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Out of the DarkInto the Garden of Hope
By Sam Keo
iUniverse, Inc.Copyright © 2011 Sam Keo
All right reserved.
Chapter OneCambodia in a nutshell
As human beings, we are constantly evolving to adapt to environmental and political changes. We have survived natural disasters; man-made disasters; and of course, many wars. As we encounter these constant changes, we learn to adapt. Darwin stated that species would become extinct if they failed to adapt to change. Changes can be desirable or undesirable, fruitful or wasteful. Changes can also be considered major or minor.
I have lived through many major changes throughout my life. I had eleven brothers and sisters. Only six of us survived the holocaust of change that engulfed our motherland, Cambodia. In the following account, I will tell how I was able to survive the holocaust and its residual effects.
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The country of Cambodia is about the size of Missouri. It gained its independence from France on November 9, 1953, through the Geneva Convention (after nearly ninety years of colonialism). King Sihanouk abdicated the throne to his father in order to be elected prime minister. He became the head of state after his father's death in 1960. He ruled Cambodia from 1955 until the collapse of the monarchy in March 1970, when General Lon Nol and Prince Sisowath Sirik Matak overthrew the Royalist government with the help of the Republican Party. This effort was backed by the United States government. Cambodia was governed by a democratic government, the Cambodian Republican Party, from 1970 to 1975. In April 1975, the Khmer Communists, also known as the Khmer Rouge, backed by China and Communist Vietnam, overcame the republic. The Khmer Rouge committed atrocities, including the genocide of its own people, and turned its back on Communist Vietnam.
In January 1979, the People's Republic of Kampuchea, backed by the Vietnamese and the Soviet Union, drove the Khmer Rouge out of power. A new government was installed and monitored by the Vietnamese government. Khmer Rouge, Khmer Royalist, and Khmer Buddhism factions formed guerrilla militias to fight back. In October 1991, all four factions signed a treaty in Paris, agreeing to a cease-fire. The agreement allowed United Nations forces to monitor a fair election in May 1993. It was the most expensive election ever sponsored in United Nations history.
The Khmer Rouge violated the treaty just before the election was to be held. The United Nations threatened to eject the organization from participating in the election process. As a result, the Khmer Rouge withdrew, and they continued their fight.
In the election, the Royalists won most seats in the parliament. The three parties voted for the country to be ruled as a monarchy with two prime ministers. The government crowned Prince Sihanouk king. The major political parties had difficulty getting along, and at some point, their inability to do so resulted in bloodshed. The Khmer Rouge continued the war against the government, and innocent people continued to lose their lives. All of these movements tremendously impacted the lives of my family and the Cambodian people.
The people of Cambodia lived under the monarchy, with Prince Sihanouk as the head of state, until March 1970. The illiteracy rate in Cambodia was high prior to that, and the country's main economic resource was agriculture. Since most peasants were uneducated, it was easy for the prince to gain and maintain his dictatorship. His government viewed freedom and liberty as the creators of anarchy. Whoever advocated freedom of speech or freedom of the press before 1970 was either prosecuted as a traitor (kbat cheat) or simply disappeared. Prince Sihanouk allowed his government to capture any suspect. Government executioners paraded each alleged traitor around before placing him or her in front of the firing squad to be shot publicly. Both the parades and the executions were filmed, and the final shot was a close-up of the deceased's head. These films were shown in movie theatres as previews before the featured presentation and at all the temples' religious celebrations for which the temple committees rented movies to show to the public. This deterrent tactic worked nicely on us common people.
The prince's government and supporters even created songs to praise him and to curse his enemies. As children, we were taught these songs, and we sang them innocently.
However, Prince Sihanouk was credited with promoting education during the 1950s and '60s. He mandated that every Cambodian adult must be able to read Khmer. Police randomly put up barricades in the streets to give people a reading exam. Those who were not able to read would face a heavy fine. This requirement forced many Cambodians to attend night school to learn to read. Peasants who were too old to learn or had learning difficulties had to avoid authorities for fear of being fined. My mother, who was illiterate, had to leave five young children at home to attend night school. Thankfully, she was able to learn, and she credited her reading ability to the strict requirement of the government.
In addition to mandating that everyone must be able to read, Prince Sihanouk provided scholarships to intellectuals to study abroad. Unfortunately for him, many of them turned against him after they had received their education. They detested the ideology that guided his governing of the country. This often antimonarchist educated class shared its view of true democracy with fellow Cambodians. Leftists believed that Prince Sihanouk was using his prestige to take advantage of the peasants. Those who did not agree with his governing style and who loved the freedoms of press and speech fled the country and lived abroad for survival.
The prince's government viewed the United States as an evil empire, and the authorities made us believe this view was accurate. His government, with his approval, rejected economic aid from the United States in 1963. They cooperated directly with the Communists of Vietnam, who needed Cambodian territory for bases and supply lines. They used the police and military to suppress those who challenged the prince's authority.
In 1970, while Prince Sihanouk was in Paris, General Lon Nol assumed control of the government. Prince Sihanouk's half brother, Prince Sisowath Sirik Matak, and several high-ranking officers who had close connections with the United States government assisted this coup d'état. Western governments quickly supported the new government. General Lon Nol introduced a genuine democracy to his people. He empowered them with freedom of speech, press, and expression. Cambodia had been living under a suppressed regime for centuries before these events. When twentieth-century ways of life were introduced to the Cambodian people, they quickly exercised and embraced them as God-given rights. Soon, in my opinion, they started to abuse their rights, and the country was in turmoil. General Lon Nol's regime appeared unstable, with many riots and increased corruption. People lost faith in the government.
In an attempt to restore his power, Prince Sihanouk asked North Vietnam and the Vietcong for help. He joined the Khmer Rouge to form a fighting force. The guerrilla forces appeared to be much stronger than the government forces, physically and psychologically. They quickly gained trust from the people, especially the uneducated, rural communities. They won the battle on April 17, 1975.
What followed was four years of terror for the Cambodian people—a holocaust that would leave many of those who survived with wounds that would never heal.
Chapter TwoLeaving Cambodia
My heart was pounding as I walked toward the Thai Airways terminal in Poh Chintong International Airport, Cambodia. I was about to leave my family for the second time. My thoughts were racing. I wanted to give my family members big hugs, but our family culture stopped me from hugging them. I was afraid that I may offend them. I dragged my feet off the ground to climb up the stairs toward the plane. My wife, who was in the traditional Cambodian blouse with a necklace made of jasmine flowers, appeared very sad. Her facial expression was empty, void of her usual smile. I wished I could see my own expression. I was sure that my wife's sadness must be the result of the pain and anguish I was feeling. She held my hand and pulled me up. I waved good-bye to my sisters and brothers.
"Good-bye, sisters; good-bye brothers; good-bye nieces and nephews. I am going to miss you all very much," I said to them in Cambodian.
"We will miss you too. Please come back soon; at least come to see us once a year," my sister responded.
I waved good-bye to my in-laws, my nieces, and my nephews, who I had just met for the first time during the past three weeks. I slowly walked to my assigned seat and sat down. As I pressed my face against my porthole window, I saw my family lined up behind the barbwire fence. Some of them climbed on the fence; others sat on the poles of the fence waving. My face against the glass window, I whispered to them, "I will never forget you. I will miss you so much. I promise to come back and do whatever I can to make your life a little bit better."
The engine roared, and the plane started to move slowly toward the runway. A couple of my brothers and nephews ran along the fence to keep pace with the plane. I looked at them; my pulse was racing, my chest was tight, and my heart was pounding, beating faster and faster. Tears began to pour down my cheeks. I let my thoughts run.
It was early August 1992. The soil was supposed to be wet and ready for the plowing season. But instead, there was only brown grass due to a drought. Cambodia's main economic resource had always been agriculture. If the farmers couldn't plant rice, how would they survive?
As soon as the plane took off, I broke out in sobs, crying loudly. I couldn't stop my tears. Oh God, I lost control of myself. My wife tried to comfort me. I didn't care if people saw me cry. I just didn't care. If they were friends, they would understand. If they weren't, it did not matter what they thought of me. As the plane stabilized in the air, the flight attendant came to offer help. I continued to cry. I felt no shame for crying. I knew my family on the ground probably cried much harder.
Why did this separation seem like a traumatic event? Prior to this visit, the last time I had seen my family was September 1979. My brothers and sisters were still single, and my mother was still alive.
My mother had suggested that I should go visit my brother, Samith, in Pursat Province, 186 kilometers from Phnom Penh. She said that I might find a government job there. Heeding her advice I left, taking my youngest brother, Phalla, with me. The road to Pursat was severely damaged because of the war. It would take us a couple of days to get there. My mother gave me a small piece of gold for our transportation fee. She packed us food, enough for the duration of the trip. At that time, the country did not have any currency. We used gold to barter for the things we needed, including transportation. The Khmer Rouge had abolished currency in 1975.
"You take care of your little brother, you hear? Tell your brother, Samith, that we miss him and that, if he can, he should come to the city to visit us," said my mother.
"Yes, mother. I will," I responded politely.
I pressed my hands together on my chest and bowed down to say good-bye to my mother. Traditionally, pressing two hands together and bowing is a sign of respect, hello, and good-bye. That was the last time I saw my mother and my family.
This trip back to Cambodia had brought back many sad memories.
Chapter ThreeThe Hard Life
The Cambodian War began in 1970 when I was in sixth grade. Our family lived in Chroy Ampil Thmey Village, along National Highway 1, approximately thirteen kilometers east of the capital, Phnom Penh. My father was a homebuilder. One of my younger brothers and I worked at my father's construction site on our days off and on school vacations to help support the family. My father worked six days a week for the construction company, while my mother stayed home, raising nine children (my two older sisters were married, and they were on their own).
My parents valued education very highly. They kept reminding us how poor we were and that only education could get us out of this poverty. My uncle bought me my first flip-flops when I was in fourth grade. Before that, I had walked to school barefoot. I played basketball barefoot, so I would not break my flip-flops. Fortunately, my brother and I did well in school, despite putting in many hours working for my father and lacking the necessary materials for school. I believed that the revolution of 1970 would give me a better opportunity to secure a higher education and, in turn, a good job. With continuous moral support from my parents, I was the only one in the village to pass the exam for a high school diploma, in 1973.
The war broke wide open that year. The Khmer Rouge successfully surrounded Phnom Penh. The Khmer Rouge occupied my school for days. Some of my classmates were drafted into the Khmer Rouge regime and others volunteered to join the Khmer Rouge combatants. Many of them were killed.
Because of the lack of safety and the need for their children to continue with school, my parents moved from the suburban Chroy Ampil Thmey Village to the capital city in the summer of 1973. My father found a small empty space in the Center for Folklore (Leaan Prochea Prei), across from the Chamber of Marhosrop and the Faculty of Fine Arts. We built a hut in the center. One of my married sisters still lived with us, along with her daughter and her husband.
Life in the big city was difficult for us. Everything was expensive. My father had difficulty finding a job, and when he found one, the wage was very low. It was not enough to feed the family. Thankfully, there were many humanitarian organizations in the city. They provided poor people like us with food and medical care. When we got sick, we would go to the World Vision Clinic, located at the current Cambodiana Hotel, for medical care. My two younger brothers would stand in line at the CARE organization center to get a daily rice allowance. My two other brothers got up early every morning to pick up bread from the bakery to sell in the neighborhood for a small profit before school started. My brother, Samith, and I drove a cyclo (tricycle) at night and on our school holidays and days off, to make extra money to pay for our education expenses. I usually parked my cyclo in front of the hotels. European customers paid us well for the ride. One of my Khmer regular riders was an English student at one of the private schools. She was very observant when we first met.
"You are not a typical cyclo driver. Are you a detective?" she asked.
"Detective?" I chuckled. "I am not old enough to work for the government. It is wishful thinking though."
"So, who are you? What do you do for a living?" She posed more questions.
"Ma'am, you are not like my other riders. You actually try to communicate with me, the cyclo driver! I am very appreciative. However, don't you think you ask too much from a cyclo driver? This is what I do for a living." I laughed as I finished my question and response.
The woman did not give up. She pursued more questions. "From the way you look, I can see that you are not a normal cyclo driver. There are many people who have their regular jobs. They drive a cyclo to get extra income to keep up with inflation. Are you one of them?"
I began to enjoy the conversation. "You are right. Most people need to work extra to help their families. I am no different. I am a student at Tuol Svay Prey High School (formerly known as Chao Pornhea Yath). I am preparing for my first baccalaureate. My family is very poor. My parents could not afford to pay for my education, but they always remind me that I will be better off once I obtain a higher education. Driving a cyclo helps me with the school costs. Besides that, I get to learn to speak English so I can speak with my English-speaking riders. Your riding fee contributes to my education, and I thank you," I finished with a smile.
She continued, "If you like, I can teach you a couple of words every time we meet, and we can practice those words, provided that you continue to pick me up when I leave school."
"Sure!" I joyfully responded.
I was flattered to hear the offer. I enjoyed speaking with her and hoped that the ride never ended. I hoped that she was as enthusiastic as I was.
"Stop, stop here. I am home. Can you pick me up tomorrow at the same time?" she asked with a big smile.
I was more than glad to say yes.
She continued to teach me English words whenever we met. We became good friends.
Excerpted from Out of the Dark by Sam Keo Copyright © 2011 by Sam Keo. Excerpted by permission of iUniverse, Inc.. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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