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Rememberances of the Cambodian Nightmare

Girl in Phenom Penn

For any Cambodian over the age of 30, life has been a hard ride. From 1975 to 1979, the people of Cambodia fell under the communist regime led by Pol Pot and became part of a bloody experiment in social restructuring that, through execution, starvation and forced labour, killed an estimated two million people (nearly a quarter of the country’s population).

Pol Pot eluded all attempts to bring him to justice for one of the century's most devastating mass murders. And even at his deathbed in 1988, he remained unrepentant for his unfathomable revolution that wiped out an entire generation of professionals, religious figures and political leaders.

Cambodia's legacy lies in its young - those who were infants and teens during the years of fear and loathing. Thirty-five-year-old Lon Meak, now a taxi driver in Siem Reap, is one such legacy. Yet his is a story shared by thousands who have suffered and never understood why.

I will always remember that day, 17 April 1975. I was ten years old. I was playing with my siblings and neighbours outside my house when trucks rumbled into the city. At the back of the trucks were these fierce-looking men with long hair, wearing black trousers and shirts with red sashes and scarves. They had rifles strapped to their bodies and they came knocking on every door telling us that the US was going to bomb Phnom Penh and we should all leave at once. They said there was no need to take our belongings because we would return quickly.

In a matter of hours, the streets of Phnom Penh were swelling with people making their way out. Hospitals were not spared and the city's patients walked or crawled out to the roads, while some were pushed out on their beds by relatives who clutched tightly to their intravenous bags as if it would keep them alive. Anyone who protested was persuaded by warning shots fired into the air. Anyone who resisted needed no persuasion. They were simply shot dead.

Many of us wanted to believe the bombing story, but an aching, gnawing feeling in our bones told us it was not true. Yet in my youthful innocence I mistook the hollow fear in the pit of my stomach as a longing for home. I couldn't wait to get home. There seemed to be no end to this walking. The soldiers said that we could return in several days. So every other day I would ask my parents if it was okay to go home already. I was so tired of walking. Every time they said no but finally my father decided that it was time for me to know the truth. He told me that we were never going home. This was our life now. And I thought, 'how can this be? Just a week ago I was chasing my cats outside my house and playing catch with my friends. Today I'm so hungry and I'm never going to see my cats again.'

As the thought of not seeing my home sank in, we were joined with more families carrying rice pots and bags of clothes. There were no shelters so we were forced to sleep on the roads and cook wherever we stopped. For days we marched until we reached the Khmer Rouge's military checkpoint in the town of Kom Baul.

Kom Baul was where the gnawing fear took full reign. We were made to form long lines and questioned about our lives - what we did, who we worked for and to what degree we were educated. The Khmer Rouge singled out intellectuals as dangerous and killed thousands simply for having an education. Scores of people were murdered that day in clear sight of their loved ones. Others were spared the indignity and taken away to a secluded spot to be shot.

We survived the interrogations and were driven away in wagons and trucks, packed against one another, like sardines, across provinces. We were sent to a large “co-operative” that comprised some 1,500 families living in village clusters under Khmer Rouge control.

Despite our backgrounds we were all made to farm. Every full-time worker was assigned monthly rations of 30 pounds of rice and every part-time worker 15. Children were to share from this amount and since we were provided no fish, meat, vegetables or oil, we subsisted on rice soup and any vegetable, fruit, frog or grasshopper that came our way.

Hunger became my constant companion. Angkar, the Khmer Rouge's party, assumed an omni-presence in our minds. One of the oft-used mantras we were made to repeat was, “Angkar has many eyes like a pineapple and cannot make mistakes.”

We never knew when Angkar was going to reduce our rations. Sometimes they gave us more, a lot of times they gave us less. We were so hungry that even rats became prey. We would catch rats from the paddy fields and my mother would cook them. It was the most delicious meat we ate for a long time. It was the only meat we ate for a long time.

In our desperation for food, we began stealing. Every once in a while, I would sneak into the cornfields not far away from our village and pick a few ears to bring home, where we would eat them raw. It was risky business. The soldiers guarded the fields day and night, but I was small and managed to sneak in and out without getting caught. My second brother was not so lucky, though. One night he returned from his foray into the fields, his right rib broken and his face torn apart. He died the next day. But at least he died with us by his side.

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Indoctrination

Every night the camp supervisor would shout out to us, “Angkar is all powerful! Angkar has saved and liberated the Khmer people!” And we would respond by clapping our hands four times, punching our fists in the air, and screaming, “Angkar, Angkar, Angkar!” During these lessons, we were often told, “You are the children of Angkar. Angkar loves you even though you are weak. Many have hurt you, but Angkar will protect you.” Every night, I would respond like I was supposed to, but in my heart lived hatred. The Angkar has never protected me. If it did, why was I away from my family? Why is my brother dead? Angkar rule was almost mystical. There were no exact laws or rules - no courts or judges. No one knew neither what would trigger the wrath of Angkar nor what punishments it would mete out. There was only one certainty: swift punishment for defiance or rebellion, and death. Death was always secret.

Those who searched for the missing were ignored. When loved ones disappeared, all that was left to do was hope. Soon people knew not to ask. Stories filtered back that some of the disappeared had been executed, others were sent to prisons where they were likely to suffer and die from malnutrition or malaria. But all this remained speculation. No one really knew for sure.

Slowly but surely, the cadre weeded out intellectuals - teachers, farmers, and political members. They took them away from their families, never to return. By day, soldiers would descend upon homes under the pretext that their vehicles had broken down and ask that the man of the house come out to help. Suffice to say, he could not refuse. And without doubt, he would never come back.

Every few months we were given permission to leave the camps and visit our parents and families. On my second visit home, I returned to find only my mother, father and seven-year-old sister. My youngest sister had died six weeks ago of a stomach disease. She was only four years old.

Release

In 1979, our world was escalated in fear again. The Youns (the Angkar word for Vietnamese) were everywhere. At first we were afraid because the Angkar had always said that the Youns were out to destroy us all. But the Youns turned out to be friendly. We were told that they had vanquished the Angkar regime. Most shocking was that they didn't shoot, as we were often told they would. They didn't take children and slice open their stomachs. They were like angels sent from above.

My first elation from our release quickly changed to desperation. I had to find my family. I went from one refugee camp to another. And at the third, I found my sister. A family had taken her under their wing and they eventually took me in too because my parents perished in the revolution as well. The Khmer Rouge took my father away not long after my last visit home and my mother was hit by a mortar while fleeing her home with my sister.

Today, I work as hard as I can to take care of my sister and my own family, and my life has changed in so many ways. When my friends who have lived through the revolution talk about it, we often say how lucky we are to have come out of it alive. But deep down inside, we don't feel lucky. We've lost so many of the people we love. And most of us didn't even have to chance to say goodbye.”

Rule Of Terror

Under Angkar rule, Cambodia was allowed no contact with the outside world. Travel was abolished, as were rights of speech. To make illegal sales worthless, money was eradicated too. Once a country steeped in rich religious culture, Angkar's Cambodia turned atheist. Religious and social celebrations were banned - the worshipping of gods or goddesses meant less devotion to Angkar. Terror reigned supreme.

To ensure that young men and women were inducted into the army more easily, marriage was, for the most part, outlawed. Flirting was a crime that garnered the same punishment as gambling and colourful clothes were forbidden. Everyone was made to wear the uniform of dark pajamas or sarongs.

Schools were shut down. Any kind of schooling carried out without the government's approval was strictly forbidden. To the Angkar, education cluttered minds with useless information. Hard work was the order of the day; laziness was not tolerated.

As the years passed, Pol Pot replaced the Angkar as the source of power. Children no longer chanted “Angkar”; they now chanted its leader's name. In propaganda reports, everything was attributed to Pol Pot. The despot maintained that Angkar was building the country's self-sufficiency. What it was really doing was taking away the best that was produced and selling it at reduced prices abroad.

Displaced People

On December 25, 1978, the Vietnamese invaded Cambodia. By 7 January 1979, they had captured Phnom Penh. Pol Pot was caught completely off guard. Mortars and rockets rocked the country sending its citizens fleeing their homes and camps just like they did in 1975. The Khmer Rouge soldiers fought hard, but they were simply outclassed. Again the Cambodians walked.

By the tens of thousands, the Cambodian refugees walked across the border into Thailand where they were allowed to stay as displaced people, not official refugees. In Cambodia, some 300,000 citizens were settled in UN-assisted camps until the 1980s. Yet scores of other Cambodians learned to speak Vietnamese and snuck into Vietnam and Thailand pretending to be Vietnamese.

Throughout the decades, Cambodians have struggled to rebuild their country and their lives. Those who fled overseas returned several years later only to find their homeland still steeped in poverty and in an unstable political climate. Today, the majority of Cambodians continue to live a hard life by international standards, farming and plying the tourist trade to eke out a living. Running water and electricity are still considered luxuries in many parts of the country and though many of its people have sought education in universities, jobs are scarce and hard to come by.


Photos by Jeffree Benet

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