Suching's Story: Chilhood Lost
It was 1932. A scrawny teenage boy, attempting to escape wartime horrors and horrendous poverty in China, became a refugee. He joined a boatload of people who, like him, were willing to go anywhere, wherever the boat’s owner would take them, as long as it was far from China. When the boat did make landfall, it was in Cambodia, a place where the boy knew no one. He was willing to do anything to support himself, to survive, but many Cambodians made fun of him, because he could not speak a word of their language. Lonely yet determined, he did not bother anyone, he was a hard worker, and before long, was not only accepted but liked. The boy worked long hours every day, and as time passed he grew to manhood and saved enough money to buy a small house in a small town. Soon afterwards he married. Both husband and wife earned a living by selling pigs, pork and other edibles: they earned just enough to take care of their children who eventually numbered eleven.
We lived in peace, happily, in a small town, my parents, my ten brothers and sisters and I. In 1973, when I was seven years old, the war began for us when the Khmer Rouge captured our town. At first they went to the south side of town, but we lived in the north. However, my fourth brother, Mou had recently found work in the south. Around midnight on that terrible first day, we saw and heard many people running, crying, holding on to and carrying their children. We peered out our windows. The people said ‘they’ were coming. We didn’t know who they were, and why they were coming, but my parents, the refugee from China, Taing Keang and his wife Ly, knew that it wasn’t good news.
Frantically they cut a hole in the floor just big enough to take the family, and dropped us down under the house. There we were safe from the bullets that flew on the street, and perhaps we could remain in our home, hidden from the advancing menace. We hid there with some hens, a dog and our precious pigs. About two hours later the road was clear, there was no sound, and strangers were no longer walking past. Suddenly we saw a group of Vietnamese soldiers head towards our home. My mother was so terrified she threw down her bag of jewelry and dropped to the ground at their feet. One of the soldiers picked up the bag, opened it and saw the gold. Our terror turned to amazement when the man returned all the jewelry to my mother, and told her in Cambodian how to hide and protect her valuables by wrapping them in sticky rice. They also told us to get out of the house and go far away from our town.
We did not go far at first, but hid across the street to wait for Mou, hoping he would come to look for us. We waited there about three hours, by which time my little sister Sue was crying with hunger. My father returned to the house to get some food. As he crossed the street, soldiers saw him and followed him to our hiding place. Once again we were told to leave and go far, far away from our home. We walked and ran across the fields while guns fired all around us, and bombs fell not far away. We reached a place where soldiers had dug tunnels to protect themselves. No one was there, so we guessed the soldiers had surrendered. We used the area to hide ourselves temporarily. Since it was small, we had to hide in separate places.
The next day, as I was searching anxiously for my mother, a bomb fell right in front of me. Smoke and dirt covered me, but my mother saw what happened and ran out and grabbed me. I was filthy and frightened, but not harmed. That evening as the sun went down, we saw a neighbor walking by. He told us he had walked with Mou that morning and he had been looking for us. However, they had been unable to find us, and had separated. We waited for a few days until my oldest brother, Hou, came from Battambang to get us. We had to move on, but my parents did not want to go. They wanted to wait for Mou. However, Hou persuaded them that we could not wait, because if the Khmer Rouge found us the whole family would risk capture. My parents agreed, but it was an agonizing decision to leave a child behind.
We walked through the forests and fields for days and nights. Finally, we reached a train station where we heard people say that all the people in the South who had been kidnapped by the Khmer Rouge, had been murdered. The Khmer Rouge had cut off their heads without mercy. My mother wept, hoping that they were wrong. In our hearts and minds we waited for my brother Mou to return, but there was no sign of him at all. We never saw him again.
We eventually took a train ride to Battambang, a city not far from our home village. My family lived there until 1975, when the Khmer Rouge took over the capital of Cambodia. Many people thought the killings would stop. Many Cambodian generals and members of the army were so happy they fired their guns in the air, and said our country would be peaceful and happy from now on. They laid down their weapons, which were immediately seized by the Khmer Rouge.
As the world now knows, the Khmer Rouge lied. They told the generals to wear their uniforms, and they would be received by the Prince. Our Prince was revered and some people were so anxious to see him alive, they bought uniforms to wear, even though they were not military officers. Those in uniforms soon disappeared. Prince Sihanouk had left Cambodia.
We were now at the mercy of a new leader called Pol Pot, and his army of henchmen known as the Khmer Rouge (Red Khmer) for their tribal and their political beliefs. I later learned they had come into power after defeating the corrupt, American backed government of Lon Nol, who had overthrown the Prince in 1970.
The Khmer Rouge gave us three days to leave the city, after which time remaining citizens would be shot. My mother, four brothers, two sisters and I stayed at home while father went to a meeting near the airport, at which people were supposed to get information. Because he was Chinese, my father hoped he would be able to remain in the city. He left around 5 a.m. and by noon he had not returned. My mother refused to go until we were threatened with guns. Hou, our oldest brother arrived and called to us to go with him. Thousands of people were walking very slowly along the road, and soon we were walking with them. We had no idea where we were going; we just followed the others. It seemed my father had lost us, but incredibly, he met up with us after about three miles. He told us the Khmer Rouge let him choose which of two ways to go: east or west. If he went to the east he could not return. My father used to say that if we lived in the West, whatever happened, we could run to Thailand, but he had chosen the east because he knew that was where Hou would lead us.
The Khmer Rouge forced us to live in fields where there were no dwellings. We had to build our own homes, although many people did not know how to do this. There was no wood provided. We had to go to the forest, cut the wood or bamboo, and gather branches and leaves to cover the walls and roof.
Soon we ran out of food. We had not been able to bring much because we had nothing to put it on, or carry it in. All that we had with us had been carried in our arms. My fifth and sixth brothers, Pheit and Lurm, would go out to gather forest fruits. One day, Lurm climbed to the top of a tree then fell down. He made Pheit promise not to tell our parents, because he was afraid they would be angry. He had been very sick, and had been unable to help the family. We all had to go out into the forest and fields to forage for food and catch fish. Even if we had had money, we could not have used it, because the Khmer Rouge had closed the markets. They had also closed all the schools. My childhood and that of thousands of other children had ended. We had nothing but our families and our lives to cling to.
We soon realized something was wrong with Lurm. He tried to keep himself busy, but often he sat and did nothing at all. My father became more angry with him, because he suspected he was lazy. He would not let him eat anything except rice with salt. I felt that I should give him some of my food, but I did not. Finally, one day Lurm went out alone with a bucket. When he returned it was full of fish. My father and other brothers came home empty handed that day, but their sadness soon turned to joy. Over dinner, we learned how Lurm had fallen from the tree. Our mother wept, but she was unable to do anything for him, or any one of her children.
A week later, the Khmer Rouge began to murder people such as generals, soldiers, lawyers and doctors, teachers, singers, actors, and the wealthy. They were condemned because it was said that such people had lived easy lives. Teenage girls who had been born into rich families were often raped and killed when they were found. After the purge, we were permitted to work in the fields, and eat together. I thought it would be fun to share food, but it didn't work out the way I imagined it.
We worked and worked from morning well into the night, every single day. It was decreed that we could wear only black, so we dyed all our clothes by soaking them in black mud. We worked in the fields in muddy, dirty water. We had no toothbrushes to clean our teeth, no soap to soothe our bodies, no shampoo to shine our hair, and no detergent to wash our clothes. When our clothes became torn we wore them torn; when they were wet we wore them until they dried.
We worked separately from our families and saw them only at night. Some of the wealthy people were unable to live in this way, and in desperation killed themselves and their children. Each day we were worked harder and harder. Those too old to work in the fields cared for the babies. We told time by the sun. Those who became ill, did not eat. The Khmer Rouge began to systematically separate families, and about six months later we were sent to another place, far away from my oldest brother, Hou. Lurm was now well and he and Pheit worked very hard carrying heavy loads from place to place.
By Spring of 1976 there was no rice in the barns or fields, no fish in the ponds and canals, no food anywhere. The weak wails of hungry children could be heard everywhere. In the town where we lived, people were terrifyingly thin; many died each day from starvation or execution. We ate things we had never eaten before, things we sometimes did not even recognize; things like worms, grasshoppers, centipedes, termites, crickets, and snakes became food for a starving populace. People died from eating poisonous creatures and fruits. Sometimes we went to the rice paddies to dig for crabs in the mud, but this was to risk poisonous snake bites. Lurm had been returned to us because he had developed an infection around his ankles, and could no longer work. He became another mouth to feed.
Now there was no rice to eat we had to find our own. While fishing one day, my parents met some soldiers who were pushing a wagon full of rice. Father helped them, hoping he would receive some rice, but they gave him nothing. My youngest brother, Oun, looked at the place where we cooked food, and silent tears ran down his thin cheeks.
Lurm was attempting to take care of his legs. He had no medicine, just plants which grew in the forest. He always shared his food with me, despite our having so little. He would drink the rice water and leave the rice for me. My legs were swelling, and people said I should drink less water. The food that was cooked for us was bad: it smelled because it had spoiled. Sometime we could see worms and other unpleasant things in it. Eventually Lurm’s ankles became a little better, so he returned to his labors. However, the infection returned and became worse, and his legs bled when he struggled to work. He was sent to a so-called hospital, staffed by young people who called themselves doctors, but couldn’t read. They were simply taught to inject those who could no longer work with drugs or bad water, which would cause their death.
One day my father harvested some tobacco that he and my mother had grown. He took it to the town where Lurm had been sent to the ‘hospital’, a long day’s walk away, to exchange it for rice. He got three cans of unhulled rice. One went to Lurm, and one to a neighbor whose son lived with Lurm. The next day, as the sun was going down, she came to tell us that my sixth brother had died, and so had her son. She said that before Lurm died he climbed up on a wall to beg the other people who worked there to let him see his family before he died. No one cared. He said that if he couldn’t see his family he would not get down, and so he hung on to that wall until he died. We never knew where they buried his body. A week later they took Pheit to that same place of death, but he was able to run away and come home.
My father became desperately ill from hunger. He decided to ask Pheit to write a letter to Hou to ask him to send us some food. My father knew that his son had some food, but he now lived with someone else. Pheit was embarrassed to write such a letter, but my father explained that it was acceptable because he had taken care of Hou since he was born. Each day, when he looked at us, my father would shake his head, and shed tears. He said he would do anything to help us. Pheit sent the letter, and day after day my father waited and waited in the hope his oldest son would save us from starvation. He always waited in front of the house, and every day he told my youngest brother to be a good boy so his brother would come with food. Many days went by, but his son never came.
My father could wait no longer. Before he died he was hallucinating, but around midnight he took off his shirt and went back to sleep. He was saving the shirt for his sons. When my mother awoke she saw that his head had slipped off the pillow. She began to wake him up, but he no longer heard her. We began to cry, and my mother, in a frantic attempt to revive him, bumped his head against the wall. She told Pheit to get my oldest brother. I went to the place where they cooked food to ask for some rice water, but when my mother fed it to my father he could not swallow it. When the sun went down, both of my other brothers came, but my father had stopped breathing. Hou tried to give him some medicine by injection, but it was too late.
We could not find anyone to help us bury him, because everyone in the town was so weak, and many died every single day. Two of my brothers buried him without a coffin. After that Hou had to go back to work.
It was now 1977. Rice had been produced in enough quantities to store some, but still we were not given enough to eat. My twelve year old brother Morm, had begun to steal rice from a barn near our house. We had to cook the rice in secret, and used bird calls to signal danger to each other. It terrified my mother, but my brother told her: “If I steal it, I die; if I do not steal it, we die.”
One day a local leader’s son lost his chicken. He came to our house and accused us of stealing it. We denied the charge, but he refused to believe us and began to search inside and under the house. He found a stolen bag of rice that Morm had hidden inside a blanket. He took the rice to his leaders. When my mother came home from work they took her to the leaders who asked where she got the rice. She replied that her oldest son had brought it from another town. They didn’t do anything to her, but they kept the rice. Morm went back to steal some more that night. He was carrying the rice on his back when he met a soldier riding a horse. It was known that this man had killed his wife and an uncle. He asked Morm where he was going and what he had on his back. My brother told him it was his old blanket, and that he wished to spend a night at home. Fortunately, the soldier did not search the bag, and sent my brother away. Had he found the rice, my brother, perhaps my whole family, would have been executed.
After that Morm and my oldest sister, Knae, had to work. One day Knae felt sick and couldn’t get up. Her leader came and pulled her from under the bed, then they were both sent far away from town as a punishment. Knae worked in the deep corn fields where her job was to tend the corn and yell when animals came into the fields. She sat on a big tree so she could see clearly, and often waited by herself, sitting silently, weeping, all alone. She saw many large monkeys jumping from tree to tree. Some were bigger than she was, and they scared her. She rarely saw people walking by, and at night she climbed down to the ground to sleep alone.
One night Knae was sleeping when the wind blew up. It became cold and she tried to grab her blanket beside her. She heard a noise and knew it was a snake because, although she couldn’t see it, she recognized the sound. She stood very still, then tried to walk backwards until she could turn around and run as fast as she could. She told some boys and they killed the snake, which was large and long. It made a good meal.
Before long, Morm came back home because he became very angry when someone took his blanket, and some dried fish he had been saving for his family. Fortunately, his leader liked him and instead of punishing him, she asked the people in town to let him work close to home.
It was almost the end of 1977, the local leaders had changed, and the people had a little more rice to eat. My little sister and I were in a work camp where we lived in a big hut with many other children, but had different leaders. Our job was to make fertilizer. We had to get up as soon as we heard the roosters sing, about 3 a.m., and form lines. Often we fell to the ground because we were still so sleepy. We came back at dusk. One day my little sister had a fever. When she didn’t get up her leader came to pull her out. I tried to persuade the leader to let her have one day off, but she would not permit it. We went to pick leaves which we chopped up and mixed with cow manure. My sister couldn’t climb the tree, so I picked extra leaves and gave them to her. My leader refused to allow this, and told the other girls to watch me. They always picked on my sister and me because our light skin made us look different from the other girls. My mother told us not to feel bad because they didn’t know what they were talking about, but it was little comfort.
Some six months later, I had not seen my mother and baby brother Oun, and I missed them terribly. I told my little sister Sue to line up behind everybody else so we could run away to find our mother. I simply had to see her. We slipped away and walked from dusk to dawn. A wild fruit tree appeared in our path, and I climbed it to gather fruit for my mother and brother. It was then I saw the man who had supposedly killed his own uncle, the man who nearly caught my brother. I scrambled down the tree, grabbed my sister, and we ran as fast and as far as we could through the high grass and trees. We arrived after dark, very hungry, but when our mother asked her leader for food for us, the woman refused. We did not belong to this group and were told to return to our own.
Later I was sent to work in the rice fields, where my job was to scare away the birds. The rice was taller than I so I waited at the top of a tree. When lunch time came they told us to come down. We never had enough food, and when the leader was gone, I would sneak out to catch some small fish with my friend. I worried a lot about my youngest brother, Oun, afraid that he would do something wrong and be killed for it. He lived with my mother and stayed at home by himself. His job was to gather cow manure each morning, but he did not like the work. Every morning he woke early before they came to take him to work, and hid in a tree. However, when he did not work he did not get any food. He was soon very hungry and went to the fields where they dried rice. Oun always looked around to see if anyone was watching, then he took a coconut shell, put rice in it, and ran home as fast as he could to hull the rice with his little fingers. He would cook the rice so the whole family could share it. Once a man saw him, followed him, and caught him halfway home. My brother was so frightened he bit the man’s hand and escaped. He ran as fast as he could, without looking back, but the man followed him all the way home. Oun hid himself, shaking with fear, in a dark corner of the house. With no hesitation, the man went inside and grabbed him. Fortunately, Hou, whom we hadn’t seen for a year, had returned. Because he was dressed in a uniform, the man thought he was a leader, released Oun, and walked away. Had Hou not been there our little brother would have been beaten with a stick, and suffocated with a plastic bag. It happened every day to children who stole food.
Hou had gone to another area to live because the Khmer Rouge had tried to kill him. He was anxious to have us join him there where he had made friends, one of whom was a leader, and people were kinder and more understanding. Incredibly, there was no killing, and his new companions had told him to bring us to live there. There was plenty of food in the area, so many people had gone there to live, but all risked death if they were caught. Some people were too frightened to take such a risk. My mother went to ask her leader for permission to leave, but the leader was out of town. We could not leave. Hou took Knae and Oun and left. It was 1978.
Sometimes I sneaked out at night and walked in the deep fields, because I wanted to sleep with my mother. She would be angry to be woken up, but I needed to know she was alive. I always returned before they lined us up for work. One morning I woke up late, and when I got back no one was there. I didn’t know where our team was working that day, because we always went to different places. I tried to find them, but couldn’t. Instead I saw my mother working in a rice field and went to help her. When it was lunch time, they gave food to my mother. She asked them for food for me and they refused. Being a child provided no protection or privileges. Mother did not know that they had begun to kill more people in that area, especially those who had light skin, so perhaps this saved us from death.
One day I was working in the field when I saw two men with their hands tied very tightly behind their backs. I wondered how I would feel if those men were my brothers. What would I do? Soon they were untied, and told that if they finished their work on time they could go free. They had no hope of completing the work they were told to do, no matter how hard they worked. This was one of many ways the Khmer Rouge made a game of murder.
I was taking a break one day in the year 1979, walking to the mango trees to try to pick up some of the fallen fruit. I heard people crying, so I followed the sound and saw more than thirty men and women with their hands tied behind their backs. About ten young soldiers some still in their teens, were holding their guns and waiting. I hid behind a big mango tree and tall grass. I began to weep. I wept because I loved my mother so much, and I was imagining it happening to her. They reminded the prisoners that their small children were at home waiting for them, and I imagined that I was one of those children. Later they took their victims into the deep forest. I heard the gunshots, I knew they had all died, and their children would wait forever. The very next day we were working in the fields when we heard gunshots and bombs bursting. An airplane dropped pieces of paper to the ground. I picked up the flyer, but as I was unable to read a woman working next to me read it. It said the Vietnamese had won the war and they would soon come to help us. At first the Khmer Rouge told us the guns and bombs were thunderstorms. They told us they would kill anyone who tried to leave, or who spoke about the events.
On January 7, 1979 the Vietnamese soldiers began coming to the cities as the Khmer Rouge surrendered. Many ran away and tried to hide themselves, taking a lot of food with them. Some tried to hide in the deep forests. When we woke up one morning we couldn’t find our leaders so we went to their houses. When we couldn’t find anyone, we stole some rice from the barns and ran like our leaders.
My mother, my sister Sue and I went to stay in the fields hoping that we would be safe there. Morm found us, but again there were gunshots and bombs falling. We couldn't sleep so we sat there and watched. When we saw people leaving we followed them; we didn’t know where we were going. In the morning Pheit arrived, and we were so happy to be together. We walked and ran as we tried to escape from that place, but we became lost in the forest. We walked almost a week and found a small town. The people in the town were still working, and they were all as thin as we had been in 1976. Mother worried that they might force us to stay there to work with them, but they had no interest in us. When the sun went down I saw an old man walking by. He asked if we had seen his son. We told him we had seen no one, and invited him to sit down and have some food. He refused, and told us that if his leader saw him he would kill him. He had been given three days to find his son or be executed. This was his final day.
We ran away from there, but people had to stop to take a rest, and when we stopped we saw a lot of dead fish in the paddy fields. We could gather them with our hands. Our meal had been provided by bombs.
One morning Sue and I went to get water. We saw water in a shallow well, which made my sister so happy she rushed forward and tripped into the hole head first. I tried to pull her out, but could not. Luckily Pheit saw us, and ran to help. There was only a little water in the hole, but she might have drowned just when we had some hope of living.
Now that the cities were liberated we tried to escape the countryside. My mother carried a blanket and other things; my fifth brother carried about sixty pounds of rice in a pan; Morm carried some dishes my mother had found after people threw them away for being too heavy. My brother was angry because they were too heavy for him, so he shook them until they broke. My sister carried about ten pounds of rice; I carried some water and cooked food. We were walking on a very hot day, but as we got closer to the city we ran out of water and stopped to rest.
We saw seven men carrying long knives. They had angry faces. We asked questions of the people around us, and they told us that we would see a lot of people like them if we continued on. Two days later, as the sun went down, the men came back with a fat man in a wagon. A lot of people ran after the wagon into a field not far from where we were resting. We could hear and see what the crowd was saying and doing to the large man: they accused him of killing their husbands, wives, children, parents and others. He had made people work brutally hard, and given them no food. He was one of the Khmer Rouge leaders and he had been the leader of this angry group. They threw stones at him until he died. Then the people discussed what to do about his wife and children, but the seven men said they would let her live to care for the children.
As we moved away we saw many dead bodies lying by the road with their faces to the ground. They all wore black clothes. We went on for about five miles, until my mother, my sister and I could go no further. Our legs ached and throbbed. Pheit and Morm left us there and went ahead to Battambang to find my other brothers. We were very scared as there were no people living nearby, and almost no one walking by. A young man appeared one day, stayed with us, shared his food with us, then disappeared along the road. We stayed there several days waiting for my brothers to return. I will always remember the flies. They were everywhere.
At sunset one day, I was standing on the road hoping someone would pass by, when suddenly I saw Knae. She was riding an old bicycle. I thought I was dreaming because we hadn’t seen each other for more than a year. She told us Pheit was behind her about a mile because he was on foot. The bike was too small for two. They told us Hou had left the city. As we moved on, we suddenly saw Korm, my third brother. He had been looking for us since the Khmer Rouge had surrendered. He kept looking behind us all hoping he would see my father and my sixth brother, Lurm. He had heard that Lurm had died, but he did not want to believe it. We were so excited, but we all began to cry because we hadn’t seen him in over four years. On the way back we talked and talked. He asked how our sixth brother and father had died, and he informed us that our second brother, Ho, had managed to escape to Thailand after the Khmer Rouge took over. He didn’t know if he had lived or died.
We reached a bridge which had been destroyed in the war, so we had to swim under the ruins to reach the city of Battambang. There we saw our Oun, the one who caused my mother and me to weep day and night because we missed him so much. Now we cry because we are so happy.
Thus we began our new lives. We lived in an old hut, something the people had in abundance. We owned nothing, but Korm had saved plenty of rice for us. My mother sold brown sugar and dried fish. One day soldiers came and pointed their guns at her. They told to her to sell it about sixty percent less than the price we had to pay for it.
A school was opened. I had always wished to go to school so I could read stories. At that time we had no television. I was the oldest student in the class, and the neighbors made fun of me, but I didn’t care. I was a very eager student, and a few months later I knew how to read. During school break Knae and I sold cigarettes. My brothers went to Thailand to try to buy things to sell, but this was illegal in Thailand, and many people had been killed trying.
In 1981 my mother had a vivid dream in which a man came to tell her that her son was alive. She asked, “Which one of my sons is still alive?” The man in the dream told her that she would learn her son’s whereabouts in a few days. A few days later Hou came home and said that my second brother, Ho, was in America. He had sent his friend who lived in a Thai Camp, to bring us to Thailand. My mother was terrified because he said we could walk only at night. She decided we would remain in Cambodia.
One afternoon in October, a man arrived while we were eating and said that we had to leave immediately or not at all. Thankfully, this time, our mother changed her mind. Near the border, soldiers waited to stop us and ask where we were going. They made us read Cambodian writing because they thought we were Vietnamese, many of whom tried to escape from their country through Cambodia. Vietnamese were sent back or jailed, and we too would have been jailed had they suspected we were escaping Cambodia. We told them that we were going to a relative’s wedding, so we were permitted to leave. That night we stayed at a relative’s house, and soldiers came and tried to arrest us. What they wanted was money, so my mother gave them some and they left. Because we felt sure they would come back, we moved on to a friend’s house. This time they did not find us.
We stayed there for three days, before moving on to an old house surrounded by water. There were fifty people waiting there. At night a group of people dressed like soldiers came to rob us, and raped some of the girls. They took everything they saw. My mother, sisters and I slept on a dirty kitchen floor. One of the women knew the ‘soldiers’ had raped some girls, so she told her two daughters to sleep with us. One chose not to and was assaulted that night. They didn’t find us, but no one could sleep. In the morning we left that terrible house and moved close to the border.
We met two Vietnamese who spoke some Cambodian, and some Cambodians who said they would help us cross the border. We were close to the mountains where Vietnamese soldiers stand guard over the border. Suddenly, my mother became very frightened and exhausted. She fell to the ground begging us to leave her there and carry on, but we refused and gathered around her protectively.
The Vietnamese soldiers pushed us and told us to move on, but soon they relented and carried Mother across some fields to a house nearby. The house belonged to the men we had hired to take us to Thailand. We were told not to leave the house, and hid ourselves inside for two days. On the third day, when the sun went down, we began our march towards the border. Korm hired two men to carry our mother, who could no longer walk.
We struggled to cross from field to field, when, all of a sudden, we heard gunfire behind us. People yelled at us to stop, and threatened us with shooting. The two Vietnamese soldiers hired by the Cambodian men to protect us, were ready to shoot back, but the Cambodian men forbade them. I suspect they were connected with the bandits; they told the Vietnamese men to return to the city. We were totally unprotected when the group of thieves came. They were dressed like soldiers, and roughly asked if we had any gold. We were brutally searched before they released us. Running and walking as fast as we could, we met yet another roving band of men. I couldn’t tell if it was the same group or another, but they were equally abusive. This time they took everything, even our old clothes. They didn’t hurt us physically. We staggered through fields covered with muddy water, and through forests. We had no shoes so our feet were cut; we had had no food for a full day and night so we were very hungry.
Deep in the forest, bandits found us once again. This time they were Khmer Rouge. They pointed guns at us, and told us to take off our clothes. Every girl was raped. I was so enraged I wanted to kill them, even with my own bare, but no longer frail hands. However, for some reason they took me to the place where they lived, where I met a woman who appeared to be their leader. This woman had been expecting us, but after waiting for several days she had given up and left, leaving a group of men in her place. She was very kind to us. She didn’t know what had happened to us, and we didn’t tell her because we didn’t want any trouble. We just wanted to get away as soon as we could. We wanted to live normally again.
On the second day they took away the two Vietnamese people who were with us, a man and a woman. They didn’t speak Cambodian and the Khmer Rouge hated the Vietnamese very much. On the third day, when the sun went down, we started to walk across the Thai border. Now we were in very grave danger. Some people couldn’t carry their children and had hired men to carry them. Sometimes, when trouble threatened, they would drop the children and run for their lives. Korm had an eighteen months old boy, but he carried him himself. We reached the red sands near a road and tried to cross, but we heard the noise of cars. We hid until it was quiet before we began to run for our lives.
We walked and ran until the sun came up, then we took a rest in the forest. We were very hungry and thirsty. All of us waited until dawn before continuing and that day we finally came close to the camp. We could see the lights surrounding the area, and I thought to myself about the food that would be inside the fence. We tried to cross the road. As soon as we stepped out we heard a car coming, so we ran back to hide in the tall grass near the road. A shower of insects bit us. We waited there patiently, painfully, until the road and the camp seemed clear.
The leader we had hired to bring us to this camp had paid one of theThai soldiers. When he gave us the signal we ran with every last bit of strength remaining in our bodies. My mother couldn’t walk so they pulled her under the fence. We ran in nearby. Once inside we split up, because people inside the camp weren’t allowed to walk in groups.
The next morning they gave us rice in plastic dishes which we cooked for ourselves. We soon learned that everyone who had money was trying to study English. We had no money. Pheit sent a letter and picture to my second brother, Ho, now in America, and a few weeks later we received his letter with a sponsorship certificate and money. We couldn’t afford to pay for anything because we needed to buy extra food. The food they gave us was never enough for our long-starved bodies.
After a trying six months in the camp our names were put up on the board. This meant that we could move on to another camp. Two weeks later the U.S. Embassy interviewed us for the first time. The man handed my mother a white paper so we knew we had failed and she refused to take it. We started to cry: we were afraid they would send us back to Cambodia.
It was rumored that Australia was taking people, so we went to apply, and they interviewed us. However, their officials learned that my second brother lived in the USA, so they turned us down. We lied and said he was an adopted child, but no matter what we said, they refused to take us. They insisted that the US Embassy would accept us.
Two months later the US Embassy told us to check with a doctor to see if we had any diseases. We were very happy because this was a sign that we might be able to go to the USA. We were moved to another camp, also in Thailand, where we stayed for about a week before the bus took us to Bangkok Airport. In the airport in our old clothes, cards on our chests identifying us as refugees, we all felt red hot with embarrassment. People stared at us.
A few hours later we boarded the airplane; it was my first flight and I was terrified yet thrilled beyond any prior experience. When the plane took off I began to realize that we were going very far away, and I did not know how or when I would ever return. The lump in my throat felt enormous.
We arrived in Manila, The Philippines, where a bus took us to yet another refugee camp. We lived there for about four months before boarding another airplane.
On September 27, 1983, we arrived in America. I could hardly wait to see my brother. Before the airplane landed, I looked out the window and could not believe how beautiful America looked. I had never seen anything as beautiful. When we left the airplane I could see a person waiting for us with his family and friends. At first I did not know who he was, but as soon as he started talking I knew it was Ho. His voice sounded familiar to me. It was the most exciting and the happiest time in my life. I could hardly believe I was in America, which I knew about only from hearing others talk of it. I spoke no English, I had very little education, I was very poor, I was malnourished, but I had my family, and my freedom.
We were now far away from the hunger and the slaughter. We went to Ho’s house in Rhode Island and talked all night long. He hadn’t seen us for so long he had forgotten some of our names and ages. Our mother was very happy, but deeply saddened by all that had happened to her family. There was no explanation for the horror in Cambodia, and this made it more difficult to endure the suffering.
Two weeks after our arrival I started school in 8th grade. I understood nothing, not a single word they were saying. Humiliated and embarrassed I began to cry. How I longed to speak to my fellow students, and to understand. My teacher gave me a book and some homework. I kept looking at the book as if a hard stare would figure it out. I was hoping someone could help, but all I could do was use my imagination. A lot of students made fun of me. It made me feel so sad I didn’t want to go to school. A year went by with painful slowness, and I managed to get into high school. Things were getting a little better as my English improved. A really good teacher helped me until I began to comprehend my homework by myself. I learned a lot from this English Second Language teacher, and I will always be grateful to her.
Three years passed quickly, and I began to have problems with my family just like many young people who are ready to leave the nest. I wanted to move away from them. About this time, an aunt let us know that a man of Chinese descent who had lost his family during Pol Pot’s regime, had said he wanted to marry me. My brothers wanted me to be educated, but I wanted my freedom.
On July 4, 1987 I got married and we moved to California. I thought it was very beautiful. We lived in San Jose, and my husband worked while I tried to go back to school. The houses were expensive, and we couldn’t afford to live by ourselves. When my mother and brothers called to tell me they were moving to Philadelphia, and asked us to join them, we were ready to be a family again. Today, only two of my family live in Cambodia, and I have children of my own. I still weep for my father, my lost brothers, and my homeland: for the horrors its people endured, and for the millions who did not survive Pol Pot’s holocaust.