Surviving the Khmer Rouge – Rik’s Story

On April 17th, 1975, the Khmer Rouge took hold of Cambodia. They wanted to transform Cambodia into a rural, classless society. They were starting at ‘year zero’. Money, free markets, normal schooling, private property, foreign clothing styles, religious practices, and traditional Khmer culture was abolished. Public schools, pagodas, mosques, churches, universities, shops and government buildings were shut or turned into prisons, stables, reeducation camps and granaries. Over the next four years, approximately two million citizens (a quarter of the population at the time) died from torture, execution, overwork and illness.

This is one survivor’s story.

When I was younger, my family was what we would call simple. We weren’t rich, we weren’t middle class, we weren’t poor. We had enough food to eat, and lived in a house made from thick bamboo.

My mother died when I was 13. I am not sure exactly how, though I knew she had a problem with her lungs. She was my father’s second wife; he had divorced from his first before I was born, and already had three children.

Life was challenging after my mother died, as my younger brother and sister needed someone to take care of them. I stopped studying in grade six, as my brother cried a lot when he had to stay by himself. Also, when I tried to take my brother and sister to school with me so I could study, I was mocked by the other school children, who said that I was a young girl who already had two children of my own.

I spent my days looking after my siblings and sometimes helping my father take care of the farm. I was interested in having a market stall, but my father wouldn’t allow me to do that. He said we had enough food to get by, so there was no need for me to work.

An empty Phnom Penh. Photo taken at Wat Thmey.

Cambodia was unstable before Pol Pot took power. I remember my teacher at school telling us that there would be war. He said that Lon Nol wanted to force the King out and hold the country. Our King said that if the war happened, the citizens should be calm, quiet, and patient, and just concentrate on surviving. He encouraged us not to commit suicide, and to just try our best to live.

During the war from Lon Nol, there was a lot of fighting. There were bombs and shootings. Often there were bombs that looked like flowers that would be shot from far away and land in our village. We dug a deep hole in our land to hide in, and would take our food into there and wait for the bombs to finish. My family remained safe, but some people in our village died. One time after we came out of the hole, we saw that our neighbour had been eating rice when a flower bomb hit him and cut off his head.

I lived my life feeling scared and worried. Most people went on with their lives as normal, though when there was expected fighting and violence, the teachers at school would tell the students to stay at home.

Communal eating area. Photo taken at Wat Thmey.

When I was 18, the Khmer Rouge took control of Cambodia. On that day, the village chief told his team to notify the villagers to kill the animals they owned, so there was food to eat. We were told that we were going to be moved from our village to another place, though we didn’t know where.

The village chief wanted to know which villagers worked for the government, or were educated. He asked them to come and register with him, as they would have the opportunity to welcome the King. Those villagers went and registered, and so did some uneducated farmers who lied as they wanted to meet the King. They were all taken away and killed.

A couple of days later, my family was told we were going to be moved to Krobei Riel, a commune about 8km from where we lived. We were told to prepare rice, but not to take a lot, as we were only going to be away for one week. We packed our belongings in bamboo baskets and carried them with sticks on our shoulders. We also walked with our cow.

At first, I wasn’t scared. There were thousands of us. I still am not too sure about what happened to everyone in Siem Reap during that time. I do know that some were sent to Krobei Riel and some were sent to Kulen Mountain, but for the rest, I have no idea.

Although the location wasn’t too far, it took us a week to walk there. There weren’t roads to walk on, only farms to walk through. As the sun set each evening, we settled down for the night. Some people who were sick died along the way and were buried. Some pregnant women gave birth on the journey.

There was only one soldier to look after the thousands of us. He wasn’t mean at that time. I didn’t realise something bad was happening, as I was young. I wanted to think that everything was going to be okay.

Workers in rice fields during the Khmer Rouge. Photo taken at Wat Thmey.

When we reached Krobei Riel, all the families were told to build small houses. We had to find our own materials, as we weren’t provided with anything. We stayed in the old school while I found bamboo to cut for the house. All the villagers worked together to build the houses one by one.

After the houses were finished, a meeting was held. We were divided into categories, depending on what skills and education the villagers had. Since I had studied in school, I was allocated to be teacher for the children. My father had been a woodworker, so his job was to make cow carts and other wood items. For the villagers that didn’t have an education or skill, they had to go out to the farms together. That was known as the ‘bad group’, and I was so lucky I wasn’t in that group. Since my brother was so young, he was allowed to stay at home. My sister was responsible for carrying fertiliser to the farms, cutting small trees and making compost.

The old school had been destroyed, as it was from the old government. We built a new school from bamboo, and although I had a chalkboard, I didn’t have any chalk. I used a dry candle to draw on the board, teaching Khmer letters and numbers. I taught children who were aged between six and 15 each day. Some students learnt for half a day, then worked the other half of the day. For those who were 14 or 15, they often had to skip school so they could help with transporting fertiliser.

People were forced to work for at least 15 hours a day. Photo taken at Wat Thmey.

There were only a few soldiers in our village, but I can’t remember how many. When families cooperated well, the soldiers gave them power. The soldiers had guns and wore many bullets on them, a reminder of their power. They had many rules we had to follow. Adults and teenage boys and girls could not make eye contact with each other or speak with each other. We could only eat the food that was provided. If we were told to plant a certain amount of rice a day, we had to finish it. If we were told to do something, we had to do it in a certain amount of time. However, if we finished too quickly, our quote would be increased the next day. People mostly worked from 6am in the morning until 9pm at night.

If people broke the rules, a meeting would be held, and the soldiers would try to get the person to fix their problem. However, if those people didn’t change, their whole family would be killed. They would tie the person’s hands together with string and attach it to a bicycle. A soldier rode the bicycle and the person would have to run after the it. They would run all the way to Wat Chork, a pagoda around 8km away, and would be kept in the prison there. They were then killed.

The notorious Tuol Sleng prison in Phnom Penh. Photo taken at Wat Thmey.

Although people never had enough to eat, I was so lucky. The soldiers trusted me, so they gave me extra food. They allowed me to share it with my father and siblings, so we were able to survive. Others were not lucky like this. There is one incident that I will remember for the rest of my life. A family from Banteay Meanchey province had been moved to our village. They were starving to death, and didn’t have energy to do anything. The mother in the family was holding a piece of sugarcane to suck on for energy, and even though her children were trying to grab at it to eat it, she didn’t give it to them. She really needed it. The mother died soon after that, and all the children died a few days later. When people died, their neighbours were responsible for burying them.

Pol Pot wanted us to all be the same. I had a black uniform that I had to wear, and I wasn’t allowed to wear my own clothes. The soldiers would give me a new uniform every four or five months. If we were good, we could get it more frequently than that.

As the educated people in Cambodia had been killed, there were no doctors to take care of people when they were sick. A soldier in our village was responsible for taking care of sick people. He would inject coconut juice into people with a syringe.

We had to move around a lot, particularly when there was construction required in other places, or rice that needed harvesting. Since I was a teacher, I would have to leave my family to go with the other workers. We had to walk to our destinations, which was tiring.  One of the soldiers would travel with us to ensure the team was working hard. I would teach on a chalk board in rice fields.

My father got remarried in 1978. Later that year, his wife argued with the leaders of the village. We knew that this had put a mark on our family, and that we would be killed. Since I knew some leaders because of my teaching, and they trusted me, I asked for my family to be moved back to the village where we had lived before the Khmer Rouge took power. I was told that they would only do that if I got married, as I couldn’t live as a single person anymore. I didn’t want my family to be killed, so I agreed.

The journey back home after the Khmer Rouge fell was long, with many fatalities along the way. Photo taken at Wat Thmey.

On the day I married my husband, there were 47 other couples. We were taken to Wat Chork pagoda, and wore our normal black uniforms. We sat on the ground, and the soldiers called each the names of each couple and asked us to stand up. They said, “You are married from today”, and that was it. Although we didn’t sign papers, there were witnesses. Most people were paired up by the soldiers, however my husband was allowed to choose me. His boss had heard about me and recommended me, saying that I was a good girl, so he asked to be matched with me. I never loved my husband.

Two weeks after we were married, the Khmer Rouge was overthrown. I had known about this in advance, as the leader in my village had a radio notifying here that the Vietnamese were invading.  That leader offered me a big amount of gold. I refused as I thought she was testing me so she could kill me. The soldiers who supported Pol Pot ran away because they were afraid they would be killed. I felt excited that my country would be good again. My family walked from their village to where I was living. This time, it only took them a few hours because they were so happy to be free.

I lived with my husband’s friend in our village. As it was rice harvesting season, we had enough rice to eat. There were ample vegetables, and many fish to catch in the rice field. As the houses in the village had been destroyed during the Khmer Rouge, we were free to take what land we wanted. My husband and I claimed land at Penechey Village. The provincial leader had offered me land in town, but I thought it was haunted, so I said no. That man died a couple of months after the Khmer Rouge fell. He had been accused of corruption, and died of a gun wound to his head. Some people say he committed suicide, others say he was murdered.

We bartered our goods since there was no currency. Eventually the government made money which we started to use.

Rik with her granddaughter 

I had a really difficult life with my husband. After the Khmer Rouge was over, it was very difficult for him to earn money. His business was to sell ox in Palin and Thailand, but he was robbed. That shattered his confidence, and he turned to drinking and gambling. He became an alcoholic, and when I didn’t agree with him, he would say bad words to me. When my children were naughty or played too much, he would hit them on the back with bamboo sticks and often said the bad words to them. We had eight children together, and to raise them, he fished and harvested rice. I would sell the fish and rice at the market. Later, I began selling flowers and vegetables. Fortunately, my husband has stopped drinking, so our family has peace. Although I don’t love him, we live in the same house.

I want my children and grandchildren to be happy and have good lives. I want them to be educated so they can understand each other and live in peace. I don’t want them to have a difficult life like I did.

Rik with her son, Seyla

Seven of my children never finished school, as we couldn’t afford to pay for it. My youngest daughter is in secondary school. I always encourage her, so I hope she will be the first to finish high school.

Over the past few years, I have heard that there was a tribunal for the leaders of the Khmer Rouge, but I don’t know much. I feel angry with the people who created the Khmer Rouge, but I don’t want to think about it. I just want to concentrate on now.

My family and friends don’t speak about their time during the Khmer Rouge. Occasionally my sisters often compare how to live now to the past, and say that we are so lucky we don’t live in that difficult time. I feel happy that Cambodia has developed, but I also feel worried that it will happen again in the future.

1 Comment

  1. […] resourceful and determined. Yes, a large percentage of educated people did perish under the Khmer Rouge regime, but Cambodia has developed in leaps and bounds over the years, and there are plenty of […]

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