My father was a handsome man. After he fell in love with my mother Makk Ngoy, he had to work very hard to please her parents so they would agree to his marriage proposal. My father’s older brother had seen her first and also loved my mother. However, my uncle was generous; he thought that if either of them married my mother, she would be part of his family.
At first, my mother didn’t love my father because he always teased her and was a second lieutenant. She didn’t like soldiers because she thought she would be widowed if she married one.
My mother was not an educated woman. Her mother didn’t want her to study; she felt that women didn’t need schooling. They would only use their education to write love letters to their boyfriends.
After my parents got married, they rented a house in Phnom Penh. My father was then promoted to captain and the government gave him a brick house near his office.
My father went to fight in many battles, but was never seriously injured. Once, someone told my mother that he was having an affair, and took the other woman into battle with him. So, my mother asked permission to accompany my father to the front so she could learn if he really was having an affair. She stayed with him for six months, but never saw another woman. Whenever my father went into battle, she went as well. Two or three of his subordinates had to guard her at all times. Once in the midst of battle, my mother fell and many soldiers trampled her and broke her hip. My father and she then got on the first airplane and went home. When they arrived, my mother was wearing a military uniform that was stained with blood. She could not walk steadily after that.
Next, my father was sent to Vietnam for training. After he returned, he began working in the accounting office in the center of the city. We lived well at that time; our family had a Mercedes, a Hamber Sport, an Austin, and another car the government had given my father to use. We had many maids and drivers who took the nine children in our family anywhere we wanted to go.
When my sisters and I were preparing for the 1975 Khmer New Year, my mother was worried: she asked my father to let our family leave the country. My uncle who worked at the Japanese embassy had faxed my father and told him that we should leave Cambodia as soon as possible because the country would soon be practicing communism. But my father, who had traveled to other countries and saw what they were like, said, “There is no country that is more comfortable to live in than Cambodia. If you want to go abroad, you should marry a foreign husband.”
On April 17, our family and friends – 25 people in all – traveled to Kandal Province. Along the way, we children were hungry and crying because my mother didn’t bring much food. My grandmother got out of the car to beg for rice, but it was so crowded that she got lost. We never saw her again. My father was furious and told us to stay close to one another and not to get out of the car no matter how hungry we were. From that point on, we had to push our three cars. The Khmer Rouge soldiers inspected our cars and mocked us because they found nothing but two cooking pots and a teapot.
My mother was angry with my father because he would not listen to her; she did not say anything, but only cried. “Social revolution does not kill its own nation, or at most it creates equality between the rich and the poor. Since we have a few cars, the Angkar will set our belongings aside, leaving us with only a house and a car,” my father said to comfort her.
My father said we should travel near the water because it was better to starve than not have enough to drink. We stopped at a pagoda because we didn’t have anyplace particular to go, and were waiting to hear when we could return to Phnom Penh. My father helped other people carry their rice and tobacco bags in exchange for food. He told them he was a volleyball coach.
One day the village chief talked with my father’s friends who had come with us from Phnom Penh. The chief said that if my father was a businessman, then he was a big boss, and if he worked for the government, he would be at least a lieutenant colonel. His friends replied, “Brother, you are very good at judging people. He is a lieutenant colonel!” My sister overheard them and ran to tell our parents. My mother was very scared and begged my father to take a boat to Vietnam. But my father refused, saying the Angkar would probably just take him for re-education.
A few days later, cadres took him away and interrogated him all night. When he returned, he told my mother that they only questioned him about his previous job. He had been annoyed at their questions and told them, “What does it matter to you whether I was a lieutenant colonel or volleyball coach?” Again my mother begged him to leave the country and again he refused. He believed what the Khmer Rouge had told him and was waiting to return to Phnom Penh to resume his old position. “No one kills their own citizens; at most they are taken to study,” he said.
A month later, they took him away for re-education. My mother gave her ring to the village chief so he would let my brother visit our father. When my brother returned, he told her that our father was in the district office with 50 other people who were teachers, doctors, and high-ranking officials. My mother was relieved then. My brother asked her if he could go back and be with our father. Both of them disappeared after that. We learned later that the Angkar confused my father with his older brother Doeur Kimsan, who had been the ambassador to Japan.
Three weeks later, Khmer Rouge soldiers came in four boats, saying they would take people back to the city. My mother decided that we should go and left word that if my father and brother returned, people should tell them we were in Phnom Penh. But instead of heading for the city, the boat stopped at Kampong Chhnang, and then cars and trains took us to Battambang Province.
My siblings were sent to work units. Because I was the youngest of the nine children in our family, I worked in a rice field near the village and studied Khmer Rouge ideology with other children. They taught us that we should view the Angkar as our parents and that our own parents were enemies. They told us to gather information on our families. Some children informed on their parents, who were sent for re-education or killed. I never told them anything about my mother.
One of my sisters began getting very thin from dysentery. Before she died, she murmured that she wanted to eat eggs mixed with a bitter green vegetable. Five of my brothers died in the same month in late 1977. One was sent back with amputated legs and died. The others had infected wounds and were starving. Although they went to the hospital, they were only given rabbit dung medicine. My mother’s heart was broken at losing so many children. If I had not been there, she would have gone insane.
My mother once traded some jewelry for chicken meat; she shared it with the others in the house and saved the legs for me and herself. When I still wasn’t full, I started an argument with her and she pinched me until I cried. Some village spies heard me and took her to the jungle. All the people in the house blamed me, saying I had caused her death. I was terrified and ran out to find her, but could not. I cried myself to sleep. When I woke up, my mother was crying and hugging me. I was so thrilled, I felt that I was born again.
When my mother could no longer bear the starvation in the village, she told me to run away with a base child named Kour. We got lost in the jungle for two days and ate only what we could find. At night, I climbed a tree and saw a light approaching us; I thought it was a ghost. But it was the lantern from an ox cart being driven by the chief of Lback Prey Village. He was kind and took Kour and me back to her family. Her younger brother’s family adopted me. They loved me and gave me a lot of food to eat.
On liberation day in 1979, I wanted to go and find my mother, but did not know where she was. One day, I heard someone calling my name. The village chief told me that my mother had come to find me. I was scared because I had lied to them, saying my mother was dead. I had been afraid because I was an April 17 person and might be killed. But the voice was my mother’s, and she asked me to return to Phnom Penh with her. I didn’t know what to do. The people in my adopted family did not want to let me go. I was also afraid of what the Khmer Rouge would do to me if I left, and I had enough to eat in this village. But when my mother told them that she had lost all of her children except me, they understood and let me go home with her.
My memories of the Khmer Rouge regime follow me every day; they are like a bad shadow.