Moul Lida Has Seen Wars Come And Go in Over 50 Years of Service
Sitting on the floor in a dusty hallway at Preah Ket Mealea Military Hospital, Moul Lida says he is about out of hope.
At 81 years old, he is a soldier on active duty with the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces Division 1, based in Kompong Chhnang. He has been a soldier, almost non-stop, since 1939.
The doctors have just told him they can do nothing more to treat his tuberculosis. Yet he stays at the hospital, because he cannot afford to leave.
After fighting for 50 years on more battlefields than he can count, he says he doesn’t have enough money to live on, or to buy medicine, or even to return to his home province of Kratie so his relatives can bury him when he dies.
“I am no more use to the government and the country, as I am very old,’’ he says. “I pray to the Buddha, I want to be demobilized. I want to see the monks at the temple, and time to enjoy the Buddhist ceremony.’’
But despite his half-century of military service, he says, his government is no longer interested in him.
“My dead body,’’ he says, “will be worth less than a street dog’s.’’
Moul Lida was 19 when he joined the army in 1939, after a stint as a monk at Wat Ounaloum. He was an orphan, with no other relatives, and he couldn’t think of another way to earn a living.
After grueling basic training, he was shipped with 200 other Cambodian soldiers to France, which was fighting Nazi Germany in the Second World War.
He remembers being trucked to a battlefield in for a fight that seemed to last forever. He served two years with the French, returning to Cambodia in late 1943 to battle a Khmer Issarak insurgency in the western provinces.
There seemed no end to the fighting. He fought the Thais, he fought the insurgents, across the province of Battambang. He says he was lucky he wasn’t hurt; many others were injured or killed.
By the late 1940s, as the French were preparing to withdraw from Cambodia, he joined the forces supporting King Norodom Sihanouk. Although the country was technically at peace, skirmishes erupted periodically, and he fought all over the western provinces. In 1950, he was shot in the leg by Khmer Issarak fighters.
At the age of 39, he met and married Min Sokhom, and they had a daughter. By 1969, the country was once again in turmoil. Both parents elected to fight for Lon Nol.
Moul Lida was assigned to the Army Shooting School in Kambol district, Kandal province. Min Sokhom was sent as a commando to fight the Khmer Rouge in Kratie province.
“Staying in the school, I often fought the Khmer Rouge,” he says. A year later, after Lon Nol’s coup d’etat against the King, he was transferred to Banteay Sleuk army camp in Phnom Penh.
At the camp, which was on the site now occupied by the Intercontinental Hotel, he was promoted to captain. For a while, life was good. He had a Jeep to drive to work.
By 1974, as the Khmer Rouge drew closer to the city, he was assigned to work with a naval patrol. His wife also fought for the Lon Nol forces in Kratie province.
In April of 1975, his military career came to an abrupt, if temporary, end. He remembers standing guard on the Monivong Bridge as the Khmer Rouge approached the city. He quickly shed his uniform, his weapons and his beloved Jeep.
“With my family, I ran away to Kratie province, pretending to be a farmer,’’ he says. He erased all the details of his previous life.
“I did not think I would survive the Khmer Rouge, although I never told them about my job in the Lon Nol regime,’’ he says. “If they knew what my background was, I would have been executed.’’
Throughout the Khmer Rouge regime and for a few years after, Moul Lida remained a civilian.
“In 1981 and 1982, I was invited to join the army again, but I refused, because the salary was very low, 80 riel a month. I could not have fed my family.’’
He was working as a construction worker in 1985 when, by chance, he ran across the Navy commander he had worked for during the Lon Nol regime. The commander urged Moul Lida to re-enlist and fight for the Vietnamese-backed regime.
He signed up in Kratie, and was quickly sent to Battambang province, where he fought the Khmer Rouge for more than a year. As the Khmer Rouge retreated, the fighting eased.
By now, he was 65 years old. He was finally transferred from the infantry to a special unit that recovered the bodies of slain soldiers for proper funerals, operating out of Oral Mountain in Kompong Chhnang province.
“There were four to five old soldiers in the undertaker group,’’ Moul Lida says. “At least three soldiers were killed in battle every day,’’ sometimes in heavy jungle. During his four years with the unit, “I burned more than 100 dead bodies of soldiers.’’
In 1990, his the unit was transferred to Banteay Longvek in Kompong Chhnang province, where he earned a monthly salary of 70,000 riel (about $18). It was at Banteay Longvek that both he and his wife contracted tuberculosis.
By 1996, both were seriously ill. After some initial treatment, military doctors sent them to Ket Mealea Military Hospital in Phnom Penh in 1998; but those doctors soon said they had done all they could.
“Nowadays, if my disease attacks me badly, my daughter goes to a private pharmacy and buys me some pills,’’ he says. His salary has been cut by 20,000 riel; combined with his wife’s, they have 100,000 riel a month (about $25), and it’s not enough to live on.
He wants to die in Kratie province, as a matter of human dignity, but cannot afford the 35,000 riel ($9) boat ticket home.
So he stays in the hallway at the hospital. “The food at the hospital is like food for pigs,’’ he said, but he can’t afford to buy better.
“I do not want to say I am sorry for my life, because from young to old, I served in the army, carried a gun and fought for my beloved country,’’ he says.
But looking back, both he and his wife think it would have been better if they had been killed in battle.
“Dying on the battlefield, we would not suffer so much pain and sorrow as we will, dying when the country is at peace and we have no meaning.’’