GREAT GAIN AND LOSS
Gentle wind from
the Himalayas once again brought chilled air to the Angkorian plain as it has
for ages. The endless, flat green rice fields surrendered to the constant
chilled wind by turning a golden yellow. Rice stalks swayed gently left and
right in the wind. Parakeets and other birds came by the school to feast in the
golden fields. People and animals sought warmth in front of bonfires during the
early morning hours. It didn’t take very long before the rice crop was ready for
harvest. It was once again a time of plenty, a time for celebration, a time to
renew the spirit and soul.
But it was not
meant to be. We were still under Angkar’s strict rule, unfortunately. There was
still plenty of work to be done, just a little bit differently, under the new
Angkar Leu (Khmer Rouge) management. We were still under the Khmer Rouge
It was December
1978. Food was plentiful, but Angkar Leu only allotted a limited quantity
for rations. We still consumed a
rice gruel, but with no wild vegetables mixed in. Plain cooked rice never tasted
so great, I thought.
The primary focus
now was to harvest the main rice crop as fast as possible. We often worked long
hours, but the atmosphere was more at ease. Very few died, mostly from illness
or disease. Angkar Leu was strict, but no one had been executed since the new
administration was installed. It was a cause for celebration. Angkar Leu ordered
us to work still harder, but there was a more gentle policy at work. The
laborers, including what was left of the Mith Tmey people in Tapang, were
rewarded for their hard work with time off and extra rations for completed work.
What a big change! Not night and day, but still quite a change.
I put on some
weight and seemed to be somewhat healthy, relatively speaking of course. I lost
two lower back teeth and many others were rotten. Plain botled rice was still
mighty tasty, I might add. We all worked close to home and helped out nearby
villages. I spent more time in my own hut than I had in the past two years. I
found myself taking advantage of the relaxing situation under Angkar Leu. My
sugar palm tree, a little private enterprise on the side, produced more of the
sweet liquid than I knew what to do with. I traded some for field crab and fish
to supplement our “private meal” at night. It soon became sugar for a special
dessert, which was unthinkable just a few months earlier under the old Angkar.
Travel restrictions were still here, but also eased up slightly. With proper
permission, I could travel to the next village for salt or Khmer fish paste.
This is the life, I thought. Can’t really complain after years of no freedom and
starvation, about a little “openness.” I was contented.
There were times
when Angkar Leu donated small rations of special supplies for each family in
town. I did not know where those supplies, such as vegetable oil, fabric for
cloth, salt, bleached white sugar, and even kerosene, came from. All I knew was
that every time the Chinese-made trucks that brought these little supply rations
came in, they returned with a full load of our recently harvested rice. After a
while, the trucks arrived more often empty, without supplies. Our rice supply
soon dwindled and our favorite communal kitchen was back to serving watery rice
gruel once more. People, especially the Mith Tmey, soon found themselves
desperately hungry again.
The first group of
Mith Tmey to go was my friend Laive and his family. There were other families
(those who came with Laive) who were taken away at the same time. Like Laive and
his family, they were mostly widows and children whose husbands and fathers had
been killed earlier. Now it was their time to go.
The night before
they took Laive and his family away from Tapang, he came to me with a very sad
face. Laive knew in his heart that he might not see me again. He stopped at my
hut to hug me goodbye.
“I have to go now,
they are going to take me away from here tomorrow,” he paused for a moment then
casually looked up into the sky. “I don’t know if I will ever see sunrise again
after tomorrow, when I’m gone, please say goodbye to Pally [his girlfriend] for
me, would you?”
I was still
stunned from the news and was speechless.
“Stay alive, my
friend. Stay alive, you hear me?” Laive continued gloomily. “Hope you will find
your family safe and sound. Take good care,” he continued, trying hard not to
Laive then turned
and just walked away from me. “You be careful out here,” he added while walking
something else as he was walking away, but I could not comprehend it. I did not
know what to say, so I remained quiet. I was still in a state of shock and
denial. “I’m going to miss Laive from now on.” I was talking to myself again.
For the first time in three years of being separated from my dear family I was
once again missing someone. I cried a little and said nothing as Laive and his
family were moved out under the escort of Angkar Leu soldiers. I noticed the
same commander who kicked my butt earlier. The same man who took away the
commune chief and the mayor a few months earlier. I knew then that Laive and the
rest had no chance.
Human life is so
cheap under Angkar, I suddenly realized. Traditionally, this is how the Khmer
Rouge carried out killings. About a week after the war was over in April 1975,
Angkar cadres ordered all servicemen, doctors, lawyers, teachers, and students
to go and meet with this new Angkar Leu. The top leader of Angkar at the time
was Prince Norodom Sihanouk. Many people followed this direct order. Many were
hauled off in hundreds of military trucks. The trucks would take them to meet
with Angkar. In actuality, there wasn’t any Angkar or leader that was supposed
to greet them at all. It was a trick to kill everyone on the trucks. It was
certain death for those who remained on those trucks. With arms bound tightly
behind their backs, the victims were butchered and the bodies were simply left
in shallow ditches. Not a single bullet was ever wasted. It was Khmer Rouge
policy to not waste bullets when they murdered people. They simply used a
baseball bat-sized stick and killed by smashing it on the victim’s neck or head
until he died. It was a crude and simple method.
This method of
killing was well known and I have seen the end result first-hand on many
occasions. The “killing fields” were never a pretty sight. Blood stains,
scattered bodies, and oftentimes, pieces of tissue, were everywhere. To top it
off, the Khmer Rouge left their murder weapon of choice, now just damaged pieces
of wood, right on site.
The killing fields
were as close to hell as it can get. Some of the victims’ faces were still
blindfolded. Their arms were always tightly bound; often both arms were broken
because of the way the Khmer Rouge tied their victims. Some graves have anywhere
from 20 to 500 bodies. All bodies were usually partly buried and partly out in
the open. It was a real tragedy to see such a thing. I would never believe such
a thing possible in modern times, but it was as real as the Khmer Rouge.
I was at a mass
grave with my friend Laive on the outskirts of Tapang. He said to me with tears
in his eyes, “My Dad is among those skeletons.” I asked him, “How do you know
that?” He slowly said to me, “When I came to Tapang, Angkar knew that my Dad was
a serviceman so they took him to meet with Angkar Leu, along with all these
people.” He paused momentarily, “I don’t know who did the actual killing.”
Laive’s father and
others were killed by Mith Chass people, including the ex-commune chief and
ex-mayor, soon after their arrival in Tapang town. But Laive did not know about
his father’s death until much later. Laive had always been a very diplomatic
person and sometimes a con artist as well. He could get people to do things that
are just short of miraculous. After Laive lived in Tapang for a while, he got to
know many Mith Chass people, including those who killed his father and
Laive managed to get the killers to take him to the killing fields. Just before
he was to be taken away, he took me to see this gruesome sight. I was honored to
share his grief.
All the time that
I knew Laive, which was just under three years, he taught me so much about life
and about survival in this town. Now, it was his turn to go. This time it was
another plot to kill the families of servicemen, or what was left of them. My
friend Laive was one of them.
Three days later,
I overheard shocking news from Mith Chass people who assisted in moving the
group. They said that Laive had escaped. I was stunned by this news. I knew
right then that Laive’s family and others were killed, but Laive had escaped!
The cadres and soldiers started a sweep search to capture Laive. I heard a rumor
that Laive had come back to Tapang and hid out in the woods just outside the
town. Fresh leaves were found in the thick bush. According to the soldiers, the
escapee had slept there. The massive search for Laive continued.
I believed then
that Laive had outsmarted and frustrated the Khmer Rouge for a while, but then
was captured and killed on site. He never gave up. He gave the Khmer Rouge a run
for their money, that’s for sure. He was a brave soul, my buddy Laive; I was
praying hard for him.
One morning over a
week after they had been looking for Laive, the search team cheerfully returned
to town. I knew then that Laive had run for his freedom, but his life had ended
abruptly. I wept and wept after that. My best friend was gone, chased and
butchered like a dog. If I could only help him, I surely would have, even if it
meant risking my life too. My friend’s courage and spirit would be instilled in
me for the rest of my life. A mere two weeks later, on 22 December 1977, the
other Mith Tmey families in Tapang and a few other families in nearby villages
were notified to leave town. Angkar Leu gave us a mere 5 hours’ notice. This
notification included my brother, other members of our family, and myself. The
order was little surprise to anyone after what had happened to Laive, his
family, and others. Some people started to cry after they received the
notification. Deep in their hearts, they knew that they would be killed sooner
or later. The time had come for them to go and there was not much time to pack
People began to
pack up their meager belongings in a great rush to get ready to leave as
ordered. Angkar Leu cadres told everyone not to take everything at once. All
property would be delivered to the destination of each owner, according to the
I wanted very much to take all of my personal belongings, which had
little real value, but it was not possible. I had to travel by foot and I
remembered very well how difficult it had been in the past. I spent hours
looking for the old hen that I had raised, the only thing I owned that was
connected to my past life with my family in Siem Riep. I could not find this
special hen, which provided me with numerous large eggs and chicks. Anguish
ruled my spirit as I spent the remaining time I had searching for my hen to no
avail. I was so distraught; it was as though I had just lost a dear family
member as the march out of Tapang progressed under armed guard.
evacuation my brother, Serey, was allowed to come home because since his wife Sa
Oum was about to give birth to their first child. Everyone in the family was
worried about the possibility that she might deliver the baby on the road. But
what could we do? She had to wait until we got to wherever it was we were going.
Since many people were working away from town, many members of the family were
still far away. The cadres told us that everyone would be reunited at our final
destination, wherever that may be.
Early that day
before we began the journey, everyone was ordered to gather along the main road
out of town. Only the soldiers escorting us knew our exact destination. Most of
the elders were very concerned that they might be killed at a place called Wat
Yieng, a former Buddhist pagoda about ten miles South of Tapang. Wat Yieng was a
well-known torture and processing center, a place where most people were
“If we pass
through Wat Yieng, we’ll be OK,” I heard one of my neighbor say quietly and
The rest just sat
quietly under a shade tree and prayed very hard. All wanted to live and see
another sunrise. The sooner we get out of Wat Yieng, the better we would be. I
continued to pray.
The trip was
difficult on my sister-in-law. Her pregnancy had not been easy, physically
speaking. She had had a miscarriage earlier and was hopeful that this one would
make it. Her father was very old; he couldn’t walk far from home due to his
swollen knee joints. Serey helped his pregnant wife walk while I helped his
father-in-law. There wasn’t much room for our essential belongings, such as
sleeping mats and blankets. I carried most of our sleeping mats and blankets by
tying a long cotton cloth, the Khmer kroma, around them. Some families were
dragging their small children along by the arms; they were crying along the way.
It was a scene we had witnessed numerous times under Angkar’s “great leap
When we arrived at
Wat Yieng, after what seemed to be a very long and exhausting hike, the leader
of our escorts ordered us to stop along the road and wait. He then went inside
to meet with Angkar Leu (High Organization) cadres in charge of the facility.
While waiting we all prayed and prayed.
I then remembered
the words of my neighbor: “If we pass through Wat Yieng, we’ll be OK.”
I have never been
one to pray much, but I began to pray in earnest as well. I was hoping that we
could make it through the process. About 20 minutes later, our escort returned
with the cadres in charge and more families with them. There were more Mith Tmey
families, about 15 in all. I watched the group from a distance of about 20
yards, close enough to see people’s faces.
I stared at a few
very familiar faces in the crowd of new people. My heart skipped a few beats. I
know these people! I know these people! I almost screamed and wanted to rush out
to meet them right then. I got up and was about to rush out to them, but logic
and common sense held me back. I did not want to jeopardize anything, certainly
not at this notorious place. My heart was still skipping a few beats and my
adrenaline was pumping very hard with a sense of extreme joy. Words cannot
explain my tears of joy, which were flowing like waterfalls on my face.
My dad look very,
very old and so did my dear mom. They had both changed a lot, but I knew in an
instant that it was they. They wore just rags, much like the rest of us. My
siblings were behind them. I was so pleased knowing that my family was almost
intact after all these years. All of them were there, except two. I counted them
again and again to make sure. My oldest brother Larony, and my older sister
Mealenie were not among the group. But most of them were right here, quite close
to me. They looked terrible, I thought, just skin and bones. It took a little
while to recognize my younger brothers, who were not wearing shirts, but they
were all there. They had grown taller. After more than three years of
separation, most of them were right there before my eyes and I hesitated. I had
dreamed of and waited for this day for years. Now that they were in front of me,
eyes just stared down to the ground, oblivious of their surrounding. They did
not see or recognize either my brother Serey or myself in the crowd. They looked
just awful, like dispirited people with little hope. They did not appear to be
the same people I knew. Serey walked by and grabbed my left arm tight. He was
breathing down on my face.
“Don’t stare, Ah
Knack!” He spoke sternly into my left ear, using my nickname to emphasize that
he meant it and I had better obey.
“That’s mom and
dad! And our brothers!” I whispered back to Serey with excitement.
“I know, wait a
while,” he pleaded with me now.
I saw tears on his
cheeks. I knew then that he wanted to rush to them as much as I did. However, we
had to exercise a little discipline and be very cautious, then more than ever.
We did not know our fate or theirs, not at that moment.
I made eye contact
with one of my little brothers, Ah Long. I wryly smiled at him, hoping that he
would recognize me. He did not respond, to my disappointment. He just looked away into thin air. I
knew it was they! Had I changed so much that none of them recognized me? Were
they being cautious like Serey and I had been? I still wanted to risk it all and
rush to them and give them all a great big hug. I wanted to tell them how much I
missed them in the past years. I could not and I was just as frustrated as
After about an
hour of sitting along side the road, we were ordered to move out again. The
soldiers began to count the people as they passed by. I kept on looking back to
see my long lost family. To my absolute joy, they followed my original group of
Mith Tmey people from Tapang. I was so happy that I briefly forgot the threat of
execution by Angkar Leu as we were marching away from this execution center. I
was careless about that. I was so very happy to see my long lost loved ones
again. They were right behind my group! Nothing would matter now, I thought. I
am with my family again at last.
retraced the trip I made to Tapang town. People were more at ease and felt a
little better after we were away from Wat Yieng. We have passed gate one.
Nonetheless, everyone was unsure of what would happen next or what to expect
ahead of us. I was simply very happy to have my family nearby again, even if I
had not yet made direct contact. I knew I would soon. “Be very patient, Ah
Knack!” I reminded myself sternly.
The trek went on
until we reached National Highway 6, the main drag between Battambang city to
the west and Siem Reap to the east. The soldiers ordered us to camp for the
night, while they picked prime spots to tie their military hammocks to sleep.
There was no food, absolutely nothing from Angkar Leu for us to eat. We had to
take care of ourselves. People just crashed and fell asleep after the exhausting
march. A few even snored loudly while some children cried. It didn’t matter. I
had experienced this before. I took my small sack of cooked-dried rice; a
commodity reserved for an emergency like this one, and casually walked over
toward my parents and brothers. Hesitantly and nervously, I walked past them. I
could see and feel their eyes fixed on me as I walked past. Perhaps they were
looking at what I was eating and not me? They were still looking at me quietly
when I returned.
everyone. It is I, Nachith,” I tried to stroke my long hair into the back of my
head to show my face to them. What happened next surprised me. They all just
looked at me blindly and said nothing. They did not recognize me after just
three years. “It is me, your son, Nachith,” I insisted. “Do you all still
remember me?” I cried with a sense of desperation and frustration.
Mom was the first
to grab and feel my face with her hand in the dim campfire light. She looked as
though she had just seen a ghost. She then wept quietly, trying to suppress an
outburst that could be heard by the soldiers. She did not recognize her own son
after three years. My dad did not fare well either. No need for words. Tears of
joy were enough. Everyone else soon surrounded me. They would not let me go,
afraid that I might be gone again.
My two little
brothers, Monica and Seiha, had forgotten who I was. Only my two younger
brothers Long and Nosay still vaguely remembered Serey and me. The four of them
got my emergency rice. I would have given my right arm if it would help ease
their hunger and suffering.
“Where are Serey
and Sa-Oum?” Mom asked nervously, still weeping. “I’ll go get them, stay here,”
I said and walked quickly back to my campsite. My younger brothers followed.
They were more interested in looking for something to eat than being curious. I
grabbed two of them by the head and would not let them go as we walked.
We met Serey
halfway. He was also yearning to see our family again. When I disappeared from
the camp, he knew exactly where I was. He had to follow to make sure I did not
stir up trouble for all of us. We went back quietly to bring Sa Oum to see our
The reunion was
bittersweet for all of us. We did not sleep much that night, but were quietly
chatting and sharing our memories. Good and bad memories were flooding back and
everyone was in tears most of the time. We were lucky to be alive, up to that
point, and to have found each other again.
The recent loss of
my friend Laive and my favorite hen were momentarily forgotten when I found my
family. I still deeply missed Laive, but I now had my family to comfort me once
again. However, as fate would have it, it turned out to be a short reunion under
Angkar Leu’s genocidal regime.