenced in by barbed wire but it was open at one side, which had a big mountain. We weren’t allowed to cross the fence; if anyone got caught outside the fence, the soldiers would kill us without mercy. A couple of times when I went to use the toilet, which was located near the fence, I saw the body of a man lying in the middle of the road next to the fence, like road-kill. Every time they caught someone trying to sneak in or out of the camp, they’d kill him and leave the body on the street for others to see so that they would not attempt to do the same thing.
One time, my sister-in-law’s younger sister and I decided to run away; I missed my family and she missed her cats. We climbed the mountain hoping to find a way home on the other side of the mountain. We got almost to the top when we gave up and turned around because we got too tired. Anything could have happened to us if we were to cross that mountain. We decided to stay put from then on; it was too scary for us after we got a chance to put our plan into action.
Well, that’s what I thought, until I found out there was a lady I knew from my town that came to seek medical treatment in the camp’s hospital. My brother allowed me to go visit/sleep over at my distant uncle’s place so that I could get some relief from missing my family so much. I would usually go and sleep over for a couple of nights. My uncle told me that one of my brother-in-laws just came into the camp and wasn’t too far from him. I was so excited—more relatives! I went and slept over for a couple of nights. This guy was married to my sister and had a daughter a year younger than me. He eventually ran off with another woman. He was a little sick in the head due to a traumatic brain injury involving a landmine. He told me that if I wanted to go home, there’s a lady that is returning home tomorrow. I was the happiest girl at this point, skipping straight to the hospital on my own.
The next day, I returned to the hospital and lined up to go on the bus. When I was one step away from the bus, a man soared towards me on a bike, dropped the bike as fast as he could, and grabbed me. “Where do you think you’re going, little girl?” he asked. I started crying, “I want to go home! I miss my mommy! I only want my mommy!” I struggled against him. He couldn’t get me to calm down so I got slapped again. It didn’t hurt but he got me to shut up and calm down. He put me on his bike and rode away to the opposite side of the camp where our residence was. I cried the whole way with a huge disappointment again! I am sure it wasn’t easy on my brother either to see that his little sister wanted so badly to go back home, but he remained strong, because he knew what was best; I didn’t….
To explain what happened, I was missing for longer than usual so my brother decided to visit my uncle, who told him that I went to see my brother-in-law. My brother in-law told him that I was going home with the lady from town. My brother was furious with my uncle and my brother-in-law. That was the last time I ever visited them. I have to admire my brother’s strength and determination to get me to the U.S. I was just a child who wanted to go back to home. Well, that was my last attempt to run away. I accepted the fact that I was too far away to run home.