Synopsis : This is the story of a Cambodian woman who when very young had to go through the nightmare called the Khmer Rouge in her country .The story is told in her own words that I helped edit and publish.
Rising from the ashes
Source : Google photo of Angkor Wat in Siem Reap, Cambodia
This is the story of Sivath who lives in Cambodia . I was the editor of her story.
There is a verdant land where an ancient civilization was born that had no equal in its
It was a Hindu empire that grew out of a place called Angkor thousands of years ago and created lofty temple and city complex with intricate system of lakes, canals to support a vibrant agriculture based economy that supported in turn a vast empire ruled by god kings. It predates European history and had nothing comparable in the ancient world.
I come from such a land now called Cambodia. It is a shadow of its past glory but if you
Then you will notice on one side of the road leading to the monuments, a sad cluster of
I come from such a land and have a story to tell. My name is Sivath and I am a woman
A dark shadow descends
I do not know when the Khmer Rouge gained power around the capital Phnom Penh but I do know that on April 17, 1975 at around 9.30 in the morning they arrived in Phnom Penh with their guns and an agenda that no one knew anything about. We knew who they were because they wore black clothes and wrapped a Khmer krama around their neck.
They exuded an aura of fear surrounding them that we had never seen before. I
They said that the Americans were going to bomb the city . The same day on April 17,
We had seventeen members in our family. My father was a colonel and two brothers were in the army but this fact was hidden from the KR because they would have shot them. So they just took his car and left and we started a slow and fearful journey past the US embassy and to the south of the city.
All around us were throngs of people who had been ordered out by the KR but at that
I was born in Kratie province in April 1957 so you can now guess how old I was . We had never faced such a dire situation in our whole life so we organized as best as we could to stay together and took shelter that night at a pagoda named Samround.
My father said that the KR were communists and a bad lot so we must tear up our IDs
Since we left in a hurry, we could take with us some rice ,few cans of fish , box of
We heard that before KR took power, there was fierce fighting between them and general Lon Nol in 1970 but I was too young to know all the gory details. Days later we reached another pagoda along the Basak river because we were by now desperate for a shelter of any kind . You can now picture the throngs of people in the same situation. But we stayed there only one night and the very next day the KR told us to move to Kos Thom province across the river.
At that time the KR divided the people into two groups called new people meaning the city people and the old people meaning the peasants. The peasants were told that the city people were lazy and uppity so they had to be taught a lesson in the dignity of labor. The task was left then to the old people who felt no affinity for them. They could treat the new people with scorn and abuse.
Whenever the KR wanted to take something, they said Ang ka Ang Ka but we never
The interrogation :
The KR now started the process of determining who was who and said to us that we
They kept a stony face that revealed nothing and said that he must await their decision. In the mean time if the KR needed to educate him then he must get ready to go to indoctrination camps. They were setting up vast camps to re educate people to the KR ways of thinking but we were now truly afraid.
After they left, my father admitted that he had made a mistake by telling them who he
As the days passed, he was given the job of tending the cows and we were told to report to work with various work gangs that the KR had now set up. So my mother, my sistersand brothers were all separated and told to join different groups. Only my youngest brother was ordered to work with my father in herding and tending animals.
The villagers by now knew who my father was but did not treat him badly at first.
One day they saw that my father did not go to work and stayed instead with my ailing
As I had mentioned earlier, the KR had divided the people into new and old people. They called the new people meaning the city people Pracheachon Thmey and the old people Pracheachon Cah. Now the old people looked down on us bordering on hate and said that we were soft and not hard working like them. This hatred was encouraged by the KR who wanted to start a class war.
My father said again and again that the KR plans to kill him in the re education camp and it was only a matter of time so imagine our horror when one day several cadres came to pick him up . He trembled and his eyes were red . All he could mumble with downcast eyes was – yes. The KR said that there was nothing to worry about and it was only going to be for a short time but deep in our heart we did not believe them. We could not sleep whole night thinking about our father and what would happen to him and comforted each other while suppressing sobs.
The next morning my mother told us that our father had left her a small note that said
Imagine our pleasant surprise when father returned after three days of camp somewhere and said that it was not as bad as he thought and he met many of his friends there. We began to have some hope. After my father came back to live with us, he started to work at the farm again with my youngest brother and sister and looked after the cows . He thought a lot, could not sleep well and sometimes put his hand on his forehead, looked at the can of rice that we kept for the family. He believed that one day he would be back to work at his office in Phnom Penh then get his income to support his children again.
Few months later the Ang Ka’s cadre came to tell him that it was time again to go to the camp for political re education. We did not at this time feel any alarm and thought that perhaps they would allow us to go back to Phnom Penh again to live a normal life.
We waited silently for any news about our father ,woke up early everyday to pack our
We lived in a village called Kos Tung in the Kos Thom district of Kandal province. The KR made us build levees in the rice fields during the summer season but there was no end to the forced labor. We still hoped to see our father again and live with him in Phnom Penh but now we were not sure. Because the KR deceived people into believing that they could go back to their homes or towns if they so wished. This made my older sister and brother who were married to add their names to the list of those who wanted to go leaving the rest of us with our mother. My grand mother and uncle thus stayed.
Hunger and malnutrition :
After my older sister and brother left us, my mum decided to add our names to the list to move from Kos Tung village to see our father in Phnom Penh. We still believed to meet him soon. We went by boat across the Basac river again and stayed 4 or 5 days at a pagoda the name of which escapes me. It was not only my family that wanted to move, but a lot of people too. All waited for four or five days until we got called to move by a big truck.
I do not remember when we were ordered to go but it was the day after our name was
We were surprised and very disappointed that we were not allowed to return to Phnom Penh by the KR and knew then that they were very cruel . We were now afraid of them and decided not to tell them anything about us or our family not knowing what they would do to us.
We worked hard and lived very poorly in Kos Thom province but then our family decided to go to Battambang by train to seek a better life. We went past two provinces of Kampong Snag and Pursat and were dropped off at a village between Battambang and Siem Reap that we walked to .Our mother kept on saying that we must not tell the KR anything about us except that we are the children of a vendor. At first they let us return to the village but a month later they started separating the singles from the widows and widowers.
My grand mother, mother, two elder sisters and brother, three younger brothers, two
Our life deteriorated rapidly after we moved from the Kos Thom district
Then it was the turn of my younger brother who developed classic symptoms of malnutrition like big eyes, swollen knees and feet and weight loss . The KR gave us some herbal medicine but it did not help him because soon he too died.
The village in the Battambang province where we lived was called Anloong Vil .By this time we had lost two members of our family ,one due to illness and the other one due to hunger. Now it was the turn of our grandmother who died painfully with swollen legs. Months later our younger brother was injured by a sharp bamboo while looking forfish in the river and died of infections. We had no medicine for him.
Death in the family :
Now we were left with my mother, my older sister Sithan, myself, my younger brother Santhy, my younger sister Sivann, my younger brother Sidoeun, my youngest sister Sivanna and my youngest brother Siphanno , eight in all . At this time my elder sister and I were sent to work with a group of women far from our family so that we could not get back to join them. We came to know of the cruelty of the KR and the fact that they were very dangerous so we learned to keep our mouth shut , be patient and work hard.
We could plant potato in the Anloong Vil village and raise chickens but everything belonged to KR or Ang Ka as they liked to call themselves, not only the things we gathered in the village but things we had brought from Phnom Penh . All they needed was to say they wanted it. It was horrible.
The incident :
One day we saw a chicken near our cottage so I dared to kill it as we had not had any
The very next morning I was summoned to the house of the village chief . My family
Here they started to beat me and asked why I dared to kill the chicken without their
I could hear everything they said but I still pretended to faint. Perhaps half an hour later I could hear the voice of the Village chief who told them to stop beating me and let me go. I slowly opened my eyes and stood up although my whole body ached and went home. My mother and other siblings felt happy to see me again and said that I had a long life. I thanked God for being alive after this ordeal.
The separation from the family :
A month later I was told to pack my things and get ready to move to a farm far away from my family. My elder sister was allowed to stay with her group closer to the cottage because she lied to KR that she was a widow. I walked for more than half a day to reach the place where I was to work as a slave. Thus I was separated from my family for the first time .The only way to survive was to please the KR.
I joined a group of single women to work in the fields starting very early in the morning until late in the evening so most of my day was spent working hard in the fields very far from the main road. I lost track of time and felt a longing to get back to my family. This was not allowed so I convinced myself that I was old enough to live alone.
We woke up very early every morning at around 4 and came back to the cottage at 8 or 9 pm exhausted after working in the fields the whole day. I did not know the names of places where I worked or where I lived. My companions were a Chinese girl and three Chamwomen who were Moslems. We grew very fond of each other and always slept together .
The KR forced us to do weeding in the rice fields, make ditches or dams, harvest or plantrice ,cutting thatch or collect plants to make fibers to make rope or sacks, catch fish ,make baskets and even plough the rice paddies . This was very hard labor. The leaders of the work gang were uneducated farmers who took orders from the KR and enforced them without thinking and without mercy. We had no way of knowing time and often slept at the place where we worked and woke up at 3 or 4 am to go to work again.We did not know one place from the other and never received any information about my family .
Hard labor took its toll :
We the women looked older than our age due to this harsh regime and poor food .I had
The never ending work under sun or rain sapped our energy so we slept under the stars and looked at the moon longing for the return to normal life . Our clothes were dirty and our bodies and hair full of lice. The worst part was that we all smelled foul because we had no way to clean ourselves . We got soaked to the skin during the heavy downpour as we had no raincoat or shelter. We shivered and felt utterly miserable knowing that peace was not to come and make us free once again. This was the daily struggle to survive when I lived with a group if single women.
The KR lies :
I gradually lost track of time as I worked with the gang of women and constantly moved from place to place. The KR propaganda forced us to say that we loved the KR, they were our parents and only they could do so much for the people .This was broadcast via the radio using the song of Kampuche Prochea Thimyey over and over again.
My diarrhea at this time made my life hell as there was no hospital or medicines but
During the rice planting season I worked pulling seedlings to be transplanted .Again the lie was that if we could finish the work early, we could rest so I worked fast and sneaked out to visit my mother and younger sisters whom I missed dearly. This was risky but my friends in the work gang covered for me when they could. This was
I also went to see them because sometimes I could get some food or old clothes as my
He searched my first shirt that was loose and found nothing and let me go .I was lucky again as he did not search my second shirt underneath where I had hidden the rice. I was relieved and thanked God for helping me the second time around and started walking toward the main road .
I could not stay on the road due to the fear that I may come across another militia again and I may not be so lucky the second time around so I looked for a short cut to reach thevillage. But this was also difficult and the darkness made it more difficult to find my way . It was winter and dark so I could not see well where I was going but dimly saw a long channel full of water that I had to cross .I could not swim so thought of rolling up my trousers and wading through it not knowing how deep it was. Gingerly I stepped into it and luckily found the water to be only chest deep. Thus I was able to reach the main road and walk toward the village.
As I was very cold and could not reach the village, I decided to spend the night along theway somewhere. I found a boy burning hay to keep him warm in a cow shed so I slept with him huddling his warm body and woke up early next morning to find my way to the village.
Early next morning I woke up and rushed toward the village when I suddenly heard my brothers and sisters calling me that made me cry with joy. I missed them so much. They gave me some food like potato, red sugar and some rice but I told them that I had toreturn to work soon so my mother hurriedly packed some food for me that I shared with my friends little as it was.
We lived like this without a roof where ever we could and could not escape .The shooting pain in my leg often crippled me and I pretended to go away to urinate but often the KR did not believe us and followed us to force us back to work. I had to remind myself again and again to be patient. I faced a thousand dangers during this time under the KR regime. Stealing a chicken to feed my family, stealing rice to stave off starving all was dangerous work because the militia always kept a close watch.
Starving and punishment :-
At first the KR organized people to work in small or big groups but later changed their
This was specially hard on weak and starving people .The lack of drinking water was a crucial issue so they promised a new bucket to a group to fetch water . But something
Once KR sent our group to cut a kind of plant to make ropes in the deeper part of water
A ray of hope:-
With my Chinese and Moslem friends we sometimes found a fish or two in the ditch or
We heard that the Vietnamese had come to liberate us but nothing changed for us and
One day however, we saw a big group of people leaving but did not know where they
As we laid down on the wooden floor, we heard the sound of bombs getting near by the minute and were very afraid so we huddled together not knowing what was happening. Suddenly near midnight we saw the Vietnamese soldiers pointing their flashlights on us.
The dreaded KR flee:-
At this point I was so thin and weighed less than 30 or 40 kilos but I thought that
Finally my sisters and brothers rushed out to meet me .They hugged me and kissed me and we shed tears of joy at this reunion. They gave me rice ,meat and vegetables to eat but it gave me diarrhea .We found to our joy that we could go anywhere and find anything we wanted and did not need permission of the KR thugs anymore.
Our family stayed at the Angloog village for a while before we decided to go back to ourhome in Phnom Penh so we moved toward Siem Reap slowly . We met a lot of people on the road , all eager to return to their native places . We stayed nearly a month in SiemReap and made rice noodles in exchange for other food.
All the time the Vietnamese soldiers gave us ride in their truck and often dropped us in
We knew hundreds of people who were now lost in this dark period but hoped that some of them will find us if we wrote our address on the walls of many places although the hope was very small.
Home again :-
We could not talk our way through the cordon because we did not speak the Vietnamese language so we waited until we found a kind person in authority who permitted us to stay at a place near Phnom Penh. Even when we reached Phnom Penh, we had no chance to look at our old house. Many people had died during these turbulent times and many houses in Phnom Penh were empty so it was not difficult to find a place to stay temporarily but we lastly found our house still in good shape. It was the happiest moment in my life.
We tried every day to find a way to see it until one day the Vietnamese troops opened
We missed our father terribly and saw the bamboo plant that he had planted in the
One day my younger brother went by our old house and while sitting under a tree was
Our second sister was a typist and had worked with an assurance company before the
One day a strange man approached my sister near the Russian market where she was
My sister worked as a typist and I as a cleaner but without any salary. We were only
At that time the offices had no lock and key so it was easy for me to sneak in and practice typing .I learned how to type but it was boring. At that time the offices had no lock and key so it was easy for me to sneak in and practice typing .I learned how to type but it was boring. Now I had the idea of saving my rice and exchange it later for some clothes and a necklace. In the meantime I continued to learn to type after all the staff left. At first I had difficulty but soon I learned to type fast in French and English but typing in Khmer was difficult. I did not have a teacher so I typed with two fingers only .Sometime I wanted to quit but somehow I continued because it was a way out of my situation. I wanted a proper job so I had to have a proper skill. Later I found a proper job and little by precious little we started to rebuild our shattered lives, wiped out tears and stood up once again to face the future.
Thus my sad story comes to an end . I was reunited with what was left of my family andwe got back our home or only the shell of it but it was a lot more than many of my
It is hard to imagine such misfortune in a land that was so peaceful and blessed once and that gave rise to the greatest civilization in this part of the world . It is incomprehensible to anyone who visits our beautiful country now how such monsters like KR ever came to rule this land with such brutality and left such a horrific legacy .
The Toul Sleng torture centre is now open to tourists who wander through its corridors
So if you come to my country and see those people playing music near the road to past
Please visit the link to read her story.
Note : My blogs are also available in French, Spanish, German and Japanese languages at the following links as well as my biography: