Monday, September 10, 2007

Sivly Ung

This photograph was taken just before the Khmer Rouge took over Cambodia in 1975. Possession of a photograph during the Khmer Rouge regime was a crime punishable by torture and then death. One of my older sisters risked her life keeping this photograph hidden in her possession. My youngest sister Sivly and I are shown in the picture. Starvation has claimed Sivly's life sometime between 1975 and 1976.

I thank you for reading the following excerpt of my memoirs which I hope to publish soon. May this story inspire you to become a part of a force that makes the world a better place, one person at a time.


Kilong Ung

If one were awakened under a normal circumstance, one would certainly appreciate everything an early dawn of Cambodia had to offer in the countryside. A green pasture decorated by a variety of Asian trees. The concord of the very early morning blended with the natural chaos from the farm animals: the crow of the roosters, the mating rituals of the ducks, chickens, pigs, and geese, and the pleasant sounds of the wild birds. If one had paid close enough attention, one could even hear the fish in a nearby pond, a lake or a river.

Life in Cambodia under the communist regime of the Khmer Rouge was no normal circumstance. Still exhausted from the inhumane, sadistic, farm labor of the previous day, I was not easily awakened. There was nothing (not the loudest rooster, the most vicious tropical thunder nor a blast of artillery) could awake me. Yet two things never failed to wake me up. One was a whistle (or sometimes bell) sounded in the morning to let everyone know it was time to get up and start another day of hard and inhuman labor on the farm. The other was the excruciating hunger.

This particular morning, I was awakened by a hunger pain in my stomach. My previous supper was nothing more than a rationed bowl of rice porridge made solely from a tiny amount of white rice and the disproportionate amount of water.

Since I beat the whistle, I had some time to just sit there and gaze. Dazed, tired and hungry, I found myself scanning my surroundings searching for food or a glimpse of any hope… a glimpse of anything. Suddenly I set my sight on my youngest sister, Sivly heading out toward the village’s common well.

As if the Khmer Rouge weren’t brutal enough, the Mother Nature wasn’t too kind to the Cambodians either. In addition to the suffering that inflicted by the Khmer Rouge, my entire village (along with other villages in the province of Battambang) was punished by a drought. For months, our only source of water came from the lazy drips at the bottom of the well. Every day my sister collected roughly three pales of water from the bottom of the well to share between our three close families (my parents’, my oldest sister’s and my fourth sister’s).

Absentminded, I followed Sivly to the well. Sivly was barely eleven years old but a much brighter and more mature child than I was. Just before she reached the well, I was aware of my emotional agony, my pity, for my sister. I noticed her bare legs from knees down -- dry, cracked, stained and barefooted. Her entire body was covered only by an old ragged sarong rolled at the waist leaving the top of her body naked. From behind, through her exposed dry, rough skin, I could see her vertebra and the backside of her ribcage. If I weren’t so weak from hard labor and malnutrition, I could have picked her young frail body up with one hand.

Her dirty hair couldn’t look more beautiful that morning. With one pale in each hand, she turned and forced a tired and heartbreaking smile my way. No words could account our silent communication. I wanted to run to her, gather her in my arms, press my face to her bony cheek, stroke her dirty hair and tell her we will be alright.

I could have counted every rib racked up above her awkwardly bloated stomach. The appearance of her chest is no different from a chest of an eleven year old boy with malnutrition. With her famine face, her bigger-than-normal eyes and lips seemed oddly beautiful. Whatever sibling rivalry we had before, there remained no doubt that the deep bonding love and care between us were silently exchanged in that brief moment before she turned and ascended to the bottom of the well.

Standing on the rim of the well looking down, I saw my sister crouching among five or six other kids of her age and a couple of older women. The well was at least twenty feet deep and was dry about two-third down. I couldn’t help wondering what if the well collapsed.

Sad, hungry, nostalgic, tired (emotionally and physically) and indifferent, I mindlessly left my sister to her task at the bottom of the well. I walked back to my family’s straw hut and then awaited the whistle to start another day in hell.