KR Anniversary Brings Memories of Survival

The loud booming sounds re­verberate through Mak Ren’s house under far different circumstances now than they did 30 years ago.

The boom-boom-boom, thundering at ear-splitting volume from loudspeakers outside, accompanies scores of teenagers dancing next door in celebration of the Khmer New Year.

In 1975, however, such booming would have made Mak Ren run for cover. In the weeks before the April 17 fall of Phnom Penh to Khmer Rouge forces, the only loud explosive noises that were heard came from the blasts of art­illery and shelling that surrounded the capital.

From that tumultuous time on, Mak Ren said, he did not again eat rice for more than three years, as the Khmer Rouge overran Phnom Penh and thrust the country into starvation and genocide.

At his Russei Keo district home on Monday, the 86-year-old widower recalled his first spoonful of rice, shortly after the Khmer Rouge were finally driven from power in January 1979. Until then, Mak Ren had been forced to toil ceaselessly in the rice fields, surviving only on the watery porridge allowed by Khmer Rouge cadre.

“Oh, it tasted really very good!” Mak Ren said of the long-hungered-for mouthful of rice. “I ate it again and again until I was overfull.”

That first spoonful provided not only the relief of survival, but also the de­spair of being the sole survivor of his entire family. His wife, six children and eight grand-children all died of starvation or were killed by the Khmer Rouge.

Despite the regime’s frenzied drive to produce rice for export—and its propaganda, boasting plentiful yields—most of the country, like Mak Ren, went hungry.

According to Dok Narin, the former governor of Kompong Chhnang province and current undersecretary of state for the Ministry of Cults and Religion, many Cambodians were able to eat rice again shortly after the fall of the Khmer Rouge due to remaining rice stocks left in the provinces.

People who had been driven to the northern provinces by Khmer Rouge cadre were also returning to Phnom Penh, carrying rice supplies back with them, he said.

Dok Narin himself remembers the struggle to stay alive during the Democratic Kampuchea regime—and the constant, gnawing hunger.

He was one of the few men in Prey Veng province’s Daun Doak village who survived after Khmer Rouge soldiers forced residents to clear his village in 1978. More than a hundred women from the tiny village were made widows, he said, because all the men were accused of betraying the increasingly paranoid “Angkar.”

The people in Prey Veng, in particular, faced dire food shortages at the time, Dok Narin recalled, adding that villagers in the province ate only porridge mixed with wild cassava and corn, or the occasional supply of wheat donated from Russia.

“It was a second suffering—there was no rice,” he said.

For Seng Kry, a 60-year-old resident of Russei Keo district, a sack of rice was what saved his life 30 years ago, in the final moments before the Khmer Rouge’s takeover of Phnom Penh.

Seng Kry, who was then a warrant officer of the Lon Nol army, had been based in the Pich Nil area of Kompong Speu province’s Phnom Sruoch district.

In the week before April 17, he was on leave in Phnom Penh to take care of his wife, who had just delivered his second son. As Khmer Rouge forces advanced on the city, Seng Kry was ordered stationed at a base in Tuol Kok district.

In the early morning of April 17, Khmer Rouge soldiers pushed through to Tuol Kok district, driving Seng Kry and the other troops stationed in the base there to flee in the ensuing chaos.

Seng Kry grabbed a sack of rice, and wearing civilian clothing,  hurriedly left the base to find his wife and children.

Carrying the rice sack on his shoulder, Seng Kry pretended to be a civilian and hid amongst the hordes of evacuees walking along National Road 5 out of the capital. After hours of walking in his bare feet, he managed to locate his wife and children before they were forced from their home. Eventually, they were relocated to Battambang province.

Like Mak Ren, it was not until the Khmer Rouge were pushed out of power that he could again enjoy rice without restriction, Seng Kry said Monday.

“I never thought I would survive to this day,” he said.

 

 

 

 

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