Great Gain and Loss







Yimsut Ranachit


Gentle wind from the Himalayas once again brought chilled air to the Angkorian plain as it has for ages. The endless, flat green rice fields surrendered to the constant chilled wind by turning a golden yellow. Rice stalks swayed gently left and right in the wind. Parakeets and other birds came by the school to feast in the golden fields. People and animals sought warmth in front of bonfires during the early morning hours. It didn’t take very long before the rice crop was ready for harvest. It was once again a time of plenty, a time for celebration, a time to renew the spirit and soul.


But it was not meant to be. We were still under Angkar’s strict rule, unfortunately. There was still plenty of work to be done, just a little bit differently, under the new Angkar Leu (Khmer Rouge) management. We were still under the Khmer Rouge regime.


It was December 1978. Food was plentiful, but Angkar Leu only allotted a limited quantity for  rations. We still consumed a rice gruel, but with no wild vegetables mixed in. Plain cooked rice never tasted so great, I thought.


The primary focus now was to harvest the main rice crop as fast as possible. We often worked long hours, but the atmosphere was more at ease. Very few died, mostly from illness or disease. Angkar Leu was strict, but no one had been executed since the new administration was installed. It was a cause for celebration. Angkar Leu ordered us to work still harder, but there was a more gentle policy at work. The laborers, including what was left of the Mith Tmey people in Tapang, were rewarded for their hard work with time off and extra rations for completed work. What a big change! Not night and day, but still quite a change.


I put on some weight and seemed to be somewhat healthy, relatively speaking of course. I lost two lower back teeth and many others were rotten. Plain botled rice was still mighty tasty, I might add. We all worked close to home and helped out nearby villages. I spent more time in my own hut than I had in the past two years. I found myself taking advantage of the relaxing situation under Angkar Leu. My sugar palm tree, a little private enterprise on the side, produced more of the sweet liquid than I knew what to do with. I traded some for field crab and fish to supplement our “private meal” at night. It soon became sugar for a special dessert, which was unthinkable just a few months earlier under the old Angkar. Travel restrictions were still here, but also eased up slightly. With proper permission, I could travel to the next village for salt or Khmer fish paste. This is the life, I thought. Can’t really complain after years of no freedom and starvation, about a little “openness.” I was contented.


There were times when Angkar Leu donated small rations of special supplies for each family in town. I did not know where those supplies, such as vegetable oil, fabric for cloth, salt, bleached white sugar, and even kerosene, came from. All I knew was that every time the Chinese-made trucks that brought these little supply rations came in, they returned with a full load of our recently harvested rice. After a while, the trucks arrived more often empty, without supplies. Our rice supply soon dwindled and our favorite communal kitchen was back to serving watery rice gruel once more. People, especially the Mith Tmey, soon found themselves desperately hungry again.


The first group of Mith Tmey to go was my friend Laive and his family. There were other families (those who came with Laive) who were taken away at the same time. Like Laive and his family, they were mostly widows and children whose husbands and fathers had been killed earlier. Now it was their time to go.


The night before they took Laive and his family away from Tapang, he came to me with a very sad face. Laive knew in his heart that he might not see me again. He stopped at my hut to hug me goodbye.


“I have to go now, they are going to take me away from here tomorrow,” he paused for a moment then casually looked up into the sky. “I don’t know if I will ever see sunrise again after tomorrow, when I’m gone, please say goodbye to Pally [his girlfriend] for me, would you?”


I was still stunned from the news and was speechless.


“Stay alive, my friend. Stay alive, you hear me?” Laive continued gloomily. “Hope you will find your family safe and sound. Take good care,” he continued, trying hard not to weep.


Laive then turned and just walked away from me. “You be careful out here,” he added while walking away.


Laive said something else as he was walking away, but I could not comprehend it. I did not know what to say, so I remained quiet. I was still in a state of shock and denial. “I’m going to miss Laive from now on.” I was talking to myself again. For the first time in three years of being separated from my dear family I was once again missing someone. I cried a little and said nothing as Laive and his family were moved out under the escort of Angkar Leu soldiers. I noticed the same commander who kicked my butt earlier. The same man who took away the commune chief and the mayor a few months earlier. I knew then that Laive and the rest had no chance.


Human life is so cheap under Angkar, I suddenly realized. Traditionally, this is how the Khmer Rouge carried out killings. About a week after the war was over in April 1975, Angkar cadres ordered all servicemen, doctors, lawyers, teachers, and students to go and meet with this new Angkar Leu. The top leader of Angkar at the time was Prince Norodom Sihanouk. Many people followed this direct order. Many were hauled off in hundreds of military trucks. The trucks would take them to meet with Angkar. In actuality, there wasn’t any Angkar or leader that was supposed to greet them at all. It was a trick to kill everyone on the trucks. It was certain death for those who remained on those trucks. With arms bound tightly behind their backs, the victims were butchered and the bodies were simply left in shallow ditches. Not a single bullet was ever wasted. It was Khmer Rouge policy to not waste bullets when they murdered people. They simply used a baseball bat-sized stick and killed by smashing it on the victim’s neck or head until he died. It was a crude and simple method.


This method of killing was well known and I have seen the end result first-hand on many occasions. The “killing fields” were never a pretty sight. Blood stains, scattered bodies, and oftentimes, pieces of tissue, were everywhere. To top it off, the Khmer Rouge left their murder weapon of choice, now just damaged pieces of wood, right on site.


The killing fields were as close to hell as it can get. Some of the victims’ faces were still blindfolded. Their arms were always tightly bound; often both arms were broken because of the way the Khmer Rouge tied their victims. Some graves have anywhere from 20 to 500 bodies. All bodies were usually partly buried and partly out in the open. It was a real tragedy to see such a thing. I would never believe such a thing possible in modern times, but it was as real as the Khmer Rouge.


I was at a mass grave with my friend Laive on the outskirts of Tapang. He said to me with tears in his eyes, “My Dad is among those skeletons.” I asked him, “How do you know that?” He slowly said to me, “When I came to Tapang, Angkar knew that my Dad was a serviceman so they took him to meet with Angkar Leu, along with all these people.” He paused momentarily, “I don’t know who did the actual killing.”


Laive’s father and others were killed by Mith Chass people, including the ex-commune chief and ex-mayor, soon after their arrival in Tapang town. But Laive did not know about his father’s death until much later. Laive had always been a very diplomatic person and sometimes a con artist as well. He could get people to do things that are just short of miraculous. After Laive lived in Tapang for a while, he got to know many Mith Chass people, including those who killed his father and others.


Soon afterward, Laive managed to get the killers to take him to the killing fields. Just before he was to be taken away, he took me to see this gruesome sight. I was honored to share his grief.


All the time that I knew Laive, which was just under three years, he taught me so much about life and about survival in this town. Now, it was his turn to go. This time it was another plot to kill the families of servicemen, or what was left of them. My friend Laive was one of them.


Three days later, I overheard shocking news from Mith Chass people who assisted in moving the group. They said that Laive had escaped. I was stunned by this news. I knew right then that Laive’s family and others were killed, but Laive had escaped! The cadres and soldiers started a sweep search to capture Laive. I heard a rumor that Laive had come back to Tapang and hid out in the woods just outside the town. Fresh leaves were found in the thick bush. According to the soldiers, the escapee had slept there. The massive search for Laive continued.


I believed then that Laive had outsmarted and frustrated the Khmer Rouge for a while, but then was captured and killed on site. He never gave up. He gave the Khmer Rouge a run for their money, that’s for sure. He was a brave soul, my buddy Laive; I was praying hard for him.


One morning over a week after they had been looking for Laive, the search team cheerfully returned to town. I knew then that Laive had run for his freedom, but his life had ended abruptly. I wept and wept after that. My best friend was gone, chased and butchered like a dog. If I could only help him, I surely would have, even if it meant risking my life too. My friend’s courage and spirit would be instilled in me for the rest of my life. A mere two weeks later, on 22 December 1977, the other Mith Tmey families in Tapang and a few other families in nearby villages were notified to leave town. Angkar Leu gave us a mere 5 hours’ notice. This notification included my brother, other members of our family, and myself. The order was little surprise to anyone after what had happened to Laive, his family, and others. Some people started to cry after they received the notification. Deep in their hearts, they knew that they would be killed sooner or later. The time had come for them to go and there was not much time to pack the essentials.


People began to pack up their meager belongings in a great rush to get ready to leave as ordered. Angkar Leu cadres told everyone not to take everything at once. All property would be delivered to the destination of each owner, according to the cadres.             I wanted very much to take all of my personal belongings, which had little real value, but it was not possible. I had to travel by foot and I remembered very well how difficult it had been in the past. I spent hours looking for the old hen that I had raised, the only thing I owned that was connected to my past life with my family in Siem Riep. I could not find this special hen, which provided me with numerous large eggs and chicks. Anguish ruled my spirit as I spent the remaining time I had searching for my hen to no avail. I was so distraught; it was as though I had just lost a dear family member as the march out of Tapang progressed under armed guard.


Before the evacuation my brother, Serey, was allowed to come home because since his wife Sa Oum was about to give birth to their first child. Everyone in the family was worried about the possibility that she might deliver the baby on the road. But what could we do? She had to wait until we got to wherever it was we were going. Since many people were working away from town, many members of the family were still far away. The cadres told us that everyone would be reunited at our final destination, wherever that may be.


Early that day before we began the journey, everyone was ordered to gather along the main road out of town. Only the soldiers escorting us knew our exact destination. Most of the elders were very concerned that they might be killed at a place called Wat Yieng, a former Buddhist pagoda about ten miles South of Tapang. Wat Yieng was a well-known torture and processing center, a place where most people were killed.


“If we pass through Wat Yieng, we’ll be OK,” I heard one of my neighbor say quietly and hopefully.


The rest just sat quietly under a shade tree and prayed very hard. All wanted to live and see another sunrise. The sooner we get out of Wat Yieng, the better we would be. I continued to pray.


The trip was difficult on my sister-in-law. Her pregnancy had not been easy, physically speaking. She had had a miscarriage earlier and was hopeful that this one would make it. Her father was very old; he couldn’t walk far from home due to his swollen knee joints. Serey helped his pregnant wife walk while I helped his father-in-law. There wasn’t much room for our essential belongings, such as sleeping mats and blankets. I carried most of our sleeping mats and blankets by tying a long cotton cloth, the Khmer kroma, around them. Some families were dragging their small children along by the arms; they were crying along the way. It was a scene we had witnessed numerous times under Angkar’s “great leap forward.”


When we arrived at Wat Yieng, after what seemed to be a very long and exhausting hike, the leader of our escorts ordered us to stop along the road and wait. He then went inside to meet with Angkar Leu (High Organization) cadres in charge of the facility. While waiting we all prayed and prayed.


I then remembered the words of my neighbor: “If we pass through Wat Yieng, we’ll be OK.”


I have never been one to pray much, but I began to pray in earnest as well. I was hoping that we could make it through the process. About 20 minutes later, our escort returned with the cadres in charge and more families with them. There were more Mith Tmey families, about 15 in all. I watched the group from a distance of about 20 yards, close enough to see people’s faces.


I stared at a few very familiar faces in the crowd of new people. My heart skipped a few beats. I know these people! I know these people! I almost screamed and wanted to rush out to meet them right then. I got up and was about to rush out to them, but logic and common sense held me back. I did not want to jeopardize anything, certainly not at this notorious place. My heart was still skipping a few beats and my adrenaline was pumping very hard with a sense of extreme joy. Words cannot explain my tears of joy, which were flowing like waterfalls on my face.


My dad look very, very old and so did my dear mom. They had both changed a lot, but I knew in an instant that it was they. They wore just rags, much like the rest of us. My siblings were behind them. I was so pleased knowing that my family was almost intact after all these years. All of them were there, except two. I counted them again and again to make sure. My oldest brother Larony, and my older sister Mealenie were not among the group. But most of them were right here, quite close to me. They looked terrible, I thought, just skin and bones. It took a little while to recognize my younger brothers, who were not wearing shirts, but they were all there. They had grown taller. After more than three years of separation, most of them were right there before my eyes and I hesitated. I had dreamed of and waited for this day for years. Now that they were in front of me, I hesitated.


Their hopeless eyes just stared down to the ground, oblivious of their surrounding. They did not see or recognize either my brother Serey or myself in the crowd. They looked just awful, like dispirited people with little hope. They did not appear to be the same people I knew. Serey walked by and grabbed my left arm tight. He was breathing down on my face.


“Don’t stare, Ah Knack!” He spoke sternly into my left ear, using my nickname to emphasize that he meant it and I had better obey.


“That’s mom and dad! And our brothers!” I whispered back to Serey with excitement.


“I know, wait a while,” he pleaded with me now.


I saw tears on his cheeks. I knew then that he wanted to rush to them as much as I did. However, we had to exercise a little discipline and be very cautious, then more than ever. We did not know our fate or theirs, not at that moment.


I made eye contact with one of my little brothers, Ah Long. I wryly smiled at him, hoping that he would recognize me. He did not respond, to my disappointment.  He just looked away into thin air. I knew it was they! Had I changed so much that none of them recognized me? Were they being cautious like Serey and I had been? I still wanted to risk it all and rush to them and give them all a great big hug. I wanted to tell them how much I missed them in the past years. I could not and I was just as frustrated as hell.


After about an hour of sitting along side the road, we were ordered to move out again. The soldiers began to count the people as they passed by. I kept on looking back to see my long lost family. To my absolute joy, they followed my original group of Mith Tmey people from Tapang. I was so happy that I briefly forgot the threat of execution by Angkar Leu as we were marching away from this execution center. I was careless about that. I was so very happy to see my long lost loved ones again. They were right behind my group! Nothing would matter now, I thought. I am with my family again at last.


This march retraced the trip I made to Tapang town. People were more at ease and felt a little better after we were away from Wat Yieng. We have passed gate one. Nonetheless, everyone was unsure of what would happen next or what to expect ahead of us. I was simply very happy to have my family nearby again, even if I had not yet made direct contact. I knew I would soon. “Be very patient, Ah Knack!” I reminded myself sternly.


The trek went on until we reached National Highway 6, the main drag between Battambang city to the west and Siem Reap to the east. The soldiers ordered us to camp for the night, while they picked prime spots to tie their military hammocks to sleep. There was no food, absolutely nothing from Angkar Leu for us to eat. We had to take care of ourselves. People just crashed and fell asleep after the exhausting march. A few even snored loudly while some children cried. It didn’t matter. I had experienced this before. I took my small sack of cooked-dried rice; a commodity reserved for an emergency like this one, and casually walked over toward my parents and brothers. Hesitantly and nervously, I walked past them. I could see and feel their eyes fixed on me as I walked past. Perhaps they were looking at what I was eating and not me? They were still looking at me quietly when I returned.


“Mom, dad, everyone. It is I, Nachith,” I tried to stroke my long hair into the back of my head to show my face to them. What happened next surprised me. They all just looked at me blindly and said nothing. They did not recognize me after just three years. “It is me, your son, Nachith,” I insisted. “Do you all still remember me?” I cried with a sense of desperation and frustration.


Mom was the first to grab and feel my face with her hand in the dim campfire light. She looked as though she had just seen a ghost. She then wept quietly, trying to suppress an outburst that could be heard by the soldiers. She did not recognize her own son after three years. My dad did not fare well either. No need for words. Tears of joy were enough. Everyone else soon surrounded me. They would not let me go, afraid that I might be gone again.


My two little brothers, Monica and Seiha, had forgotten who I was. Only my two younger brothers Long and Nosay still vaguely remembered Serey and me. The four of them got my emergency rice. I would have given my right arm if it would help ease their hunger and suffering.


“Where are Serey and Sa-Oum?” Mom asked nervously, still weeping. “I’ll go get them, stay here,” I said and walked quickly back to my campsite. My younger brothers followed. They were more interested in looking for something to eat than being curious. I grabbed two of them by the head and would not let them go as we walked.


We met Serey halfway. He was also yearning to see our family again. When I disappeared from the camp, he knew exactly where I was. He had to follow to make sure I did not stir up trouble for all of us. We went back quietly to bring Sa Oum to see our family.


The reunion was bittersweet for all of us. We did not sleep much that night, but were quietly chatting and sharing our memories. Good and bad memories were flooding back and everyone was in tears most of the time. We were lucky to be alive, up to that point, and to have found each other again.


The recent loss of my friend Laive and my favorite hen were momentarily forgotten when I found my family. I still deeply missed Laive, but I now had my family to comfort me once again. However, as fate would have it, it turned out to be a short reunion under Angkar Leu’s genocidal regime.








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Ten Years of Independently Searching for the Truth: 1997-2007


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