daun doak village, Prey Veng province – Twenty-two years after the Khmer Rouge were driven from power, the widows of this village wait for justice.
There are many widows here, which is not unusual for a Cambodian village. Their husbands gone, the women have struggled to raise and feed their children. Young boys, like me, became men at 10 years, plowing and planting in our fathers’ absence.
I was born in Daun Doak 31 years ago. When I went home recently to visit, I asked some of the widows to tell me about events I was too young to understand.
I began with my grand-aunt, Thou Yim, whose husband was one of the first killed by the Khmer Rouge. To this day, she cannot bear to hear what was once a stirring slogan:
“Cheayo! Samdech Ov, norna min tov kab choal!”
That translates to “Bravo, Father King! If anyone refuses to go, I will chop [him] down!” And it’s what the people were supposed to say when King Norodom Sihanouk asked for their help.
The King, exiled to Beijing after the Lon Nol coup of 1970, had made radio appeals to his people, asking them to run to the jungle to join the resistance to the US-backed regime.
People didn’t know then that the resistance was dominated by the Khmer Rouge. But they soon found out.
“I do not want to hear this phrase,” says Thou Yim, 59. “Even in a radio drama about the Khmer Rouge, I absolutely do not want my children to listen to it…It hurts me all the time.”
Fifty families lived in this village before the Khmer Rouge came to power. When the Vietnamese invaded in 1979, toppling the regime, they tabulated the carnage.
Twenty-five villagers were killed, and that didn’t include those who simply were never seen again. Of those who survived, 23 were widows. Most, like Thou Yim, faced bitter hardship trying to raise enough rice to feed their children.
But that comes later.
The first to be killed were Thon Lim and Chuok Chin, recalls survivor Ry On, 56. Like them, he was invited by the Angka to be “re-educated” at the district headquarters.
He wasn’t home when the horse cart came to pick him up, and that’s why he is alive today. All three of the men had been pleased, both to be invited and by the pens and writing books headquarters had sent along for each soon-to-be “student.”
Thou Yim remembers how flattered her husband was by the attention from the mysterious Angka, the shadowy organization that was only later revealed to be the Khmer Rouge.
“My husband and his friend were happy when they received the book and pen for study,” she says. ”But it was just a pretext to call them out and kill them.”
I was eight years old in 1978 when my father, Sopha, disappeared, and I wanted to know more. In the gentle light of an oil lamp, Thou Yim searched painful memories.
Her husband, she said, “was killed by a Khmer Rouge intelligence unit, sent from Takeo.” She knows little more, she said—which is one reason she wants surviving Khmer Rouge leaders to face trial.
“I want to know why they killed their own people, and who was standing behind them,” she said, sitting motionless on the bamboo floor of her home.
My uncle Khin Chy, who served as village chief in the 1980s, says he doesn’t know much more than Thou Yim. The soldiers came from the Southwestern Military Region based in Takeo, and were under the command of Ta Mok.
His parents—my grandparents—Mith Khin and Bou Mao were old. Bou Mao in particular was very skinny and barely able to walk when the Khmer Rouge ordered them to march.
The entire village was being relocated to the northwest, to various locations in Pursat, Battambang, and Kompong Thom provinces. The villagers, weak from hunger and overwork, feared it would be a death march.
Mith Khin and Bou Mao did not make it far.
When Bou Mao could not keep up, the soldiers beat her to death with bamboo clubs. They killed Mith Khin, too, as he tried to protect her. They left the bodies lying by the road.
In 1979, the Vietnamese army invaded, driving the Khmer Rouge to the northwestern edges of the country and liberating the interior. Villagers began to make their way back home, thin, ill and destitute. We didn’t know if my father was alive or dead.
The once-bustling village was empty. Houses were falling apart, and the pagoda had been used as a barn and pigsty.
Our house was still standing, or at least it still had a roof. The wooden walls and floor had been stripped away.
We found my grandparents’ bones, lying beside the road where they had fallen. Later we found my father and his brother, sharing a single grave in a banana grove not far from the house.
They had been killed in hand-to-hand combat with the Khmer Rouge, when my uncle set off a grenade. They took a lot of the enemy with them. My mother and aunt identified the bodies by a ring, a cigarette lighter, some clothes.
They cried and cried.
In those first years after 1979, there was so much work to do, and we were so weak. A family with a living father was considered rich. People with teenage sons were envied.
Growing up without a father was hard, and we felt very sad. My mother always cried, and she was responsible for all my father’s jobs. But many others were in similar circumstances, so we did not feel alone.
Everyone was poor, even those who had managed to hide a little gold or some jewelry during the Khmer Rouge regime. Any money that could be scraped together went to buy food, and rice to plant.
People had no shoes, or buffaloes, or carts. My mother had to walk barefoot from our village to the town of Prey Veng—more than 70 kilometers—to buy rice, and carry the heavy sack home on her head.
Everybody had to live like this, not just in our village but over the whole country.
The years 1980, 1981, 1982 were very hard. Every family was suffering, everyone had empty hands. There wasn’t much to eat, and we survived on rice porridge made with herbs and wild potatoes.
We had been rich before the war, farming 10 hectares. We could not plant so much now, not for many years. Each year we tried to plant a little more.
I learned to smoke out in the paddies, that very first year. It was the rainy season and though I was small and thin, the bugs bit me and bit me. My grandfather taught me to smoke Khmer tobacco so the bugs would leave me alone, and I could help my mother plant rice.
Over the years, things gradually got better. During the 10-year Vietnamese occupation, officials kept looking for the missing people, trying to document what had happened to them.
When they found proof someone had been killed, the suffering would begin all over again. Some years the crops would fail due to droughts or floods, and people would be hungry.
In time, people began to smile more. We had fun at New Year, and at weddings, and village festivals. Life began to seem sweet again, at least some of the time.
But the widows have not forgotten. They have told their children the stories, and they go about their lives, visiting the pagoda and praying for the dead.
And they wait for the trial of the Khmer Rouge, because they want to know why.