Fighting the Sons of Khmer Rouge Soldiers, Not Once but Thrice!

The following are a few excerpts from a book I had the pleasure of editing.  The book is titled The Last One:  An Orphaned Child Fights to Survive the Killing Fields of Cambodia authored by Marin Yann who has given me permission to promote his book.

From the Preface:   According to history books and newspaper accounts, the Communist Khmer Rouge captured Phnom Penh, the capital city of Cambodia, in April 1975. They ruled the country until January 1979. I have no recollection of those dates and times. All I remember are the daily events that I survived as a child.

During the Khmer Rouge reign, nearly two million Cambodians died from disease, starvation, and execution. Tens of thousands were made widows and orphans. The Khmer Rouge attempted to transform the whole of Cambodia into a classless, rural society. They evacuated people from the cities to the countryside and forced them to work in the rice fields and at building water canals. They abolished money, markets, schools, private properties, religions, and the traditional Cambodian culture. They separated children from their families. Anyone who opposed or was suspected of opposing their ideologies or looked educated or Westernized would be killed, including teachers, doctors, singers, and engineers, even people simply wearing eyeglasses.

Yann, Marin R. (2013-03-12). The Last One: An Orphaned Child Fights to Survive the Killing Fields of Cambodia . Outskirts Press, Inc.. Kindle Edition.  

Episode 1:

The Khmer Rouge workers built a temporary stage and set up microphones. This event drew a large crowd of people from different parts of the province. The majority of them were older males and females. Some groups were in their early twenties. Other groups were in their mid-thirties.

They marched in long lines coming from all directions—east, west, north, and south. The Khmer Rouge ordered the people to sit single file and face the stage. They sat an arm’s length distance away under the scorching sun. We waited for the Khmer Rouge’s top official to arrive.

The sun continued to rise. People continued to come and sit in the field. I didn’t have anything to do, so I walked and observed Khmer Rouge soldiers set several megaphone posts in the field. They set the megaphone high on wooden posts pointing toward the crowds who were spread along a meadow that was the size of three soccer fields.

While everyone was getting seated, Mittbong-Sareth [my pack leader] escorted a boy to play with me. He was the son of the top Khmer Rouge official who would give a speech to the crowd. I didn’t know his name. He wore a new black uniform. He had a red, white, and black checkered-pattern scarf wrapped around his neck, and black sandals. We were about the same age, the same height, and the same complexion. But he looked bigger than me.

His father stood on the stage and preached to the crowd. He said many things, but I couldn’t understand a word. All I heard was the crowd clapping hands and raising their fists up, saying, “Jaiy-yo! Jaiy-Yo! Jaiy-Yo!” (Bravo! Bravo! Bravo!) I didn’t care about what his father was preaching. I was too busy playing a game with my new friend. We were hopping from one designated line to another, trying to prove who was the best. We played and laughed together like good friends.

While we were having fun, Vanny’s leader approached us and said, “You two get along very well. Marin, Angkar might take you to live with him. You can be his companion. You will be very lucky if he takes you with him.” I ignored what she said because I was busy talking and playing with the official’s son.

The boy and I walked away from the crowd to play under the shade tree where my class was. “Let’s throw dirt to hit the object,” I said and walked to set a small piece of wood on the ground. The rule of the game was that the winner would slap the loser’s hand five times. After we played a few games, we had an argument and got into a fight. He pushed me, and I fell to the ground. Quickly, I got up and punched him in the face. My fist landed in his eye.

He fell down to the ground, cried, and covered his face. He cried and shouted for help, but no one could hear him because the loud speech on the megaphones muffled his crying. “I will tell my father to beat you up,” he cried and ran toward the stage for his father.

At that moment, my instincts told me to run for my life by hiding in the bushes. My heartbeat was racing against my running feet. I ran fast and fell several times, but being frightened of being killed by the Khmer Rouge made my body reject the pain. I got up and ran again as fast as I possibly could. My adrenaline forced me to run fast from the bushes and hide along the rice-field levees. I crept and crawled behind the levees to make sure nobody could see me. My eyes scanned the field near and far to see if any Khmer Rouge soldier was coming to catch me. I ran as far away as possible so I wouldn’t get caught. While I was running, I looked in every direction trying to find a safe place to hide. But the only place was the forest a far distance away. Although I didn’t see anyone chasing me, I continued to run into the forest to hide. My fear of being killed made me forget being tired.

Once I got into the forest, I could barely catch my breath. My body forced the air inand out through the mouth. My face was as hot as if it was caught in a fire. My throat was dried and ached. The temples in my head began beating in pain. My eyes started to blur and I had to lie down.

After catching my breath and the sweat dried on my body, I began to venture out into the woods. Not long after, I heard people talking and shouting. I followed the sound with caution and walked slowly, hiding behind bushes and trees. I saw five Khmer Rouge soldiers, in their late thirties, fishing in a pond. They were working together doing bach-trey, a fishing technique that involves draining water out of the pond with buckets. Near the pond, there was a fire pit under a shade tree, which sent a small amount of white smoke into the air. I sat silently in the forest, observing their activities. After they emptied the water in the pond, they walked knee deep into the mud to catch fish with their bare hands. Others used sticks to kill the fish, as I had. They caught several baskets of fish, placed them on an oxcart, and drove off.

Yann, Marin R. (2013-03-12). The Last One: An Orphaned Child Fights to Survive the Killing Fields of Cambodia (pp. 73-75). Outskirts Press, Inc.. Kindle Edition.

Episode 2:

After countless relocations, the Khmer Rouge resettled me to yet another unknown place. The landscape and condition of this village was different from all the places I had stayed. The village had rice fields, a tobacco plantation, and a fruit-tree farm. To the south of village was a jungle, which looked more well-supplied than the other places I had lived. All the big and small stilt houses were well-built. They were made of wood, and the roofs were made of red tile. The communal cafeteria and living quarters were built from wooden slabs; and the communal center was surrounded by plenty of fruit trees that provided fruit for people to eat and plenty of shade to stay out of the heat. This was very different than the huts and rice fields I was used to staying in.

This village was occupied by hundreds of Khmer Rouge families. Older folks, age fifty and older, worked on the tobacco and fruit-tree plantation. A group of ten men worked as blacksmiths near the communal cafeteria. Upon my arrival in the village, I didn’t have any work to do. So, I watched the blacksmiths pounding metals to make machetes, swords, spears, horseshoes, and agricultural hoes. Sometimes, I observed the women shredding the tobacco leaves to make cigarettes.

A couple of days later, the Khmer Rouge ordered me to work independently, watching chickens, ducks, and swans. One of the Khmer Rouge men walked me to the barn and said, “Marin, this is a poultry barn. Your responsibility is to protect them from being stolen. If you see anyone stealing these chickens or ducks, you must report it to Angkar Luer.” “Yes, mittbong,” I responded humbly. “How many chickens?” I asked. He ignored my question and walked me to the river nearby. “Look into the river. Do you see those swans and ducks? We have four swans and eight ducks.” He pointed.

I saw swans floating on the water freely, like they owned the entire river. The fat ducks were swimming and diving near the shore, as if they had no fear. The Khmer Rouge walked me to the termite mound where the chickens roamed. He did a head count and said, “There are seven females and three roosters.” “Have some of these chickens laid eggs?” I asked. “No. Not yet. They may lay eggs in the next several days. When they do, I want you to count them.” Then he walked back to the communal center. During the first day, I tried to identify each one of the chickens and ducks, and I made sure they didn’t walk out of my sight. After several days of watching them, I began to get bored. The only big task of this job was to free the birds from the barn in the morning and lock them up in the evening. These birds were smart. In the mornings, they roamed the field to feed themselves.

In the afternoons, before sunset, they walked back to the barn by themselves. When the chickens and ducks laid eggs, I stole the eggs from the nests and ate them raw as a snack. I didn’t steal the swans’ eggs because they didn’t lay as many as the chickens and ducks did. The swans only produced a maximum of four eggs in each nest. If I were to steal them, the Khmer Rouge might notice.

After many days of watching the birds, a son of a Khmer Rouge official came to hang around with me. I don’t remember his name. He was bigger and slightly taller than me. His round face and thick black hair reminded me of Pol, the Khmer Rouge’s son who had shared his food and a love of trains with me. However, Pol was more handsome, and Pol always wore a clean black uniform. This boy looked unclean; his black uniform was faded and old. He taught me how to play hurng, a game that punishes the losing opponent to run from a distance to the base without breathing. It’s a typical game of farmer boys who herd cows and play during their free time. After a few games, I started having conflicts with this boy. When I won, he picked a broken tile off a roof and threw it at me in anger. I dodged the object left and right.

I even ran and hid by a coconut tree, but he continued to throw tiles at me. I didn’t throw back at him, because I was afraid his dad would kill me. Then exhausted from running, hiding and not standing up for myself, I lost my temper. I picked up a flat, broken roof tile that he threw at me and quickly threw it back at him. It smashed him in the forehead and blood gushed out of his face. He screamed and shouted for help.

My natural instincts kicked in and I ran for my life. Minutes later, several men from the village chased me with sticks and machetes. They followed me along the oxcart road. While I was running, I turned my head to take a quick look at them. They grabbed whatever they could to throw at me and propelled stones, sticks, and hardened dirt at me. I didn’t get hit because I was already far ahead of them. My adrenaline and fear made me run faster and faster. When I got to the sharp turn of an oxcart road, I ran inside the large bamboo bushes growing along the road. The Khmer Rouge men thought I had run into the jungle on the left and started beating the bushes and trees with sticks. “Get out now, you stupid boy! Get out of the forest if you want to survive!” I gasped for air and tried to hold my heartbeat from pounding too hard. I peeked through the bamboo leaves and saw the Khmer Rouge looking frantically for me.

I prayed silently for the souls of Pa, Mak and all Tevada to help shield me and to make me invisible. “How dare you hurt my son! You will see what will happen to you when you get caught!” the boy’s father shouted. After a brief search and more threats to kill me, another man called everyone to go back to the village. “That is enough! Let’s go back to see your son! That boy didn’t run too far!” “He will come out of the jungle! We will catch him later!” said an elderly man. When they walked back, I heard the other man say, “Don’t worry, the tiger in that jungle is going to eat him alive!”

After they left, I tried to get out of the bamboo bush, but it was difficult. The bamboo branches were woven tightly, like a web, and stuck out in all directions, up, down, and sideways. Getting out was a slow and painful process. I pushed and pulled individual branches that wrapped my clothes. I crawled under and leaped over the branches to prevent myself from getting cut. When I got out, I had small ragged cuts all over my body. My arms, legs, and back all trickled with blood. And my whole body itched.

Despite my injuries, though, I still felt much better than getting caught by the Khmer Rouge, who would torture and kill me instantly. After I got out of the bamboo forest, I snuck into a fruit-tree farm the size of five soccer fields. The farm consisted of mango, guava, jackfruit, and coconut trees. Several wild trees also grew there. I climbed up on a wild bushy tree to hide and lay down on a tree branch seven meters above the ground. I scanned every angle to see if anyone was approaching. The distance from the tree to the communal cafeteria was approximately two hundred meters. I tried to look at the area around the cafeteria but I could barely see anyone because the blowing winds moved the small branches and tree leaves, blocking my view. All I could see were small glimpses of the blacksmiths hammering away at their metals.

While I was scanning the communal cafeteria, hundreds of soldier tree ants began crawling on me and biting me furiously. They bit my legs, my arms, my head, my back, and even my genitals. I was furious at them! To slow down the tree ants from attacking, I urinated on them, and slowly they retreated. I urinated on the tree branch where the ants had tried to attack, to mark my territory. Then I kept thinking to myself, If any tree ants crawl into my territory, they will be eaten.

Night turned into day. I woke up with intense stomach pains demanding food. I sat on the tree branches, figuring out how to survive. I scanned below and the treetops above, but I only saw a few mango fruits dangling from the branches and clearly out of my reach. The coconut trees also had no small branches to hang from in order to pick the fruit. Gradually, I hoisted myself from tree branch to tree branch, holding tightly onto overhead branches while my feet slightly stepped onto lower branches to balance myself. Finally, I got on a guava tree, but it was stripped of fruit, except for its leaves. So, I picked the young green leaves and ate them to fill my hungry stomach.

While I was on the treetop, I saw a girl, who resembled the boy I had injured. I wondered, was it his sister? She was about thirteen, had a brown complexion, short hair, and a round face. I sat motionless and held firmly onto the tree branches, praying for the invisible powers to hide me. She walked closer to one of the mango trees near the guava tree I was on. She lifted her sarong up to her waist and squatted to urinate. Suddenly, a small piece of branch dropped from my tree and landed on her head. She scratched her head, looked up, and gazed up intently. She stood, clenched her lips, and grit her teeth. Then she threw spastic hand gestures and said many things, but I couldn’t hear her. She was a mute. She attempted to climb the tree many times, but she couldn’t, because she wasn’t strong or clever enough.

Then she saw a bundle of dead bamboos leaning against an adjacent mango tree. She trotted over to the pile of bamboo, picked one up and brought it back. She began to thrust it up and down violently. Although the bamboo appeared well-trimmed, it contained razor-sharp edges. I was on a tree top and there was nowhere to go.

My only option was to defend myself. I stepped on branches and grabbed onto small branches to prevent me from falling off the tree. I kicked and blocked her bamboo thrusts. After many minutes of kicking and blocking, I caught the tip of her bamboo spear with my right hand and tried to pull it away from her. But I couldn’t. I had trouble holding onto a tree branch with one hand while stepping on a smaller branch. I was trying not to step too hard on the branch because I didn’t want it to break. She poked me with the bamboo stick. She pulled, twisted, and turned the bamboo until I lost control. The sharp edge of the bamboo cut me left and right on the stomach. Blood oozed everywhere, but I kept myself from crying and screaming in pain. She ran away frantically in horror. I was mad at her and wanted to kill her.

When she ran toward her village, I got off the tree and ran out of the fruit farm and away. I ran from one tree to another, trying to escape. After I got out of the village, I felt secure that no one would see and catch me. I walked past countless rice fields in the north and ran into the forest. In the forest, I scanned every bush and tree for wild fruits and edible leaves to eat. Eventually, I lost all sense of direction and time. Then I heard the sound of girls calling each other. “Hey, come over here! There are a lot of derm-kantraing-ket!” I followed the sound to investigate. When I approached closer, I saw teenage girls cutting the plants. I approached them cautiously and asked, “Bong, do you know a girl named Vanny? She is my sister.” “Who are you?” the girl with a handful of derm-kontriang-ket asked. “I’m her younger brother. I haven’t seen her for a long time. And I really miss her.”

“What does she look like?” the girl with the machete asked. “She had straight hair and a light-yellow complexion. She was about your height.” Then another girl, walking out of the bush with a fistful of wild fruit, said, “I knew one girl with that name. But I don’t think she is your sister. Her group is cutting bushes over there.” She pointed to another direction and group. I approached several groups and finally found somebody who knew Vanny. “Vanny! There is someone looking for you! Vanny, your brother is looking for you,” one of the girls shouted. Out of the bushes emerged Vanny, my sister! The moment she caught my eyes, she was frozen and stood still for seconds.

Yann, Marin R. (2013-03-12). The Last One: An Orphaned Child Fights to Survive the Killing Fields of Cambodia (p. 193-201). Outskirts Press, Inc.. Kindle Edition.