KR Horrors Not Enough to Break Man’s Spirit

Editor’s note: As progress toward a Khmer Rouge tribunal moves forward, The Cambodia Daily is running a series in which the people who lived through the Khmer Rouge regime share their stories. Subsequent stories will appear in future issues of The Cambodia Daily.

kompong trach district, Kampot province – The watery rice gruel, the death of his mother and father and the long hours of hard work in a strange land weren’t enough to make Chan Song lose faith.

Death was such an everyday possibility for a teen-age boy living under the Pol Pot regime that the sounds of war coming from just a few kilometers away didn’t fill him with terror.

“Most of the time I was hopeless,” Chan Song said. “But then I would hear the gunfire and the explosions coming from the border area. And I was hoping they would come to remove Pol Pot.”

Fighting with Vietnam began just weeks after the Khmer Rouge took power in April 1975. Geo­political rivalries and Cambodia’s historical claim to the Mekong Delta region sparked border skirmishes and massacres of civilians. Gradually, the battles escalated into all-out war.

Chan Song did not know the cruelty of the Khmer Rouge regime during 1975 and most of 1976. His clearest memory of the first six months of the Khmer Rouge regime is that he continued to eat three times a day. He was the teen-age son of farmers and he knew only that the leaders in Phnom Penh were sending soldiers to Kompong Trach.

“When Lon Nol fell, I thought we would have peace,” he said. “At first, I didn’t know Pol Pot. I only knew that we were living together, eating together and working together.”

After one year, Khmer Rouge cadre broke up his family, sending Chan Song’s brothers and sisters to separate mobile youth worker’s brigades. His parents stayed home in Kandal Toul commune, while his five siblings were sent throughout Kompong Trach district to build dams, dig canals and plant rice.

Chan Song moved from village to village, doing whatever he was told. Occasionally, he would come across a sister or brother.

Every three or four months, his mobile worker’s brigade would  work near his home village, enabling Chan Song to pay a brief visit to his parents, with permission from the Khmer Rouge cadre. But usually Chan Song was at least a one- or two-day walk from home.

The three meals a day became thin rice soup, served once or twice daily. He recalls bitterly that the chickens, the cows, the fish in the rivers and the crabs in the fields and ponds all belonged to Angkar, the Khmer Rouge organization. Even the juice squeezed from palms was considered common property and had to be turned over to Angkar.

“I was very angry,” he said. “When we were given the small amount of rice, we wanted to add some watergrass or some kind of vegetable. But the cadre would not let us. They would throw away our food and not let us eat anything if we tried to do this.”

One government official who fled Democratic Kampuchea in October 1976 described “widespread starvation in Kampot,” according to historian Ben Kiernan.

Many chose to escape across the border to Vietnam rather than face possible execution at the hands of the notoriously cruel cadres who ran the Southwest Zone.

While peasants were forced to battle fear, hunger and sickness, most were not taken away in the middle of the night. “Disappearances” were usually reserved for suspected former Lon Nol officials and city people, not farmers like Chan Song.

But that didn’t keep his mother and father from becoming malnourished and sick. Chan Song isn’t sure when his parents died, but he said it was when the fighting with Vietnam was heating up.

His brothers and sisters were allowed to stop work to bury their father. Chan Song did not hear that his mother died—about one year after her husband—until after Vietnam invaded and toppled Pol Pot.

Whether his parents died by execution or illness doesn’t matter, Chan Song said. The Khmer Rouge are responsible either way.

“The former Khmer Rouge leaders should not be kept alive today. These people tortured us during their regime. And I still worry they could create a new uprising,” he said.

Chan Song returned to his home village after the Khmer Rouge were driven away in January 1979. He met his sister and learned about his mother’s death and the death of one other sibling. He noticed that his brothers and sisters all had the same thin wrists and arms “like the handle of a knife.”

Soon after, he was arrested by Vietnamese soldiers and sent to Saigon. Along with 200 other former members of youth brigades, Chan Song underwent “political education.”

“I saw a Khmer pagoda there, and I thought this must be a sign of good luck,” he said.

After six months, he was given a certificate and sent back to his village with instructions to see the authorities about becoming a local official. When he reached home, the Vietnamese authorities laughed at him and tore up the certificate.

Chan Song got married and resumed farming and fishing in the village where he was born. He now has five children.

“I became like the simple people again,” he said. “Now, I cannot remember how to speak any Vietnamese.”


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