A Story that Cannot be Forgotten







Sokhym Em


17 April 1975 is one bitter memory that my mother will always remember and alone will continue to flow tears.  She does not know how her father past away.  When she remembers my grandfather, he is sleeping in misery in one hut attached to an insane asylum in Ta Khmao that was established since 1974.  He used this hut as a temporary home.  By the time the country had ceased fighting he would return to our home again.  Honestly, my mother’s house was located only in one place in Rean Thmar Village on the northern side, Siem Riep Sub-District, Kandal Stung District, Kandal Province.  But the country was at war and they used the people as a shield for the Khmer Rouge.  We could not endure the shelling, so my family decided to flee and live for a short while behind the hospital in Ta Khmao so that we could escape the hands of the Khmer Rouge.  My mother always remembers this when anyone reminds her of the 17th of April.  This was the day in which my mother and my grandfather were separated and would no longer return to each other.  As a daughter, to what extent do you sympathize with a person to whom you should be grateful to? 


At that time, I was only three years old.  I am not able to remember any of the events that arose during that time.  Now I would like to write about the bitter memories my mother and my family encountered on 17 April 1975.  I use to hear people talk about the separation of families on the 17th of April.  Some were separated from their husbands, some were separated from their children, while others abandoned their old fathers because they wanted to save themselves since death was pursuing them closely. 


When I was young, I listened to my neighbors tell me about this time, but I could not grasp everything because I was not yet able to reflect on the stories. I could not understand how great the suffering was until I was able to work at the Documentation Center of Cambodia and after my mother told me about the time when she left my grandfather behind to suffer in a miserable hut.  I knew that no one could forget the suffering the people of Cambodia endured on the 17th of April.  My mother told all of her children about her anguish, which is also like the misery experienced by the rest of the Cambodian people, because all of the problems that arose on that day were almost all alike.  Some lost their older sibling, some lost their younger sibling and the separation of families developed everywhere. 


            The first day the Khmer Rouge liberated the city of Phnom Penh, was the first day tears fell from the eyes of the Cambodian people who had hoped that the country would achieve peace.  But the hope of everyone transformed into tears that fell from pity and pain.  They felt remorse for the hundreds of thousands of small children who were traveling with crowds of people. Each person had their belongings attached to their bodies.  Some carried their goods on their heads, some held their things close to their bodies, while others pushed old people in carts or wagons.  Along the road, the voices of people shouted so chaotically it was impossible to hear each other.  Only screams and cries of small children who had lost their parents could be heard.  Also could be heard were the cries of the people who had lost their families and their parents.  They were shot and killed by the Khmer Rouge soldiers because they were unwilling to leave their homes as they were ordered.  Even if they all heard the screams of the little children who were searching for their parents none of them could hear or notice what was going on or do anything about it.  No matter what they could only think about trying to move quickly forward.  Everyone tried to grab on to their own children, fearing their hands would slip and they would lose each other.   The pain and misery endured by each person were caused by the terrible, barbarous and inhumane acts of all the Khmer Rouge soldiers who had no mercy for their own Cambodian people.  They fired aimlessly at innocent civilians as long as someone offended them in any way.  They cursed the older people without even thinking about sin and merit. 


            On the morning of 17 April 1975, all the people in the city of Ta Khmao were exhilarated to hear that the Liberation Army of King Sihanouk had achieved victory over the Republic government and had great hope that Cambodian society had a king to support them again.  The country was certain to be prosperous and happy and would no longer be at war.  But following this period of happiness that did not last for even a few minutes, they heard word that all the people must prepare their things because they must temporarily evacuate to the rural areas for three days.  They were afraid the Americans would bomb the city.  Since there were so many inhabitants within the city it would be difficult to ensure their safety.  It was also not necessary to bring many of their belongings since it could only make their journey more difficult.  After three days they will each return to their homes.  At that time, my mother was extremely worried.  She was very troubled and distressed.  My father was not at home with her, because he had been visiting his parents for three days.  My mother was very angry with my father.  She told me, “Your father always tries to save himself.  He never thinks about all his children at home. And even an old father at home who is ill and cannot get up from the rug.” My mother could not do anything but sit there and cry and be angry with my father.  She told my sister and brother who were about four or five years older than I to help her prepare our things and put them in a sack, because she was not able to get hold of a cart at the Ta Khmao market like our neighbors.  Therefore, she didn’t know how she could bring her father with us. 


At 10:00 in the morning each of our neighbors who had houses behind the insane asylum in Ta Khmao, left gradually with their children and took different roads to their native districts.  But these people were not able to fulfill their plans.  They traveled according to the orders of the Khmer Rouge and did not dare to challenge them, because they saw the examples clearly with their eyes.  They usually shot and killed anyone who challenged their commands. 


Around 9:00 in the morning, my mother had still not decided whether or not she would leave with our neighbors.  She was still waiting for my father who could arrive on time and may have an idea about how we could take her father with us.  But as she waited and waited, she did not see the shadow of my father return to his family.  At that time, a soldier carrying a gun came and threatened us to leave immediately.  Our neighbors were already leaving gradually.  My mother did not dare argue with them. She only answered, “I will be leaving soon.”  At that time, my mother walked and looked for her father with tears flowing from her eyes.  She told him, “Father, they are forcing us to leave the house for the country for three days. Three days afterwards they will allow us to return again.  I’m not able to take you with me, because I must take care of six of your grandchildren.”  My grandfather answered, “Don’t think about your father.  I am already old. Do whatever you can to take the young children with you first.  I can endure three days.  Just keep some water and some cakes and food near me so that I can reach them easily by myself.”  When my mother heard my grandfather say this, my mother began to cry even more strongly because she felt pity for his words and she felt very sorry for him.  But what could she do if this was the situation she was dealt?  How could she decide?  If she stayed and was not willing to leave, the lives of her six young children would be shot and killed.  Finally, my mother had to force herself to take leave of her father in tears.  Nothing could compare to the extent of her affliction.  She had to leave her old father who was ill and who was unable to move, lying on the rug and alone in the house. 


As we traveled along the road, my mother carried my younger sister who was only one year old, she carried packages on her head, and her thoughts wandered to my father wondering how things were going for him.  My two older brothers and sisters walked behind my mother and helped to carry pots, pans, and rice.  I couldn’t help with anything because I was still very small.  I couldn’t even walk forward.  At that time I told my mother I was very sleepy, but honestly I was tired from the journey.  I was so small, I couldn’t possibly know how it is like to be tired.  When I became sleepy, my older sister carried me and put me on her shoulders so that I could sleep and regain my energy.  My family traveled with a throng of people, pushing and crowding each other so much, it was almost impossible to walk.  We kept walking without a clear objective, only according to the commands of the Khmer Rouge. 


In one day my family and I had reached Kandal Market.  Along the road, things fell all over the place.  Glass fell and scattered all over the road.  Some houses closed their doors and others had their doors open, but had bullet marks showing on the outside.  Cars and motorcycles were abandoned along the roads.  No one noticed or cared for them like before.  Each person simply struggled to walk and move forward. While we were traveling along the road of Kandal Market, we saw one man who died on his knees.  He had his belongings tied to two ends of a pole and placed on his soldier.  But there was no sign of blood or gunshots.  We did not know how this man died.  We only walked pass his corpse without asking anyone about him. 


After we passed Kandal Market, my family forked into a large road and continued our journey on the Russian Federation Street until we reached Pochentong.  We wanted to go to our native district.  Along the road it smelled rancid from the blood and putrid from the corpses that lay bloated on the floor.  Some of the corpses were of normal citizens while others were of Lon Nol soldiers dressed in military uniforms.  According to my mother’s narration, I understood that along this national road, many people were killed because Lon Nol soldiers guarded this area heavily since it was an international airport and they were afraid the Liberation Army would attack.  But in the end, they still lost.  The soldiers ran in order to save their own lives.  Some soldiers were captured by the Khmer Rouge and immediately shot and killed. 


That afternoon, under the scorching sun, my family traveled with thousands of other families to Baek Chan Village.  Everyone was dripping with sweat, and was so exhausted and weak, it was almost impossible for them to keep moving forward.  The voices of children screaming and crying from hunger intermingled with the sound of the wagons creaking and croaking.  Some women had just given birth while others were still pregnant, and still others were in the process of giving birth.  Travelers brought blankets to help cover the women while they finished giving birth.  When the Khmer Rouge witnessed such suffering they gave the people permission to stop, rest, and cook their rice.  But before we could even digest our meal, the soldiers ordered the people to continue their journey again.  My family traveled along National Road #3 toward Pratah Lang Village and we rested there at night. 


That night, my mother met one of our neighbors who use to live in the same village, who told her that that day around 12:00 in the afternoon she gathered her belongings from her house behind the hospital in Ta Khmao.  She was able to enter our house and she saw my grandfather lying sick in the house alone.   She asked my grandfather where his children and grandchildren had gone.  And he answered that his children and grandchildren had abandoned him and had kept him there alone.  Our neighbor told my mother that she was not able to talk for very long because at that time she saw the Khmer Rouge walking towards her so she tried to escape to Pochentong Street until she reached Pratah Lang Village.  As soon as my mother heard her neighbor tell her this, my mother just kept crying from night until morning.  She was not able to fall asleep.  She kept thinking about the destiny of my grandfather.  She didn’t know what would happen if the Khmer Rouge saw her father lying down and unable to get up.  What would they do to him? 


Twenty-five years later until now my mother never found out if her father died from starvation or if the Khmer Rouge shot and killed him in the house.  My mother always cried whenever she remembered her father.  Within her lifetime, she will never be able to forget.  The terrible, barbaric, and inhumane acts of the Khmer Rouge, separated an old father and forced him to remain miserably in a small hut in a village filled with corpses and destruction from flying bullets.  This can be compared to an uninhabited and silent forest that is filled with terrible and inhumane things.  In the end my mother’s father was forced to suffer and die like an animal.


            This is a true story of my mother’s that passed on 17 April 1975.  This is a story that ought to make one terrified and is a bitter memory that cannot be forgotten.  This memory continues to haunt my mother’s feelings so that she will always remember.  At that time I was only three years old.  On this day I am twenty-eight years old and I am sitting in the Documentation Center of Cambodia.  I have contributed to searching for a truth to grant to the spirits of hundreds of thousands of Cambodians who died from the injustice of the Khmer Rouge. 








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