Surviving the Khmer Rouge

Surviving the Khmer Rouge
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.

RIK CHORK GREW UP in what she calls a simple family. They weren’t rich, nor middle class, nor poor. They had enough food to eat and lived in a house made from thick bamboo.

When she was just 13, Rik’s mother died. Like many people in Cambodia, Rik wasn’t exactly sure how her mother died, however, she says it was due to a problem with her mother’s lungs.

After her mother died, life was challenging for Rik. Someone needed to take care of her younger brother and sister and, given she was the eldest child, it needed to be her. At first, Rik took her siblings with her to school, so she could continue studying. However, day after day, the other school children mocked her, saying that she was a young single mother. Rik felt she had no choice but to stop studying in grade six.

Rik spent her days looking after her siblings and occasionally helping her father take care of their farm. She longed to have her own market stall, but her father forbade it. His reasoning was that they had enough food to eat, so there was no need for her to work.

As time went by, Cambodia became more unstable. When she was still at school, Rik’s teacher used to tell her class that there would be a war; that Lon Nol was planning to force the King out and hold control of the country. Her teacher presented them with chilling words: ‘If war happens, be calm, quiet, and patient. Concentrate on surviving and use your willpower not to kill yourselves. Just try your best to live.’

Every few days, Rik would hear of bombings and gun fights around Siem Reap. She recalls bombs that looked like flowers being shot from far away that would land in her village. Her family dug a trench deep in their land to hide in and would take their food in there and wait for the bombing to finish. Although they remained safe, many people in Rik’s village died. One time after retreating from their trench, they saw that their neighbour had been decapitated by a bomb whilst eating his rice. Rik lived her life feeling scared and worried. But the worst was yet to come.

When Rik was 18, the Khmer Rouge took control of Cambodia. On that dreaded day, the village chief notified the villagers that they were to kill the animals they owned so there would be food to eat. The villagers were told that they were going to be moved from their village to another place, though they didn’t know where.

The village chief gathered his community together and announced that if there were any people who worked for the government or who were educated, they were to notify him, so they could welcome the King to Siem Reap. Those villagers went and registered, and so did some uneducated farmers who lied, as they wanted to grasp this opportunity to meet the King. They were taken away and executed. The story about meeting the King had been a lie. This was year zero, and all educated citizens or people who worked for the government were not to be trusted.

A couple of days later, after having been left in the dark, uncertain of their future, Rik’s family were told they were going to be moved to Krobei Riel, a commune approximately 8km from their home. It was communicated that they needed to prepare rice to eat on the journey, however, as they would be returning in one week, they didn’t need to take much. Rik and her family packed their rice, vegetables, and cooking utensils in bamboo baskets and carried them with sticks over their shoulders. With their cow in tow, they started the journey to Krobei Riel by foot.

With thousands of people making the journey, it took a week to walk 8km, under the guidance of one soldier. At that time, there weren’t roads to walk on; only farms to navigate through. As the sun set each evening, Rik’s family and thousands of other people would settle down for the night. Many people died along the way due to illnesses and were buried by their families. Pregnant women gave birth with no support, as the doctors and nurses had already been slaughtered.

When they finally reached Krobei Riel, all the families who survived the journey were instructed to build small houses. Without any materials, they had to forage the forests to find bamboo and palm leaves. The families worked together to build the houses one by one, staying in the abandoned local school whilst the work was being completed.

Once the houses were finished being built, a meeting was called by the soldiers, as there were more by that time. The villagers were divided into ‘categories’ according to their level of education and skills. Rik, having studied until grade six, was allocated to be teacher for the children. Her youngest brother was too young to contribute to the community, so he was permitted to stay at home. Rik’s sister, who had been in primary school at the time, was responsible for carrying fertiliser to the farms, cutting small trees, and making compost. As her father was a woodworker, his job was to make cow carts and other wood items. The villagers without an education or skill were forced to perform hard labour in the farms and rice fields.

To stamp out any memories of the ‘old way’, the local school was destroyed, and a new school was built from bamboo. When teaching, Rik used a dry candle to draw Khmer letters and numbers on the chalkboard, as she didn’t have access to chalk. She taught children who were aged between six and 15 each day. Some students learnt for half a day, then worked the other half of the day. Those who were 14 or 15 often had to skip school so they could help with transporting fertiliser.

The newly formed community was ruled by a handful of soldiers who carried guns and wore bandoliers over their shoulders to remind people of their power. They enforced an endless number of rules that came from a higher power. Adults and teenage boys and girls could not make eye contact with each other or speak with each other. They could only eat the food that was provided. If the farmers were told to plant a certain amount of rice a day, they had to finish it. If they were told to do something, they had to do it in a certain amount of time. However, if they finished too quickly, their quota would be increased the next day. People mostly worked from 6am in the morning until 9pm at night.

If the rules were broken, a meeting would be held in the community, and the soldiers would encourage the ‘rule breaker’ to fix their problem. However, if the problem persisted, such as the person taking food from another source, their whole family would be slaughtered as a result. Their hands would be tied with string and attached to a bicycle, whilst the soldier rode the bicycle, leaving the unfortunate villager to run after it for the whole 8km journey to a pagoda that had been turned into a prison. They were then killed.

Although the community members never had enough to eat, and many died from malnutrition and starvation, Rik was lucky. The soldiers trusted her, so they gave her extra food that she was permitted to share with her father and siblings.

Rik is haunted daily by the memory of a starving family who had recently been moved from Banteay Meanchey, a province over 100km from Siem Reap. The soldiers were often making families move from one province to another, and this family had been deprived of food for so long that they didn’t have energy to do anything. The mother in the family had sourced a small piece of sugarcane, which she was sucking on for energy. Despite her children reaching up to grab it, she made the difficult decision not to share it with them, as she knew she needed it for her survival. It wasn’t enough though, and she died of starvation soon after, with all three of her children following her just a few days later. This was the new Cambodia, and that meant dozens of people were dying in Rik’s community each week. The neighbours were responsible for burying the victims.

Pol Pot, the leader of the Democratic Republic of Kumpuchea (nowadays known as Cambodia), wanted all citizens to be the same. Everyone had to wear a black uniform, which would be replaced every few months if they were ‘good’. With the majority of the educated having been murdered, there were no doctors to take care of sick villagers. Instead, this responsibility fell on a soldier with no medical background. To ‘treat’ his patients, he would inject coconut juice into their arms with a syringe.

The community members were forced to move around a lot, particularly when construction was required in other places, or there was rice that needed harvesting. Since Rik was a teacher, she would have to leave her family for weeks at a time to teach the children in rice fields. They had to walk to every destination, which took a toll on the villagers and resulted in further deaths.

In 1978, three years after Cambodia had been overthrown, Rik’s father remarried. His new wife, who was just a couple of years older than Rik, had a big temper. One day, she argued with one of the leaders in the village, which put a black mark on her family. Determined to save her family from execution, Rik asked another leader who trusted her if her family could be moved back to the village where they had lived before the Khmer Rouge took power. She was granted permission on the condition that she would be paired off for marriage, as at the age of 20, it wasn’t good for her to be living as a single woman anymore. With her family being her only priority, Rik agreed.

There were 47 other couples who were paired off on the day Rik married her husband. They were taken to the pagoda and sat on the ground while soldiers called the names of each couple and asked them to stand up. They told the couples, ‘You are married from today,’ and that was it. Although most people were paired up by the soldiers, Rik’s husband was allowed to choose her. His boss had heard about her and recommended Rik, telling her husband she was a good girl. Rik never loved her husband.

Two weeks after they were married, the Khmer Rouge was overthrown. Rik had known about this in advance, as the leader in her village had a radio notifying her that the Vietnamese were invading. That same leader offered Rik a big amount of gold, however, she refused as she thought the leader was testing her so she could kill her. The soldiers who supported Pol Pot fled because they were afraid they would be killed.

Rik’s family walked from their village to where she was living. This time, it only took them a few hours because they were so happy to be free.

Rik lived with her husband’s friend in their village. As it was rice harvesting season, they fortunately had enough rice to eat. There were ample vegetables and many fish to catch in the rice field. As the houses in the village had been destroyed during the Khmer Rouge, they were free to take what land they wanted. Rik and her husband claimed land at Penechey Village, not far from where Rik had grown up. The provincial leader had offered her land in town, but as she thought it was haunted, she said no. That man died a couple of months after the Khmer Rouge fell. He had been accused of corruption and died of a gun wound to his head. Some people say he committed suicide, others say he was murdered. Like many deaths that happened during the regime, people will never know the truth.

Rik had a very difficult life with her husband. After the Khmer Rouge regime fell, it was very challenging for him to earn money. Originally, his work sent him to Palin, a rural province to sell ox, however, he was robbed along the way and lost everything. This shattered his confidence, and he turned to drinking and gambling. He became an alcoholic and, when Rik didn’t agree with him, he would verbally abuse her. Rik and her husband had eight children together, and to raise them, her husband fished and harvested rice, which Rik would then sell at the market. When Rik’s children were naughty or played too much, her husband would hit them on the back with bamboo sticks and often verbally abused them, too. Although Rik’s husband has now stopped drinking, they still don’t have a happy marriage, as she can’t forget the past. Although she has no love for him, they still live in the same house, for the sake of their children.

Rik’s family and friends don’t speak about their experiences during the Khmer Rouge. Although she feels happy that Cambodia has been slowly healing, Rik constantly worries that these atrocities will happen again in the future.