From Phnom Penh

to

Paradise

 

Escape from Cambodia

  

 

 Autobiography 

 

by 

 

 

VAR HONG ASHE

 

 

 

(First published in 1989 and became one of the UK bestsellers)

 

Foreword

  

              Kampuchea, and its history, are not well known to the British public. Even if you give it its old name of Cambodia, most people will remember it only from travelogues and as the site of the vast and ancient temple complex of Angkor Wat. This is odd because it has been the scene, since first the French and then the Americans withdrew from South East Asia, of prolonged and increasingly ferocious struggles between contenders for political control of its people.

            Perhaps this is because Cambodia’s independence was secured in 1954 not from Britain but from France, so not many British people were involved in the country’s problems even then. For the next 16 years, it is true, the struggle was between a western form of capitalism and communist revolutionaries. These causes were in confrontation worldwide and it was easy for us to identify – and identify with – them.

            But from the fall of Prince Sihanouk in 1970 all the protagonists were communist, none of them had any British connections and, quite simply, many of us lost interest. Yet the scale of the events was so tremendous, and their detail so horrific, that it is surprising we took so little account of them.

            My own concern was only awakened when, in 1977, I happened to hear some Thais in Singapore discussing what was going on over their Eastern border under the atrocious government of Pol Pot. As a result I found myself a few days later at Aranya Prathet in Thailand visiting a refugee camp on the Thai-Kampuchean border. After talks with the UN High Commission for Refugees and the Thai Government, I had come as close as I could to the results of the appalling conflict going on within Kampuchea to see them for myself.

            7,000 people driven from their homes and often separated from their families by an utterly ruthless political system were housed there in temporary accommodation designed for 4,000. All the facilities were overloaded; the water supply was diminishing; the latrines unspeakable. More refugees were arriving in their hundreds at that and other camps up and down the border. The total number of refugees of all nationalities registered with the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) in camps in Thailand was over 95,000. It was to grow to 270,000 at its peak. (Altogether 653,555 arrived in Thailand between 1977 and early 1986 and 50,141 children were born to them in the camps during that time.)

            Nobody was confident that the resettlement programme, headed by UNHCR, could ever catch up with the problem that was getting so far ahead of them, or be sure that the Thais would continue to provide room or resources for many foreign nationals on their soil. It was costing them a great deal in political terms already.

            Under those circumstances one might expect the atmosphere in the camp to be one of sullen apprehension. It was not. Instead I found at its centre a band of dedicated young western volunteers. They came from various countries, but those who particularly caught my attention were a small group of young people sent from Britain by Christian Outreach. They had organised supplemental feeding for all families with children, regular health visits, and a programme of education and retraining for adults as well as children; they had built a special and loving relationship with the refugees; their work was beyond praise. Their leader was Robert Ashe.

            Neither he nor I then knew it, but across the border Var Hong, the author of this book, was half-way through the terrifying and painful journey which eventually brought her and her children to that same camp.

            This book is the story of that journey, and of its result; it is the story of the triumph of Christian hope in desperate adversity; and it is, beyond expectation, a story with a happy ending. It is worth reading simply for that. But it is also an important document, a record of the hideous extremes of savagery to which political ideologues can take their campaigns – even against their own people – when they believe the ultimate lie: that political reality is the only truth.

            This can happen in the West as well as the East. Var Hong’s message is a message, therefore, for all of us.

  

 THE LORD ELTON        

 

Acknowledgements

 

            This book principally covers only one part of my life. The years of the Khmer Rouge control of Cambodia were traumatic and many people did not survive. I am alive today only through the grace of God and my first thanks are to Him.

            My survival and my very sanity would also have been impossible without my two daughters, Somaly and Panita. They not only reinforced in me a purpose for living, but they took care of me when I was sick. Somaly went out into the forest to search for food. She endured the mosquitoes and insects to find edible vegetation, cooked it and then fed me. Panita was too young and often too sick to accompany her, but her innocent eyes and smiling face gave me much encouragement in the struggle for survival. This book is dedicated to them to emphasise my love for them and to show them my appreciation for their support during those years.

            Many people have helped me practically and given me emotional support over the years: Pat and Marion Ashe, who lovingly welcomed me to England and into their family; Patsy and Reggie Merryweather, who ‘adopted’ me as if I was their own daughter; Katherine Rowen-Robinson and Helen and Derek Taylor Thompson, who caringly helped with Somaly’s and Panita’s education; Suzie and Jonathan Wood, who have been wonderful guardians for my daughters while I have been away from England; all those in Godalming, my first home in England – Rae and Harvey Williams, Claire and Lionel East, Laura and John Clarke, Sheila and Brian Ward, Monica Lucey, Olwen and George Hayes, David Bookham, Elizabeth Jenkins and many, many more – to whom the fact that I was a refugee was immaterial. They treated me as a human being in need of help and I will be forever grateful to them.

            In Thailand, I have omitted the names of many who helped me, since the mention of their names would not be helpful to them in the continuance of their work in the politically complex task of assisting refugees. None the less, their names are recorded in my mind and I will not forget their kindness. I can mention the names of Julian Manyon and David Mills, from the TV Eye programme of Thames Television, who were instrumental in highlighting the problems of the Cambodian refugees and in expediting my application for an entry visa to Britain. My thanks go to Dr John Napponnick, who treated me when I was sick in Thailand, and to Dr Michael Gabaudan who, assisted by John, carried out a skin graft on my hand.

            I am also indebted to Homer Dowdy, who edited this story with understanding and wisdom, and who, together with his wife Nancy, lovingly encouraged me in getting it finished.

            My thanks are incomplete without mentioning my mother, whose love for me extended through her blindness, and without whose physical support for my daughters and for me life would have been extremely difficult.

            And last, but not least, my thanks go to my husband Robert, who has given me a new life in England and who supported and helped me in the writing of this book.

Preface

  
            Cambodia – for a long time the word brought to mind a gentle and beautiful nation in South-East Asia where most of the people were engaged in a peaceful existence cultivating rice in the countryside. It is claimed that the original Khmer kingdom was founded in the 1st century AD and was called Fu-nan. This was defeated in war around the 6th century by the neighbouring kingdom of Chen-la. Following more fighting in the late 7th century, a new king assumed the throne in 802 and this marked the beginning of the Kampuchea or Angkor period of Cambodia. During the next 500 years, Cambodia reached its peak in culture and in the acquisition of territory. Some of present-day Thailand, Laos and Vietnam used to be part of a great Khmer empire. However, Cambodia declined due to internal peasant revolts and external attacks from neighbouring countries. In 1431, the then Cambodian capital, Angkor Thom, was captured by the Thais and, although the Khmers recaptured it eventually, this marked the end of the great Angkor period.

            For the next four centuries, Cambodia struggled to survive as Thailand and Vietnam jostled for control. Little by little both Vietnam and Thailand began to annex parts of the old Khmer Empire. Only internal dissension and civil war in Vietnam and external attacks on Thailand from Burma prevented the complete partition of Cambodia.

            Finally in 1864, Cambodia signed a treaty with France which established Cambodia as a French protectorate and later as a French colony. Cambodia was virtually ruled by France for the next 90 years, only interrupted briefly by the Japanese occupation during the Second World War. Prince Norodom Sihanouk was selected as king in 1941 and managed to bring Cambodia to full independence by 1954. In 1955 he abdicated the throne in favour of his father, and entered into the political arena. He became Prime Minister and later Head of State. Throughout the 1960s, Sihanouk walked a tightrope of neutrality, trying to stay out of the war which was engulfing Vietnam and Laos. He was reasonably unsuccessful, although both rightist and leftist elements took to the jungles to oppose him. The leftist opponents were called the Khmer Rouge (Red Khmers) and were led by French-educated dissidents under Pol Pot, Ieng Sary and Khieu Samphan.

            In early 1970, Prince Sihanouk was deposed and the monarchy abolished. A Khmer republic was established under the leadership of General Lon Nol, who was then supported by the United States. Sihanouk went to Peking, where he allied himself with the Khmer Rouge to try and regain control of his country. He was made titular Head of State for the Khmer Rouge government-in-exile, but actual control of the Khmer Rouge movement and army remained firmly in the hands of the communists. Between 1970 and 1975, civil war raged throughout Cambodia. A brief incursion by the South Vietnamese Army and US troops in the border areas was followed by heavy US bombing raids on suspected Khmer Rouge and North Vietnamese positions outside Cambodia. Many of the bombs fell on innocent villages and ruined vast tracts of agricultural land. Non-communist peasants, driven from their homes by the bombing and fed up with the corruption that prevailed in the Lon Nol government, either volunteered for or were coerced into joining the Khmer Rouge army. Emotions ran high on both sides of the fighting and horrific acts of brutality were reported. In general, the Khmer Rouge came to be feared and thought to show no mercy when fighting.

            By early 1975, Cambodia had almost beaten itself to death. Millions of people had been displaced by the fighting and both agricultural and industrial production was almost at a standstill. The majority of the population were sickened and exhausted by the continual violence and wanted only to see an end to the bloodshed. None of us could foresee that the blood-letting was only just beginning and that the Khmer Rouge would embark on a four-year reign of terror which had rarely been equalled in the world. My family and I became the victims of the new society which the Khmer Rouge had imposed upon Cambodia. Throughout the destruction of our country’s culture, religion and government, and of social and family ties, some of us survived. Many did not.

          To assist the reader to better understand the relationship between the people in this book, the following list and description is given: 

Somaly                                                - my older daughter

Panita                                                 - my younger daughter

An, Rathana and Peauv                    - my three younger brothers

Sokhon, Da and Srey Vy                   - my three younger sisters

Aheng                                                  - Panita’s nanny

Lay                                                       - Sokhon’s fiancé

Hear                                                    - Lay’s older brother

Lach Virak Phong                              - my first husband

Taing Chhaya                                    - my mother

Hong Yang                                         - my father 

 

CHAPTER 1 

The Fall of Phnom Penh1

 

             As I walked reluctantly down the stairs, a terrible fear gripped my heart. I was too frightened to go, but duty drove me on. Still indecisive, I found myself standing next to my car. Opening the door, I breathed a prayer: “Lord, please use the roof of my car to shield me from the rockets.”

            It seemed only moments later when I could hear explosions all around me as I weaved in and out of the traffic in my Opel Rekord. It was April 14th, 1975, and the communist noose around Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia, was tightening, remorselessly. Each day, the government troops under our corrupt dictator, Lon Nol, were slowly retreating towards the centre of the capital. Three million Cambodians, mostly refugees from the ravaged provinces in the countryside, huddled in an ever-decreasing area hoping in vain for a miracle which would save us from devastation.

            In what must have seemed like an act of utter folly, I was now driving against the flow of traffic which was fleeing into the inner sanctuary of Phnom Penh. Mine was almost the only vehicle driving out of the city towards the heaviest area of bombardment around the suburb of Toul Kauk. Only the day before, I had driven in the opposite direction carrying the members of my family to safety. One of my younger brothers, Rathana, had refused to come with us. His main purpose in life was to study, and he had been unwilling to exchange our relatively spacious home for the cramped conditions of our temporary refuge in the city centre. Without him, and fearful for his safety, my mother had spent the night in tears and had begged me to return and fetch him. I was the only member of the family present who could drive and there was no one else who could go. Almost too afraid to agree to her request, it was none the less my duty, and I had left against my better judgement.

            Now, as the rockets seemed to be falling like rain, I prayed constantly, asking God to protect me. Several times my fear nearly compelled me to turn back, but the thought of failing my mother spurred me on. I passed many casualties of the exploding rockets. Parents were running with wounded children in their arms, their shirts bright red with blood. Little three-wheeled taxis, their floors awash with blood, bore the wounded away to already overcrowded hospitals. There was chaos everywhere and a sense of panic gripped the population.

            Phnom Penh had once been a beautiful city of about half a million, with tree-lined boulevards and friendly crowds. Now, buildings were shattered by the shelling, the population had swollen to three million with displaced people fleeing in from the countryside, and the streets were littered with rubbish and the flotsam and jetsam of war.

            I finally reached the area of Toul Kauk, where it seemed that hardly any life remained. Those who had not been killed by rockets had either fled in terror or had imprisoned themselves in underground bunkers with a stock of food. With smoke billowing from the burning houses, it had become like a ghost town. It was a complete contrast of the rushing crowds which I had passed earlier, and I was able to speed down unobstructed roads towards our home. I skidded to a halt in front of our gate, which was tightly closed.

            “Rathana, Rathana,” I screamed desperately between the mounting crescendo of explosions. I caught sight of my brother’s face peering out our underground bunker, and he came running towards the gate to check that it was really me.

            “Come quickly – we must return at once to the city centre,” I ordered breathlessly.

            “No,” he replied. “I’m not going to that small room with so many people. How can I possibly study? I want to stay here.”

            Shocked, I could hardly believe what I was hearing. Almost angrily, I began to argue with him.

            “I’ve risked my life to come and get you. You must come – Mother is very worried about you.”

            To any outside observer, we must have looked completely crazy, standing there having an argument over the gate while rockets exploded all around us. Eventually Rathana agreed to come with me and I breathed a sigh of relief. However, even in my fear and hurry to get away, I was still thinking of the hard floor which awaited me at our new home in the city. My car was still full of clothes and a few valuable items which I had packed in on my first trip into the city. I had not bothered to unload them because I felt we would only be away for a short time. I had taken them in case our house was either rocketed or looted during our absence. Now, I rushed inside the house and grabbed my mattress. Dragging it outside, Rathana and I slung it on the car roof and quickly tied it down. The only thing that Rathana took was a bag of books. “I can live in one set of clothes,” he explained, “but I can’t live without my books.”

            I put the car in gear, and with a screech of tyres, we left. As we drove out of Toul Kauk, we passed a Land-Rover. Looking across, I saw that it was Kong Suosdey, the daughter of General Kong Chhath. We were good friends and she yelled through the open window, “What on earth are you doing with that mattress?” She could not imagine that anyone in their right mind would want to drive into such an inferno of destruction simply to rescue a mattress. She laughed, waved and drove quickly away. I have never seen her since.

            We joined the long queue of traffic back into Phnom Penh and arrived at the four-storey shophouse which was to be our home for the next few days. On the ground door was a tyre shop which belonged to Hear. His brother, Lay, was engaged to my younger sister, Sokhon, and his family had kindly offered us shelter during those troubled times.

            On the third floor, which consisted of a single room running the whole 13-metre length of the building, were crowded 16 people, including Lay’s family. Our family was not quite complete. My mother was there, but my father, who was a colonel in the Cambodian army, was away. He had been sent almost a month earlier to take charge of a battalion of troops guarding the approaches to Phnom Penh. Since then, our only contact with him had been in the form of messages carried by his chauffeur. Apart from him, two others were missing.

            My husband, Lach Virak Pong, whose comfort and support I needed desperately, was 8,000 miles away. He had left Phnom Penh in August 1974 to take up a scholarship and to complete his studies at the International Institute of Educational Planning in Paris. The war had seemed far away from Phnom Penh at that time and he had gone without knowing that events would soon overtake us all. None of us had realised that government troops would crumble so rapidly before the final onslaught of the Khmer Rouge.

            The other person missing was my younger brother, An, who was a second lieutenant in the army. Like my father, he too was away fighting at the front.

            My two daughters, Somaly, aged six years, and Panita, only 18 months, were with me in Phnom Penh. I came back into the room to find Aheng, Panita’s nanny, playing with them both. My older brother, Peauv and sisters, Sokhon, Da and Srey Vy, came forward to welcome us back from Toul Kauk. All of my brothers and sisters – except for Sokhon who was old enough to work – would normally have been at school in more peaceful times instead of hiding from rockets fired by our own people.

            The rest of the day and night passed uneventfully, but in the morning Rathana announced that he was returning to our home in Toul Kauk. Throughout the night he had listened to the distant sound of explosions gradually decrease in intensity. He calmly announced that, since the danger was now past, he intended to return home where there was sufficient space and peace to study. We stared at him incredulously. My mother pleaded with him to stay, but to no avail. He was stubborn and wanted only to be left to his studies. As he walked out through the door, clutching his precious bag of books, my mother was speechless. We watched through the window as Rathana walked away from us down the street. Not knowing how quickly Phnom Penh would fall to the Khmer Rouge, Rathana was separated from us and disappeared.

            That afternoon and evening we talked quietly among ourselves, wondering whether the government troops would be able to beat back the Khmer Rouge attack. They had attacked before and failed. Surely they would fall again. The relative calm compared to the earlier shelling led us to believe that it might soon be safe for us to return to our homes.

            Renewed fighting in the night, and the sudden arrival of An the next morning, shattered our hopes. In the early hours of the morning An had left his army unit at Kompong Speu, a province about 40 miles west of Phnom Penh, when it had been overrun by the Khmer Rouge. Like many other soldiers fleeing in front of the rapidly advancing enemy, he had thrown away his uniform and had disguised himself as a civilian. Having made his way to join us, he went in and out of the house continuously in an effort to find out what was going on. He told us of the rapid advances being made by the Khmer Rouge troops and of the crumbling resistance of the government forces. He felt it would not be long before the Khmer Rouge entered the main part of the city.

            We waited. It was hot and stuffy in our single room but, apart from An, no one dared go out. The night passed slowly and we awoke to a memorable morning. The date, April 17th, 1975, would stay in the minds of millions for years to come. It marked the beginning of almost four years of terror as the Khmer Rouge turned Cambodia into a vast concentration camp.

            The telephone rang, making us all jump. We were in a nervous mood as we could hear the sound of machine-gun fire coming closer and closer. My mother picked up the telephone and, almost unbelievably, heard my father’s voice. As he spoke, we clustered round the telephone with growing excitement. He was still alive and we yearned desperately for him to be with us. My mother pleaded with him to make his way to the house or to hide from the conquering Khmer Rouge. When he said that he could not leave his troops, she tried to persuade him to disguise himself as an ordinary soldier. My father was adamant that he would not hide nor run away. He tried to console us by saying that he was well known and respected for his honest. He was sure that the Khmer Rouge would need people like himself to help rebuild the country after the devastation of the war. As my mother said a tearful goodbye, a feeling of helplessness settled over us. We had all been very close to our father and had loved him for his gentleness. I was 26 years of age and the oldest of the children. Without him, I felt the heavy responsibility for our family. We hungered for the strength and leadership which our father had always given to us. This was our last contact with him and we were never going to see him again.

            Around midday we heard shouts and screams of delight amidst the roar of tanks and other heavy vehicles. From our high vantage point, we could see the continuous advance of small groups of Khmer Rouge down the street and the almost rapturous welcome demonstrated by the citizens of Phnom Penh. Their enthusiasm was infectious and we joined with many others to wave white flags from our windows and to cheer the black-clad communist soldiers. Some of us, witnessing this spontaneous outburst of joy, dared to hope that the Khmer Rouge victory would bring peace to our troubled land. For too long, Khmer had been pitted against Khmer and the once beautiful countryside of Cambodia had been destroyed by the savagery of war. In the countryside, peasants had lived in terror as waves of American B52 bombers had dropped their inhuman cargoes to tear apart the peaceful rice paddies. Was it now possible, though our new rulers would be communists? As these jungle fighters passed down the streets, their firm blank looks and silent faces seemed an ominous portent of events to come.

            Shortly before 1pm the martial music, which had been playing continuously on the radio, was interrupted by an announcement. The speaker was General Mey Sichan, one of the government leaders, and he spoke of negotiations which were in progress with the Khmer Rouge. As he was speaking, his announcement was abruptly broken off and a new voice cut in angrily to say that there were no negotiations, only complete victory by the Khmer Rouge. After a long silence, another Khmer Rouge leader announced that all government officials were to report immediately to the Ministry of Information. He went on to say that the Khmer Rouge victory was complete and that the officials of the old regime were needed to help organise and rebuild the country. He ended by praising the People’s National Liberation Front of Kampuchea, which had made possible the victory of the glorious revolution.

            We sat stunned in front of the radio and our earlier feelings of joy quickly dissipated with the realisation that things were not going well. In the afternoon, An returned from one of his forays to say that he had seen the Khmer Rouge ransacking many of the pharmacies and food stores. The medicines and food were loaded on to trucks which were driven off along roads which led out of the city. An sensed that the war was not yet over and that worse was to come. A feeling of gloom settled over us.

            The rest of the afternoon passed slowly. We tried to while away the time by talking or playing cards but, for the most part, we simply sat and waited. Since nearly all the shooting had ceased, we decided that we would stay one more night and then make our way back to our own home in Toul Kauk.

            That night we huddled together for comfort, but sleep was slow to come. The day had been filled with emotion and the thought of our uncertain future lay heavily over us. I lay close to my daughters, Somaly and Panita. I felt overwhelmed with guilt because Virak Phong had begged me several times in his letters to leave Cambodia with our children and to join him in Paris. I had kept putting off the departure, thinking that it would be a waste of money and never really believing that Phnom Penh would fall to the communists, until it was too late. As the Khmer Rouge neared Phnom Penh, their rockets had turned the runways of Pochentong Airport into rubble, making it impossible for us to leave. Although I was surrounded by my mother and other brothers and sisters, I felt truly alone. In my desperation and in the quiet darkness, broken now occasionally by distant bursts of gunfire, I prayed to the God who I had asked to take over my life only four months earlier. I had much to learn about God and about how to pray, but I knew that He cared for me and loved me. As I prayed now, a sense of calm stole over me and I felt the reassurance, which would often come to me in the years ahead, that God was powerful enough to care for us all.

            April 18 dawned and we began to wake up around 7am. Looking out of the windows, we could see many people moving in different directions. We were about to pack our belongings and leave for home when An returned from another of his fact-finding trips.

            “Everyone is leaving the city. The Khmer Rouge are forcing everyone out of their houses. There’s absolute chaos in the streets,” he announced breathlessly. His description of events caused panic in the house. “They have told everyone this so that they can clear out the remaining elements of the US-backed Lon Nol forces whom they claim are still resisting. I’ve been to different parts of the city and I overheard some people being told to go only for three hours, while others were told to leave for one to three days.”

            An rattled off more details of what he had seen and my mind contemplated the future. What fate awaited us outside Phnom Penh? My family were all city people and the thought of having to survive in the countryside filled me with apprehension.

            I turned to An and asked him, “What do you think we should do? With so many people in the streets, it will be dangerous and difficult to keep together.” The others joined in. “It’s safe here for now and we have a little food. Let’s wait and see.” I looked over at my mother and she nodded slowly in agreement. None of us wanted to go an An counselled us to wait in the shophouse for further developments.

            A little later on, a loudspeaker truck moved slowly down the street, ordering everyone to leave the city or face the consequences of getting hurt. We were afraid to stay, but we were more afraid to go. We quietly drew the curtains and waited, trying not to make any noise. Our little store of food would last for several days and the water supply was still functioning.

            In the early evening we could see Khmer Rouge vehicles in the streets below looting the shops. Most of the inhabitants had already fled, leaving the doors securely bolted. When the young communists, who were from simple backgrounds, were unable to break open the doors, they stood back and fired a B40 rocket which completely destroyed the doors and much of the shop’s contents. Opposite our hideout was a shop stocked full of canned and preserved foods. It had a solid door and the B40 rocket which the Khmer Rouge fired succeeded only in buckling the metal. Undaunted, they hitched a GMC truck to the doors with a length of chain and ripped them from their hinges. Mercifully, the tyre shop beneath us was of no interest to the Khmer Rouge and they passed us by.

            By keeping quiet we were able to stay hidden for four days. Peering through the curtains each day, we watched the long lines of people pass by on their way out of their city. Gradually the lines thinned out and the numbers dwindled. On the morning of the 21st, the streets around were almost deserted except for a group of Khmer Rouge armed with AK47 automatic rifles and B40 rocket launchers. They were going to all the houses to check for occupants. Coming to the tyre shop below us, the rattled the locked doors and shouted, “Hey, anyone inside? Come on out immediately or there will be severe punishment.” My heart was pounding as I tried desperately to keep Panita from making any sound. They rattled the doors some more and then we heard subdued conversation as they discussed among themselves. Apparently satisfied there was no one inside, the Khmer Rouge went on down the street. We all heaved a sigh of relief and started breathing again.

            However, our relief was short-lived. Two hours later, we heard sounds coming from the rooftop. The Khmer Rouge soldiers had crept over the roof from another house and entered through a door on the fourth floor above us. We crouched in terror, expecting a hail of bullets, and I clutched Panita and Somaly to me in an effort to shield them. Suddenly, five young Khmer Rouge bounded through the doorway with their rifles pointed straight at us. The blood drained from my face and I went cold with terror. Silently, they stared at us. Then their leader, seeing my mother and Lay’s mother, smiled, relaxing the tension in an instant. He turned to them out of respect for older people.

            “Mother,” he said, “we won’t harm you. Please leave the city for three days. Take food for your children, but you must leave immediately. We are here because we care for your lives. We know it’s difficult for you to live outside the city, but you’ll be happier after we’ve arranged everything. We have fought for five years, not caring for our lives, just to help you and to relieve your suffering under the corrupt Lon Nol government supported by the American imperialists.”

            His smile and this short speech made us feel that everything would be all right. Everyone started to speak at once, shouting questions, clamouring for answers. Where would we live? How would we travel? What would we eat? At this, the Khmer Rouge leader shouted angrily: “Now, if you don’t want to listen, don’t say that we have no compassion. We will give you an hour to leave and it is up to you to decide. However, you must be responsible for your own actions.”

            Our fear returned greater than before, and we agreed to leave immediately. The sight of their rifles pointed straight at our hearts left us in no doubt as to the consequences for disobedience to these Khmer Rouge.

            We quickly made ready for our departure. Clothes were thrown aside in favour of food, as we had no idea what we would find outside the city. While we could live without a second set of clothes, we would die without food. For myself, I filled a large one-gallon kettle with rice and struggled downstairs with my two children and the rest of the two families. I didn’t think about how we were going to cook the rice and completely forgot about cooking pots and matches, although fortunately some of the others remembered. In the road outside the shop, we found that my car was still intact. Lay’s eldest brother, Hear, owned a brand-new jeep which he didn’t want to take. He was afraid that the Khmer Rouge might confiscate it and he preferred to leave it in the shop in the hope that it would still be there when he returned. Throwing all the food packs into my car, I climbed in to steer. Due to the hierarchy within the social classes which still existed, my mother as considered to be the most senior and she was allowed to sit in the passenger seat. Everyone else, except little Panita, either pushed the car or walked alongside. The weight of all the food in the car proved to be almost too much, because it was still loaded down with the clothes and other valuables which I had not had time to unpack.

            After some discussion, we decided to take the jeep as well and the load was evenly distributed between the two vehicles. Each of the two cars had petrol in its tank, but we were afraid to start the engines in case the Khmer Rouge confiscated the cars. While An had been moving around the city during his trips out of the house, he had seen many cars confiscated by the Khmer Rouge. Some of the young soldiers, who had been fighting for years in the jungle, were totally ignorant about vehicles, but they became excited like little children with a new toy whenever they had the chance to drive off in a car. Another of our reasons for not starting up the engines was to save petrol in case we needed it in an emergency later on. We saw no chance of being able to replenish our petrol supply along the way.

            With everyone lending a hand to push, our two-car convoy set off into the unknown.

 

To be continued ...

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1 Phnom Penh is the capital of Cambodia
'Paradise' is a small village in Gloucestershire County - UK