Three months into her pregnancy, while laboring on a worksite in Takeo province during the Pol Pot regime, Nheak Nen noticed she was bleeding. She immediately knew she had miscarried.
Despite the loss of her baby, the Khmer Rouge soldiers on guard quickly ordered her back to work.
“I was not allowed to relax. The Khmer Rouge cadre in charge at the worksite just gave me a short break despite the fact that I was bleeding from my secret place—a sign of miscarrying a fetus,” Ms. Nen, now 64, said from her home in Takeo province on Friday.
Soon afterward, Ms. Nen—who already had two children—suffered another miscarriage. Then she fell pregnant again.
Initially, it looked as though her baby would make it. However, long hours toiling at the site of an under-construction dike with little food eventually took its toll, and seven months into her pregnancy, she noticed that the fetus was no longer moving inside her.
Ms. Nen never saw her stillborn child. Instead, elderly women were assigned by local Khmer Rouge officials to dispose of it. Despite her desire to perform a traditional burial, she never discovered the location of her baby and did her utmost to conceal her pain for fear of execution.
“I couldn’t complain and I couldn’t let Khmer Rouge cadre, or people working for the Khmer Rouge, see my tears for losing my baby, because I could be executed,” she said.
Ms. Nen is one of 121 women whose stories are told in a new book, “Motherhood at War,” researched and penned by Kasumi Nakagawa, a Japanese professor of gender studies at Pannasastra University in Phnom Penh.
The 105-page study tells of motherhood, pregnancy and child rearing under the Khmer Rouge, with numerous harrowing accounts of death and ill treatment as the regime implemented its hard-line communist policies, including the abolition of the traditional family structure.
In an interview, Ms. Nakagawa said that a difficult pregnancy with her first son in 2010 acted as a catalyst for the research.
“I had this idea when I was pregnant, because my pregnancy was not very pleasant. I chose to be a single mother, so I faced a lot of discrimination. I was very happy to be a mother, but I also faced a lot of problems that maybe not all women face when pregnant,” Ms. Nakagawa said.
“I was just thinking of how those women in the war welcomed their pregnancy. It’s a very simple curiosity,” she said.
A common thread among the mothers she interviewed was the added emotional trauma of being prevented from conducting traditional funeral ceremonies for their deceased children, as the Khmer Rouge sought to eradicate cultural and religious traditions. The majority of women interviewed who lost children still do not know where they were buried.
One interviewee, Khim Sim, lost five children and her husband.
“The bodies of my dead children were buried in the ground in any open space. We didn’t have a funeral for them because the KR didn’t allow us to do so,” Ms. Sim said.
As killings accelerated and food became increasingly scarce, others said they had considered death the best option for their children.
“When I gave birth to my baby, I was so skinny and I had no breast milk. My baby was in a terrible situation. He suffered a lot, and he was dead after only 28 days after the birth. But anyway, it was better that he died rather than staying alive. Because I did not have any capacity to feed my baby; I was too weak,” said Phom Pun.
Some of the women discussed attempting abortions during the regime. One interviewee recalled hitting her belly with stones and drinking rice wine in an attempt to terminate her pregnancy.
Another source noted that abortions were often unnecessary.
“No women had to have abortions because we were forced to do very heavy work so we automatically had miscarriages,” said a woman named only as Ms. Neheat.
Despite such accounts, many said that giving birth imbued them with a sense of purpose and a determination to survive.
“When I look back at the past, having a baby during the KR regime was not a bad experience, although it was extremely tough,” said Bun Phalla, who now lives in Ratanakkiri province.
“Even though I had to do forced labor, from early morning until midnight, I felt relieved when I could see my baby’s face in the night after work,” she said.
Muy Kea, 68, a farmer from Kompong Cham province, said in an interview on Friday that she had prepared her son—who was born during the Democratic Kampuchea period and survived—for the struggle ahead while he was still in the womb.
“While I was working in the rice fields, I used my hand to softly touch my belly and would speak to my baby, telling him, ‘You have to be strong,’” she said.