Sopheap (pseudonym) discusses her life as a widow under the Khmer Rouge regime
Mrs. Sopheap, Phnom Penh
Q: Before the Khmer Rouge regime, where did you live?
A: Before the Khmer Rouge, I lived in Phnom Penh and after it fell, I moved to Chak Angre in Phnom Penh. I came to Chak Angre and lived in people’s houses, left behind from the previous regime. The local authorities established solidarity groups to do farming, and each member received a plot of land to cultivate. During K5, I did not join in because I needed to look after my niece who got sick at the time, while my other younger sisters were tasked to join it. I have two siblings. We were all sprinters. I was a widow and life was desperate, you know. I was very poor and had no one to depend on. I had to work hard to live. Sometimes, I was sick but I needed to carry water to get money, so that I could feed my stomach. At the time, we used Vietnamese currency.
Q: How old are you? A: I am 70 years old.
Q: During Lon Nol’s regime, where did you live? A: During Lon Nol’s regime, I lived in Phnom Penh. And in 1975, I was evacuated to Takeo province via National Road 3, through Kampong Speu. I was in Takeo till 1979. Life under the Khmer Rouge was so terrible, you know.
Q: Can you describe the situation on the day people were evacuated from Phnom Penh? A: On 16 April 1975, I was in a military fortress in Pochentong. My husband was a soldier and he was in the battlefield. On that day, there were several B49 attacks on the military fortress I was staying at, and there was firing around the area. I hid in a trench with other women to keep safe. And a B49 hit a house nearby. It was on fire. I asked my younger sister to cook rice outside the trench. While cooking rice, the rice pot caught fire due to the shooting. She took it to the trench. There were some people in the trench. The next morning, I told my mother that we should go out of the trench to see the situation, but my mother told me not to go out of the trench. She said it was very dangerous to leave the trench. I looked outside and I saw people fleeing the fortress. I told my mom that people were fleeing the fortress. So we decided to flee the fortress as well. We needed to go through 6 or 7 barbed wire fences. I was wearing a Sarong and the barbed wire tore a part of my sarong. It was a very confusing moment. People just scrambled to leave the fortress as soon as possible. Some people were stampeded on the barbed wire fence. We brought nothing with us except a pack of clothing. We could not take rice. Finally, I successfully got out of the fortress and walked to the rice field where I met Khmer Rouge soldiers. It was 17 April 1979. They were in Khmer Rouge uniforms with folded sleeves. They yelled “Ma’am, please go!” I was so scared of them. Khmer Rouge forces tried to block us, and drove us to Prey Sar area. That day, I had diarrhea and was very weak, while people kept going. I told my mother I was very tired, but my mother told me to keep going. I could not move further, so I told my mother to continue moving with my younger sisters. Then they left me. I looked at them from the distance while bombings were going on around us. I was very concerned about my mother and sisters’ safety. I walked very slowly. Finally, I met my mother at Wat Sleng, Teuk Tha, Kantout, in Kandal province. We slept and stayed there for a few days. Actually, Khmer Rouge soldiers were not so aggressive, but non-military Khmer Rouge officials were so violent and aggressive. The former had talked to us. I have never seen any torture or killing committed by Khmer Rouge soldiers. So we decided to sleep there overnight. In the morning, my younger sister just went to see the village near the pagoda, and she met Khmer Rouge soldiers. They told her to get chicken from villagers’ houses for cooking. I am telling the truth; I am not exaggerating. They asked her to take more books for writing and to share them with other people. Then, we kept moving, and I saw Lon Nol’s soldiers under arrest. Their hands were tied together with string. Once the string was cut off, they were killed. We walked very far, and I was extremely exhausted. At the time, it was very hard to get drinking water. I felt very thirsty. We used water from the lake to cook rice, and in the morning, I realized that our cooked rice was red. There were bodies in the lake. The previous evening, I had eaten that rice because I did not know that there were bodies in the lake. There were both soldier and civilian corpses. We kept moving without any direction. On the way, we asked people where Angkar was. We were told that Angkar was ahead. We kept walking aimlessly. We did not know where Angkar was, but the Khmer Rouge told us to go to Angkar. It was around 11 am and I was so hungry, but I did not have any rice at all. People offered me cooked rice. They cooked a pot of red dry season rice, and ate it with palm sugar. It was so delicious, you know. Maybe, it was because I was so hungry that I found the food very delicious. While eating with them, I asked them where Angkar was. They told me to go further. I kept moving. After more than 10km, I still could not find Angkar. Finally, I reached Kat Plouk, Boseth of Kampong Speu. There, I was forced to labor with other villagers. After 10 days, Angkar gave me rice. My whole family received some rice to feed our stomachs. I was tasked to build dykes. I had long hair, and women asked me to get my hair cut. I did not want to get it cut because I loved long hair. However, I was asked questions many times, why I did not get my hair cut. Finally, I got my hair cut. I went to plant rice, in both rainy and dry seasons. The situation was not tough yet in 1975-76. After harvesting, I was supposed to move to a different place in Battambang. I forgot to tell you this. During the Khmer Rouge regime, my parents were allowed to raise chicken. My parents raised hundreds of chickens. Angkar always came to ask for chicken, so that they could use it to prepare food.
Q: Were you parents allowed to cook those chickens? A: Not at all. They had to cook the chickens very secretly. We had to eat it secretly. The Khmer Rouge told my father that we had to move to different place. My father cooked a few chickens. He wanted to share those boiled chickens with us. He prepared some basic foods like salt and sugar to be brought along. In the evening, we left our home. We reached National Road 3 of Zone 15, which was under administration of To Mok, one of the top Khmer Rouge leaders. At the time, I had not met him personally. I just heard people say that Ta Mok was very harsh and aggressive. They said that he was very rude. He did not respect the elderly. He told his men to evacuate all villagers to Takeo rather than Battambang. If I were sent to Battambang province, I would have been killed. I walked around 5 days to reach the destination Angkar assigned. On the way, I slept in rice fields and had insufficient food to eat. I met a person who used to live in Phnom Penh near my place. She told me to eat the food I had, because in Takeo everybody will eat communally. I responded to her that “It is fine with me. Eating individually or communally is not a problem”. She further told me “You will learn how terrible the situation is once you reach there.” It was very true. You know, we were forced to eat communally. People cooked around four big caldrons of rice and stew. They shared them with other people. However, we received very small portions. Some people begged for more rice, but they couldn’t get it. I told them, “We still have some rice. We can cook it. Why bother begging?” Then, we were assigned to live in the village. The village I stayed was close to Takeo town. It is around 5 km away from Takeo town. There was a recruitment for single women to work in the frontline female working brigade. I was married but had no child yet. Therefore, I was recruited into the frontline women working brigade along with other single girls. You know, I was tasked to carry soil. I had to work both day and night without breaks.
Q: At night, what time did you finish your work? A: At around 10pm, I was allowed to stop working, and in the morning at around 4am people came over to wake us up.
Q: How about food? A: In Kampong Speu, I could find and prepare some foods because we ate individually. However, in Takeo, everyone had to eat communally. For frontline mobile brigades, one milk can of rice or so was used for a cauldron of porridge, distributed to around 50 people. Each person got just a small china cup of porridge, which was almost purely water. I had to find leaves to eat with the porridge. Sometimes, I looked for morning glory or crabs and cooked them as supplementary food to fill my stomach. I served in the frontline mobile brigade for 1 year, and then I was transferred to an elderly working brigade, where I had to work in the rice field in so many different places. I never witnessed any killings at the time. I only witnessed a man being hit hard because he was charged with a felony. He was hit so hard. He almost died. For me, I had my own principles never to commit felony. I just ate whatever I was given or what I had. For rice planting, we were tasked in groups. For example, we needed to finish the tasks assigned by our brigade head. We had to finish planting half or a full hectare of the rice field. I was so hungry while planting the rice, but I had nothing to eat. I was extremely tired, but I was not allowed to rest at all unless I finished my task. If I dared to rest without permission, my porridge portion would be reduced by half. We were starving. In 1977, many people collapsed and just died because they were too exhausted. They were overworked and got insufficient food. We suffered malnutrition. You know, the food we ate was so dirty. The cook did not care about hygiene. I saw a string and cow dung in the stew. It was terrible. Vegetables were not cleaned properly before being cooked. I witnessed that and did not eat that stew. I preferred to eat rice with salt. In 1977-78, I was in a mobile working brigade tasked to harvest rice. The paddies were very good. A month before 7 Janurary 1979, I heard the sound of bomb explosions at Phnom Den Mountain and Kirivong, close to Vietnam. While I was planting rice, I saw people fleeing. I wondered where they were going. They had oxcarts carrying their children and their stuff. However, I kept planting rice. One day, I wondered strongly where people were going. People said that there were military attacks at Phnom Den of Kirivong, and on the 4th or 5th there were airstrikes at Prek Sandek. In the morning, I saw dark smoke from the explosions. I saw many people fleeing. On 7th January, I was at the paddy field to harvest rice. You know, at the time, each working brigade was responsible for the whole process of rice production, from harvesting, pounding, to transporting it to the rice bank. I heard planes coming and turned around to look at the sky. The head of the working brigade shouted at me. “What are you looking at? Don’t look at that or you will be shot dead by a spy plane! Then, I tried to hide for a short while. Then, I looked at it again. It flew around for 30 minutes and disappeared. Immediately, I saw bomber jets coming. It bombarded Takeo town overwhelmingly. People were so nervous and ran away. My team just finished the final stage of rice harvesting and went to collect our food. That day, the chef cooked very good food, such as cooked rice, beef soup and dessert. Then, I ate with my younger sister in the morning. While we were eating, there was another bomb attack. I told my younger sister that the situation was dangerous now. I needed to go but first I went to take my stuff. I told her to wait for me. It was around 1 km. By the time I got back, she had left. I called for her to wait for me, but she did not hear me. I kept walking for a long time and met some young boys and girls who had no food to eat. I had no food to eat at the time though I was so hungry. We just walked aimlessly. Kids asked me if I met their parents. I told them that I did not even know their parents. Then, they asked me to allow them to follow me. If they met their family along the way, place, they would leave me.
Q: Where did you plan to go?
A: I wanted to go to Kampong Speu, where I used to stay. I had more children coming along with me, and we had nothing to eat. I got cassava from a nearby cart trail. We could clearly see the cassava root. It was evening when I boiled and shared them with the others. We ate all of them to fill our stomachs. We slept in a graveyard. While we were sleeping, we heard people calling us to get rice My younger sister went along to get the rice. She walked for a long distance till around 3 o’clock in the morning. Unfortunately, she got no rice. Then, I personally decided to go instead. It was very lucky that I met a man riding an oxcart loaded with different kinds of rice. I asked him for rice, telling him that I had not eaten for a few days and had gotten lost with my working brigade. He gave me some rice and I cooked it. We ate the rice with salt. After the meal, we moved on aimlessly. Some people went to different villages. My sisters and I reached a bamboo forest. I saw some people there. We decided to sleep there overnight. You know, near the place, I heard explosions and saw flames. The planes were shot down and on fire. While I was sleeping, a Khmer Rouge officer woke people up. He said, “All women, get up now and go with me to get weapons.” I heard that but kept quiet. I was very concerned that I would be forced to carry weapons and get killed. Thank God I was not woken up. In the morning, we decided to move a bit further and then went back to our hometown. We could not leave Takeo town. On the way, we met Mr. Sary, who asked me where I was going. I told him that I wanted to go to Takeo. Then, he said that “Don’t go there yet. I have some rice and cooking items. Just stop by here and cook some rice!” I then stayed there and cooked rice with him. Some went to find fish and lobster to cook. We stayed there for a few days, and then moved on. Mr. Sary told us to move forward, never going back. I agreed with him and said, “You are a man. You lead us and we will just follow you.” Mr. Sary had Chinese blood, so he was fair-skinned. On the way, he got a couple of water buffalos to carry our rice while we just carried our utensils and clothes. My life was very miserable. Then, we saw a house and decided to stop by there. The house was along National Road 2, where both Vietnamese and Khmer Rouge soldiers passed through. We were a group of ten. In the morning, the Vietnamese passed by but did not come into the house. One day, when I was pounding rice, Khmer Rouge soldiers came to my house and asked if I had seen any Vietnamese. I told them that I had not seen any Vietnamese soldiers. And then they asked me where National Road 2 was. I told them it was nearby. They did not trust me, so I accompanied them to the road. After I accompanied them to National Road 2, one of the Khmer Rouge soldiers said, “Let’s settle here and station our troops to fight the Vietnamese.” I heard that and was extremely concerned. The whole night, I could not sleep well. I wished the morning would come soon, so that we could leave the house. Then, the morning came, and we quickly left the house. You know, the Khmer Rouge launched several M79 rockets at us from afar, but no one was hurt. Finally, we reached Takeo town and met some soldiers from Heng Samrin’s faction. They welcomed us to the town and told us to relax and get food. They were friendly and nice. The served us tea and sugar, and talked to us nicely. However, I felt afraid of any solider. I was traumatized by soldiers. I always felt fear towards soldiers.
Q: What did they say to you? A: They told me that they welcomed us to stay, and that they would give me a plot of land etc. Then, we moved further to escape them because I was afraid of soldiers. We stopped at a place where I saw many people. They were from Phnom Penh. I asked them about the situation in Phnom Penh. They said that the situation in Phnom Penh was good. They came from Phnom Penh to return to Takeo, their hometown. After staying at Takeo for a few days, I decided to go back to Phnom Penh. On the way, at Prey Svay, my younger sister cried because she was carrying some stuff. I got angry and scolded her. She ran away. I told Mr. Sary to go on ahead and I went searching for my younger sister. Mr. Sary and I agreed to meet at 11 am. Then, Mr. Sary left. I found my sister. We hugged and cried together. We were not angry anymore. Then, we went to meet Mr. Sary at 11 am. We were so happy to meet him again, then we cooked food and had a meal together before moving further. Around 2 or 3pm, we moved again. We reached a place near Phnom Penh. I forget its name. There, I met many Khmer Rouge soldiers. They were in black uniforms. I was very shocked and scared. I almost fainted. They told us to keep moving because it was their area. Heng Samrin’s soldiers had not occupied that area yet. I talked to myself that I was now trapped. I would be killed here. I had no place to sleep, so I slept at the kids’ communal hall. In the morning, I went to collect rice in the paddy field. Mr. Sary fell from his buffalo and his tailbone was broken. I brought him back to the village and we stayed overnight. The next evening, Khmer Rouge soldiers told us that they would fight Vietnamese soldiers. I was so scared to hear that. However, I was physically fine while Mr. Sary had problems with his tailbone. It was hard for him to move. To keep him safe from attacks, I told him to stay in the well. You know, there was heavy rain that night. The rainwater reached his neck level and his face got stained with mud. In the morning, I tried to get him out of the well, but he said “Don’t get me out of this well. Leave me here”. Then, I told him that I had to get him out. If there was more rain, he would drown in the well. After that, I bathed him and let him lie down. A 14-year-old soldier came over to me and told us to leave the place because there was going be a military confrontation between Khmer Rouge and Vietnamese forces. So our group carried Mr. Sary, using a hammock and bamboo. We carried him and the rice. We often stopped at places to rest because we were very tired. I wanted to collect some rice for future consumption, but I was told that there was no need to. I decided not to collect rice. My shoulders hurt so much. They were swollen. We decided to stay there for a few days. Then, we moved further. We talked amongst ourselves that we would not stop over anywhere anymore. I just kept moving directly to Phnom Penh. Near Phnom Penh, we decided to stop under a tree, where Mr. Sary could relax, and I cooked rice. Immediately, a very young Khmer Rouge soldier came to me and asked if I had seen a bullet. I told him that I did not see it. While cooking, I pounded rice. We had not had much of a break, and there was fighting again. We had to move further, carrying Mr. Sary. My group dispersed. We had around 10 people at first but now there were only a few. Mr. Sary asked me to carry him along because he did not want to die. He said that “If you help me, I will take care of you and support you.” I told him “I do not want anything from you. It’s my pleasure to help people. I just help people. Lives are not replaceable.” Then, we continued the journey until we arrived at Prek Kampeus where I rested under a plum tree. We saw skulls. I was extremely scared of that. Then, we moved further, and we reached Prek Ho bridge. We saw some Vietnamese soldiers, but we kept carrying him. Then, we arrived at Chak Angre where we stopped. We dared not stay in a house. We relaxed outside. Then, I stayed in a house which was abandoned by its previous owner. I came to Phnom Penh just to find something good to bring along. I went upstairs, and found dead bodies. The Vietnamese drove us away. The men found some stuff to bring along. But I could not find anything for us because we were girls. Then, I went to Aurussey market, where I found some needles and thread. Some men found bicycles and motorbikes. I had very few things, and the Vietnamese soldiers did not allow me to take much. I exchanged used sandals for rice. Later on, the authorities distributed food to people. They also distributed land for farming. I am a widow. I got sick. I sold off my land and ended up renting a room.
Q: Did you ever get sick at the time? A: Yes, I fell sick. But there was no proper treatment for us at all. There was no doctor to take care of me. The only medicine I received was an herbal medicine called rabbit dirt. You know, those who got sick received only that medicine. It was said that the medicine could cure several diseases. Sometimes, it worked for certain people because it was made from tree roots. There was no doctor at all.
Q: How about religious practice? A: Religious practice was not allowed at all under the Khmer Rouge. All pagodas were converted into warehouses or used for different purposes. They dismantled all Buddha statues. We could not celebrate Pchum Ben or New Year days. At the time, I really missed the times we used to celebrate these ceremonies. In Takeo, I received sticky rice, and used palm tree branches as incense sticks for prayer. We prayed for happiness from our dead ancestors and asked for their forgiveness. We could not hold the ceremony well because the country was in war. We asked them not to curse us. There was no pagoda because all of them were converted into collective halls. Buddhist monks were defrocked. Sometimes, they used pagoda buildings as toilets. The Khmer Rouge did not tell us not to believe in any religion, but we really could not find pagodas to pray. They were tmil (unbelievers).
On New Year’s Day, the authorities cooked some foods such as Khmer noodle soup and dessert and gave us enough food to eat. We enjoyed the food for that three-day ceremony. Pchum Ben ceremonies were similar. They cooked food and allowed us to enjoy them. There was no dancing. Now, the religion is much better than before.
Q: Have you witnessed killings?
A: Never. I just witnessed the Khmer Rouge hitting children because they committed larceny.
Q: It is said that the Khmer Rouge played music loudly when they killed people, so that people paid no attention to the killing. A: I don’t know about this. Maybe, it happened in other zones. I only witnessed people being called away from the paddy field by the Khmer Rouge. They were killed. I realized that if people were called upon while they were working, they got killed.
Q: Did they commit any wrongdoing? A: Sometimes, they had committed wrongdoings but sometimes, they did not. The authorities told people that they needed them to move to another working brigade to provide support. That meant those people were being taken away for killing. You know, at night we always worried about getting killed. Sleeping well at night meant we survived. If somebody touched our leg at night, it meant we were being taken away for killing.
Q: Did you talk at night? A: No, I dared not talk anything at night. I could not complain or talk about our difficulties at all. We had to do what we were ordered to do. If we were ordered to dig tree roots, we did it. I could do it, but it was so hard. So, I did it with assistance from a few girls. Q: Where did you usually sleep at night? A: I was in a women’s mobile brigade that worked in faraway places. There was a temporary tent to sleep in at night. We worked both day and night. We were tasked to carry soil and build dams. I had to work hard while being very hungry. I was so weak. Sometimes, no sooner than I relaxed after dinner, I was ordered to work again because the dam was leaking. We worked on that until the morning came. And you know that I needed to work in the morning, without rest.
Q: How do you feel about the 3 year 8 months and 20 days? Was it too long for you? A: It was very long. I prayed to God to get rid of our suffering. I prayed that someone should assist and liberate us. I prayed for that to God. I prayed not to become rich. I prayed for enough food to eat. You know, I was starving. I walked with some people to the paddy field and my eyes stared for something to fill my stomach. I ate the sweet cassava, corn or sugarcane that people discarded on the ground. I did not want anything except to have my stomach filled.
Q: What made you live on until liberation day?
A: Until liberation on 7 January, I had not thought of anything except survival. I did not want to be rich, but alive. I survived the regime.
Q: Since the liberation, have you dreamt of the past regime? A: Yes, I have dreamt of it. However, the younger generation does not care about it. They asked me “Why do you recall this past story?” I told them that I remember it. It was my personal experience of hardship. I lived through hunger. For the whole day, I only got a small portion of rice. Sometimes, I had dinner at 2 or 3 am and sometimes slept on an empty stomach. It was great pain. Q: When you recall that, how you feel? A: I feel scared actually. However, I take it just as past experience. Now, we have enough food. We work; we get food. Under the Khmer Rouge regime, everyone was equal, no rich and poor. Everyone was poor. Sometimes, I tell my grandchildren about my hard times and life experiences under the Khmer Rouge when they get into fights. I told them “Under the Khmer Rouge, I lived in hunger. I ate every grain of rice on the plate. Each day, I was only allowed to eat a small portion of rice. I walked to the paddy field to cultivate rice. On the way, I collected whatever was edible to eat. In harvest seasons, I took rice. I hid it in my pocket with crabs and snails. I did not eat them raw because they smelled bad. At home, I cooked and ate them.”
Q: Were you angry with those Khmer Rouge members? A: Yes, I was. But I could not say anything against them. I used to argue with the head of my working brigade who always warned us of killings. I asked him why he liked to warn us of getting killed. Our lives were not chicken’s lives.
Q: What do you think about Buddhist teachings on forgiveness? A: I’ll tell you a true story. After liberation day, I lived in Phnom Penh. One day, I visited Takeo province and coincidentally saw a person who treated me badly. He was my former working brigade head. I was so angry. I almost reported him to the police, but I immediately thought of Buddha’s teachings. According to Buddha’s teachings, everything happens as a result of our actions. Therefore, my painful experience was due to my past deeds. I took it that way. It was my fate. You know, under the Khmer Rouge my parents were killed, and my younger brother went missing. I have not heard from him. Maybe he was killed too. My father was Khmer Kampuchea Krom. My mother got severely sick. Her body swelled so much. There was no treatment at all. She took only the herbal rabbit dirt medicine given by the Khmer Rouge. You know, they always give this same medicine to everybody, who each had different diseases.
Q: Could you request proper medical treatment? A: We were allowed to go home to rest in the afternoon, but we needed to go back to work. My younger sister and I used to ask for permission to go home during breaks because we were sick. No sooner than I had taken a break, a man came to take me back to work. I needed to do extra work. For example, I needed to carry six square meters of soil. The Khmer Rouge charged me for escaping from the working brigade. They almost killed me. Actually, a village head saved my life. The head of the working brigade almost took me for killing, but I complained to village head, then he left me alone. There were both good and bad men. Not all of them were bad.
Q: Do you ever go to the pagoda to pray for those who were killed under the Khmer Rouge?
A: I often go to the pagoda to perform prayers and rituals dedicated to those were killed under the Khmer Rouge. I feel calmness and peace in my mind.
Q: Do you want justice to be done? A: I have no idea about that. I do not know what to say because I am just an ordinary person.
Q: Do you want to see Khmer Rouge officials trialed in court? A: I leave it up to the government and the leaders of our country. Let the law do justice for us. I have no idea about that. I just want to live my life today and let the leaders deal with that because I am just an ordinary person. I cannot do anything against them, and I am alone. I don’t want to take revenge, but I focus on dhamma talks that the Buddha taught us. I took my suffering under the Khmer Rouge as the karma I deserved. Buddha’s teachings make me calm and peaceful. I am old and I don’t want revenge at all.
Q: Do you want next the generation to learn about the Khmer Rouge? A: Yes, I really want them to learn about the Khmer Rouge regime. They don’t learn it, and some do not believe it really happened. They saw Khmer Rouge movies but do not believe it is real history at all.
This is my very first time being interviewed about my life under the Khmer Rouge. I feel relieved when sharing with you about my life under the regime. It happened many years ago when I was around 22. Now, I am more than 70 years old. I still remember that past and can never forget it at all. I use it as a lesson to educate my grandchildren. I tell them to take care of and help one another. Don’t clash against one another. I experienced many hardships. You know, the Khmer Rouge taught us to call our biological mothers as comrades. Younger Khmer Rouge members were more aggressive than the older ones.