The Khmer Rouge spent 4 years in power. In December of 1978, the party’s relationship with Vietnam collapsed, and Vietnam—with the help of Cambodian rebels—captured Phenom Pehm in January of 1979. The country adopted the new name The People’s Republic of Kampuchea, and the ruling party became the Cambodian People’s Party (CPP). The Khmer Rough retreated to the Thai border to regroup. Somuch, who was by this time 16 years old, decided to make the nearly 700 km journey back to the first and only true home he had ever known. Barefoot, and with little idea of where he was going, he headed off in search of home. Somuch traveled village to village asking to be pointed in the right direction. It took him nearly 2 months to reach his destination.
Along the way, Somuch picked up many other homeless orphans who began to travel with him, looking to him as a big brother and protector. Countless families had been separated by the war. Even if parent and child were both still alive, they had no way of finding one another. They lived in one vast jungle with little infrastructure or methods of communication. As they travelled village to village, sometimes a child-less parent would offer to take one of the orphans in and call them their own. In this way, Somuch helped many children become unofficially adopted during his travels. In one of the villages, a woman offered to take Somuch in, as well. He declined. He felt that if even one of his relatives was still alive, they would return to his childhood home, as well, and they deserved to know what had happened to the rest of their family. He was the only one who could tell that story. Somuch was able to provide the closure that so many families would never be able to find, and if there was even a chance that he could do that, he had to keep pushing on.
When Somuch arrived in his childhood village, nothing looked familiar to him. It has been a long time, and so much had changed both in the village and in its people. “Hi boy, where are you coming from, and where have you been?” someone called out to him as he entered.
Somuch replied, and the neighbor asked, “Who is your father?”
This time, when Somuch answered, the man exclaimed, “Your brother and sister are here!”
Somuch was incredulous. His older brother and sister had survived the war. The siblings he thought he would never see again had returned home, as well. Someone ran to get them, and in no time, Somuch saw a young man and woman hurrying toward him. They were strangers to him. Somuch hadn’t seen them in many years, and he did not recognize them; but they recognized him, and soon the three were embraced in a tight hug. After a moment, his siblings pulled back and asked the inevitable question he was dreading, though.
“Where are our mother and father? And where is our baby sister?”
Somuch’s tears were all the answer his siblings needed, no words were spoken. They nodded in understanding and continued to embrace him. Somuch had family again; he belonged somewhere. But they were missing half of their loved ones, and no amount of happiness could take that feeling of loss away.
I would like to say that Somuch settled into village life with his sister and brother and they all lived happily ever after, that they found some semblance of peace. I would like so much to end my story here—provide a little bit of a silver lining to all of their suffering, but this was Cambodia in the 1980′s and that was not to be. They would only live together under the same roof in the village of their childhood for three months before being separated from one another again.
During the war and their years apart, Somuch and his brother had lived very different lives. While Somuch and his sisters experienced harsh conditions working in the country’s fields, his brother had been recruited into the Khmer Rouge Army. At only 12 years old, he was made a child soldier. He was issued a gun that was taller than he was and taught to aim and shoot it at the enemy. He was hardened into a fighter. So, when the CPP issued the call to fight the Khmer Rouge only three months after his arrival home, while Somuch and his brother were both drafted into the army, they were quickly separated. His brother, with his prior experience, was quickly promoted into another division, and his sister was left behind. Once again, the family was torn apart.
Somuch was issued an AK47, which he is still amused by all these years later. As a 17 year old kid, that was probably the coolest piece of weaponry you could be responsible for shooting. When asked if he ever shot it at other people, he confirms that he’s not sure how many he killed during the war, but it had to be at least 10 people. He says this relatively matter-of-factly, but after all of the death that he has experienced in his lifetime, that doesn’t really surprise me.
Fighting in the jungle was not easy work. Somuch shows me a terrible scar on his leg. “I got it from a sharpened bamboo shoot,” he tells me. “It went straight through my leg and out the other side.”
I ask him to elaborate on the story, and again, I feel as if I’m watching a war movie rather than listening to someone’s real life. Somuch was patrolling the jungle one day with his group. It was a day like any other, and as tended to happen, they had begun to blur together. However, unlike any day before, as he was walking across one section of palm fronds, the ground suddenly gave way beneath him. He just caught the edge of the 10-foot hole with the strength of his upper body as his legs plunged into the booby trap his enemy had laid below. A dozen sharpened bamboo sticks, designed to impale anyone unlucky enough to walk across this section of the jungle, pointed up at him. Several pierced through his legs as he crashed down on top of them. If his entire body had crashed through the trap as it was designed to, he probably would not have lived to tell this story, but somehow Somuch was able to hold onto the lip of the hole, even with the blinding pain in his leg, until his comrades could pull him free. Still, though, looking at the size of the scar on his leg, I think he’s lucky to not have bled to death or died of infection in the jungle like so many others did.
At this point, I’ve lost count of how many times Somuch has cheated death. There was that first night his family fled their village into the jungle, all of the times that he had malaria during his childhood, the many times he barely escaped starvation and the risks he took to steal food, his time on the run as a fugitive from his labor camp when if caught he would have been shot dead, his survival on his own in the jungle, and now his near-miss in the booby-trap. But of all the times Somuch escaped death, I find his next story the most incredible of them all.
As usual, Somuch’s division was on patrol in the jungle somewhere outside of Siem Reap. However, in an instant, the stillness of the afternoon erupted into gunfire. A Khmer Rouge unit had ambushed them. Somuch was critically injured when a piece of an RPG round went through his leg. When he shows me the scar in his thigh, I feel a little nauseous thinking about what it must have looked like then. Now, it is a huge misshapen section of blackened, dead skin the size of a softball. He still walks with a limp from it, but I’m amazed that he is able to walk as well as he does with all of the damage it did to his leg and muscles. Unable to move, Somuch was a virtual sitting duck. Over 20 of his comrades lay dead or dying around him. One of his friends threw him over his shoulder and hid Somuch in the jungle. He attributes him with saving his life. “Someday, I would like to thank him for that,” he tells me. “He did what he could to try to save me before he had to leave me, and I am forever grateful for that.”
Laying silently in the jungle, being hunted by his enemies, still bleeding, and in intense pain, Somuch tried to attend to his wounds. Over the next several days, his leg would become infected and swell to three times its regular size. He worried he would die of infection or lose his leg. Somuch tried to use what he could find in the jungle to stave off the infection. Local villagers came to help him, as well. They could not take him in, though, for fear of punishment. It was necessary that he continue to hide in the jungle. Now he had two enemies to worry about. Not only would the opposition kill him if he was found, but his own side would consider him a deserter, as well. He said it wouldn’t matter that he had been wounded, there was no excuse for being separated from your company, and he would be jailed or killed if caught. As Somuch suffered in the unhygienic conditions of the jungle, his body became ravaged by mosquitos and other insects, and he literally became covered in ringworm. He spent the next two months hiding out in the jungle just trying to survive his infection, the insect bites, and starvation.
Finally, a villager suggested that Somuch make his way toward a refugee camp that had been set up at the Thai border to try to get proper treatment. The camp is where Somuch met a Pastor from the United States and learned the beginnings of his English. It is also where he converted to Christianity. Only 2% of the population in Cambodia is Christian, and I was surprised to learn that Somuch was one of them. “My whole family is Buddhist,” he tells me. “But I think we need forgiveness, and Christianity provides that.”
Somuch spent 5-6 months recovering at the camp, and when he was well enough, he was yet again drafted into the war, but this time on the side of the deposed Prince Sihanouk’s party. Fighting against his former comrades, and even his brother, didn’t seem to faze Somuch. He even says that when he and his brother spoke by phone after the war, they realized they were fighting in certain locations at the same time in 1987. They joked that they were probably ducking one another’s gunfire.
In 1989, Vietnam agreed to withdraw its troops from Cambodia. It would take until 1998 for the country to truly be at peace, with internal skirmishes and political battles for power continuing through the 1990’s, but the road to resolution had begun. Today, Cambodia is a constitutional monarchy with a figure-head king and a multi-party democracy, but the ruling party is still the CPP.
Somuch’s brother finished the war as a high-ranking military official and continued his military career afterward, as well. His sister also survived the war. All three went on to get married and have children. They don’t get to see one another much, but they do speak on the phone from time-to-time.
Somuch has never done a lot of things I take for granted. He has never left his country. He has never flown in an airplane. He has never gone to college or even high school. By today’s Cambodian standards, he makes very good money as a guide. However, by American standards, it is well below the poverty line. For a full day of work (sun-up to sun-down, walking through temples in the beating sun with his war injuries still bothering him–although he’d never let you know it), he makes about $25, but many Cambodians make $1-2/day. He has 4 children who he sends to private school in the hopes that they will someday have a better future. He recently lost his wife, so he is now raising them on his own, which just adds to his heartbreaking story. But he seems to take it all in stride. When asked how he stays so positive despite everything he’s been through, he says, “I’m not really happy, but I try to make myself stronger. If I fall down and never get up, what happens to my family? So I must get up again and again.” I don’t know how he has continued to get up over and over again the way that he has, but I find the inner strength that he draws on so inspirational.
Other than when I specifically request that he recall his past for me, Somuch would rather live in the present. He is grateful for what he does have and seems content with the life he has today despite his past. He says, “If you live in the past all of the time, the tears will never stop, and who has time for that?”
My two days with Somuch have forever changed my outlook on life. I grew up in a life of privilege that I didn’t even realize I had. We had a smaller house than most of my friends did, my parents drove older cars than their parents did, and we most certainly weren’t the first people on the block with a computer or a cell phone or a flat-screen TV. But we never wanted for anything we needed. We went on the occasional vacation, and we spent our summers running around the beach with my siblings and cousins. Our biggest childhood cares were things like if we could scrounge up enough change from around the house to be able to buy an ice cream from the ice cream truck or who would win manhunt that night. I certainly never worried about where our next meal would be coming from or for our safety or if we would have a roof over our heads. I took all of those things for granted. My siblings and I had a carefree childhood where we truly got to be kids, and we all had the privilege of growing into adulthood without even realizing that was a privilege. These are all things that the Cambodian children of Somuch’s generation never got to experience.
Cambodia will always have a special place in my heart. Not only because I fell in love with the country and its beauty in the short time I got to spend there, but also because I fell in love with its people. They are an enduring reminder to me that the human spirit can overcome anything, no matter how tragic.