Return to the Light

On 20 December 1978 in Reay Pay, a village in the province of Kampong Cham, a rumor went around our camp — the korngchalat — that a battle was raging between Khmer Rouge soldiers and Vietnamese troops along the Cambodian-Vietnam border.

The korngchalat had been my world since I was 21 years old in 1975, when the Khmer Rouge had marched through Phnom Penh and forced me from my home.

The Khmer cadres now referred increasingly to our Vietnamese neighbors as enemies of the Khmer people, and we could see that the leaders of the camp at all levels were demoralized. They stopped supervising us, and during the first days of January 1979 they began to disappear, one after another.

Around 8 p.m. on 5 or 6 January, I heard the sound of tanks in the distance. A little later the clanking of tracked vehicles approached, and several tanks and trucks came into view near our camp. I was ready to drop from exhaustion, but I gathered whatever provisions I could—some rice, beans and dried fish from the communal kitchen—and hoped to flee before the troops confronted us. The food stores, which had always been forbidden to us, were now accessible, but we had no means of transport by which to leave, and we weren’t sure whether it was safe for us on the roads. We hesitated, not knowing what to do.

Later that night, we heard more sounds of fighting nearby. No one could sleep, and by now most people were ready to take their chances on the road. Some took chickens, pigs, cows, and buffalo from the village’s sahakor, a cooperative set up by the Angkar (revolutionary council) to distribute food and direct labor. Others even went so far as to hitch up a cart. As for the rest of us, we didn’t dare budge. We were traumatized, still obeying the Angkar. We feared there would be retribution for the raids on the sahakor if the camp leaders were to return. I waited on with a few friends, other members of the korngchalat but after several hours, when no one returned, and no orders were forthcoming, we decided to leave too.

After four years of being told when I could sleep, eat, work and move, I had no idea where I was headed, and wondered whether I should go to the neighboring village of Phum Thmey, or back to my family in Siem Reap. For almost four years I had had no news of my family. I felt like I was floating on an ocean with no idea where the shore was. I had no real family ties in Phum Thmey, but it was where the Angkar had originally placed me, and where I had the only family I now knew.

The girls who were with me were happy and radiant for the first time in years, like birds flying the coop. We walked together quickly, each hoping beyond hope to find our loved ones safe and well. We had no idea what was happening back in the village, and on the main roads we met truck after truck of Vietnamese soldiers. We hid our heads in our krama, a multipurpose scarf worn by both men and women, and dared not look at the soldiers. The Vietnamese soldiers were both invader and liberator, and we had mixed feelings about them. They had just freed us from the Khmer Rouge for which we were extremely grateful, but we were afraid of all soldiers and had been told the Vietnamese raped and beat women. We hurried past them as quickly as we could and kept our heads down.

Tanks came and went along all the roads, and both the Vietnamese and the Khmer troops called out to us as they passed: "Everyone has to go back to where they came from, because the war is finished and the country is free."

Did that word still have any meaning? It sounded strange and foreign to us. On 17 April 1975, the Khmer Rouge had also said the country was free; we didn’t know what to believe anymore. After two days’ walking, we arrived in Peam Chikorng, where the roads to several villages meet. We were still convinced the Khmer Rouge were hiding somewhere and would soon return.

People said it was the end of Democratic Kampuchea, the name the Khmer Rouge had ascribed to our country, but I wondered whether this was fact or fiction. Everywhere I looked, I saw people fleeing in utter disarray. Thousands fled to Thailand with the Khmer Rouge, most of them at gunpoint. Those who remained took the food supplies of the Khmer Rouge cooperatives and ate their fill for the first time in years. With no thought for the future, they killed pigs, cattle, and buffalo. They then took kitchen utensils, farm tools, and the remaining cattle, and took to the roads.

We were emerging from a night that had lasted for years, blinking as we stepped into the light. We still couldn’t grasp the fact that our nightmare was over.

Like a free bird I gasped in the air. I was hungry, and for the first time in years, I ate a lot of rice as I needed. The only thing on my mind was to go back to my family in Siem Reap. I was very tired, because I had a fever a couple days before the Vietnamese came to liberate us.