Interviewed by Kevin Bun
I don’t remember when or how we were evacuated from the city. I just know that before 1975 we were living in Battambang and after 1975 we were in a hut in a farming district in the provinces. I was eight years old at the time, living with my mother and one of my sisters. My four other siblings were dispersed in different parts of the province in labor camps for their respective communes.
For children, there was no school. I would walk 20 minutes to get to the field where the children like me would tend to the rice. During the wet season, they made us carry bundles of seedlings to new fields, and the wet stalks would brush and irritate my face. At harvest time, we would work long hours in the fields, carrying cut bundles again, the husks flying around in the air. Every ten days, we were allowed a day off. I took advantage of my day to spend time with my mother back at her hut.
My mother worked for the sahakor, the communal kitchen, and would tend to the pigs or the ducks. Her days off were typically spent napping through the afternoon, so I, having no other friends living nearby, decided to make my way to a pond. It was a hot, overcast day, and I wanted to pass the time by splashing around. Of course, I didn’t know how to swim, but the water was shallow enough. Carelessly, I stepped on a piece of wood at the edge of the water. I slipped, and a rusty nail that I hadn’t noticed before dug into and up my shin. I quickly pulled my leg off, but the damage had been done and I was bleeding profusely. I knew I had to get home,and so limped along the road.
I encountered a woman on the road carrying buckets of water who asked what I had done to myself. She took one look at my leg, and simply continued on her way. She was Neak Chas, people who had lived in the liberated zones before the liberation of the cities. She suspected my mother and I of being Vietnamese spies simply because we “looked” Vietnamese; my family is part Chinese in actuality. When I finally reached home, my mother was terrified. There were no doctors. She immediately boiled water and cleaned my wound as best as she could. She then wrapped it in cloth to stop the bleeding.
For a few days I stayed at home and the pain only grew worse. My sister, who came to visit on her day off, often told me to be quiet, to stop moaning at night so she could sleep. In the morning, her friend told her quietly that I had to get to a hospital; in an instant, she burst into tears. Two men from the village came with a hammock slung on a stick. They carried me to what had been a school in the old regime, my sister trailing behind with her head down. The ground looked solid, the building was concrete with a tiled roof, mold creeping through the cracked paint. Inside, there were several wooden bed frames lined up along the walls, no mattresses, no electricity, and a stale stench in the air.
The nurse, a teenager, proceeded to wash and change the dressings on the wound. At this point, my leg was swollen and pus was oozing out my leg. They gave me no medicine, and I simply laid in bed, just as I would at the hut. I received a ration of rice porridge twice a day. My mom came later in the day with a medicine man. He ground up a paste of herbs which he spread on my wound. He explained to my mother that the infection may spread and that I may lose my leg. My mother maintained a blank face, too shocked to respond.
I could hardly sleep when my mother had to leave for work. It was hard to be alone with no one to talk to, nothing to do. My mother would return each day to put a new coating of paste on the wound, but she had to leave before dark. She said she feared landmines, wild animals, and the witch who was rumored to haunt the large, solitary Po tree on the road back. Days passed and the swelling went down, finally.
After two weeks, I was released from the hospital, and put back to work. This time my group was charged with building dikes. I carried baskets filled with mud on my shoulder to be unloaded at another location. My spine curved to accommodate. And everyday our rations grew smaller…