This is Part 1 of a 3 part series. I picked this piece up and put it down several times along the way. It is a painful story but one that needs to be told. We should never take our liberties for granted, and I think this article really drives home just how lucky we are to wake up in a free country each and every day.
His name is Somuch, which somehow seems appropriate since he bore witness to so much at such a young age. He is one of the lucky ones; although his story is not a happy one. He tells me about his life in a very matter-of-fact, almost detached way. It seems to be an adaptation he’s had to learn in order to survive. At first glance, Somuch appears to be a happy, carefree soul who loves his job working as a tour guide at the Angkor Temples in Siem Reap. There are times, though, when telling the sad history of his country or remembering lost loved ones, that even he can’t keep himself from becoming visibly emotional. His story is the story of a nation, a generation, and at the heart of it all, a family. It is a story of survival—not filled with heroics or compassion or justice. When he recounts what he has experienced, he does not feel sorry for himself or express anger at the lot life has handed him because he feels he is not alone. Somuch makes it clear that this is not just his story; it is the story of almost 7 million people, nearly half of which would never see the end to a nightmare they could not wake up from, the Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia.
I stumbled upon Somuch simply by chance, but in retrospect, it feels more like fate. I was looking for a tour guide in Siem Reap, Cambodia to show me the temples, tell me a bit of the history surrounding them, and maybe show me a few things off the beaten path. I had in mind an article surrounding experiencing things like the legendary pink sunrise at Angkor Wat, the tree-root entrapped Ta Prohm, and the temple of Bayon with its 54 face-covered towers. The tour guide I initially wanted to book, though, was unavailable. He offered to send his friend who was a guide, as well. Rather than research someone else–which would be my typical course of action–I took his word that his friend was a good guide and booked Somuch without ever even speaking with him. In retrospect, this simple decision would change my outlook on life forever.
A little before 5am, Somuch arrived at my hotel in Siem Reap to take me to Angkor Wat to see that spectacular sunrise I’d dreamed about. And it was as breathtaking as I’d imagined watching the sky change from deep blue to bright pink, seeing the towers and sky reflected in a perfect mirror image on the pond in front of the temple, and finally watching the sun rise over the temple’s center tower like a lit candle. In some ways, the peace and tranquility of that moment was lost on me at the time, but as Somuch slowly began to relay his story to me in bits and pieces over the next two days, and finally agreed to sit down with me and tell me everything, I began to see a very different picture of Cambodia and its not-so-peaceful history.
I’m a little bit embarrassed to say that I didn’t know the details of the brutality of the Khmer Rouge regime prior to visiting Cambodia. I’d never seen “The Killing Fields,” and in school I don’t think they ever even really taught us about the Vietnam War. It seemed like a chapter American history would rather forget; it’s a lot easier to forget about something when you’re an ocean away. I knew atrocities had been committed in Cambodia; I’m not oblivious. I’d seen images on TV of children with guns fighting wars and starving workers in fields, but it was all going on in another world, more like a movie than reality. I was barely a child when it was happening, and my mother felt children shouldn’t be exposed to such horrible images. Unfortunately for the children of Cambodia, their parents didn’t have the luxury of simply flipping a switch to make the nightmarish images stop.
The modern history of Cambodia could fill volumes of books and still not tell the complete story—and it does. Researching the best way to explain all of the differing conflicts surrounding Somuch during this time was an arduous task, and trying to relay the key facts without making this entire article about those complicated conflicts has proven challenging. So, I’ll attempt to provide the “Cliff’s Notes” version of events as I go.
Up until 1970, Cambodia managed to remain neutral in the Vietnam War. However, the Cambodian Coup which took place on March 18, 1970 unseated Cambodia’s ruling Prince Sihanouk and put an Anti-North Vietnamese government in place, which ultimately sided the Cambodian government with the Americans in the conflict. This lead the North Vietnamese to begin to arm the Khmer Rouge–a group of Communist rebels in Cambodia–against the new Cambodian government.
Unrest had begun to spread throughout the country even before this, though. In March of 1967, in a government attempt to stop villagers from selling rice to the communists—an act deemed illegal—the government began forcibly taking the rice for itself. The country’s farmers felt they were being cheated by the government by only receiving a pittance of what the rice was worth. This led to an uprising, and angry villagers attacked a group of soldiers leading the collection. In response, the government declared martial law, destroyed villages, and killed hundreds. This did nothing to allay peace in the provinces. Over the next several years, the Khmer Rouge would take advantage of this as it continued to grow and increase its power, fighting the Cambodian government in the countryside and eventually into the cities with the help of the Vietnamese.
Somuch’s story begins in Kroch Village in the Kampong Cham Province of Cambodia which resides in the eastern part of the country. Born in 1962, he spent his young childhood growing up among the fields. His parents were farmers. They were not wealthy people, but they had what they needed to survive. There were 4 children in his family, 2 girls and 2 boys. Somuch was a middle child, sandwiched between an older brother and sister, and a younger sister. Life was comfortable and followed a routine that the young boy understood. When he was 8 years old, however, that all changed.
One night in 1970, the family’s village was attacked by soldiers. Unable to grab any possessions or supplies, Somuch’s mother simply clung to the 3-month-old baby girl in her arms and ran for her life. His father grabbed his arm and pulled him along into the jungle, a well—refusing to let go even as his tiny legs slowed the family down.
Somewhere along the way in the melee of villagers fleeing in the dark, the screams, and the gunshots ringing out, though, they were unable to keep all of their children together. The family was separated from Somuch’s older brother and sister, and they could not be located. There was no time and they had no choice; the small family was being pursued by brutal murderers who in an instant had destroyed their village, their home, and their way of life. If Somuch’s parents wanted to protect their two younger children, they had to make the heartbreaking decision to keep going without his other siblings. His parents would never see their two older children again.
Somuch’s remaining family managed to make the trek on foot to the capital city, Phenom Penh, without any possessions. While they had been comfortable in the countryside, in the city they were very poor. His mother resorted to selling wares on the street, and his father worked carpentry just so that he could afford to send Somuch to school. He hoped an education could provide his son with a better life someday. The now smaller family was happy to be safely away from the war-torn countryside even if they had very little. So, once again they attempted to settle into a routine and make life as normal as possible. This would only last for a few short years, though. Regardless of the peace they felt in the city, Cambodia was in the middle of a civil war, and its outcome would change the history of the country—and the world—forever.
The Khmer Rouge Regime, formally known as the Communist Party of Kampuchea, began launching its offensive against the government in 1967. North Vietnam supported the rebellion with weapons, making it impossible for the Cambodian government to effectively counteract the attacks. In March of 1970, the North Vietnamese invaded Cambodia, capturing a large portion of the country themselves. They then turned those territories over to the Khmer Rouge. By 1973, the Khmer Rouge controlled the majority of Cambodia. And on April 17, 1975, just 5 years after Somuch’s family arrival in the city, the Khmer Rouge captured Phenom Penh and officially controlled the country’s government. The people hoped now that the Civil War was over there would be peace, but that thought was very short lived.
The troops were ordered to round up the people and get them out of the city that same day. All residents were ordered to leave immediately. The Khmer Rouge warned of American retaliation against their government; they told everyone residing in Phenom Penh that they needed to leave the city immediately because American bombings were imminent. Under the impression that they needed to vacate the city quickly and that they would be able to return home in just 3 days, Somuch’s family only took a few belongings and the clothing on their backs. He still recalls the image of his little sister, in the bright red jumper his mother had purchased for her, following him out of the city as they left behind yet another home forever.
The threat of American bombings was just a ruse used by the government to quickly clear out the cities, but its citizens did not know that. The government’s ultimate goal was to force everyone into the countryside to work as peasants in the fields, and they had no intentions of letting the residents return. They were to follow the communist ideal of hard work with no education, solely devoted to the cause. Somuch’s family was forced to trek up into the mountains, a place filled with malaria and other deadly mosquito borne illnesses. They were made to walk for nearly 600 km. Many people died from exhaustion, starvation, and disease along the way. Without access to anti-malaria medications, Somuch contracted malaria not long after the move but managed to survive. He would survive attacks from the disease a total of 5 times during his young life. Food was scarce, and the family hardly had a few bites to eat some days. What Somuch’s parents could scavenge from the jungle mostly went to their children, but it still wasn’t enough, and their stomachs’ soon became distended from hunger. It was hard for them to keep track of time; everyday simple became another day they had survived.
Somuch’s father grew weaker as food grew scarcer, and he gave up what he had to his family. Finally, they had a stretch of 9 days where the only food they had was one spoonful of rice or some boiled bamboo, and his father could not fight the hunger that was ravaging his body any longer. Somuch’s father died of starvation. His family was forced to bury him in the jungle. Somuch said they tried and tried to dig him a proper grave, but it was the rainy season, and the ground was too wet. The holes kept caving in on them from the water-seeped earth. Finally, they simply buried him in the shallow hole with the water. In an unmarked grave, the man who sacrificed everything for his family was laid to rest in the muddy waters of the jungle.
Credit for Some of the Featured Photos: Kyle Perkins