Recalling the Incongruities of War in Peacetime

romdoul district, Svay Reing province – Villagers here need no documents to remind them of the wars that have been waged here for most of the last 40 years. The signs of war are everywhere, embedded in the landscape and the people.

“Can you help me?” asks one man wearing a red and black hunter’s cap with the ear flaps tied tightly to the side of his head. “Do you know any medicine that can bring my hair back?”

He carefully unties the hat, takes it off gently, and reveals a disheveled wig of crude black material. A completely bald head shines through a hole in the wig. “During the fighting,” he says, as though that explains it all.

Pressed further, he points to a circular scar on his right breast where he was struck by a bullet nearly 30 years ago. He turns around to display a scar shaped like a 50 centimeter-long railroad track. A hasty operation removed the bullet, and he survived. But his hair fell out and never returned. Smiling, he pulls his hat back on and ties it.

“Thanks, anyway,” he says.

Nong Seng says she has seen plenty of war in her 72 years living in Romdoul district. In the 1940s, for example, “I was very afraid of French soldiers” who fought both the fledgling Khmer independence movement and Japanese soldiers.

“I saw Japanese soldiers wearing rings of French ears,” she says, looking up occasionally from a basket of dried rice kernels.

“It is a long story, and I can’t remember all of it,” she said. “I am old now, but I just rem­em­ber that in 1970 we saw the signs of war. In 1975, there was the Pol Pot regime. In 1979, we were survivors, and in 2001 I feel like the war has ended.”

The next generation will be lucky, she says.

“I am envious of the younger generation, which has more motorbikes and televisions to watch. When I was young the only people with a bicycle were the rich people,” she says.

She and her son, Chan Von, 62, own a permanent reminder of the turbulent times in the 1970s: a lotus pond formed by a US bomb.

“We all used our ears 100 percent to listen to noises like machine guns, rockets and bombs in the sky,” Chan Von says. “We learned that if the sound was like ‘wiv, wiv,’ it must be far away. If it sounded like ‘rak, rak’ it meant it was nearby. Then we would run home or to our bunkers.

“One day, I climbed up a palm tree near here, and I heard a sound like ‘wiv… rak rak,’ and a bomb fell under the palm tree,” he says, waving frantically at the nearby tree and pointing to the sky. “I didn’t fall down, but I held on tight, to save my life.”

Shrapnel blew a chunk out of a nearby tree, barely missing him. The bomb crater eventually filled with water, making a pond where once there was a yard.

There are other everyday reminders. The  rice threshers sound like the helicopters used by the US to search for and then bomb the Viet Cong.

Bombs fell two or three times a week. At night there was shooting by Lon Nol soldiers, US advisors, South Vietnamese troops and the Viet Cong. “Here was frontline fighting,” Chan Von says.

Kong Sarouth is a motorbike taxi driver, a 45-year-old father of five. He remembers clearly “the Americans,” who had a base camp with a landing strip about 200 meters from his house.

“The base had two airplanes, four or five helicopters and eight or nine machine guns,” he says. “Where that mound is over there used to be a communications tower.

“The black Americans stayed together over there, and the white ones over there,” says Kong Sarouth, sweeping his hand from one end of a rice field to the other.

“The Americans loved the kids. They gave them candy or half a can of their drinks. Some­times they gave the kids flights to Tay Ninh [a neighboring Vietnam district], and sometimes they played like they were cows for the kids to ride on their backs.”

Kong Sarouth tried not to take sides. He was a student who walked by the US operations every day. Other times, he saw Viet Cong soldiers or Cambodian communists.

He thought the oddest sight was the US soldiers first thing in the morning: “I saw them read the newspaper when they were defecating.”

 

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