Democratic Kampuchea (Cambodia,) West Zone, 1978
The rain came sideways now, cutting through the jungle like a wet knife. Big drops stung her face and ran
into her eyes making her vision blurry. Sophy’s bare feet slipped on mud and decaying leaves while sharp
sticks and the jagged ends of fallen palm branches sliced at her ankles and calves. Several times she almost
dropped the baby, young Samnang, as she tried her best in the fading light to keep to the narrow path.
Gunshots rang out in the distance, or maybe it was claps of thunder but it was hard to tell now, and there
was the dull roar of the rain. She leaned into the torrent, bent over, grasping at the ground as she clawed
forward, trying to keep her mind focused on getting back to the village. Just movement. That was what the
task required. It was all the same to her now so long as she kept moving. She was running again. Her heart
had never pounded so hard, and it occurred to her again that she was alone. Truly alone.
She didn’t believe her husband would do it. Even under the stress and strain of escaping, she had trouble
imagining that he would ever hurt Samnang. But the crying was too much, and she’d overheard Tam telling some
of the others that they would all die if they didn’t leave the baby in the jungle. He didn’t want to do it,
he said, but what choice did he have? “The crying will bring the soldiers,” he said.
Would he do it? She didn’t know. Maybe not. Maybe he’d just been talking to solve things for himself in his
mind. Frustrated. He was a good man, and a good father, but now he was on his own, leading his family away
from the Killing Fields… or through them. How do you decide if the saving of a baby means condemning all of
them to death?
Their guide had abandoned them. Afraid probably, or maybe he was a thief from the beginning, and now it was
all on Tam’s shoulders to keep them all moving. He had to choose their path and, when necessary, get them
to hide silently whenever soldiers were near. A crying child could spell the end for everyone. She wouldn’t
have blamed him if he chose to sacrifice Samnang for the lives of all the others. What is one life when so
many can be saved? Still, she couldn’t let it happen.
And the killing never stopped. It hadn’t stopped for over a year.
Sophy tried to pick up speed as she moved through the thick brush. She told herself that she was not losing
another child. Not one she knew she could save. So she’d had to act, regardless of how foolish her actions
might be. This wasn’t a logical time. Not a time for reason. And her other self – the other person she would
sometimes become when the darker voices in her head took control – that girl wasn’t here right now. Pure
left no room in her mind for that other girl.
Here’s how it happened. While the others were talking in hushed tones, deciding Samnang’s fate, she took
child and ran. Heading back, away from Thailand and safety. It was the only way that she could see. They
wouldn’t come after her, the family wouldn’t, because it was too dangerous. The soldiers were shooting
on sight, or, in order to save bullets, they would gather a group of them and force the men to kill the
with pickaxes. Then they would shoot or pickaxe the men. How did they know who to kill? If you weren’t in
village, or at your work – if you were in the jungle in a rainstorm heading toward Thailand with your family
you were the killing kind.
No, she knew her husband Tam and the family wouldn’t come after her. To take the family through this jungle
once was crazy. To do it twice was suicide. They would understand what she did and then would keep moving.
family was heading toward Thailand and… what? Hopefully safety and a new life. As a woman alone with a baby,
maybe, if the Khmer Rouge caught her, they’d let her live. Probably not, but maybe.
The mud gave way underneath her feet again as she ran and she fell hard to the ground. She twisted her
as she fell to keep baby Samnang from taking the brunt of her weight. She held him up as her shoulder
hard into the mud.
“I would pray. I would pray,” Sophy whispered aloud, but to herself. She surprised herself by saying that.
didn’t want to slip into hysterics, and didn’t know exactly what she was saying or why. Her soul searching,
maybe, for an anchor or a rope or something she could mentally grasp that would keep her going. She thought
the spirits of her ancestors; maybe they would help her. If there was a shrine around here, she could
them and the gods to save her and her baby. But there was no shrine. Religion under the Khmer Rouge was
illegal. Occasionally, on other days, back before things got too bad, when she was walking in the forest she
would find a shrine left there by someone else who felt the need to pray. But there was no shrine here. So
tried to talk to the dead in her mind. To beg them for help.
She didn’t feel their help, so she pushed up from the mud and headed onward again. Samnang was crying now,
more of a deep, guttural wail this time. He was worn out from the journey that never seemed to end. This
misery, she thought, but death would be worse.
“I would pray.”
She’d heard the stories the missionaries told, back before the Khmer Rouge banned religions and killed the
Christians or ran them out of the country, of a man-God in the sky who answered prayers. A man-God who could
help. Who’d been put to death by his government and so knew how to help poor, desperate sinners who suffered
under afflictions. But she didn’t know him so as to ask him to help her. She’d been raised on her Buddhist
faith, now illegal, but it failed her now on this muddy path.
Just run. She made it farther this time before spinning to the ground again when her feet slipped
She climbed up once more and stumbled forward, in the direction of the village.
there. Just ahead she could see it. It was not the village but she knew now where she was. This area was
being cleared for a rice field because the government of Pol Pot expected every zone to multiply
agricultural production to feed the millions of people he’d swept out of the cities like debris. It wasn’t
working, his plan. The people were starving – that is, those who weren’t being killed for being part Thai,
or Vietnamese, or Chinese, or Christian, or Buddhist, or lame and worthless in the fields, or part of the
former government or military. The rest were starving. Or most of them were. Her small village was still
doing alright. They had some food. Daily the men and most of the women would go to the fields, and some of
them wouldn’t return, but there was food so that the survivors could starve to death more slowly.
She looked around. Her husband had participated in the work of clearing the jungle away for this clearing.
remembered him telling her about it. That was when the KR didn’t know he’d been a soldier for the Kingdom of
Cambodia, before the Khmer Republic and before the Khmer Rouge came to power.
Wiping rain and tears from her face, she stopped short of the field and hid herself in the fronds and brush
of the jungle. She ducked as a
group came out of the trees on the far side and slogged into the field. She knew them instantly. Not who
they were individually, but she recognized their gait and how they held their heads. Escapees like her. Only
these had been caught and they knew they were going to die. Sophy watched as soldiers with guns followed the
group into the field, and she instinctively covered Samnang’s mouth, though now he only whimpered quietly in
his soaked blanket. There were gunshots and the men dropped, then the soldiers began to club to death the
women and children who were too shocked, too scared, or too weak and beaten to run. When the bloody deed was
done, the soldiers pulled the bodies into a drainage ditch on the side of the field and quickly covered them
with mud and muck shoveled hastily from the top of the ditch. Then they walked back into the jungle and
disappeared from her sight.
She didn’t recognize any of the group that had just been murdered. They weren’t
from the village where she’d been living with her family while they waited and hoped to hire a guide to take
them out of the country. Maybe these were city people, unused to field labor and therefore useless to the
Khmer Rouge. Or maybe they’d been trying to escape, just like her family was. In any case, she closed her
eyes and tried to pray again, but it was no use. Her ancestors weren’t interested in helping.
Maybe we all end up in a ditch, she thought. Maybe this is how the world ends. She started off
afraid to cross
the field, she skirted it just inside the canopy of trees and under the cover of the storm. She didn’t have
a compass, and wouldn’t have known how to use one if she did. Her husband had one, but he was gone now.
Maybe in a ditch farther along. She put the thought out of her mind and guided herself by memory and by
instinct. The village wasn’t far now, and perhaps she could get there tonight. Or in the morning. Maybe
she’d have to find a place to sleep here in the jungle and try to stay dry and feed Samnang so he wouldn’t
start crying again.
Seattle, Washington. Present Time.
Sam placed an herbal tea pod in the Keurig machine and pressed the start button. The machine hummed and in
no time began sputtering hot tea into his
favorite mug. When the cup was full, he took it and walked into the living room where Chloe was folding
clothes and watching the news. There was a ruckus on the screen, like people were fighting, then the scene
cut to black clad demonstrators with balaclavas throwing metal crowd barriers into the windows of businesses
while another band of screaming thugs was overturning a police car.
“What’s going on?” Sam said.
“Protestors at a free speech rally in Berkeley,” Chloe said.
Sam shook his head. “Those aren’t protestors. That’s a full-on riot.”
“Maybe they don’t like free speech.”
“More of the left-right nonsense. I get so sick of all of it. It’s been going on since the election.”
The TV panned the crowd of rioters and Sam saw several red Soviet Union hammer and sickle flags. One of the
protest signs read “We want full communism!”
“They think they want full communism,” Sam said. “They don’t know what they’re asking for.”
“Who knows?” Chloe said. “The announcer keeps saying the free speech rally is really a cover for right wing
The media is on the side of the rioters.”
“Well, turn it off,” Sam said. “This country is losing its mind.”
Chloe grabbed the remote and switched off the television. “So what’s your plan for today?”
“I’m talking to dad.” Sam took a sip of his tea, just now cool enough that it didn’t burn his lips. “I
finally convinced him
to let me record him as he talks about his time in Cambodia… and their escape.”
“Do you really think getting
him to talk about it is a good idea?”
“We need to remember, I think. That’s what they say when something
terrible happens that should never be repeated, right? They say ‘Never Forget.’ His generation needs to talk
about it so our children will remember. Anyway, he’s never been one to talk about things. You know him. He’s
a severe guy. Very serious. And I know it’s because of everything they went through in the Civil War and
then escaping the Killing Fields. Mom has told stories, and so has Thea. My sister was old enough then,
seventeen, and was like a second mother to the younger kids. Vissna was a young boy then, almost ten, and he
remembers a lot of it, and Chan, my oldest sister, didn’t talk much about it. My other two sisters, Sopat
and Tun, were too young to remember, they were only a few years older than me. But Dad has never spoken much
about his experiences at all. The fact that he’s willing to let me record him means maybe he’s ready to talk
“What about your mom?”
“I’ll talk to her too. Soon.”
Chloe moved a pile of towels to the side and
started folding T-shirts. “And what do you hope to get from all of this?”
Sam sipped his tea again and pondered the question.
“You know, there are a dozen books and movies… probably more… about smaller
massacres. Little Big Horn. Wounded Knee. Even the St. Valentine’s Day massacre, and those things were
tragic, but this, where between one and a half and three million people were killed – and only forty years
ago – well, there are a few specialty movies, but that’s it. And no one really knows about it or cares.”
“I care. I’m just an American white girl and I care,” she said.
“I know you do.”
Chloe looked up at her husband
and smiled. “So you’re talking to him today?”
“Yeah. I’ll record him with my phone and compile the
recordings on mp3s so maybe someday we can pass the truth on to the children.”
Cambodia, May 1978
Samnang cried again. He was hungry. Sophy clawed a small package from the pocket of her dress and unwrapped
the palm leaves to reveal a small ball of rice. She held the rice in the rain until it was soaked, then
leaned the baby’s head back and squeezed the starchy liquid into the boy’s mouth. He swallowed and coughed a
little, but it meant he stopped crying.
The rain had picked up and now it was a torrential downpour. Sophy wrapped the rice back into the leaves
and thrust the tiny package back into her pocket. Have to move. Have
to keep going.
She was off the path now, but she still had a sense that she was heading in the right
direction. In the daylight and on a sunny day, she could make it back to the village in an hour or so. Now,
every step was a struggle. If she could get back to the village, she might be safe, maybe for a day, maybe
longer, but her friends there would feed her and if the soldiers came and asked she could pretend to be a
widow who’d lost her husband. Everyone was dying, so that wouldn’t be hard to believe. Then, she’d try to
find another guide to take her and Samnang to Thailand.
Just then there was a sharp cracking sound from
behind. A clumsy footfall that alerted her. She spun around and almost lost her footing on the wet, always
rotting detritus, caught herself, and looked up at the source of the sound. She saw the soldier marching
toward her, a rifle rising to the ready and pointed right at her head.
She clutched Samnang and tried not to
scream. Nothing she could say now. Nothing she could do. So she stood, trembling in silence.
The man looked
down the barrel at her, finger tensed on the trigger, then his head tilted and he looked at her again with
both eyes. She lowered her head, expecting the shot to be fired at any moment. When she looked back up, the
soldier had lowered the rifle. Not a lot. Not all the way down. But he was thinking. He looked around. No
one else saw them. No one else would know. Perhaps pondering mercy and duty and risk.
She wanted to pray,
but couldn’t find words. Was he going to kill her? Was he wondering if he should save the bullets and beat
her to death another way? Her eyes locked onto his and she wondered if he prayed. If he believed in
something. If he hoped not to have to kill any more.
The soldier lowered the rifle to his side, his head
dropped too, then he moved past her and disappeared back into the wall of rain and jungle.