The war was now over. After successive retreats, General Lon Nol could no longer even defend Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia, against the Khmer Rouge guerrillas. The Cambodian Army had declared a cease-fire and laid down its arms. Soon afterward, the government conceded defeat and opened Phnom Penh to the Khmer Rouge and their leader, Pol Pot. An army of 68,000 guerrillas achieved victory for a communist party of 14,000 members against an army of about 200,000 men.
Naturally petite, Tor was skinny from lack of food--a common problem in Phnom Penh at that time. Her face was still round, though--"Just," Nguon always told her, "as I like it." She had kept her black hair cut short to keep it out of the way as she worked in her cousin's small restaurant. On this day, she wore an orange blouse and a beige sarong.
Nguon was teaching, but she was sure he had heard the news about the great victory. No doubt he would cancel class and join her to welcome the guerrilla soldiers. They were supposed to arrive within the hour.
Tor heard people celebrating all around her. Many intellectuals and middle-class Cambodians, disgusted with the everyday corruption of the government, were willing to try anything that brought change, even communism. Tor was no less happy. She was already thinking about bringing her own mother from the northeast, where she had been trapped by the war.
There Nguon was, all smiles as he approached her in his common black shorts. He took her hands and, looking into her eyes, said, "My dearest one. During all these years of war we prayed to Buddha for peace, and now it's here. The world will change today. What a great moment."
They walked to Sisowath Quay down which they expected the major force of Khmer Rouge to come on their way to the Royal palace. Many people were out on the streets, laughing, talking, all waiting. Almost every other building had white material--clothes, sheets, or towels--hung from windows or poles.
A low rumble grew into the mechanical roar of trucks. Everyone stopped whatever they were doing and looked toward the approaching noise.
Down Sisowath Quay came the Khmer Rouge. Those soldiers in the vanguard rode in trucks and vehicles of all descriptions. Behind those, squads of guerrilla soldiers walked in single file down the center of the street. They carried an assortment of weapons. No guerrilla seemed older than eighteen. All wore black, pajama-like uniforms, sandals made from strips of tires and inner tubes, and black Chinese caps. Each soldier had wound a red-checkered headscarf around his cap or neck. None of them smiled or looked at the crowds of people lining the roads.
Some of the people cheered and clapped, but most just smiled and waited to see what the victorious guerrillas would do next.
After watching for a while, Tor commented, "They are so young. How could they defeat the army?"
"Well, they did," Nguon responded. "Let's go back to our place. I've seen enough."
Tor and Nguon ambled back to their apartment climbed the worn steps and walked down the dim, unpainted hallway to their room. Although almost too excited to eat, they thought it best to get something into their stomachs before what surely would be an evening of celebration. As they ate some reheated rice and fruit and a little leftover ham Tor had saved from the restaurant, they discussed what they would do once the city settled down.
Shots echoed out on the street as they were cleaning up. Tor and Nguon rushed over to the small window and peered out. They saw people moving past their building, their faces creased with confusion. They were looking around and glancing often over their shoulders. Waving their guns and yelling, several Khmer Rouge soldiers pointed in the direction the people were moving.
Tor gasped. "What's going on? I thought the war was over."
"I don't know," Nguon replied. "Maybe some Lon Nol soldiers don't want it to end. I'm going out to take a look as soon as we finish here."
But when they finished cleaning up a few minutes later, the noise from the street had increased greatly. Babies cried; car horns blared; people yelled constantly. Nguon and Tor exchanged an anxious glance. They decided to take a look outside, but when they reached the street they couldn't believe their eyes.
A mass of people of all descriptions, packed almost shoulder-to-shoulder, moved in the direction the soldiers indicated. The crowd eddied around the spots where the guerrilla soldiers stood yelling like a stream around boulders. Here and there, a crowded car, small truck, or motor scooter crawled along in the flow of humanity. Tor glimpsed several motorbikes loaded down with possessions.
"Move, move. Get out," the Khmer Rouge soldiers shouted, waving their rifles.
Standing on their steps, Tor looked up the road in the direction all these people were coming from, and saw a body lying on the walkway two buildings down. Another body lay a little further away. Everyone in the crowd avoided them. The bodies created little eddies of their own in the stream of people.
A black-clad soldier with a red scarf around his neck rushed up, pointed an AK-47 at them, and screeched in the high, thin rasp of a teenage boy, "You must leave this evil place. Go now!"
He couldn't be over fifteen years old, Tor thought.
Nguon didn't understand. "Go where? Why?"
"Go! Go! Out of the city. Now!" he screamed at them, even louder.
Tor was scared now. Her voice trembled when she asked, "But can't we get something to take with us? It will take just a--"
Nguon grabbed her hand and jerked her off the steps. He pulled Tor down the side of the crowded road. They were jostled and pushed by people and bumped by the heavy suitcases a few people carried. A short distance down the crowded walkway, Nguon, who was tall for a Cambodian, looked back. Not seeing any soldiers nearby, he pulled Tor into an alley with him.
"What are you doing?" she asked between gulps of air. She'd begun to shake.
"Don't say anything," Nguon urged, putting his finger on her lips.
Still gripping her hand, he pulled her with him as he cautiously rushed down the narrow, trash-filled alley. When he came to an intersecting alley, he peeked around the corner.
"No soldiers," he murmured, and turned the corner with Tor still in tow. Several old people milled around in the alley, asking about all the noise and what was going on. Nguon ignored them.
Within minutes they reached the rear of their building without seeing any soldiers. Obviously, the soldiers were stretched thin in trying to cover all the alleys, roads, and buildings in Phnom Penh. He guessed, however, that the soldiers would began to search these buildings soon.
A small step at a time, Nguon entered the building through the rear entrance, peering down the hallway to make sure there were no soldiers inside. He motioned for Tor to follow him, and they rushed to their room. The hallway was deserted--others had also gone out to investigate the noise in the street.
Once they were inside, Nguon allowed his own fear to show. Looking at Tor, he said quickly, "I think that kid was going to shoot us. I don't understand it, but I think we should prepare for the worst and get away before they search the building."
"Where are they sending us?"
"I don't know, but hurry now, let's pack what we might need. Pack food, of course, and blankets, clothes, and the money we've hidden."
Tor walked to the corner of the room and pulled out from under a glass topped rattan table a large, battered French suitcase that had been in her family for two generations.
"No, no," Nguon said, stopping her. "That's too clumsy. Just two bags, one for each of us, and not too hard to carry."
Tor fetched her wicker shopping bag from their small closet and Nguon picked up the school bag he used to carry books and papers, and they began to fill them. Just in case they lost a bag, they split the rice and fruit between them, and each took a small bottle of drinking water. They also divided between them their family heirlooms and their other few valuables. Tor kissed her old gold locket containing a photograph of her mother and father, then tucked it into the side of her bag where she wouldn't accidentally pull it out. She also threw in a box of tissues.
Nguon looked around, stood thinking for a moment, and chided himself, "I almost forgot." He took an old Cambodian tourist brochure from a drawer in their one cabinet, tore out the map inside, and put it in his bag.
He stepped over to the sink they had used for everything from washing dishes to their bodies, picked up an old Japanese chef's knife and handed it to Tor. "Wrap this in some of your old clothes and hide it in the bottom of your bag," he told her. He picked up a six-inch French carving knife, wrapped it, and deposited it in his own bag.
"Okay, let's . . . " Nguon trailed off as they heard more shots.
Tor rushed over to look out the window. "No, they can't be doing this!" she exclaimed.
Here and there in the stream of people, invalids were being pushed in wheelchairs. Others staggered along on crutches. People pushed hospital beds with their loved ones still in them. Tor saw an intravenous tube stuck in the arm of one of the invalids. The tube was connected to a bottle hanging from a pole being wheeled along beside the bed by a woman who was probably a relative.
"The soldiers must also be emptying the hospitals," Nguon said. "We can't do anything about it. Let's go."
They hurried down the hallway and paused on the stairs to look both ways before plunging into the moving mass of people.
Teenage soldiers stood at the intersections they came to, waving their rifles or AK-47s to split the human mass onto the different roads. After hours of slow movement, tired from being jostled along and from carrying their bags, Tor and Nguon reached the countryside. But there was no stopping.
Along the way, they continued to see the bodies of those the soldiers had shot.
The crowd was thinning out as older people or those burdened with heavy suitcases or many children fell behind. Suddenly, Tor and Nguon saw two of the black-clad soldiers who had been standing nearby pull a boy out of the procession.
He looked about fourteen years old; no older, it appeared, than the soldiers grabbing him. He wore shorts, a blue shirt much too big for him, and army boots that were much too large--the tops of the boots came almost to his knees. He surely had stuffed stockings or tissue into the toes so that he could wear them.
"You're an enemy soldier," one of the Khmer Rouge soldiers yelled, eyes blazing.
"No, I'm not!" the boy cried, fear in his voice.
"Where'd you get those boots?" the other soldier screamed at the boy.
"They're his dad's," his mother protested, rushing up to stand beside the boy and bowing up and down to the soldiers, her hands clasped in front of her as if praying.
"My dad's," the boy whimpered.
"Your father was shit," yelled the first soldier. He aimed his rifle at the boy and shot him in the stomach.
The shock of the bullet sent the boy sprawling backwards. He and his mother screamed simultaneously. The boy lay, clutching his stomach. The soldier reached down and dragged the dying boy away from his mother, who had fallen on her knees by her son and was trying to put her arms around him. The soldier pulled off the boy's boots, tied their shoelaces together, and swung them over his shoulder. He shot the sobbing mother in the head.
No one in the crowd, including Tor and Nguon, did or said anything. Each knew to do so could mean death. Tor started to cry, but Nguon pulled her away from the scene as fast as he could.
As night fell, the soldiers allowed people to find places to rest in the nearby hills and fields. Everyone tried to form groups of family members, friends, or just acquaintances, as long as it was someone. A few older men moved from group to group, asking for water, food, or cigarettes. The evacuation had caught them when they were away from home. They had brought nothing with them.
The soldiers offered no food, nothing. The Khmer Rouge had not stocked any food, water, or medicine, and provided no aid stations along the evacuation routes. The soldiers abandoned the sick to die or recover on their own. The infirm or sick were forced to find help from other evacuees, or fall out of the crowd and risk being shot. On some evacuation routes, there was no food until the evacuees reached the villages where the Khmer Rouge almost randomly settled them. Those without food starved unless they could find, steal, or beg food along the way.
In the rest area, people were using a slight depression nearby to relieve themselves. There was no privacy, but no one looked anyway. Tor and Nguon took turns visiting the depression, while the other watched their bags. Afterwards they sat by a tree on a slight knoll, making sure they were upwind from the depression.
Tor opened her bag. She was now very glad for it, although it had grown so heavy to carry that her arms ached. Nguon had tried to take it from her and carry it with his own, but she wouldn't let him. She took out a white sheet, stood up, and spread it on the ground beside them. She sat down on it and motioned for Nguon to join her. She pulled chopsticks and a bowl of leftover cold rice from his bag, and set these down between them while she lifted two bananas and some grapes out of her bag. They ate their feast in silence and washed it down with some of their water.
When they finished eating, Tor said, almost in a whisper, "Dearest, I don't understand any of this."
"Neither do I," Nguon replied. "There were rumors of the Khmer Rouge evacuating towns that they controlled before the war ended, forcing everyone to be peasants in the fields, and shooting former government officials and all captured officers. We all thought that was government propaganda."
"What are they going to do with us?" Tor wondered aloud, putting her arms around her knees and looking at a squad of soldiers passing by in the dim light.
For a moment Nguon looked at the soldiers too. He turned his back on them, shook his head, and admitted, "I don't know, honey. If we don't rest and sleep, however, they won't need to do anything to us."
He pulled a blanket out of his bag and lay down, pulling her down with him. She snuggled up to him as he covered both of them with the blanket.
In the morning, as Nguon was putting his blanket away, a Khmer Rouge soldier, a boy with an old American M-1 rifle, strode up and pointed to Nguon's wrist. "I want to see your watch," he demanded.
Without a word, Nguon took it off and handed it over. The boy looked at it, held it up to the sky, held it to his ear, smiled, and put it on his wrist. The band was much too large for the boy's skinny wrist, and the watch dangled. He stretched the band and pulled it up his arm over his black shirtsleeve until it fit, just below his elbow. Looking at it happily, he strode off.
Tor later learned that the Khmer Rouge had evacuated everyone in Phnom Penh--between two and three million inhabitants and refugees. They evacuated all the cities and towns they occupied after their victory. The wealthy or middle-class citizens who had tried to ride out in cars soon abandoned them, or the Khmer Rouge soldiers seized and destroyed the vehicles. They also soon confiscated loaded motor scooters or bicycles. The vast multitude of pitiful urbanites and refugees had only possessed their feet, like Tor and Nguon. They formed straggling, trudging columns that extended for miles, like a fatal migration of lemmings.
The soldiers killed anyone who disobeyed their orders. They killed anyone who withheld any items the soldiers wanted. There was no law, no rules, no order except the soldier's commands, demands, and whims.
Day after day, Tor and Nguon plodded along the narrow roads and trails, crowded together in the jumble of humanity that flowed out of Phnom Penh. The Khmer Rouge had told them that the evacuation was for a few days. This had been a lie. To minimize disorder, Nguon guessed.
Aside from the outright killing by the Khmer Rouge soldiers, the arduous evacuation, the lack of food and medical facilities, exposure, and sheer fatigue and emotional stress soon took its toll. Babies, young children, old people; the already sick, injured, and infirm died along the way. A medical doctor named Vann Hay, evacuated with all the rest, told them he saw a dead child every two hundred meters.
Tor and Nguon trudged for eleven days, and at each village along the way, the soldiers chose a dozen or so evacuees to accompany a Khmer Rouge village chief. Sometimes a village fed those that were to continue; sometimes they came across a store along the road and the soldiers allowed them to take whatever food was there. They ate their fill at one small Buddhist temple stocked with military rations.
Finally, they reached a small village that Nguon thought was near the much larger village of Phum Knol. He'd stolen glances at his map to keep track of where they were. Phum Knol was northwest of Phnom Penh, on the edge of the Chuor Phnum Kravanh Mountains. These were low mountains with many passes through them to Thailand.
The village was a simple clearing in the forest, with several dozen huts on both sides of a single lane, and a cleared area for planting. They could see the bent backs of peasants tending the crops. Tor and Nguon and eleven other people were the last group to be settled. There were three older men, two young women, and two other couples, one with two children whom Tor had befriended. When the soldiers led them into the village there was no one around except the fat village chief, Theng Pech. He stood, dressed in the usual black, baggy, pajama-like clothes, waiting for them with his pudgy arms across his chest and his short legs spread apart. The soldiers led the group to stand before him, and moved off at a distance to watch.
Frowning, his lips puckered, Pech studied each of them. When he finished, he scowled. "Are there any doctors among you?"
Everyone looked blank.
"Any lawyers, former government officials, or soldiers?"
Still, no one said a word. Along the evacuation routes, all had seen what happened to those admitting any such profession, or even contact with them. They were either shot where they stood, begging for mercy, or they were taken into a field with their families and one by one beaten in the head with a hoe until dead.
Nguon said not a word. Tor gasped out an emphatic, "No," under her breath.
Teachers, lawyers, and other professionals, according to the Khmer Rouge, had been contaminated by Western influence, and were therefore to be exterminated. Cambodia had received its independence from France twenty-two years before, but the French corruption, the Khmer Rouge believed, still permeated the professions. They sometimes even exterminated those with college educations.
Pech moved among them, stopping before several of the men to demand they tell him about their jobs. One said he couldn't find work; another claimed he was a cook. One naive fellow said that he was a court clerk.
Pech leaned forward. Spittle flew from his mouth as he hissed, "You are a counter-revolutionary. You worked against the people."
"I wasn't a government official!" the unfortunate man protested, "I was just a clerk!"
Pech's voice rose to a scream. "You die!" He waved to the soldiers and pointed at the man, who had fallen to his knees, shaking, and clasped his hands together.
"I did nothing," the man pleaded. "A clerk. Only a clerk. I love the revolution."
Two soldiers came up on either side of him and lifted him by his armpits. They dragged him, crying, into the nearby forest. Minutes later, those in the village heard screams and loud thumps.
Pech strode up to Nguon and tilted his head to look up at him with a questioning expression. "What did you do?"
"I worked in a vegetable and fruit stand," he lied.
"Did you own it?" Pech asked suspiciously.
"No. I hate capitalists," Nguon responded.
"Show me your hands," Pech demanded with a black look.
Nguon held out his hands and Pech bent over to study his fingers and palms--searching for a soldier's blisters or calluses, Nguon explained to Tor later.
Not satisfied, Pech ordered, "Take off your shirt."
Tor was shaking now with fear, and could hardly stand as Nguon took off his shirt.
"Bend over," Pech demanded.
When Nguon obeyed, Pech knit his brows as he studied both of Nguon's shoulders, looking for any discoloration, thickening of the skin, or marks that indicated Nguon had recently carried a pack, rifle, or machine gun on his shoulder and thus had been a soldier for the former evil government. "If there had been the slightest suggestion of this," Nguon told Tor, "I'd be a dead man."
Pech flipped his hand at Nguon for him to put his shirt on. Without a word he turned away and strode to the front of the group. Tor let out her breath and, blinking back tears, tried to grab Nguon's hand. He shook his head in warning and put a finger to his lips, indicating the watching soldiers with his eyes.
Pech motioned for the group to spread out in front of him. When their shuffling stopped, he began his little welcoming speech.
"You are here to work for the revolution. You will learn to farm from the peasants, and through your work in the great soil of Cambodia, your thoughts will be purged of the evil capitalist and Western influences that pollute your minds. Here you will be reborn as true sons and daughters of our land."
Pech glared at them all, as though daring them to show unhappiness or unwillingness. He continued. "Okay, here are the rules. The married among you will get a hut to yourselves. The rest of you will all live in the large hut you see behind me. You will all turn over any utensils, food, pots, knives, and anything else you possess, except for your clothes and blankets. We are all communists here and all equal. We share everything."
Pech stopped, folded his arms across his chest, and again looked at each of them in turn. He now harangued them. "There will be no talking without permission, except between married couples, and only in their hut. You cannot leave the village without a pass, and when you go to work it must be in groups of no less than five, with a guard. There is no money. We will provide you with everything you need. We do not allow you to pick fruit in the woods without permission. If we give it, all that you pick you must turn over to the village."
Someone behind Tor shifted uncomfortably. Pech paused and glared at the culprit for a moment before continuing. "You will always eat together, never privately. You will work from 6 AM to 8 PM. After work, you will spend no more than thirty minutes eating, so that you can attend our reeducation lectures and learn about our great revolution. We allow no radios and no letter or note writing.
"If you disobey any of these rules, we will execute you."
The work was exhausting. Nguon's hands were always bloody and when he straightened, he clutched his back. Tor was in no better condition. They all were growing weak from insufficient food. All that they produced from the fields and picked in the woods was trucked away, except for a small portion. They dared not complain.
One day, while working in the field, Tor saw the boy Yann collapse and sprawl on the ground. Possibly he died before he hit the ground. Possibly he was on the brink of death. Possibly malnutrition or some disease caused it. No one knew anymore why people died. They were all in such poor condition that a simple cold was often lethal.
Chek shrieked when she saw her son fall and, her hands reaching for him, dashed to where his skinny body lay stretched across his hoe. She threw herself on the ground next to him and cuddled his limp head on her lap. After a moment she realized that he was dead. Wrenching sobs shook her whole body as she bent over him, rocking back and forth.
A soldier wearing the inevitable Chinese cap and the red scarf around his neck had been watching all this. He rushed over with his rifle, lifted Chek by the arm, and tried to drag her away. At first she would not release Yann, but Tor ran over and tenderly took the boy from her arms. By that time, Chek realized the danger she was in and let the soldier take her through the village to Pech.
Three days later, when the soldier was out of hearing, with silent tears streaming down her cheeks, Chek shared with Tor what happened next:
In a high-pitched voice the soldier told Pech, "Her son died, and she bawled over him, crazy-like."
"I couldn't help my tears, even in front of Pech," Chek said, "but I collected myself enough to bow to him. I clasped my hands in front of me subserviently. I'd seen what happened to one of the women who broke down in tears of fatigue while digging an irrigation ditch. She would not or could not pick up her shovel, even when the guard yelled at her to get back to work. The guard reported her and Pech accused her of being a counter-revolutionary. You remember it, Tor? A soldier dragged her into the woods, and in minutes returned alone."
Chek wiped her tears away so the soldier wouldn't see them. "Pech hates anyone who is unenthusiastic for the revolution." When Tor nodded, she continued. "I was so scared when Pech asked angrily, 'Why are you crying? You think more of your son than of the revolution. You're a fucking antirevolutionary. You cry just because your son died. The revolution means chicken shit to you.'"
Chek stopped to look around to make sure they weren't observed. Tears still flowed, and she wiped at them with the back of her hand. "I knew, Tor," she whispered, "that I would soon join my son in death unless I did the right thing. I had learned over the months how this horrible Angka--organization--works.
"I shook my head, trying to stop crying over Yann. I was afraid my voice would give me away to Pech, but it grew firmer as I spoke. I told Pech, 'I'm ashamed, that's why I cry. The revolution is now deprived of my son. I know . . . that he'd have grown up to be . . . a strong communist.' I looked Pech in the eye--I itched to scratch them out with my fingernails, Tor, but what could I do? --and I added, 'Maybe even a good village chief, like you.'
"Pech snorted, 'You lie,' but his voice lacked confidence.
"'No, no, no,' I asserted. 'I love the revolution.'"
Chek's voice was a hiss of hatred as she told Tor, "I would shit on the revolution, and I almost said that, but I didn't want to die. I wanted to do something, anything, for my dead son. Even if all I could do was live, so I could remember his life.
"His brow furrowed, and Pech squinted at me for a few minutes. He turned to the soldier standing nearby, holding his rifle pointed in my general direction. 'Has she shown any other counter-revolutionary behavior?' Pech asked him.
"The soldier responded with clear reluctance, 'No.'
"'Has she been a good worker?'
"'Well . . . '
"'Answer me!' Pech roared.
"'Yes,' the soldier barked, almost coming to attention.
"'Okay.' Pech looked back to me. I still held my half bow. He told me, 'Go back to work and we will take care of your son's body. I warn you: I'll be watching you. Go.'
"And that's when I returned to the field."
Chek stopped for a moment and looked down at her callused and dirty hands. As Tor had listened to Chek, she remembered how she had felt when watching Chek come back. She had seen Chek will herself not to look at her son's body, now lying alone in the dirt. Tor had cried inside. She had ached to put her arms around Chek, to comfort her, but had known it might mean her own death.
Chek looked at Tor again, but her gaze was turned inward at her private horror. Her eyes were wet. She picked up where she had left off. "When I got back to my place in the field, my tears returned, and with my back to Pech and the soldier, I let them fall. The pain, Tor! The pain of passing by Yann's body without saying goodbye, without kissing him one last time, without caressing his beautiful cheeks, was almost too much for me. My stomach knotted, and I thought I would vomit. The aching pressure of containing my grief had built behind my eyes until a throbbing headache made thought almost impossible. I felt I would collapse, but I made it past my son's body."
Tor nodded in silent sympathy. She again remembered Chek's effort, had seen the woman lurch past her son's body, then catch herself from stumbling outright.
Chek drew a tremulous breath and finished in a flat voice, "I took up my hoe and returned to work."
Weeks later, Tor saw Chek's body dangling in the woods. She'd taken a vine and hung herself.
That night, when Pech's spies would not see her, Tor wept. She realized then she could not long survive herself. Chek's death was the reason she later agreed with Nguon to attempt an ill-prepared and hasty escape from the village and Cambodia when he said they must flee or die.
What had done it for him was the sheer horror of Mey Samoeun's murder.
Also evacuated from Phnom Penh, Mey was an agricultural scientist and college teacher. He kept this a secret from everyone, but he forgot himself during one of the reeducation lectures on the great agricultural revolution wrought by Pol Pot, and the Khmer Rouge "breakthrough innovations in irrigation."
Mey, who had became a close friend of Nguon, whispered, "Pure crap." He then explained why he knew so much about it.
Nguon, of course, returned the favor and admitted he taught as well.
Later, as Mey worked in the field, he couldn't help displaying a deep knowledge of plants and soil. The soldiers noted this and informed Pech.
During one mealtime, Pech approached the branch table where Mey was eating and leaned over to look at him. "I hear you are a good man in the field," he said briskly. Mey didn't know what to say.
Pech stared at him for about ten seconds, as though expecting him to confess to a plot to overthrow the Khmer Rouge. Then he gave him a grisly smile and ordered, "Every day, starting tomorrow, from 9 to 11 AM you will teach the kids what you know about farming. We will pick the kids out. They are the ones still too young to do the revolution's great work."
Trembling, Mey started to breathe again.
He began teaching the next day and seemed to enjoy the children.
A month later a squad of soldiers stopped at the village to rest, and happened to pass by Mey's outdoor class. One of the soldiers halted so suddenly that the one behind him almost bumped into him. The soldier stared at Mey. Then he hurried over to a peasant feeding the village chickens, and demanded to know where the chief was. The peasant pointed out his hut.
The soldier cast another look over his shoulder at Mey, who was unaware of the attention, and strode to the chief's hut.
"Comrade Chief," he had yelled outside the entrance, then disappeared inside. Several minutes later, the chief came out with the soldier, who now pointed his AK-47 in Mey's direction.
His mouth a thin line, his eyes narrowed to slits, Pech stalked up to Mey's class. Waving his hands in the air, he roared, "Stop. Mey, come here."
Looking at the soldier, Pech demanded loudly, "Is this him?"
"Yes," the soldier snapped, now looking frightened himself. "I was a student in his class. I heard he did work for the government."
"You're a spy," Pech yelled at Mey.
"No, I'm not. I did no more than help the government protect mango from fruit flies."
"You're a spy," Pech spat. He motioned to the soldier. "Take him and tie him to that post in front of my hut."
The soldier moved behind Mey and poked him in the back with his gun. Using it as a prod, he forced Mey over to the post, where he made Mey sit down and then he tied him fast by wrapping a heavy rope around his torso, arms, and the post. Pech ignored May the rest of the day and through the evening. No one could approach him for fear for their own life.
As Nguon worked in the field, he asked various people, "What happened to Mey?" One of them was the peasant who'd been feeding the chickens and heard everything. He relayed it all to Nguon.
When everyone was released from work for the day and the reeducation lecture was over, Nguon sat for hours in the door of their hut, looking over at Mey. Tor tried to get him to sleep, but he wouldn't even respond to her. She found him still there in the morning, lying on his side, asleep.
At mid-morning the next day, Pech called together all the peasants and evacuees and took them to a flowering shower tree that grew behind the huts. They stood beneath masses of beautiful bright flowers in shades ranging from pale red to white. Birdsong filled the air around them. The sun had not yet burned away the delightful morning smell of growing things--of life. A few white puffs of clouds dared to intrude on the rich blue of the sky. The air was dry and comfortable. A gentle breeze played across the downcast faces of those waiting by the tree.
It was a great morning, a gorgeous spot.
Mey was still tied to the post, now with soldiers standing on either side of him. Pech, dressed in his usual black uniform, glowered at them all and waved an American military .45 caliber handgun at Mey. Nobody had seen the handgun before.
"The CIA and KGB are working to overthrow our glorious revolution," he bellowed. "Their shitty spies are everywhere. There are also agents of hated and corrupt capitalists at work among us. Now watch and you will see what we do to these counter-revolutionaries." He raised his gun and fired a shot into the sky.
The two soldiers guarding Mey untied him from the post, then retied his hands when he staggered to his feet. He was too weak to walk. They half carried him to the tree. A soldier threw a long rope knotted into a noose over a lower branch. Mey did not protest or move when the soldiers dragged him over to the noose, tied his feet, and placed the noose around his neck. He said not a word.
A soldier had entered one of the huts. Now he emerged with six of the children Mey had been teaching. Soldiers led them to the tree and instructed them to line up by the long end of the rope that fell along the ground from the tree limb. They were too solemn and quiet for young children, and seemed confused. A soldier picked up the rope and put it in their hands. Although the soldier had probably spent some time early in the morning instructing them, he still had to make tugging motions several times before the children would pull on the rope.
Looking back and forth between the rope and the soldier, the children pulled halfheartedly on the rope, yelling, "Bad teacher. Bad teacher."
They pulled Mey off his feet and he hung a few feet above the ground, his tied legs jerking back and forth. The children released the rope, and Mey fell to the earth in a shower of flowers knocked loose from the shaken branch. Encouraged by the soldier, the children picked up the rope and tugged with more vigor, walking backwards several feet, pulling Mey off his feet and above the ground a second time. They still chanted, "Bad teacher, bad teacher."
The soldier motioned the children on several more times, until Mey was dead. By then, the children were enjoying the new game. And the ground around Mey was carpeted with flowers.
Nguon watched, his face frozen in grief. Tor was terrified that he would do or say something. She got as close to him as she could and tried to hold his hand, but it was stiff, ice-cold, and unresponsive.
When the hanging was over, Nguon rushed back to their work on the irrigation ditch. Tor hurried after him. He worked silently, with single-minded determination, for the rest of the day. He ate nothing at the evening meal. He said nothing during the re-education lecture, or afterwards. Finally, back in their hut, he whispered to Tor so that none of Pech's spies could hear, "We are escaping tonight."
"But dearest," Tor whispered, "can we? We're not ready."
Nguon looked at her with tears in his eyes, his face revealing the misery he had been holding within him all day. "We must. I can't promise that if we stay another day, I won't say or do something that will get us both killed. All I think about is grabbing a gun from one of the soldiers and shooting him, and finding and killing that fucking bastard Pech. I would then die happily, but the soldiers would also kill you, my love."
With the image of Chek hanging from a vine still fresh in her mind, Tor touched a finger to Nguon's tightly compressed lips and whispered, "We'll go. Let's get ready."
They'd been planning to escape, though not this soon. They'd been stockpiling food and supplies, but couldn't hide them in the hut, for Pech's spies occasionally searched their hut while they were working. They had bartered for a raincoat, wrapped everything in that, and hid it in a pile of rocks beneath the thick trunk of a leaning tree, where it was protected from all but the worst rainstorms.
Now, they put in their bags the few items they kept in their hut.
The night was warm and low clouds hid the moon. It felt like rain was coming. Her body shaking, Tor wiped sweat from her forehead and listened to the night sounds, breathing deeply to soothe her rapid heartbeat and, perhaps for the last time, to capture the sweet smell of plumeria flowers nearby. Nguon was so still, so quiet next to her. When she took his hand, she could feel his heartbeat through it. She knew he was trying to think through their escape. She knew he also feared this would be their last night alive.
Around one or two o'clock in the morning--without lantern, flashlight, or matches, without food or water, without much hope--they fled.
Their night vision was good, and Nguon knew the direction they must go. They felt their way carefully through the woods, following certain trees and bushes whose locations they'd memorized to bring them to the rocks and their store. They quickly put everything in their bags and pushed on.
"By dawn," Nguon whispered, "we must be far away from here."
He led the way through the woods, relying on his memory and landmarks to find the road away from their village. They hurried along the road until the sky began to lighten. Then they moved far enough into the gloom of the woods that soldiers would not see them from the road. When it got light enough, Nguon was able to determine the direction the sun traveled by the moss on the rocks and trees. He led them west, toward Thailand.
They traveled this way for several days, wending through the woods and sleeping in them during the day, treading the narrow roads and paths during the night, their eyes scouring the darkness in every direction for patrols. They gave Phum Knol and several smaller villages a wide berth. At last they reached the wide pass through the mountains to Boi Russey, the last small town before Thailand, and part of a line of Khmer Rouge outposts whose patrols sought to catch escapees from Cambodia.
After they had passed the village of Boi Russey, they were caught in a rainstorm. Nguon slipped on a mossy rock, and as he fell his foot slid under another rock, breaking his ankle. He couldn't muffle his scream of pain.
Behind him Tor also cried out. She rushed over and knelt by Nguon's leg. Her wet hair fell over her face as she studied his foot. It was bent at a right angle and twisted backwards. She covered her mouth, but could not prevent a gasp from escaping.
Bracing himself on his elbows, Nguon looked at his foot for a moment. "Give me some cloth."
"Why?" Tor cried.
"Please," Nguon said in a voice tight with pain.
Tor got up and leaned over her bag to protect the contents from the rain as she pulled out an old blouse. She handed it to Nguon.
He took it, folded it into a thick roll, and told her through gritted teeth, "I'm going to put this in my mouth and bite down on it. When I do, don't wait. Straighten out my foot."
He chomped down hard on the cloth and motioned to his foot. Tor leaned over, sheltering the broken ankle from the rain with her body. She gripped it and with a jerk twisted it back to its normal position. Tor heard the broken bones grinding against each other. Nguon groaned as his body heaved.
Shaking with sobs, Tor looked up at Nguon as he tried to control his pain. After some moments, he gasped, "Get me a straight, thick stick."
Tor got up and staggered over the unfamiliar ground in the drizzling rain, searching for a fallen branch. Finding one, she returned to her bag, pulled out her knife, and cleaned the branch of leaves and twigs. Knowing why Nguon wanted it, she cut the branch into a two-foot length, placed it beside Nguon's broken ankle, and took a shirt out of his bag. She cut it into strips, and placed them beside the stick. She had been able to stop crying, but still her voice broke when she told him, "Put my blouse back in your mouth, dearest."
He gripped it with his teeth again, and closed his eyes.
Tor placed the branch against his broken ankle. It came almost up to his knee. She held it against his leg and wound the strips of cloth until she was sure the leg couldn't move. The most difficult step was securing the floppy foot to the branch, but she did this by winding the strips around the foot, and then around the branch. She was gasping for breath when she finished.
Nguon took the blouse out of his mouth. His face was drained of blood, his eyes full of pain. He wheezed, "I've got to rest." He added in a firmer voice, "See if you can find something I can use as a crutch."
Tor searched the woods nearby for a long, solid branch with another branch protruding from it at nearly a right angle. It must fit under his armpit to support his weight. She found nothing on the ground, and she was about to climb a tree to cut off a useful branch when she heard voices in the distance.
She scampered back to Nguon, who had also heard the voices. They were indistinct, but getting louder. Suddenly, a few clear words made plain that this was a Khmer Rouge patrol. They were tracking them.
Nguon tried to sit up, but fell back. He pointed to their bags and whispered urgently, "Go, go, take the bags and go west." He pointed in the direction they had been headed "Quick. Go."
"No, I can't desert you. No dearest, we will die together."
Gritting his teeth, he managed to raise himself on his elbow, and tried to push her away. "You must not die. You must tell people about the horror here. All the deaths and killing. Go. Make it never happen again." He pushed her again, weakly.
Her eyes widened and her hand flew to her mouth in terror. She could hear the soldiers in the distance, moving through the forest toward them.
Tor looked at her loving husband for the last time. She tried to fill her memory with his beautiful face. Too soon, too quick, the approaching voices broke the spell. "Goodbye, my dearest husband," she said tenderly, but the words felt ripped out of her. "I will never forget you, and I will never forgive. I love you."
She slipped into the forest.
About fifteen minutes later, she was sure she heard a shot. She stopped, leaned her head against a tree, and silently sobbed, "Yes, my dearest, I will never forget you. And I will join you as soon as I can." Her commitment calmed her enough to move on. She noted where the sun was through the haze of rain clouds, and pointed herself west.
For days, Tor trudged through the forest. She was lost, but knew one thing--west, she must head west, always west. The sun was her guide. When it was cloudy, she determined west by where the moss grew the thickest on the tree trunks. She thought of Chek, of Mey, but most of all, of Nguon and their happy, loving life together. Only thus could she distract herself from her awful physical pain.
She was bleeding from numerous thorn scratches on her bare legs, and her skin was bruised all over from falling on rocks and tripping over roots. Her slippers had fallen apart days ago and she now limped along barefoot, her feet bleeding from blisters and cuts.
Tor stopped at a little stream to wash herself, soak her battered feet, and eat the last grains of rice and some fruit she had picked. She was bone-weary, and the cold water was a blessed relief. She thought she'd shed all the tears humanly possible, but when she saw her reflection in a little pool the stream created, she broke down in sobs again.
She tried to gather her strength. She must survive for the sake of her husband. He had told her to survive, to "make it never happen again." Tor wiped her tears and placed Nguon's six-inch carving knife close by, as she had done whenever she stopped. She pushed her tortured feet deeper into the cool water.
At that moment, from the edge of the forest, she heard, "Who are you?"
Her heart thumping, almost dizzy with fear, she slowly raised her eyes toward the voice and saw a Khmer Rouge soldier no more that fifteen feet away. He probably was part of a patrol and had decided to stop at the stream for a drink. He held an American M-16 carbine on his shoulder. A combat knife hung from his American military belt, and grenades were attached to his bandoleer. He was a skinny kid, no more than eighteen years old, she thought.
For a moment, she sat stunned, rocking with the rapid beat of her heart. Then from deep inside, her most basic instinct told her what to do. No thought was needed. She took two deep breaths and painted a smile on her face. Without saying a word, she rose and turned full toward him. Eyes vampish, she swept her hair back from her face, then slowly unbuttoned and removed her blouse. She wore nothing underneath, and she bent forward to let her breasts shake a little. A moment later she straightened and took off her shorts and panties. Turning her body away from the boy soldier, she bent over to place her shorts on the stone beside her knife, at the same time lifting the knife and holding it so that her right wrist hid the blade.
As she intended, the boy saw Tor's genitals as she bent over. When she stood up and turned toward the boy, his eyes were round and his face was flushed. Naked, she glided toward him, murmuring huskily, "I want you. I want to fuck. Fuck me."
The boy stood frozen in place as he ogled her breasts and pubic hair. Quite probably, given the strict rules against sex imposed upon the Khmer Rouge soldiers, he was a virgin who had never seen a naked woman so close before. She approached him and put his hand on her breast, and then dropped her left hand to rub his swollen crotch.
The boy soldier reached between her legs, and she lifted her free hand with the hidden knife as if to slip her arm around his neck. She sliced deep into his throat, cutting the carotid artery, and quickly dodged the spurting blood.
The boy grabbed his throat. Blood gushed between his fingers. He gurgled, dropped to his knees, and toppled over.
Tor scrambled for her clothes, bundled them under her arm, and shook her knife in the stream to wash it. She picked up her bag, then rushed back to the boy's body and pulled the carbine from under him. Now armed, she continued west. She stopped to dress only when safely away from the dead boy and the patrol.
Three torturous, never-ending days later, after climbing and descending a series of wooded hills, weakened by lack of food, with leaden legs and her feet a bloody mess, she staggered down an incline toward a level area of bushes and grass. Partly delirious, she muttered over and over, like a Buddhist mantra, "I will survive. I will live. I promised him. I must survive . . ."
Tor heard a motor. She stopped, swaying, and silently screamed, "No, no, please, no. Not them. Not after I've come so far."
She could barely lift her head to look death in the face.
There! There--a good road, running parallel to the hills. And on it, she saw a man riding by on a bicycle. And another one, riding from the opposite direction. She stumbled toward a patch of tall grass, hoping it would hide her movements as, one small step at a time, she approached the road. She stared as a motor scooter driven by a woman in a flowing blue dress passed along the road. Then an American car.
She was in Thailand!
Tor tried to stand straight. Swaying with the effort, she looked back at the mountains as if through a wet window. She planted her bleeding feet, gripped the carbine by its barrel, and swung it forward, hurling it back toward Cambodia. She fell as she released it, and buried her face in the grass, inhaling the smell of growing grass and rich earth--of Thailand. She kissed the ground.
She twisted onto her back, looked up at the cloudy sky, and croaked, "We made it, dearest. You are here," and she touched her chest. "Here in my heart forever, my husband."
Tor sat up and pulled her bag to her. She had consolidated what she could from Nguon's bag, and saved from it a photograph of them that Nguon always kept with him. She took it out, laid it on her lap, sought for the locket she would not barter, and set that beside the photo. Then she took out her knife, wiped her tears away, and cut her and Nguon's faces out of the photograph. After making sure Nguon's face fit the locket, she folded her face underneath that of Nguon's, and trimmed the sides to fit within the locket. She opened the locket and inserted the result over her parents' picture. She looked at Nguon's face for a few moments, kissed it, closed the locket, put the chain over her head, and let the locket fall down above her heart.
"Now, my dearest, you are here," and she put her right hand over the locket and her heart.
Her legs were almost too cramped with fatigue to move as she struggled to stand up. Putting one bloody foot in front of the other, she hobbled toward the passing vehicles.
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