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.
siem reap town – Det Noeun remembers the arrival of the Khmer Rouge as a day when stillness spread over the city of Siem Reap. “There was no noise of fighting anymore,” she said.
For people in Siem Reap province, the fear began a long time before the Khmer Rouge took over in April 1975.
Bombings and land mine blasts, the screams of soldiers in combat and the wail of the injured had been sounds of daily life since the 1960s.
“Before the Khmer Rouge, I heard the fighting every night,” said Det Noeun. “My parents told me to stay in the house. They were going out to exchange goods; only a few people still used money. I heard the fighting every night, and the city became smaller and smaller.”
People in Siem Reap heard on the radio that Phnom Penh was under Khmer Rouge control, said Sam Lab. In announcements on the air, the Khmer Rouge were asking Lon Nol military forces to surrender. “We should stop fighting and we should put the country together,” Sam Lab recalls hearing on the radio. A few days after the fall of Phnom Penh on April 17, military officers in Siem Reap surrendered, and were executed shortly after, she said.
The province was caught up in the US-Vietnamese war when it spilled over into Cambodia. When the fighting first moved close to Siem Reap, Det Noeun, who was in high school at the time, would do her homework in an underground shelter.
“The bombs were falling on the lake,” says Veang Yang Lom, a fisherman who lived in a floating village on the Tonle Sap. People would take cover in the water under small logs tied together.“People still died,” he said.
“Sometimes I would run to the south [for cover], sometimes I would run to the north,” said Sao Chhin of Thnal Totoeung village.
In addition to US bombs, people tried to stay clear of combat zones where Lon Nol soldiers fought against the Khmer Rouge. Most most casualties took place between 1972 and 1974, says Sam Lab, who was a military doctor with the Lon Nol forces during that period.
By 1973, Veang Yang Lom was ready to leave the country. Even though he and his parents before him were born near Siem Reap, his roots were Vietnamese, and both Lon Nol forces and the Khmer Rouge had been killing Vietnamese living in Cambodia. “I was not afraid for my life, but I was afraid for the life of my wife and my children.” he said.
Veang Yang Lom first moved his floating house to Kampong Kdey, but had to abandon it there. “We walked for three days and three nights to Kampong Thmor [near Kampong Thom],” he said. Eventually, Veang Yang Lom was able to get a taxi that took him and his family to Vietnam.
In the days following the Khmer Rouge takeover, some people in Siem Reap recall helicopters equipped with speakers flying over the city. A voice they took for Prince Norodom Sihanouk’s said: “My dear children, drop your weapons. Cambodia now is at peace.” (The Prince was in Beijing at the time.)
After hearing that message, “I saw Lon Nol soldiers take off their uniforms,” said a man who does not want to be identified today. The Khmer Rouge took the soldiers down the road along Baray Tek Tlar, one of Angkor”s irrigation canals, and killed them, he said.
Det Noeun, who by 1975 was attending university in Phnom Penh, had come back to Siem Reap for Khmer New Year. Before Siem Reap was formally handed over to the Khmer Rouge, “soldiers dressed in black were going from house to house, asking for rice,” she said. “I saw that they carried guns, so I gave them whatever they wanted.”
Then one day, Det Noeun said, “soldiers with guns told us to leave our houses.” They were directing people to trucks. “My parents were very old. Some trucks were turning to the west, others to the east. I was afraid to go to the wrong truck and be separated from my parents.
“We didn’t bring anything with us except our clothes,” she said. “I was concerned about my underwear; I wore three pairs of underwear.” Her family managed to get on the same truck.
Sam Lab and her family were ordered to walk north to Varin district in Siem Reap province. “I walked for one week through the jungle,” she said. “The soldiers did not allow me to walk on the road. Because [they thought] an official like me might find her way back.”
They covered 70 kilometers. “My [baby] daughter died because I was too exhausted to take care of her,” Sam Lab said.
Seun Seng was taken three or four kilometers from her village. “Some of my neighbors who were relatives of (Lon Nol) soldiers were moved far away and starved,” she said. “I was afraid to lose my parents. I was afraid they would kill me. I tried not to do something wrong.”
Seun Seng made it. Her cousin and her sister did not.
With the Khmer Rouge intent on killing educated people, Det Noeun lived in constant fear. After the truck ride, her family had to walk to Trapang Svay on the outskirts of Siem Reap province. Once there, Det Noeun and her sister were separated from their parents and placed in a youth unit to learn farming.
“I would do everything to survive,” Det Noeun said. “I was very scared that they would know I was a university student. I had told them that I was a vegetable vendor.
“But they were always investigating me. They would follow me all the time. So I kept silent.”
A medical doctor, and thus slated for extermination, Sam Lab was assigned to the production of “Number One Fertilizer” which was made by collecting human excrement from toilets and mixing it by hand.
At one point, 480 people were taken to Wat Prasat pagoda, which turned out to be “a jail without walls,” said Sam Lab. Each day, the Khmer Rouge would provide 2.5 kgs of rice to feed all of them. “Many people started dying [of starvation],” she said.
One night, Sam Lab was taken outside the pagoda to dig a huge hole in the ground. “A villager told me later that hole was a grave for the execution of the people at the pagoda,” she said. The villager was telling the truth—every night, three or four families were taken out, never returning, she said.
The Khmer Rouge spared few. “Life was very hard,” said Kong Huot, who was taken to Phnom Bo, about 13 kilometers from his fishing village of Prek Sramoach. “I worked on building dams, digging canals and farming rice. I did not know how to farm—I was a fisherman.”
Yoeun Yoeum was a seven-year-old cow keeper in 1975. During the Pol Pot regime, “I worked very hard on a rice farm, from early morning. There was hardly a break.” Workers ate a thin rice and water soup and, occasionally, a potato, he said.
Seun Seng was forced to marry. In her work camp, a Khmer Rouge officer would point out who was to marry whom and the ceremony consisted of shaking hands, she said. Ten to 20 couples would get married at the same time.
Seun Seng had one son and one daughter from that marriage. She divorced that husband after the Khmer Rouge was ousted by Vietnamese forces in 1979, and remarried. She still lives in her native village where she manages a food stall along the road.
The Vietnamese invasion was not the end of the Khmer Rouge scare for Yoeun Yoeum. “I was very afraid Pol Pot would take me to Dangrek mountain range [along the Thai-Cambodia border],” he said. But that did not happen. He returned to his village of Thnal Totoeung and now is a sugar palm producer.
Kong Huot’s father was killed by the Khmer Rouge and his two brothers starved to death. But he survived and is chief of his village.
Det Noeun managed to hide her university education from the Khmer Rouge regime. She now is human resources director for Artisans d’Angkor, a public/private firm of craft people in Siem Reap. One of her sisters, who decided not to come home for Khmer New Year in 1975, disappeared.
Sam Lab, who lost her husband and daughter during the Pol Pot era, never remarried but adopted two daughters. She is extension agent for the UN Food and Agriculture Organization in Siem Reap.
Veang Yang Lom returned to Cambodia in the1980s; he still lives in a floating village on the Tonle Sap lake and works as a fisherman.