A Soldier's Story

A Soldier's Story
The following is an except from 'It's Not About Me', written by our CEO, Sally Hetherington OAM. 
You can purchase a paperback copy here.

THORNG THOEUN WAS BORN into a poor family in Bakong District, about 17km from the centre of Siem Reap. His family lived in a house made from palm leaves and bamboo. When he was young, Thorng studied at the primary school at the local pagoda. The oldest of eight children, he had to stop studying in grade six as his family couldn’t afford it.

With no employment opportunities in the countryside, Thorng took care of his family’s farm. As time went by, the fighting between the Khmer Rouge and the Lon Nol government intensified. As the Khmer Rouge were the more powerful party in Thorng’s village, he was told that he had to sign up to fight for what they called ‘the red army’. If he didn’t sign up to be a soldier, the Khmer Rouge were going to send his parents far away from their hometown. Wanting to avoid this, Thorng signed up to fight for the Khmer Rouge. He then ran away from his home to cooperate with Lon Nol’s army.

Thorng spent six months training in Siem Reap, learning the strategies of fighting, shooting rifles, using grenades, bombs and other weapons. He was willing to fight for Lon Nol as he knew the Khmer Rouge were committing unimaginable acts and that a big war would occur if they took power.

Thorng’s team travelled all around Cambodia to fight the Khmer Rouge soldiers. At one point in time, whilst in Battambang, Pol Pot’s soldiers surrounded them for seven days and seven nights. A plane from their side dropped parachutes with bombs towards them, however, they only managed to receive three bombs, with the enemy capturing the rest. Thorng’s leader encouraged his team to fight the other side and push them out. Although they were successful, 15 people from Thorng’s team died that day.

When Thorng was 21, the Khmer Rouge took control of Cambodia. His team heard through the radio communication that Phnom Penh had fallen, and the government had lost. They were told to put down their weapons and not fight back.

The Khmer Rouge soldiers came to Thorng’s barracks and took down the names of all the soldiers. They were then taken in a truck to Bakong district, close to his hometown, to be killed. On the first night, the Khmer Rouge soldiers executed the generals of Thorng’s group. Knowing they would be killed on the second night, Thorng’s team of 20 made a plan, which, if successful, would see them escape.

Luck was on their side, as there was a big thunderstorm that evening, so the security guard who was responsible for staying at the gate to the compound had moved elsewhere to seek shelter. When the coast was clear, they escaped one by one, with Thorng being the leader. They reached Thorng’s village and rested there for one night, then started the long walk back to Siem Reap. As there were not enough soldiers to spend the time to catch them, the journey was relatively safe.

The team ended up in Kok Krosaing village, the hometown of some of their team members. Luck continued to be on Thorng’s side, as the soldier that Pol Pot had sent to manage the village was his friend from the monkhood. Despite being a soldier for the enemy, his friend removed Thorng’s and the team member’s names from the register so that they weren’t marked for death. Thorng ended up staying with his friend and a woman who was like a mother to him.

Thorng’s job was to measure the rice fields and allocate work for people to do. He made sure he allocated the same amount to everyone so that it wasn’t unfair, though he didn’t pity the people who had to work in the rice fields, as he knew it was the rule and couldn’t be changed. Thorng would remind the villagers not to work too quickly, otherwise their quota would be increased.

When the villagers didn't finish their work on time, Thorng made reasons for them to the leaders so they wouldn’t be punished. Thorng recounts that his leaders weren’t as brutal as leaders in other parts of Cambodia, so they accepted his reasons. Fortunately, Thorng never had to send anyone to their death.

For a while, Thorng moved near Phnom Kroam, a mountain about 8km from his village. There were people there digging roads and cutting small trees, so he had to monitor them. He fell in love with a girl, and he gave her less work to do than others at that time. Other people found out, but as he was friends with a leader, he didn’t get in trouble.

Even as a person who was responsible for monitoring other people, Thorng had to follow the rules. If he had broken them, he would have been taken to the pagoda and, as he recounts, hit in the head with a piece of wood until he died.

The memory that sticks out most horrifically in his mind was when a man in Thorng’s village was taken to the prison at the pagoda because people branded him a bad man. If somebody didn’t like another person, they could just say they were bad; then they were taken away. Thorng went to the pagoda to plead for the man’s life, but when he got there, nothing could be done. They tied the man’s hands and used black fabric to cover his eyes. He begged for his life, and said, ‘Please don’t kill me or hurt me,’ but they didn’t listen. Thorng said the soldiers used an axe to hit his head numerous times until he stopped breathing. 

Although many people didn’t have enough food to eat, Thorng did as he knew the leader. He could save some food to give to others, but he had to hide it. He couldn’t let the leader or other people see it, or he would be punished.

Towards the end of 1978, Thorng decided he wanted to get married. His trusted friend told him about a young woman named Rik who had a good reputation in the community. Love began to swell in his heart, and he asked for them to be married. Little did he know, Rik would never feel love for him.

On the day the Khmer Rouge ended, Thorng saw Pol Pot’s soldiers run away. His friend collected the weapons in the village and gave them to the good soldiers. Thorng then walked to his homeland to find his family. Although his parents were alive, two of his siblings had died from illnesses. Another one of his brothers was missing and presumed dead. In 1988, they found out that his brother had survived. He had been near the Thai border when the Khmer Rouge fell and managed to get on a plane and move to Canada. His wife was looking for Thorng’s family and sent some money. Feeling so lucky, Thorng named his son who was born that year, ‘Dollar’.

Now in his sixties, Thorng takes care of his buffalos and cows every day. He tries to put the travesties to the back of his mind, but he still remembers so much from that time. He hopes it will never happen again, but he isn’t certain.