Living in the shadow of the Khmer Rouge
by Hannah Fleming
It is my family’s second day in Siem Reap, Cambodia. We are four pasty foreign intruders, standing before a bridge that will lead us to Terabithia, or perhaps to glimpse the faded footprints of Angelina Jolie’s stunt double from “Lara Croft: Tomb Raider.” According to Kong, our tour guide, Angelina Jolie is somewhere outside of the city, in a Cambodian-style house with her adopted Cambodian child.
Angkor Thom, which means “great city” in Khmer, is the last capital of the Khmer empire, and seemingly the most intact. The city walls, surrounded by a moat, enclose a square with some of the most intricate carvings of Hindu gods and goddesses, mythological and other-wordly beings, that we will see in this lifetime.
Kong walks ahead of us on the dirt path. He has a strong square jaw (a characteristic of the Khmer people he often points out in carvings) and wears long pants and a pressed yellow shirt—a tour guide’s uniform. It is 90 degrees and humid. The only evidence that this fazes Kong are a few beads of sweat that have begun to form against the dark hair on his forehead.
He describes the figures that still guard the ancient city: the first two rows of statues carry the body of a serpent, a seven-headed naga, positioned in an attitude of a tug-of-war. He says it’s not uncommon to have naga balustrades lining the approach to a temple—their purpose is to link the world of men with the world of gods. The real tug of war occurs between the ensuing figures that face one another. On the left there are gods. On the right there are demons. We tourists walk somewhere in between.
Kong pauses in the middle of the bridge, luckily in the shade, and nonchalantly points out bullet holes in the stone armor of one of the guardians.
“Target practice for Khmer Rogue soldiers,” he says. I expect him to follow this comment with “strange country” in his usual sardonic tone, but this time his eyes are somewhere else, as though he’s waded through the rice fields and can’t seem to find his way back.
Christmas in Cambodia is not understated—it is peak tourist season. In Siem Reap, there are plastic Santa Clauses and reindeer littered on hotel lawns, colorful stars and icicle lights you would expect to find on the front porches of western homes. My family and I are staying at a hotel with a sign that says “Have a Khmerry Christmas,” and though I didn’t shudder then, I’m shuddering now.
It’s been more than two decades since the Khmer Rogue, when the Communist Party of Kampuchea came to power, but for those familiar with its history, the word Khmer evokes images of scenes from Joffé’s 1985 thriller “The Killing Fields.” Though I had little prior knowledge of the Khmer Rogue, it’s the first place my mind went after talking to Kong about his childhood. He was born towards the end of the U.S. bombing mission in Cambodia, 1973, though he doesn’t know his exact birthday.
“I chose the second of February, it’s my makeup birthday,” Kong says. “I was born in the battlefield so they don’t really pay attention to the real date of my birth, they just want to survive through the war.”
It is December 25, 2015. We are sitting at a table in a restaurant called The Khmer Cooking Empire, filled with American and British families drinking Chang beer. Outside, the front lot is crowded with white vans, and to the side of the building tour guides lounge in hammocks in the shade of sugarplum trees.
Kong explains that Cambodian people don’t celebrate birthdays. The new year falls on April 13th, and every new year you are considered a year older. Kong has a family name—technically his name is Pen Kong—but his mother destroyed all pictures and family documents after his father was taken into a rice field and shot. This was 1975, at the beginning of the Khmer Rogue years. Middle class civilians, foreigners and essentially anyone perceived as a threat to Kampuchea were often invited to “join the new government,” which was code for certain execution. The “new government,” often referred to as the Angkar, never confirmed his father’s death.
“I was only two years old. I don’t know my father’s face—we have only one picture remaining today,” Kong says.
What happened next is a series of movements and false promises. According to Loung Ung’s renowned memoir “First They Killed My Father: A Daughter of Cambodia Remembers,” the only real incentive to trust the word of a Khmer Rogue soldier was to avoid death. When her family was forced to flee from Phnom Penh, they were told it was because the United States was going to bomb the city, and they would be able to return home after three days. Three days turned into an eight-day walk to a dusty village, surrounded by rice fields as far as the eye could see. Here, the Ung family waited to be torn apart.
Kong’s family experienced a similar forced migration. “Three children, and my mother. We tried to lie to the new government that we were only laborers during the ex-government,” Kong said. The truth is that his father was a police chief, and if anyone found out, they were in grave danger. His family complied as much as they could.
“So we were sent north and then we went east of town. It was 17 kilometers east of the town of Siem Reap today, but in those days it was like dense jungle zone,” he says.
This is a time that Kong refers to as “the prison without walls.”
“When [the Khmer Rogue] wants us to move, we had to follow. If they felt they couldn’t control us in one place, they sent us to another place so they could control us better,” he says. If you appeared unhappy you were in trouble, meaning “instantly dead or in prison, or punished to work overtime in the rice fields.”
Eventually, the family was at the mercy of the Angkar’s various agricultural institutions. His older brother collected cow dung, his older sister looked after cattle. His mother was sent to a work camp where she was only able to see her children once a month. Three-year-old Kong was forced to hide in the jungle situated next to the labor camp. Though he wasn’t working as a laborer like his family, he was privy to the conditions of the camp: collection and reallocation of old clothes, human waste remixed as topsoil.
During the day, his brother and sister worked. “At night, we slept together in a small shelter this high from the grass.” He gestures about two feet above the tablecloth. “We used only one blanket that we took from the town, and a very old pillow for three people. It was hot and humid, but at night we’re more worried about the cold. Sometimes in the mornings in December it got so cold we had to burn a fire.” He pauses. “Sleeping wasn’t a problem…the problem was we had nothing to eat.”
Of the 1.4 million to 2.2 million deaths estimated during the Khmer Rogue years, half were executions, and the rest were from starvation and disease. It was all part of the philosophy: the Khmer Rogue believed that one individual should not have what the rest of the country does not have. If everyone is supposed to be equal, then everyone should starve.
“You have no right to own anything, no right to grow your own vegetables, no right to a farm or animals, nothing,” Kong says. “You work in a collective farm, you eat in a collective kitchen.” Unfortunately the collective’s cauldrons of rice gruel contained little to no nutrition, coupled with the fact that portions were miniscule at best. Since Kong was too young to receive his own portion, his brother and sister snuck some of theirs to a hiding Kong when they could.
“We all heard the story of the kid who tried to steal a piece of fruit, and he picked up the fruit and ran off with it. And the Khmer Rogue soldiers found out and they killed him and threw him in the water,” Kong says.
More often than not, he was left to fend for himself. His body swelled from malnutrition.
“Swelling was also caused by eating poisonous food, like cassava,” Kong says, referring to a woody shrub he attempted to eat. Kong often ate scorpions, centipedes, crickets—whatever he could find. Though crickets and other insects are often considered delicacies, eating them alive is another matter.
“You know the buffalo frog? We had to go in the well to get it. They live in crab holes and they come out, so we had to go into the well to catch it.” Kong’s mother would often catch them for him when she visited and showed him how to do it.
For three years, eight months, and 20 days Kong survived in the jungle. Though it should have been twenty-three days—Vietnamese forces liberated Phnom Penh, the capital, on January 7th, 1979 and Siem Reap, north of the capital, on January 10th, 1979.
The lunch rush is waning at the Khmer Cooking Empire. British tourists have packed into vans, and children follow them, selling bracelets and English books on Angkor Wat. Kong looks uncomfortable. He’s prefaced our conversation by telling me he hasn’t told his sons most of this story yet, and he’s not eager to relive it. But even with the severity of that time period—three years of a young life—Kong is able to joke about the three days that made him tougher than everyone in Phnom Penh. When he was reunited with his siblings and mother, they made their way home, only to find it “totally eliminated and destroyed,” Kong says.
“During that time we built a new hut again, but we were poor. We went back to a primitive lifetstyle.”
They lived on a plot next to his uncle and aunt. His mother opened a grocery shop and provided for the family—only she was paid in rice. Kong shrugs. “Better than the hell,” he says.
When the Angkar was overthrown, Cambodians (then, “Kampucheans”) hoped that peace and liberty would return to their country. What took its place was not a new government by and for the people of Cambodia, but an illegal Vietnamese occupation green-lighted by the Soviet Union. It would last until 1989. During that time, Kong was fortunate enough to go to school and miraculously avoided the draft.
“The school was in the Buddhist temple. We had no books—we had wooden planks. Only one or two teachers survived and they taught a kind of primary school,” Kong says. He reminisces about the teacher that beat him so hard, he wet his pants. It was a small price to pay: Kong’s eldest sister could not go to school because she needed to help his mother earn money while his brother was drafted, and became a tank driver for the army.
“We call it draft but it’s more like they go to catch and say ‘Stop—come to the bus, come to the truck.’ And you don’t tell anybody,” Kong says. He was lucky because his uncle was the chief of the village police: unlike Kong’s father, he was not appointed by the government, but was in charge of protecting the village and settling local disputes.
“The information of the draft came to him. So we had to hide ourselves in several ways. First: we don’t go anywhere alone with our information. We knew who they were looking for, we knew the negotiator and then I lied about my age. So at least if we were caught, we’d have many different reason to stay away from the front line,” Kong says.
His reality became somewhat of a military base—there were soldiers constantly coming into the school. At home, he learned to disassemble weapons. “We had to learn to stand straight, move left, move right, like a soldier,” Kong says. “Everybody learned to be that way.”
Having survived the Khmer Rogue and ensuing military occupation, Kong decided he could survive a few disagreeable tourists. He’d worked as a bartender and an election supervisor at the UN, and became a tour guide on November 1, 1993. He says he’s been in the same place since—but now has a wife and four sons. Kong later emailed a picture of him surrounded by his four boys. The caption read: “I am the fifth.”
* * *
On our last day in Cambodia, we drive past the Swiss free hospital. Men and women stand in line or generally mill about, children play games in the grass. A sign reads “Severe outbreak of dengue fever.” I decided if it was this crowded on the outside, the inside must be stifling. Kong confirmed this, telling us that when his wife was pregnant with their twins, the two of them slept on the floor for a week in order to receive a cesarian section from a doctor they could trust.
We pass the hospital, and enter onto the road that leads to Angkor Wat, Angkor Thom and a myriad of other ancient marvels.
Driving through Cambodia is like driving through the Mississippi delta on a tour bus, trying to ignore groups on the front porch drinking forties. Like a two-week UNICEF program in Jamaica where you barely scratch the surface of the country, but don’t leave without putting your arm around a cross-eyed child for a picture. Unlike central Siem Reap, the Cambodian families who work under red and yellow awnings and live in raised houses near the main road aren’t putting on a brightly-colored show for tourists—and they certainly they aren’t retreating to their air-conditioned flats to drink Johnny Walker and watch re-reruns.
There is evidence they do drink Johnny Walker. Kong points out the Cambodian gas station, where the bottles are filled with gasoline. It’s twelve dollars, Kong informs us, for a one liter red label of whiskey. The discarded whiskey bottles are re-filled with gasoline and sold for one dollar.
“Strange country,” Kong says for about the third time during that car ride. Though current political prisoners might warn Kong against speaking out, he’s not a politician. He reiterates his distaste with the Cambodian government on a whim: it is an autocracy. A small economy with little transparency. I asked if he’s optimistic that he will see the country develop any faster in his lifetime.
“We’re waiting for this Prime Minister to be out of power, and after that we don’t know what will happen. It’s difficult to guess. I’m optimistic, but it’s slow. In my lifetime I’m not sure if we can avoid the autocracy or not. They give you peace, at the very least. But when we ask questions about the corruption, they don’t answer. If you ask about that, they tell you about something else,” he says. “They mock you: ‘Oh in 1970 you were just empty handed and now you have everything, you see?’”
The truth is that 80 percent of the population in Siem Reap are farmers, and many others work in the tourism industry. We’re about forty minutes north of Siem Reap, heading towards a fishing village that Kong assures us welcomes visitors. It’s late in the afternoon, and the light is golden: all around us are rice fields, as far as the eye can see.
A small piece of Cambodia today rests in this fishing village. My family and I, now beet-red intruders, ride on a speedboat on the river, passing floating chicken coups and alligators in pens, front porches where women are washing clothes. On one dock, there’s a circle of shirtless old men drinking Angkar beer after a day of fishing.
We dock and join the men on the adjacent platform, and I squirm a little bit, trying to decode their stares and understand how they must feel with tourists constantly passing through their home. I ask Kong expressly if we should even be here.
He laughs, taking off his Monaco sunglasses. “They’re very happy,” he says.