The Tonle Sap Lake Massacre
By Ranachith Yimsut
It was a chilly evening of December 22, 1977, when a group of armed Khmer Rouge cadres herded what left of my family and neighbors to an unknown destination. At the time we were at a force labor camp in Siem Reap Angkor Province in What Known as People Democratic Kampuchea or Cambodia as we know today. Our group was counted one by one by the armed men, some were more like boys my age (at the time). There were 87 of us all together and 7 of them. None of us know for sure where we were going. However, after we have experienced similar move many times previously, we didn't really care where we were heading. We all sort of got used to such relocation. It was almost a routine to us.
This time it felt a little different. They seemed to try to accommodate or go out of their way to try to please us. It was an act that we were not used to. It made us feeling uneasy about the whole plan. Why are they so nice to us this time? The last 24 relocation were miserable and the soldiers were very rough. In fact, they were so rough that a few of us have died in the process of relocation. Their acts were very suspicious, but we didn't really care. It was a nice change, a change that we were having problem swallow it whole. Perhaps their policy have changed? It was yet to be seen.
One exhausting day of walking later we stopped at a former Buddhist pagoda on the way to some place that they refused to inform us. Our escorts ordered US to stop and wait. We were more or less pleased to have a chance for a breather stop, no matter how short or how long it was. However, the place was not an ideal resting area. We have always known that it was a "processing center." It was also a place where people got punished or even executed for a minor infraction. They called it a "Work Camp", but we all knew it simply as "Death Camp. "We waited and prayed that they won't keep US here, permanently. Approximately 20 minutes later, they herded us out again. Twenty minutes may not be long, but it is an eternity when one life or future is at stake. It was a nerve racking experience. We knew that we have passed through "gate one" at last.
Two days later, we all arrived at a place call Tasource Hill. I have been here several times during my time in the Mobile Brigade. It was another labor camp. There were thousands and thousands of people working, digging a huge canal project. It was a sad site to see. I thought I was just skin and bone, but the people I saw there were in worst shape than I was. It was not long after we arrived at Tasource Hill before they put everyone, including small children, to work among other people. It was then that I finally realized our faith, so I thought. We were forced to work all day and almost all night for five agonizing days by a new batch of soldiers. Those who brought us over have long since returned. The new guards were cruel and have no mercy. Many died in front of me from heat stroke, sickness, exhaustion and starvation. But most died from beating they received from the soldiers. And many were quietly taken away in the cover of the night to almost a certain destination, death. All that time I was wondering when our turn would come. I wished it would arrive sooner so that we didn't have to suffer like those before us.
People from my group began to drop like flies in the muddy bottom of the canal. Very few even bother to take them to get a proper burial. The dead and near dead were scattered all over as far as my eyes could see. We were all too exhausted and too weak to move. Every now and then a group of people came by to collect the dead bodies. Very few morn for the dead. Even the relatives showed very little emotion because they knew that the dead would suffered no more. We were all like a bunch of living dead. I thought that it would be much easier if they just come and take us away. When are they going to end our misery? I waited and waited. It never came.
A pointed object poked at me very hard and woke me up from the muddy bottom of the canal. I slowly opened my eyes to look at the teenage soldier who continued to poke me with his seemingly over-sized AK-47 rifle. He was no older than 12, just a few years younger than I was, but much, much fatter. He was yelling angrily for me to get up from the mud. "go ahead and shoot me" I said to myself. I was ready to die. It was hopeless. I finally pushed my weak skinny body up from the mud and wearily walked into a direction where my group was being congregated. It was our time to go, at last.
I began to have mix feeling about the sudden relocation plan. Normally, we would stay in one place for weeks or even months at a time before they ship us out again. I have wished for them to take us away and now that the time has come, I was having second thought. Nonetheless, after 5 long days and nights without substantial food and rest, I was more than ready to go and where I was going was irrelevant. I just wanted to get out of this place even if it meant sudden death. By the look of others, including my family, they were all ready to go as well. After all that they have put us through especially the last 5 days, nothing could be worst and nothing would matter anymore.
They ordered us to file in a row of four. A small group of soldiers who were to escort us made up of soldiers of all ages. Some as young as 10. There were only 5 of them to escort what left of my original group of people. By then there were only 79 of us all together. During that five awful days at Tasource Hill, eight had died earlier including 6 children and two elderly men. I wondered why there were so few of them if they were going to kill all 79 of us? The oldest soldier came over in front us and spoke loudly so that everyone could hear him. He told us that we were being moved to the Great Lake (Tonle Sap lake) to catch fish for the government. He also said that there will food to eat there. Suddenly, people were talking among each other about the news. We were all very skeptic about the seeming miraculous news. However, it makes sense as most of us in this group were at one time commercial fishermen at the Great Lake. They told us just what we wanted to hear. The food, the chance to catch and eat fresh fish from the lake, and to get away from the misery of Tasource Hill. They all sounded too good to be true. I was completely fooled by the news. Well, perhaps a little doubt. And so did the rest of the people in my group. We would have to wait and see what the future would hold for us.
They took us South through a familiar muddy road toward the Great Lake which is about six or seven miles away. The last time I walked on this very same road was just last years. I was on another Mobile Brigade project. The longer we were on that road, the more relax we were. Perhaps they are telling us the truth? We seemed to head in the right direction. There were only five of them and they can't possibly killed all 79 of us Could they?
After about 3 miles of walking, They asked us to stop and wait for the rest of the group to catch up. People were very weak and the 3 miles hike took its toll. Another child have died on the way. The soldiers allowed the mother to bury her child with hesitation. It was another 20 or 30 minutes before the rest caught up.
They wanted us to move on quickly with the setting of the sun. They had first asked all the able men, both young and old, to come and gather in front of the group. The men were then told to bring all kind of tools, especially knives and axes with them. They said that the men needed to go ahead of the group to build a camp for the rest of us. The men were soon lined up in a single file with their tools in hand. I watched my brother Sarey as he walked reluctantly to join the line after saying good bye to his pregnant wife. I told him that I would take good care of Oum, my sister-in-law. The group disappeared shortly in the darken sky. That was the last time I ever saw Sarey and the rest of the men again.
The sky was getting darker and a chillier. The notorious Tonle Sap mosquitoes began to rule the night sky. After about 30 minutes or so, The two soldiers that lead the men returned. They quickly conferred with their fellow comrades about something not far away. One or two of the people from my group over heard something quite unbelievable. And the shocking news quickly spread among the people within the group. I learned later that they said something like, "a few got way." It only meant one thing, the men were all dead except a few who managed to escape.
It was about 7 or 8 o'clock in the evening when we were ordered to move on again. By this time, the children who still have enough energy to cry were crying and screaming as loud as they could. It was mainly from hunger and exhaustion, but also from the attack by the swamping mosquitoes. Amongst the cry of the children, I could hear the sobbing and weeping of the people who lost their love ones. I still had my doubt about the whole situation, although the odds were stacked against us. If we didn't die of starvation, exhaustion, or mosquitoes bite, there was a good chance that we might be killed by the hands of the soldiers.
The thought of me actually come face to face with death terrified me for the first time. I have thought of escaping right then, but could not do it after a long consideration. I didn't have the heart to leave my family, especially my pregnant sister-in-law who was already a week overdue. Beside, where would I go from here? I will eventually recaptured and then killed later on. If I was to die, I preferred to die among my love ones. There were plenty of opportunities for me to escape, but I just couldn't do it. And so I reluctantly trekked with the rest of the group, with my sister-in-law Oum over my right shoulder and a small bag of belongings on my left. Somehow it was ironic that night, We were knowingly walked toward our death just like cattle that were being herded toward a slaughter house. We all knew where we were heading. Even the children seemed to know it as well. I still had a little doubt despite of everything that I have seen and heard thus far. Perhaps it was a faint hope, a hope that these Khmer Rouge soldiers were not the cold heart killers. Perhaps.
A few miles before we were to reach the Great Lake, they ordered us to turn off to the West instead of continuing down South as planned. It was a very muddy, sticky road. My feet seemed to stuck in the mud every single time I put it down to go forward. The progress was slow and cumbersome. A few people got stuck there just like in a quick sand bog and the soldiers would come over to kick and beat them up. I never knew if they ever made it. I was busy helping Oum and myself move forward and didn't really care anymore. All that time I was trying to calm myself down and keeping a clear mind. Oum was beyond help. Her quiet weep has now became a full blown scream. She was in a bad shape physically and emotionally. She said that she had a stomach cramp or was in labor, she wasn't sure. It was to be her first child. She didn't know much about child birth or contraction, and neither did I. All that I could do was dragging her across the muddy flat so that the soldiers won't come and beat us to dead right there then. It was pathetic. We were no more than 300 yards off the main road when they asked us to sit down on the edge of a small shallow canal that ran East to West. Both our legs were stretched forward and we had to shut up or they had to beat us up. It was a matter of minutes when a large group of soldiers numbering 50 plus suddenly emerged from a hidden place in the near by forest. It was really dark by then, but I could tell that they were soldiers with AR-47 rifles, Carbines and large clobbers in their hands from the silhouettes. One began to shout loudly to us as the rest surrounded the group with their rifles aimed directly at us. People began to plea for their lives. The soldiers screamed for all of us to shut up. They said that they only wished to ask a few questions and that was all they wanted. They also said that it was an interrogation and that they were suspecting there were enemies among our group. They claimed that there were Vietnamese Agents in our group which was a bogus claim since we knew each other for many years. It was a tactic, their dirty trick to keep us calm, weak and under control. It was very effective because all the strong men who could rise against them were the first to go. What left of people in my group were women, children, the sick and the weak. They had us right where they wanted. It was a premeditated plan.
A soldier walked toward me and yanked a cotton towel from me and shredded it into many small strips. I was the first one to be tied up tightly by the soldiers with one of the strip. I was stun and quite terrified. I began to resist a little. After a few blows to the head with rifle buts, I let them do as they please with me. My head began to bleed from a cut. I was still semi-conscious. I could feel the pain and blood flowing down on my face. They were using me as example of what one would get if they got any kind of resistance. They quickly tied the rest without any problem. By this time it was totally chaotic as people continued to plea for their lives. I was getting more and more dizzy as blood continued to drip across my face and into my right eye. It was the first time that I have tears in my eyes, not from the blood nor the pain, but from the really that was soon setting in. I was numbed from fear.
I was beyond horrified when I heard the clobbering began. Somehow, I knew that was it. Oum's elderly father was next to me and his upper torso contracted several times before it fell on me. At that moment, I noticed a small boy whom I knew well got up and started to call for his mother. And then there was a warm splash-on my face and body. I knew it was definitely not mud. It was the little boy's blood and perhaps brain tissues that got scattered from the impact. The rest only let out short but terrifying sputtered sounds and I could hear the breath stopped cold in its track. Everything seemed to happen in a slow motion and it was so unreal. It happened in a matter of seconds and very fast, but I could still vividly remembered every trifling details. I closed my eyes, but the terrifying sounds continued to penetrate my ear canals and piercing my ear drums. The first one that came was when I was laying face down to the ground with a body partially covered my lower body. It hits me just below my right shoulder blade. I remembered that one very well. The next one hit me just above my neck on the right side of my head. I believed it was the one that put me to sleep that night. The rest, which was at least 15 blows, landed everywhere on my skinny body.
Fortunately, I did not feel them until much later. I did not remember anything after that. And I slept very well that night.
I woke up to the sound of mosquitoes which were still buzzing like bees over my body. Only this time, there were tons and tons of them feasting on mine and other people blood. I was unable to move a muscle, not one. My eyes were opened, but they were blurry. I thought I was blinded. I was disoriented. I could not remember where I was. I thought I was sleeping at home on my own bed. I was wondering why there were so many mosquitoes. They didn't bother me at that time because I could not feel a thing. Where am I? Why can't I move? I was still tied up with the cloth rope. After a few minutes, I was able to see a little, but everything else was still blurry. I saw a bare foot in the line of my sight, but I didn't know whose it was. Suddenly, reality set in at full blast and I broke into heavy sweat. The memories of event that happened earlier came rushing back and smacked me right in the head. I realized the sharp dull pain all over my body and head. I was very cold. I have never been so cold in my entire life. Fears ran rampant in my mine. I suddenly realized where I was and what had happened. Am I already dead? If I am, why do I still suffer like this? I kept on asking myself that same questions over and over again, but only came to the same conclusion. I am still alive. I am alive! Why? I could not understand why I was still alive and suffering. I should have been dead. I wished then that I was dead like the rest of people laying there.
The faint light of a new dawn broke through revealing my shriveling, blood soaked body in the mud. It must have been about 4 or 5 o'clock in the morning of January 1, 1978. "Not a Happy New Year today, "I thought. It was still dark and cold. My motor skills came back a little by little and I was able to move with great difficulty. I pushed myself to sit up by hanging to the pile of dead bodies. I began to work to untie myself from the cloth rope. I broke the rope after a few painful tries. My eyes site were also back, but I wished then that I was blind instead after seeing the scattered bodies laying at every direction. Some were beyond recognition. Some were completely stripped naked. Blood stains which already turned dark color gave the area a new dimension. It definitely not a sight for sore eyes.
I wanted to look around for my relatives, but was unable to turn around. My neck was stiff with pain. My head hurt, oh how it hurts so bad. I could only feel around me with my two hands. Everywhere I touch was cold flesh. My hands were both trembling and I could not control them from shaking. I cried my heart out when I recognized a few dead bodies next to me. One of which was Oum and her unborn child. I suddenly remembered the bare foot I saw when I woke up. It was hers. Her elderly father, her two sisters were all part way on top of each other and side by side as though they were embracing just before they lost their lives. I could not go on. My cry turned to a sob and it was the only sound around beside the mosquitoes which continued to torment my almost bloodless body. I began to fade and feel as though my life was slipping away. I passed out again on top of the dead bodies. I was totally out cold.
I woke up to the sound of people coming toward the killing field. I sat up and listen closely. I began to panic. "They are back to finish me off," I told myself, "They are going to bury me alive!" They might as well. I got nothing to live for. Technically, I was already dead. I was ready to give up as the voices were getting closer and louder when my survival instinct finally took control. I pushed myself, inching my way toward nearby bushes. I was no more than 20 feet away from where I was earlier and command a good view of the area. The people soon arrived at the site. I was right. They were back with a new batch of victims with them. Most of the people were men, but a few were women. Their hands were all bounded together to the back at elbow tightly with real rope. "'There's no way they can get out of that rope," I said to myself. One of the soldier gave a command. In broad morning light, I was again witnessed the slaughter of human lives. In just seconds, they were all clobbered to death just like the rest of my family and friends whose bodies were still scattered on the muddy ground. My heart just stopped. My entire body shook convulsively and I wanted to throw up. My left hand squeezed tightly over my mouth so that I wouldn't accidentally cry out and gave myself away. I felt as though I went through the same ordeal all over again. My mind just could not take it anymore. My mind went blind and I passed out again.
It was not until the next night before I was really awaked. A day went by just like I wasn't there. I remembered waking up several times during the day, but everything was kind of foggy. Soon after I was awaked, more people were coming toward me again. I assumed they were more victims to be killed. I did not wait to find out. I decided then that I wanted to be alive. I began to slip away from the area by crawling on all my elbows and knees. I couldn't walk even if I wanted to for that matter. I was no longer bleeding, but I knew that I was in a bad shape. I was hungry and very thirsty. My lips cracked like mud in the hot sun. My entire body cracked because I got mud and blood mixed together and baked in the hot sun. I had to find water soon or I would died of thirst. I worked my way West along the shallow-dried up canal and then turned North. By this time it was really dark and chill again. I found myself in a middle of an impenetrable brushes and forested areas. I went back and forth trying to find a way to go through the thick forest and ended up back where I first started, near the killing area. After the fourth or fifth times, I found myself in the middle of the forest, got tangled up, and very frustrated. I knew that I was getting very weak and needed to find my way out of the tangle web of thick thorny brushes soon, if I was to stay alive. I spent the night right where I was, crying myself to sleep. That night I slept like a log.
For the next 17 days, I found my self hiding out in the forest. I slept only at day time and spending my night raiding one village to another for what ever I can find to eat. My injuries healed quickly and I began to put on some weight thanks to the food that I had stolen from the surrounding villages. I never stay in one place long. I was on the move and always watched out for any sign of danger. I knew that they were searching for me and I was able to keep a step or two ahead of them. They always counted body and if one missing, they always search and usually recapture the escapee. It was very difficult for me at first, but I was soon became expert in the art of raiding and eluding capture. I am sure that I have really frustrated a few Khmer Rouge soldiers who were searching for me during my 17 days reign as king of the jungle.
Life during that 17 days was never easy. Every single day I waited for the day when I get a chance to revenge for the death of my family and friends. One day that opportunity arrived. I stumbled accidentally on a group of escapees who were also hiding in the forest. I almost got killed because they thought I was a Khmer Rouge's spy. The only thing that save me from a certain death was my recent injuries. They believed my story. The next night, all of us numbering 200 Plus both men and women broke up into three groups and went out to attack Khmer Rouge's garrison for food and weapon. Despite the lack of organization and weapon, we went against an army with only sticks, stones, a few knives and two recently dug up grenades. The element of surprise was gone when the old-rusty grenades fail to explode. Most of us got mowed down like weeds. There were heavy casualty. Many died and wounded during the attack and counter attack. It was a total failure on our side. Although we obtained a few pistols and rifles, we did not really reach our objectives which was to get food, weapon and take over the garrison. However, many of us were able to hurt or kill quite a few soldiers during the attack. I may have killed at least one and hurt a few with my home made "cave man's clobber." At 15 years old, I was the youngest in the group at that time, but I fought just as brave or even braver than any men or women out there. I was burning and boiling inside with hate. I was fearless. Life meant nothing to me. I decided to live only to kill the Khmer Rouge and that one night I was a savage animal with only rage.
Most of us were killed or captured during the army full scale counter attack. Our hide out in the wood was shelled day and night for three days until hardly anything was left standing. I stuck with the three leader where ever they go. The four of us managed to get away and headed to Thailand. After 15 days of hiking the 150 miles, we found ourselves in Thai's jail and then prison. Thai's Authority considered us as "Political Prisoners" simply because we arrived when they closed the border. And the four of us were not alone as there were over 600 others like us who were kept in a 75x75 meters cell. Living condition was bad and the treatment we got from the Thai was even worst. But I must admit that I would rather be in Thai's prison than in Khmer Rouge's anytime. At least we were fed and clothed like a human being or at least better than the Khmer Rouge would. Also for being the youngest of the prisoner, I got a better treatment than the others as I got to know some of the guards really well. I used that privilege to my best advantage. I weight a little less than 80 pounds when I first arrived in Thailand. Within 4 weeks, I manage to gain over 20 pounds.
We all spent 5 months in Thai's prison before we eventually moved to a refugee camp near the Thai-Cambodian border. I waited for a recruitment drive for freedom fighter to fight the Khmer Rouge while I was in the refugee camp, but they did not accept me because I was "too young and too skinny." I even told them that I was almost 18, but it was no use. And so I got stuck in one place and very frustrated. I could not go back to fight and staying in the camp would only led me to commit suicide. My life had no meaning at that time. There was nothing to live for. I thought that I should live so that I may one day revenged the death of my love ones. My purpose in life was gone when they refused to take me to fight the Khmer Rouge. I thought that I should end my life just like my fellow refugees who had already killed themselves. "That was too easy! I am a survivor. I will not died so cowardly." I told myself.
My life began to turn around when a CBS News producer name Brian T. Ellis showed up at the camp one day. I was interviewed for a documentary called, "What Happened to Cambodia" which was later broadcasted in the United States. Mr. Ellis took me out side of the camp for the very first time in months. I tasted freedom and I liked it a lot. That day with Mr. Ellis was special and I have never forgot it. my life began to change for the better after Mr. Ellis have left. That one time encounter with Mr. Ellis change my perspective about life. I got a reason to go on living. It was a chance for a new life and to get an education. Later, I was in contact with a cousin name Khen Chen who worked for Voice of America in Washington, DC. I eventually got sponsored by Rhen and her husband Chun to come to America. I arrived in Washington, DC in late October 1978 after a long miserable 8 months in Thailand. The other three men would eventually settled in a third country as well. Two of them are now residing in the United States and another is currently in France. They all remarried and are doing well.
I went on and make a new life for myself. I later graduated from high school and eventually got a degree from the University of Oregon in 1988. I married to Thavy, a Cambodian women and have a daughter who is two years old. I am currently working for the U.S. Forest Service in Bend, Oregon as a District Landscape Architect since my graduation. Life could not be better for me now. I still have the nightmare about the massacre on that dark December night. It has never completely gone away from my mind and I am still horrified just for thinking about it. Time does not heal such an emotional trauma, at least not for me. However, I have long since learned to live with it. Although it has not gone away from my mind, my life must and will go on.
The CBS News Producer whom I have not heard from for 10 years decided to show up at my graduation with his crew for a follow up story. It was great to see the man who is continue to influence my life once again. We are now good friends and continue to keep in touch with each other. He is no longer with CBS News.
During the Winter of 1984, I received a shocking letter from a refugee camp in Thailand via my cousin Khen in Washington, DC. The letter was from my oldest brother Larony who was supposed to be dead since the fall of Cambodia in April 1975. My family received news that he was killed by the Khmer Rouge while he was in a hospital, where he was recovering from wounds when he sustained from a land mine. That was the last time anyone heard from him until his letter arrived in 1984. At the same time, I also learned that my only sister was also alive and well. On top of that, They were both married and have three children each. Both Larony and Malennie were not with the family and were able to survive the Khmer Rouge's madness. They and their families, ten people all together, worked their way to Thailand following Vietnamese occupation of Cambodia. On January 1989, after five years of struggle, they were finally granted permission to enter the United States from the refugee camp in Thailand. This was after a long battle with the Immigration and Naturalization Service. By the time they arrived in Oregon, the number grew from ten people to twelve people. Each family had a new baby who was born in the camp just weeks before their resettlement to the United States. They are now resided and doing well in Oregon. It was a heart warming and emotional reunion after so many years of loneliness and separation. The last time I saw my brother Larony was in 1973. For my sister Malennie, it was April 1975 following the Khmer Rouge take over of the country. I have not seen their families until they all arrived at Portland International Airport in 1989. It was fortunate that I did not lose my life nor the rest of my family.
On February of 1992, I returned to Cambodia for the very first time for 4 weeks. I arrived in Phnom Penh and then went on to Siem Reap my home city. It was more than just another trip. It had been more than 17 years since I last step on the ground of my home city of Siem Reap. It was more than 14 years since I last see, hear, smell, and taste of my Cambodia. It was highly emotional to a point that it almost unbearable. The pain and the anger returned to my once traumatized memory. However, I felt that Cambodia I saw was more traumatized than I was. People lives are much better now than during the Khmer Rouge's time, as I can still vividly remember, but their lives are still on hold and waiting. We all agreed that a healing process is a must in order for all parties concern to have a lasting peace. I have learned a long time ago that "one may forgive, but one must never forget the past." We must go on, life goes on and forgiveness is the key to it all. I have also realized that revenge is not the answer to my pain and anger. It was forgiveness of the people who had hurt me, both physically and emotionally. I have never achieved inner peace until after I have forgiven the murderous Khmer Rouge. In a way, I have to thanks them for they had made me who I am today, a stronger person.
I have waited for a long time for a chance to return to my native land. What I saw there was a country in a very sad situation. Cambodia is still devastated from the many years of war and foreign intervention in a negative way. From economic embargo by the United States to the destructive military machines of China, the Soviet Union (former) and Vietnam. People are still "camping out" rather living their lives the way it should be, permanently. It was a sad site to see. Nonetheless, the people are doing what they can in trying to put their lives back together. It is an up hill battle for the people who are at least 20 years behind the rest of the world on everything.
My return trip to Cambodia had given me a new insight and a new goal in life for me to reach for. Just like the Salmon, the urge is very strong to regenerate despite the hardship and the danger, and that is what the primary goal in life. I feel that my life in a way is parallel to the Salmon. I am alive today for such a purpose. It is to help regenerate or rebuild Cambodia to her best potential.
The door is opening a little by little now. Yet the waiting game continued. I feel that the longer I wait the more uneasy I become. I feel that I am a person who caught in between two cultures. I am not quite Cambodian and not quite American. Sure, I am fairly successful here in the United States and I have adapted to American life and culture well. But the longing to return home have always been utmost in my mind. I have seen Cambodia and I am not even sure if I can make it with that culture or life style either. Nonetheless, I am willing to try because it will always be home to me despite the fact that I have nothing left in Cambodia any more.
That is how I feel about Cambodia and that is why it is so important to me to help with the healing process. It is not just for Cambodia, but for me as well. After all, I am still a walking emotional wounded that need to be healed.
Life is living.
Suffering was faith.
Struggling because there's hope.
Life is everything all together.