This is Part 2 of a 3 part series. It focuses on one of the many incredible true stories of survival during the Khemer Rouge regime in Cambodia. To read Part 1, click here.
Somuch’s family spent a total of about 3 months in the jungle. A week or two after his father died, though, they were sent away from the mountains to a rural area of the countryside in the Pursat Province of western Cambodia. Somuch, his mother, and his sister were all separated. Somuch, now 13, was considered an adult and was sent to work in the fields with other boys his age. His little sister, only 5, was sent to a children’s work area, and his mother was sent to a village about 30 km away from her children.
Somuch told me he has never read about The Killing Fields because he doesn’t need to, he lived it. He talked a little bit about some of the atrocities he witnessed around him—people forced to march for days without food, dying along the trail and simply being left there; educated people being sent away to “school” which was just code for ‘to be mass murdered by the government’; families forced to dig their own graves, knowing when they finished that they would be systematically shot into the holes they were creating. The government has a ‘cut all the roots’ mentality. If you or one of your family members were found to be fighting against the regime, the entire family would be killed for it. Those who were disabled were sent away to “school,” as well. Children were separated from their families and forced to work in the fields until they died of starvation or disease. The government felt that adults may still hold onto capitalist beliefs, and the best way to bring children up in the ‘proper way’ was to keep them away from those beliefs and train them properly.
In the work camps, ‘training’ consisted of systematically breaking the children down, forcing them to work long days for the greater good, and taking all sense of humanity away from them. They were required to call everyone comrade, even their own parents. They were encouraged to criticize one another at nightly meetings and turn one another in for breaking the rules. A typical day in Somuch’s camp would begin by waking up at 5am and then working in the fields until as late as 8pm, sometimes by torchlight. They were fed only 2 meager meals of porridge a day. If you were caught stealing even a bite of food from the fields, you would be beaten or killed. During the dry season, they dug canals for the rice paddies, and in the rainy season, they planted and farmed. Then, each night after work, criticism meetings were held where they were each encouraged to say terrible things about one another, and turn one another in for anything deemed unacceptable. These long workdays, along with exhaustion, disease, and executions seem unimaginable. Somuch says the hygienic conditions were so bad that many of them had lice all over their bodies. They were forced to sleep outside, looking for any kind of shelter they could find to shield their bodies at night, especially during the rainy season.
Time passed, and Somuch received word that his mother had taken extremely ill. With no one to care for her, Somuch begged his boss to allow him to go to her. His boss replied harshly, “Why, are you a doctor? No? Then someone else can look after her.”
Soon Somuch received word that his mother had succumbed to her disease. He begged his boss to let him go, and finally, his boss agreed to let him make the 30 km trek on foot as long as he returned the following day. Somuch hurried to where his mother had been living, but when he arrived, no one was there. A neighbor told him his mother had already been buried. He begged to be told where her grave was so that he could at least say a proper goodbye, but no one knew. The neighbor said over ten people a day had been dying, and they were simply being buried in mass graves. His mother had been placed in an unmarked hole somewhere in the jungle, just like his father. There was no dignity, even in death. Somuch’s heart was broken, another family member lost. However, he also received some very surprising news. His 5-year-old sister had been allowed to come and care for their mother at the end. He hadn’t seen his sister in a long time; he hadn’t even known her whereabouts.
“Where is my sister?!” he begged the neighbor who informed him she had been there.
“She went to find you,” she replied. “You’re all the family she has left now.”
Somuch was panicked; he had to find his sister. She was 5 years old, traveling in the jungle alone, and he may not even be back when she got to where he was staying. He ran back to his work camp as fast as he could.
When Somuch arrived back at his camp, he was overjoyed to find his baby sister. She was still wearing the red jumper his mother had bought her, though now it was much more worn. He asked her what had happened to their mother, and he was horrified at what both his mother and his sister had to go through. His sister arrived to take care of their mother about a week before she died. She had been trying to feed her mother some gruel to keep up her strength; whatever meager nourishment she could acquire. One morning, though, she tried to wake her mother to eat the small bowl of mush she brought her, but she wouldn’t get up.
“Wake up mama, I have food for you,” she begged, but her mother did not respond.
Her mother’s neighbor came to check on them and immediately realized why her mother would not wake. The neighbor explained to his sister that her mother would not be able to wake up anymore because she had passed away. Shortly after, some people came to collect her mother, and she never saw her again. After this happened, a villager told her that they knew Somuch’s camp’s whereabouts, and she immediately set off to find him.
Somuch begged his boss to let his sister stay with him, but he only allowed it for one week. Then, she was forced to go back to her camp. However, from then on, Somuch and his sister remained very close. She would sneak out to visit him whenever she could. Somuch worried for her. She was so thin, and they did not feed the children well at her camp. Surrounded by fields of food as far as the eye could see, the workers starved. Somuch was not fed well, either. He survived by stealing—a crime that could result in death if caught. Knowing from experience that hunger can kill just as easily as a soldier exacting punishment, he took his chances. Now Somuch tried to supply his sister when he could, as well. It was twice the risk, but he couldn’t bear the loss of the last of his family.
The level of hunger that these young workers were forced to endure was astounding. They were barely subsisting, bordering on starvation and life. The things he told me they sometimes resorted to eating turn my stomach, but even imagining that level of hunger makes me realize I would probably have done the same. One story in particular stands out to me where Somuch admitted that he and several other workers actually ate animal droppings because they found undigested tamarind seeds in them.
Time continued to pass. Sometimes when I ask Somuch about a specific amount of time passing or how old he was during a certain event, he can’t answer me or he seems uncertain. “There’s a reason Cambodians don’t celebrate birthdays like many countries do in the rest of the world,” he finally tells me in answer apologetically. “Most of us don’t even know when our birthdays are or even exactly how old we are. It is just another day to us. It is another day you woke up alive.” Oftentimes during his life, that has not been something worth celebrating.
One night Somuch still remembers as if it were yesterday, though, begins with a terrible storm. The rain was coming down in sheets, and he was sleeping underneath a piece of sheet metal he had found from a destroyed house. He was trying as hard as he could to hold the covering closely over himself as protection from the deluge. Suddenly, half asleep, he heard a knock from the outside. It was his sister in search of food. She had come to him even in the midst of this terrible weather. Somuch told her she needed to leave immediately. He couldn’t help her in the storm, and if she was caught sneaking out this late, she could be accused of stealing and severely punished for it. He could see she was crying, the tears mixing with rain on her face, but he was exhausted and his brain felt foggy, and it was just so late. He told her she needed to go back, that he couldn’t help her tonight, and finally she silently left. He tears up as he tells this story, his mind thinking back on that night. It was the last time he would ever see his beloved sister’s face. She came to him for help, and he just had nothing to give.
A few days passed and Somuch began to worry that his sister did not come back to him as she usually did. After nearly a week, he decided that he would go to her camp and look for her himself. He found a young, skinny boy working near the edge of the fields and called out, “You, boy, have you seen the young girl in the red jumper? She is my sister.”
The boy looked back at Somuch with mournful eyes. He explained that while working in the fields, the little girl had spotted some crickets coming out of the grass. Out of extreme hunger, she tried to sneak eating one. The boss caught her, and to make an example out of her, he beat her until she was unconscious with the big stick he carried. Then he had her body dragged into the jungle. “She was still alive, but they buried her,” he said.
“Where was this?” Somuch begged to know in a panic.
The boy pointed in a direction, and Somuch blindly plunged into the undergrowth. Tears streaming down his eyes, he cried out, “Sister, brother is coming, brother is coming! I’m here, I’m here!” at the top of his lungs. He frantically searched for her, holding out hope that he would somehow hear her tiny voice calling for him, but there was no reply.
The smell in the jungle was staggering. Somuch knew at once that he would not find his sister alive. He was too late. He fights back sobs as he tells this part of his story. His baby sister, the last of his family, was gone. She was nearly starved and then murdered at only 6 years old for eating an insect purely out of blinding hunger. Beaten to death, dragged, and buried alive in her little red jumper, the image of the little girl in “Schindler’s List” in the red coat thrown in the pile of brutally murdered black and white bodies immediately pops into my mind. It is just as surreal and just as heartbreaking to think about this little girl buried in the black dirt of the jungle. Somuch realized then and there that he would not survive if he returned to his work camp. He would eventually meet the same fate as his father, mother, and sister. He would either starve to death, die of disease, or get caught stealing to survive and be murdered. All of these options ended in the same result. There was only one option for survival anymore, run and never look back. As Somuch blindly continued to plunge deeper into the forest, letting his grief carry his hunger-wracked body on through his tears, he knew in the back of his mind that he had finally made his decision: he would take off on his own.
Somuch had been contemplating running away into the jungle for a while now. He thought he might be able to subsist off of the land, and had a surprising amount of knowledge–learned from his father–on medicinal plants, what was poisonous, and the safe fruit and roots to eat. He knew once he made that decision, there would be no turning back, though. Even if he wanted to return, he would be immediately branded a traitor and killed. If he was caught, he would meet the same fate. The only thing holding him back had been his sister. Taking her into the jungle with him would have been a risk. He would be responsible for both of them, and he had worried for her. He regretted more than anything not making the run for it together when they had the chance. It was too late now, though, and he would not go back. He was now a young teenager on his own in the wilds of the Cambodian jungle, running for his life, branded a traitor, and scavenging off of the land.
Part 3 coming tomorrow...