When Ros Sokunny thinks of her life over the last three decades, her eyes fill with tears and her voice trembles. She isn’t sure how old she is, because all those who knew are dead. She guesses she is about 33.
Orphaned during the US bombing of the early 1970s, she survived the Khmer Rouge killing fields and a hard, lonely childhood in state-owned orphanages.
Now Ros Sokunny’s son is facing a similar fate, although the bombs have stopped falling and the Khmer Rouge regime has collapsed. Today, mother and son battle a different enemy: Poverty.
Ros Sokunny was a happy child with five siblings when, at the age of about 4, her world was blown apart. In the early 1970s, the US bombed Cambodia, trying to disrupt Viet Cong forces hiding inside the country.
Families in Ros Sokunny’s village of Puok district in Siem Reap province dug trenches to serve as rudimentary bomb shelters, covering them with earth blasted loose from nearby bombed areas. They crawled under the earth when the planes came, emerging after the noise stopped like crabs crawling from their holes.
“I was frightened to death by the bombing. I thought we would die,” she said. Looking back, she said in some ways it reminded her of what she saw later during the Pol Pot regime, “a big pond containing a group of people shot and beaten to death, and pushed down into it.”
During one bombing period that lasted for several days, Ros Sokunny’s father, a Lon Nol soldier deployed to hold off advancing Khmer Rouge troops, told her to stay with her grandmother in a safe place.
She never saw her family again.
When she hears about the US air strikes now in Afghanistan, Ros Sokunny remembers all too well what it is like.
“The people whose villages and country are under bombardment, innocent villagers and their children, will suffer the most,” she said.
The US bombing of Cambodia essentially ruined her life, although she knows she was separated from her family because her father loved her and wanted her to be safe.
She is not sure what happened to her parents, brother and sisters. She does not know if they were killed by the bombs or by the Khmer Rouge, but she thinks it must have been the bombs. She says the bombs killed so many Cambodians that furious survivors flocked to join the Khmer Rouge and fight against the US-supported Lon Nol government.
Ros Sokunny stayed in touch with her grandmother through the Khmer Rouge years. A few months before the Vietnamese army invaded in 1979, the old woman died of starvation, leaving the girl alone.
She was part of a children’s group that was forced to work very hard and fed very little. They were often sent into the jungle, where there was nothing to eat besides watery rice mixed with water grass.
The longer she starved, the more her body swelled. She walked from place to place with other orphans, looking for food. Once, she met a kind cook working at a Khmer Rouge kitchen, who gave her some medicine for the swelling.
Ros Sokunny was beaten and punished several times by the Khmer Rouge for stealing rice from the paddies and digging for potatoes. She said other bad things happened to her, things she still can’t speak about.
When the Khmer Rouge was routed in 1979, Ros Sokunny left Puok district with no particular plan. She headed toward Siem Reap town to look for shelter, sleeping under people’s houses and in parks on her way.
She was about 11 years old when she met a kind man, a smuggler, who tried to help her find an orphanage. They discovered there were none in Siem Reap town. The man, who later became her godfather, took her to his native village in Kompong Cham province.
Two years later, she moved to an orphanage on the other side of the Tonle Sap where she could live and go to school. She completed Grade 4.
In the next six years, she lived in three different orphanages, changing her name each time: From Kim Phon to Keo Chantha to Ros Sokunny.
Each time, she was looking for better food and more clothes. She was an adolescent now, and her body was maturing.
“I was no longer a child,” she said. “I needed more clothes to cover up. So I changed often.”
She left her final orphanage in 1987 to work in Phnom Penh, where she found jobs in restaurants and cleaning houses.
About the age of 16, she got married and eventually had three children. But the marriage collapsed in 1994 when she discovered her husband had a mistress. She divorced him, and he kept the two oldest children.
Ros Sokunny kept her youngest son as she moved from job to job. She was working in a karaoke parlor as a disc jockey and singer when a customer fell in love with her, promising she would have a better future if she stayed with him.
He swore he had no wife, and she believed him. He said he would support them forever. She quit her job. At first, he kept his word.
“Later on, I discovered he was married already,” she said. But after thinking it over, “I agreed to live with him as a mistress so he can support me and my son.”
Ros Sokunny acknowledged she never felt good about the arrangement, but endured it for her son’s sake.
“I hated being a mistress. That’s why I divorced my first husband—over adultery,” she said.
Now she was the other woman. The arrangement lasted about two years. The man, a construction worker, paid the rent and gave her money for food every month. He bought her a sewing machine so she could earn some money herself.
Seven months ago, he took a building job in Poipet. He sent money a few times after that, but then it stopped.
After he had gone, Ros Sokunny discovered she was pregnant. It was a mistake. They had both agreed they didn’t want children. She sold the sewing machine for money to get an abortion at an illegal Phnom Penh clinic.
Now she was out of money. She fell several months behind on the rent, and the landlord turned them out. Generous neighbors helped her with food and a place to stay.
She tried unsuccessfully to get work at a garment factory. Her former employer at the karaoke parlor wouldn’t rehire her.
Now, afraid that she cannot support even herself, Ros Sokunny wants to send her 13-year-old son to an NGO-run orphanage so he can have a better life than she did.
“I no longer care about myself. I just want to see my son have a better future through good education. Even though I was poor, I still managed to send him to school. I don’t want him to meet the fate I have,” she said, her eyes brimming with tears.
Thanks to a new World Bank and Unicef-funded program, Ros Sokunny was able to keep him in school this year because he no longer had to pay registration fees under the Ministry of Education’s Priority Action Project.
Now that she is homeless and moving from place to place, her son’s education is being disrupted. She thinks a stable home at an orphanage would make it easier for him to learn.
Ros Sokunny sees the irony in having struggled so hard all her life to overcome her years in orphanages, only to find herself hoping to place her son in one.
“When I am reminded of my life as an orphan all those years ago, I always have a headache,” she said. “If there had been no US bombing, and no genocidal Khmer Rouge, maybe I would have been happy and had a warm family like other people. You know, when I see my neighbors have reunions with their families and having fun together, it makes me sick at heart, and sometimes I have to cry secretly.”