“I had a small happy family. I was a school teacher in Phnom Penh when it started. My two kids were too young to go to school then. One day some people with guns and machetes came in to our building and ordered us to move out as they were evacuating the city to save us from American bombs. I did not want to leave my home but they threatened to burn my house and kill us all if we don’t obey their orders. For days we walked further away from Phnom Penh towards the villages in North. I saw many old people dying of exhaustion, fever or heat stroke. Me and my wife carried my kids when they got tired but we kept on walking. At night we slept on the road and on many occasions I had to beg for water, so did the others. Some of us were beaten up when we said we want to go back to our homes.”
One of the perks of solo travel is that you meet up with a lot of locals who are as curious about you as you are about them. In Siem Reap, I chatted up with a friendly waiter Sang, who was quite inquisitive about tourists visiting Cambodia. I was more than happy talking to this nice bloke and asking about the city, Angkor, Cambodian culture, food and the Khmer Rouge. Little did I know that this would be the start of a life-changing journey and become one of the reasons I would recommend Cambodia to travelers out there.
The thing about talking to Cambodian people about the Khmer Rouge is that almost all Cambodians above 40 years of age have gone through the bloody times of the Khmer Rouge(1975-1979). They have been through and survived one of the worst times in the history of human civilization. So, you do feel a bit apprehensive while bringing up that topic with the locals. Hence, I was a bit hesitant when Sang , sensing my honest enthusiasm on the local history and especially after I told him that I would be travelling to Sihanoukville the day after, offered me to arrange two meetup – one of those would be with his very distant uncle who is a survivor from the civil war days. After much thought I said okay.
Sang met me on 8th August at Sihanoukville and we would have to travel to a village near Kampot which was quite near. On the way, he told me all the stories about his village and his family while we were travelling along the oh-so-beautiful countryside. But during the entire 30-40 minutes of the journey to his uncle’s place all I was thinking was I needed to be conscious and respectful of the man.
After we got down from the tuk-tuk, we walked through a village I was greeted by curious kids and onlookers. We walked further for another 10 minutes through a rice paddy field and Sang says “We are here”, pointing to a small weary-looking hut.
After we entered the hut, Sang greets an old man with Sampaeh – a Cambodian way of greeting. After a couple of minutes the man looked at me and with a smile on his face says “Welcome! Sang told me about you”, in proper English. “Are you a reporter?”, he asked and I said “No sir, I am just a traveler here”. He says “Okay, I don’t like talking to reporters. It is no good for people like me now”, while handing me a glass of water.I looked around the room and I could sense that the man lives a very secluded life. A few books in English and Khmer lying on his bed, a makeshift wooden chair, a very small trunk that I would guess contained all his belongings and a small stove with few utensils lying around.
As we sat down, I looked around the room and I could see a wall with several pictures of a woman, two kids and two other men. “That is my wife and children, and my two brothers”, he said with a hushed sad demeanor in his voice. “They were taken. They were killed by those butchers. They killed my whole family, my babies.”, he said. I looked at him as he spoke and I could see glimpses of the toll life has taken on him. There was a deep sense of pain and loss in his eyes; a piercing gaze that told a thousand stories.
“How old were you then? In 1975”, I asked him. “I was 33 and my two sons were 3 and 4 years old… You know till today I do not understand their motives, the Khmer Rouge fighters”, his voice getting a stern tone when he said that. “They said they wanted to protect us from American bombs but we were forced to walk miles to the north. They put up all of us in camps where they made us do farming all day. After three days, they took away my wife and kids along with the family members of many other people like me. That was the last time I saw them”, he continued.
I personally don’t know the entire history of the Khmer Rouge, except that it was a dark time that plunged the entire nation into poverty, distress, famine and irreparable personal damage. The seclusion from the foreign world, discarding the developing times and imposing extreme socio-economic sanctions on their own people, descending to the measures of mass Genocide were some of the insane actions of the Khmer Rouge.
“Did you ever get to know what happened to your family?”, I asked him. After a long pondering pause he says, “Every day I begged to those men to let me know if my family is safe and every time they would beat me up. We worked for 12-16 hours on the rice fields, sometimes without any food or water. Months went by and I hoped to hear about my family someday. One day a few men from my camp were loaded onto a truck and taken away someplace that you now know as The Killing Fields. That is when I finally gave up all hopes of seeing my family alive. When I heard stories on the Killing Fields, about how innocent men, women and children were murdered there, I assumed the same had happened to my family…They killed children. After some days, I got to hear from new people coming in to the camp that thousands of women and children, who were taken away from their homes and camps elsewhere, were tortured and executed in those Killing Fields. That is the last time I ever cried in my life. I was broken after that and a broken man has nothing else to express, not even pain and tears”.
I spent the next hour listening to the horrific stories of his time in the labor camps where life was no less than hell. At such times you feel speechless when you are confronted with the harsh truth that everybody is so oblivious of. “It took 4 years and 3 million dead Cambodians for any nation to come forward and help us”, his most haunting statement from the entire conversation. At complete loss of words I said “I am sorry. I am sorry that this happened to you”. Inside, I was filled with disgust and guilt. The disgust of knowing what humans are capable of doing to each other and the guilt of spending my entire life in a make-believe-perfect-all-is-well world.
Listening to his stories, getting a live account from a deadly civil war survivor, it gave this journey of mine a new meaning as when I took this trip to Cambodia, I wasn’t ready for this. Suddenly I could realize the existence of scars in each and every aspect of this country. I could see it from his expressionless stoic eyes, the rust-filled huts across the villages, the innocent eyes of a 4-year-old child and the bullet holes in the walls of Angkor Wat. I said goodbye to him and Sang as I headed out back towards Sihanoukville with a wish to get immersed in the harsh and ugly reality rather than float up in the realms of fake perfections.