Monday, September 10, 2007

Escaping Cambodia

This photograph was taken at the refugee camp in Thailand near the border of Cambodia. In this picture with me are my brother-in-law Van Mealy Touch, my sister Sivheng Ung, and Mr. Mike Carrol.

While life in the refugee camp appears difficult, the life under the Khmer Rouge regime was incredibly horrible. Now, I live a comfortable life, and I am grateful for that. So I am giving back. I urge you to give back and become a part of a force that makes the world a better place, one person at a time.


Kilong Ung

When the Khmer Rouge took over Cambodia in 1975, I was just a boy who completed 7th grade in the Provincial City of Battambang. After nearly five years on my own under the Khmer Rouge regime and as the only male left in the family, I thought I was the head of the household who would traditionally call shots. Although I was now the youngest in the family, the deaths of my parents and my older brother-in-laws should make me the man of the family. That lasted for a short while until my sister Sivheng came home one day shortly after the Vietnamese had driven the Khmer Rouge out of Cambodia.

A couple of years prior to the fall of Cambodia into the atrocious hands of the Khmer Rouge in the midst of April 1975, my third-oldest sister Sivheng had left my family in Battambang province to Phnom Penh for a desk job. My family completely lost contact with Sivheng throughout the Khmer Rouge era. During the anarchy caused by the invasion of the Vietnamese armies in 1979, Sivheng suddenly showed up in Battambang and reunited with the family. To her horror, she had learned our immediate family had lost our parents, our maternal grandmother, two brother-in-laws, our youngest sister and one nephew to starvation and execution.

Our home was completely demolished, and our land was squatted. We were homeless shacking up with a family friend. Although, Sivheng intended to cross the border to Thailand, being an orphan and homeless made her decision to go to Thailand easier.

After a couple of weeks in Battambang, Sivheng made friends with Van Mealy Touch (Mealy). As their friendship quickly developed, Sivheng and Mealy collaborated on a plan to escape.

The fact that I was the only male left in the family and traditionally to be consulted on any family decision did not matter at all to Sivheng. Her mind was made up, and she was ready to escape Cambodia. Mealy was the added influence. I had no input in the matter. Furthermore, Sivheng gave me a direct order to get ready for escaping into Thailand.

My other sisters had difficult choices to make. For one reason or another, mostly due to their respective family commitments, they all chose to stay. My heart was once again broken because we just reunited and had yet to reconcile our feelings of loss and celebrate our reunion; now, we would once again be separated.

Mixed emotions were flying around in the family for a few days before the journey into Thailand started. Some emotions were easily shared and spoken out loud among the family members and close relatives. Deep and not easily understood emotions were kept individually. Deep hugs, longing stares, prolonging hand-clasps and excruciating sobs took the place of the otherwise spoken farewell.

I yearned for the trip to happen which made the few-days waiting rather long. I was excited because something new and adventurous was about to happen in my life. The wait was unbearable. The protracted farewell by family and friends was even more unbearable. I experienced all range of emotions but mostly guilt and sadness.

Ironically, the wait was over far quicker than I anticipated. Emotionally I was not ready to leave. I did not feel I had said everything I needed to say to my sisters nor heard everything I needed to hear from my sisters. I did not share with my sister enough of the deep hugs, longing stares, prolonging hand-clasps and excruciating sobs. I felt as if my heart were cut out of my chest or a chunk of flesh were removed from my stomach.

Throughout the entire trip, I went back and forth between elation and guilt. (To today I am still struggling to reconcile my happiness and guilt.)

Mealy, Sivheng and I traveled on foot towards Thailand. Mealy and Sivheng, each brought a few changes of clothes. I only had the clothes that I was wearing. We didn’t have any money because the Khmer Rouge had abolished the monetary system and the country was still in a chaotic war. One of my brother-in-laws gave me a tiny piece of gold in exchange for my ox which I looted in the midst of battle-chaos.

We tried to be as least conspicuous as possible on our journey. We only traveled in daylight. Morning was the most opportunistic time to travel because there were more people out searching for food and other survival necessities. We would walk all morning on a war-ruined highway and settled in just off the road in the afternoon. We pretended to be squatters. It was not difficult because we had to rest and eat. We weren’t able to bring along our traps for the obvious reason. We did our best to catch fish, eels, frogs, grasshoppers, etc. by hand along the highway. Food was scarce because everyone was scavenging for whatever available.

After days of clandestine travel, we met and joined other escapees. There were approximately thirty people in the group which made up of various ages including a few babies. Everyone’s anxiety (including mine) escalated from day to day as we temporarily squatted in a huge abandoned farmhouse near the Thai border.

As the only English speaker in the group, Mealy monitored an underground radio broadcasted in English language. Mealy told the other escapees to wait a week or so because the Thai government was sending the Cambodian refugees back into Cambodia through the treacherous mountain (Phnom Dongrek) protected by minefields. Rumor was also flying around that scores of Cambodian refugees were shot dead by Thai soldiers as they refused to be repatriated back into Cambodia.

We waited and waited while Mealy continued to monitor the situation.

While waiting for an opportunistic moment to resume our escape, a neighboring family from my hometown arrived and joined with us. A daughter of the family who was also a friend of my sister Sivheng told us that my other sister Sivleng was in a nearby town, Svay Sisophon.

Since Sivheng had not seen Sivleng since 1975, she wanted to go back and find her. We also hoped that we could convince Sileng to come along. At the least, we wanted to say our farewell since we had no hope of ever seeing her again. So Sivheng and I decided to head back to Svay Sisophon.

After an entire day on foot and a dusty road, we arrived in Svay Sisophon. It was not difficult to find Sivleng. Sivleng was well but romantically involved and did not want to leave. All three of us stayed up practically all night crying and catching up. Sivheng and I returned to the farmhouse the next day.

Days, or perhaps a week or two had gone by as Mealy continued to monitor the situation. We continued to keep an appearance of a squatter. We caught fish by hand and hunted birds with slingshots. We traded whatever possible for salt and rice.

One morning, the most anticipated good news arrived. Concerned by the actions taken by the Thai government to send the Cambodian refugees back into Cambodia through a landmine infested mountain-range border, the international communities decided to expedite the process of moving all refugees out of Thailand.

The opportunistic time had come and we planned to resume our border crossing the next day.

That afternoon, Mealy and I went out to find food. We were hoping to catch some fish by hand at a lake located about a kilometer away from the farmhouse. Along the side of the lake we saw a man walking with his retriever trotting playfully behind him. Apparently, the man was better off than we were. He had on his shoulders a long fishing pole, a few traps and an arch bow. By our standard, he dressed well and appeared native.

The man barely noticed us and gave us a brief and stingy glace as if Mealy and I were a disease as he and his dog passed us by. Ironically, his dog gave us a much kinder greeting. It came and tried to lick my hand. The man rudely called his dog away but not before I manage to secretly spit into the dog’s mouth.

In Cambodia, it was a common knowledge passed down from generation to generation that a dog would follow you as if you were its master if you spit in its mouth. I had never seen any proof until that afternoon.

I noticed the dog’s hesitance as it was called repeatedly by its master. There was something about this dog. Oddly, I felt a brief spiritual connection with this dog because it kept looking into my eyes. It responded to the call, ran a little bit towards its master, stopped and turned to stare at me. This ceremonial behavior was repeated until both the man and the dog disappeared into the distance.

Mealy and I went on our way in the opposite direction. It wasn’t long before the dog returned and caught up with us. Mealy and I looked at each other, and without a spoken word, we knew we got ourselves a good meal. Suddenly, we both began to walk really fast as if to get away from the dog. However, in actuality, we knew we wanted to get to the camp before the man came looking for his dog. The dog kept up with us through the wooded area, across a field and to the farmhouse.

That early evening, Mealy and a few other men slaughtered the dog and the women prepared a meal. We celebrated our luck and the good news. The quiet festivity went on for a couple of hours after nightfall. Then we went to bed, but the anxiety kept us up most of the night tossing and turning. (I might have slept an hour or two just before my sister woke me up for the trip.)

Never been outside of my third-world province, let alone the country, I felt an indescribable excitement… elation. As the group was preparing to start the trip, I imagined crossing the border to a very exciting world, a world at least as exciting as the one I once knew before the Khmer Rouge destroyed it.

I imagined electricity, running water, automobiles, colorful clothes and food. My most vivid memory was Coca Cola in the 1970s’ classic Coca Cola bottle.

Totally forgotten about the minefields, the Vietnamese soldiers, the Khmer Rouge and the vast scary unknown world I was about to face, I could hardly wait to start the trip. The short wait seemed like an eternity. I was annoyed by the babies who cried constantly, the women who had to pack their small belongings and the old folks who moved ever so slowly.

I kept looking at the eastern horizon anxiously hoping that dawn would not be coming up too soon. We would have to postpone the trip if we could not make it across the open fields into the woods before dawn because the Vietnamese soldiers were patrolling the fields to prevent the Khmer Rouge’s attack and the escape by the Cambodian people into Thailand.

I was ready. I was more than ready. I had my little piece of gold tugged snuggly in one of my nostrils -- (I don’t remember specifically which nostril). I had on my cotton shorts, my cotton shirt and my 2-inch platform sandals I made from a tire of an army truck. I was going somewhere into the future – uncertain, but a future nonetheless.

The wait was long, but the march in the dark across the fields was even longer. I was selfishly annoyed by the babies, women and old people. I kept thinking that my sisters sacrificed their opportunity to come along partly because they might have felt their family nuclei would slow us down. Yet, here, I was burdened, slowed down, by the strangers. I was angry but kept to myself because I knew my sister would not approve of such selfishness.

Angry and annoyed, but I was glad to reach the woods. Then, I was scared when four armed men approached us.

I knew immediately that the men were neither the Khmer Rouge nor the Vietnamese soldiers because the way they dressed and the weapons they carried. Similar to the Khmer Rouge, their uniforms were black. However, the uniforms were in a far better quality. They were made in the quality of the industrial-strength-military uniform instead of the cheap cotton uniform worn by the Khmer Rouge. Their western military boots, caps, backpacks, canteens and M-16 rifles were distinctively non-communistic. Their clean-cut hair and smooth-dark skin were the definitive contrast to the Khmer Rouge’s wild hair and bellicose-rough skin and the Vietnamese soldiers’ simple-cut hair and light skin. Their uniforms were definitely different from those of the Vietnamese soldiers. The Vietnamese soldiers wore lower quality simple green fatigues, technologically less sophisticated black army boots, and simple light green hats or caps. The M-16 rifles were the clear indication that the men were neither the Khmer Rouge nor the Vietnamese soldiers because both armies were armed with AK-47 riffles.

A few of my former neighbors were able to communicate with the men in Thai. As it turned out, the armed men were Thai bandits who regularly went deep into Cambodia waiting for any Cambodian escapees with valuable belongings. I was acutely aware of the piece of gold snuggly hidden inside one of my nostrils.

My former neighbors managed to convince the bandits that they have wealthy relatives in Thailand and the relatives would financially reward the bandits if the bandits would lead us safely into Thailand. So, led by the bandits, we resumed our journey in a narrow path through a jungle protected by landmines and unexploded ordnances.

We were not running, but we marched quietly and as fast as we could. Two bandits led the way. The other two bandits did their best to bring up the tail made up of the old people and families with little children and babies.

As the bandits took full charge of the trail, my neighbors seemed to be second in command. They did their best to translate the communications between the bandits and the other escapees. I noticed gripes and resentment directed to them by the slow people as they tried to speed up the crowd. I was annoyed and hoped that we would at some point ditch the slow people.

The sun barely reached 45 degree angle above the horizon when the Vietnamese patrols fired bullets and small rockets at us. Chaos, terror and panic, there were screams in Cambodian, Thai, Chinese and Vietnamese. Every man for himself, I ran as fast as I could. I neither slowed down for people who stepped on mines nor cared what happened to anyone else (including my sister) at that moment. The sound of the mine explosion and screams for help from other people only urged me to run faster and farther.

The sound of the firing guns, flying bullets, intimidating rockets, exploding land mines, screaming chaos faded. My adrenaline subsided but my heart was still pounding. Silence once again emerged as more and more people filed in and gathered into a group. Many old people, small children and families with babies were noticeably missing.

When my sister and Mealy caught up, I simply regarded as a matter of fact that they survived the shooting. Oddly enough, I was more concerned about missing the bandits than missing my sister, Mealy and my neighbors -- the bandits served as both the guides and the protectors.

Then I was disappointed that (through the chaos) I lost my sandals, but I was glad my clothes were untouched. My gold was still secured in my nostril. I was whole and ready to move on. The fact that I was physically unharmed went unappreciated in comparison to my trivial, materialistic possession.

All four bandits showed up unharmed along with my neighbors and their families. Overall only about two thirds of the people survived the vicious attack.

We must have run well over an hour, or so it seemed.

Calm, happy to be alive, everyone marched on. Every time a baby cried, I wanted to strangle it. I wanted to kill the baby’s entire family for putting me at risk. My heart pounded every time a bird made a startling chirp. My eyes constantly scanned my surroundings. I walked forward, backward and sideways. I looked up. I looked down. I looked left and right. My head was in constant turn whether I walked straight, forward, backward or otherwise.

My sister and I did not exchange a word. If there were any communication, it would have been non-verbal. No one else seemed to be interested in any conversation either. Like I, everyone else was in a constant mode of look out.

Near noon, we stopped for lunch. Everyone crouched in a circle. The bandits took out cans of sardines from their backpacks and shared with us because we lost much of our travel food during the shooting. Again, I was annoyed and angry at a baby who cried as we prepared to eat lunch.

Having lived the starvation, I thought the canned sardine was a priceless luxury. As I was about take my first bite of the sardine, the gold piece dislodged itself from my nostril and landed on the soft ground between my crouching feet. My heart was pounding once again. I immediately and instinctively moved my right foot to place my big toe over the gold piece. I discreetly lifted my head to see whether any of the bandits had noticed the gold piece. Inconspicuously, I picked up the gold piece with my right hand and lodged it back into its rightful place, my right nostril. I was quite aware that the gold piece was now muddy, but I was relieved that it was once again safely cached. Throughout the entire lunch I was neither able to completely tame my pounding heart nor able to enjoy the sardines. The luxurious sardines were simply just another lunch.

Grrrrrr! I could have put my nefarious grip around that crying baby. I could kill the stupid mother as well.

Despite the baby’s crying, the lunch was completed undisturbed. We must have traveled far enough from the Vietnamese patrol. We were deep into the jungle not knowing whether we were in Cambodia or Thailand. We passed big trees, small trees, brushes and open fields and crossed a few narrow creeks. There were no rivers in our path. The path was somewhat beaten. The bandits told us to stay within the path to avoid stepping on the landmines.

The repetitious scenery of the jungle made me feel like we were going in circles. I had doubts that we were going in the right direction. I imagined stepping on a landmine and dying. I imagined being ferociously eaten by a tiger. I imagined getting lost and becoming a cannibal. I imagined being killed by a cobra. I imagined being alone in the jungle.

I was bored. I was scared. I was afraid of what would come next. I was doubtful that the bandits would keep their promise. I thought that they would most likely sell me and Mealy into slavery and Sivheng to a brothel. I thought my neighbors’ relatives in Bangkok would not pay a reward on our accounts.

Uncertainty and fear cast regrets on me for leaving my home. I doubted Sivheng’s wisdom and decision to escape Cambodia. I wished I asserted my rightful influence as patriarch of the family. I wished I was not seduced by the idea that life is better in another world. I did just fine back at home with my looting for food from day to day to survive back home.

My worst fear came to reality when a group of about fifty Khmer Rouge gorillas appeared from nowhere and surrounded us as the sun stood westerly about thirty degrees below the high noon.