The New Cambodia

The train eventually brought us to the city of Battambang, and we got off at the city?s large train station. As we walked across the station platform, we saw that, like Phnom Penh, Battambang was largely deserted except for a few Khmer Rouge soldiers. Most buildings were destroyed, and everywhere we looked there were cars piled in heaps. The cars themselves did not look badly damaged, but we noticed almost all of them had been stripped of their tires. We found out later that the Khmer Rouge made sandals out of the tire treads, discarding the otherwise useful automobiles into mountains of metal.

Our soldier friend had introduced him self to us on the train as Mao, and he brought us to a home which housed the family of a Khmer Rouge soldier. There Mao fixed us a full meal of rice. It was the first time since we had entered the jungle that our hunger was abated.

After dinner, Mao asked me where I wanted to go. I told him I had no idea, so he suggested the village Norea. He had heard that in Norea people were treated well and had enough to eat.

Norea was about six miles away, and it was a good feeling to walk confidently down the road, waved through guard stations easily as we flashed Mao?s ID claiming us as his relatives.

After about an hour?s walk, we arrived at Norea. Kheang left us there, borrowing Moa?s identification card to get to his family?s home about two miles from Norea. He told us later what a joyful reunion it was, since the family didn?t expect to ever see him again.

Kheang?s family had established good relations with the Khmer Rouge and thus had been able to keep their beautiful home. Kheang told his family all about us, and later we would occasionally receive permission to visit with his family. When we did, they always fed us well and provided us with fresh clothes. And when Kheang came to see us, his family would generously send along clothes, medicine and even cooking utensils.

After Kheang left we that first day at Norea, Mao introduced us to the village leader with whom we registered our names as new residents. As we waited for our work assignments and other information I took a moment to reflect back on God?s faithfulness to us in the past few days- sending Kheang to us and arranging our arrival at the train station to coincide with Mao?s. God had indeed planned ahead, bringing us the right people at the right places and times. Even when we had foreseen countless obstacles back at Kok Trom, He had prepared our way. Now we were in Morea, at least a few steps closer to the freedom for which we had prayed.

During our first two months at Norea, the whole village was fed well. We were even given the privilege of cooking our rice in our huts rather than eating communally.

But the picture soon changed for the 388 of us residing in this village. The Khmer Rouge decided suddenly to require village members to cook and eat in a central area. They went from shelter to shelter and hut to hut, confiscating all the rice in the village. If someone was discovered holding some rice for himself, he was severely beaten.

Under the new plan we received only a soup-ladle-sized portion of rice per day. Within a couple of months under this new system, people began dying of starvation or contracting diseases such as malaria their bodies especially vulnerable because of malnutrition. The Khmer Rouge provided no medicine or medical facilities; any such treatment was devised by individuals from roots and other parts of the plentiful banana trees around.

After working all day, we often laboured on into the night, shelling rice by hand. The Khmer Rouge had destroyed all the machinery formerly used for such basic procedures, in order to fill our days and nights with hard physical labour. Our minds had no time to rest or reflect and therefore evaluate objectively all that was happening to us. The discouragement to think was also one purpose behind the scant portions of food given to us ? the Khmer Rouge understood well that a hungry man is more interested in filling his stomach than he is in intellectualizing about his surroundings.

Besides the hard work and meagre food rationing, the Khmer Rouge used another technique in trying to keep us from pondering our situation. This technique was psychologically one of the most difficult adjustments Samoeun and I had to make: a complete communication cut-off from the outside world.

Not only had the Khmer Rouge impounded all radios they could find, but all books, magazines, newspapers and letters were seized, and no one was granted access to reading material of any kind. We were also denied writing paper and pens or pencils. This banishment of the written word extended far beyond the individual Cambodian: I learned later than in 1975 entire city and university libraries had been burned to documentation of a nation?s culture and history. That was precisely the motivation behind such destruction: after all, a new Cambodia had come.

One reason for the Khmer Rouge?s almost unthinking destruction of culture and history is that its ranks were composed mainly of young men from Cambodia?s peasant population who had never received any formal education. Many of the soldiers along the roads were boys of 12 or 13 years of age, until they became soldiers, many had probably never been more than a few miles from home.

By recruiting both uneducated men and unschooled boys, the communist infiltrators into Cambodia were able to indoctrinate an army well and thoroughly in revolutionary ideology, and instil in their recruits a fearful suspicion of the ?oppressors? from the big cities.

The young communist soldiers also learned quickly to follow orders without question, and I knew that much of the Khmer Rouge?s brutal, random killing was done without reflection or remorse ? the soldiers saw themselves as simply carrying out orders.

At Norea, we had just as little to eat as anywhere we had lived, but God met our needs in an unusual way again, just as He had with the daily fish catch at Kok Trom. There were many coconut trees in Norea, and one day the village leader told me that if I could climb the trees and retrieve coconuts for him during my free time, I could keep one for myself each time as payment.

The first time I tried to climb one of the limbless trees, I slid right back down, my chest bleeding as it scraped against the rough tin bark. But I kept trying, catching on in a short time, and for some reason I soon became the village leader?s favourite climber.

From my coconut payments, Samoeun and I were able to mix the coconut meat with our rice porridge to add some nutritional value. The coconuts were also considered valuable currency, and occasionally I traded them secretly for medicines and fish.

I had another need which seemed impossible to have net in our primitive circumstances: before the Khmer Rouge capture of Phnom Penh, I had slipped and fallen, breaking four of my front teeth. Though I had them capped before the fall, after about six months in the jungle the caps had broken off. I had wanted to have them fixed, but had given up hope that it could ever be done.

Kheang knew that I needed my teeth fixed. So one day when he came to visit, he whispered to me that his mother knew a former dentist from Battambang who was now a peasant in a village across a nearby river. Kheang said his mother also needed her teeth fixed an had received permission from the Khmer Rouge to cross the river. When he asked me if I would like to go with her; I could hardly refuse.

I knew that my teeth work would probably require several trips, and I would have to sneak out of the village unseen to make them. The dentist also would have to perform the work without being discovered, so Kheang?s mother and the dentist arranged for all of us to meet for several successive days during breaks from planting rice or during lunch and dinner; when we would least likely be missed.

At my first meeting with the dentist, he told me that I was very lucky; after fixing Kheang?s mother?s teeth, the material he would use for me was the very last of the supply he had brought out of Battambang. After about a week of our meetings, the dentist had replaced my four front teeth, without benefit of any modern equipment such as an electric drill. In payment I gave him my watch ? kept hidden since we left Phnom Penh ? my possession of any value.

Since we began living in Khmer Rouge villages. I had observed the fear and suspicion that enveloped the lives of people who were placing their hopes in their hidden wealth. As I thought of my sale of my wedding band for eight oranges and the yielding up of my watch for dental work, I knew I had to be careful to keep placing my trust in our Lord, not in my possessions which could become so relative in value.

Under the communists, when someone, like the dentist, received gold, jewellery or a watch in trade for feed or for a service rendered, the recipient?s first priority was to keep the payment hidden from the all-seeing eyes of the Khmer Rouge. When the Lon Nol government fell, the conquering army seized as many valuables as possible from their captured countrymen, explaining that everything would be used ultimately to help ?build the nation?s economy.? They were also trying to re-educate a nation into thinking collectively; i.e., the individual owns nothing, but everything is shared equally by all.

This re-education was as forcefully carried out as everything else was, and if someone?s secret valuables were uncovered by the Khmer Rouge, it was an offence punishable immediately by death. The Khmer Rouge also had undercover agents pose as peasants occasionally to catch illegal trading in action and bring justice quickly to the offenders.

The communists had a saying, ?If we cut down the tree, we must remove the roots,? One sure means of ?rooting out? the undesirable elements in the new society, such as hoarders of money and personal possessions, was the flourishing Khmer Rouge ?accusation? system. This system provided a means of gaining favour with the communists, whereby the more people you could accuse ? and the more things you could accuse them of, such as laziness or disloyalty ? the higher you rose in the eyes of the village leadership.

Accused people were usually brought before the village in a twice-weekly evening meeting, called a ?k ? sang. ? Here a person?s charges were announced, and he had an opportunity to admit his guilt. Normally one?s second appearance at a k ? sang guaranteed death; sometimes just one appearance was sufficient for the Khmer Rouge. (One reason for the k ? sang ritual was that when an admission of guilt was elicited, the Khmer Rouge could then say that the offender had felt unworthy to be called a communist and had requested to die.)

At Norea the death sentences were carried out on the nearby river?s back, and the usual method of killing was a hard blow to the back of the neck with a bamboo stick. The bodies then fell into the river, saving the Khmer Rouge the trouble of burial. When I came to Norea I remember sometimes hearing, from a distance, voices screaming, ?What?s wrong with me? What did I do wrong?? I learned later that the voices were those of people who had been hit but were not yet dead. I remember the outcries for help, for someone to save them, and then there would be silence.

It was also a potential capital offence to put up protest or show emotion when a family member of friend was executed. To the Khmer Rouge any display of feelings evidenced sympathy with the accused person?s attitudes, and therefore made the sorrowing survivor vulnerable to accusation himself.

Accusations became everyday occurrences in the new Cambodia, and it was not surprising to see an atmosphere of suspicion pervading life, dividing friends and family. Neither was it unheard of for husbands and wives to bring their spouses to be accused in the k ? sang, as the communists sought to abolish all personal loyalties so that one?s only emotional ties were to communism. Were husbands and wives not only set against each other; but also as the Cambodian population settled into the new communist villages, all children above the age of eight were forcible segregated from their families to areas near their home villages. They were allowed to visit with their parents occasionally but spent most of their days becoming indoctrinated in revolutionary thought and working their own rice paddies and vegetable patches.

Because of the innumerable and unexpected things that could warrant accusation, our city backgrounds and education were enough in themselves to make Samoeun and me very cautious. Since Samoeun and I had to be so careful, we could say nothing to our co-workers about our Christian faith. But about one month after we arrived in Norea, some people from my village group said to me, ?Huong, you seem different from other people here. You?ve never accused anyone to the Khmer Rouge; and if someone is doing something wrong, you talk to them secretly about it. We?ve seen you on your break time helping some of the older people carry water.?

I suppose those things were noticeable to my co-workers only because each person?s work was very had and there was little energy left over to help others. Their comments enabled me to tell them quietly, on our short breaks or as we chopped grass or tilled the land, which any love I displayed came form Christ living within me. As I told my friends how they could have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, some were afraid to begin following Him, knowing that under the Khmer Rouge it could cost them their lives. Most were more interested in getting enough food to eat than in thinking about God. But two of my co-workers at Norea eventually did become Christians.

Our ministry as we had known it in the Christ was obviously curtailed, but Samoeun and I found one thing we could do consistently, if secretly: play. At Norea we began praying every day for the strength and growth of Christians around the world, and for each staff member with Campus Crusade whom we had met during our training in Manila. And we prayed that some day we would be reunited with our staff family to continue the work in freedom to which God had called us.

After 11 months at Norea, the food situation was getting harder and harder to take. We weren?t getting nearly enough to eat to sustain life much longer. So one morning Samoeun and I prayed to know God?s will for us next. We asked Him to show us that very day if there was a way to escape from Norea. Then we went off to work and to wait for God?s answer.