Phaly's Story (FLO Founder)Caution: Phaly's story may be difficult for some readers. Please be advised that there are descriptions of atrocities committed during the rule of the Khmer Rouge.
My Name Is Phaly
My name is Nuon Phaly, and I would like to tell you how I came to be the director of the Future Light Orphanage on the outskirts of Phnom Penh, Cambodia. It is a story that sometimes I cannot believe myself.
I was not born to be what I have become. That is true for the whole generation of Cambodians born before the rise of the Khmer Rouge. We were children in a golden time, when the people had peace, and enough to eat, and Cambodian students, for the first time in our history, had the chance for a real education.
And oh, I was a clever little girl! I was the best in my primary school at French - spoken and written - and all of my friends were older than me. I was their pet. It was, "Phaly! Get us something to eat!" and "Phaly! Sing us a song!"
I would do what they asked, and they would laugh and clap time as I sang. We were happy then, in a way we have never been happy since, and perhaps cannot be again. Compared to what was to come, Cambodia was an innocent place when I was a child. It was beautiful and languorous, with its wide sleepy streets and flowering trees, the lush rice fields and cool mountain forests.
No, I was born to be a wife and mother of the new middle class, someone who would use her education to build a better life for her family, to help build a better Cambodia. I would have done that, I know. As it happens, I have done that.
But not in the way I expected, no, not at all.
That life was lost to me on April 17, 1975, when the thin, fierce Khmer Rouge army marched into the city of Phnom Penh. Anyone paying attention should have known this was coming. Civil war had raged in Cambodia since 1970, when Prince Norodom Sihanouk was overthrown in an American-backed coup by his trusted general, Lon Nol.
How can I explain our error to you? We didn't pay enough attention. We knew they were fighting in the mountains, but it seemed so far away. Then there was fighting in some of the provincial capitals. But honestly-and it seems so foolish now-we thought it was just temporary, that Sihanouk would be coming back and life would return to normal.
That April, we began to hear the explosions in the surrounding suburbs as the rockets began falling in residential neighborhoods. The city was flooded with terrified refugees. Rumors raced through the streets and the marketplaces. No one knew what to believe, or what to do.
When the black-clad boy with the rifle told me to leave my house, I thought there must be a mistake. ''I can't," I told him firmly. He was just a dark-skinned country boy, an ignorant farmer. I spoke carefully so he would understand.
"You can see I am nine months pregnant. My baby is due any day." It was the hottest time of the year and the sun was merciless. Inside my nice house was food, soap, medicine, baby clothes-all the things I needed for the birth of my third child.
"Everyone must leave. The Americans are going to bomb," insisted the boy.
"Those who do not leave will be killed. You can come back in three days." I looked into his eyes. They were so black, like a cavern, like a hole plunging deep into the earth. In that moment I understood that I, Phaly, did not exist for this boy, that whether I lived or died made no difference to him.
My husband had gone to his mother's. Only my two younger sisters and my two children were with me. I could see all the neighbors gathering up a few things and heading into the street. 1 realized that I had no choice. I hurriedly gathered all the money I could find-more than $1,000 in US dollars - and some silks and jewelry I could hide under my clothes.
It's hard to remember now exactly what we did. My grandparents' home was just outside the city, only a few kilometers away. Maybe that would be far enough, I thought. We loaded some cushions and blankets into the family car. But no food, I remember that. We could buy what we needed along the way.
The car soon proved to be useless. The streets were choked with people, more people than we had ever seen in one place. It took all day to go a few blocks. We pushed the car along, a few inches at a time. I didn't want to lose it, you see. I was afraid it would be stolen.
How stupid I was, for such a smart little girl. What was happening to us, though, was something nobody could have foreseen, because it had never happened before. The Khmer Rouge, the new rulers of Cambodia, had just turned back the clock to what they called the Year Zero. They wanted to wipe out all traces of our Westernized society and return to a pure Khmer culture, untainted by outside influences. And me, with my Parisian education and my car, my two prestigious jobs and my head full of dangerous notions - I was a marked woman.
The cataclysm that engulfed Phnom Penh in April of 1975 had been decades in the making. Cambodia, about twice the size of the island of Hokkaido, had become the unwilling battlefield in a struggle between the world's superpowers. For more than a decade, the United States had poured weaponry and manpower into its war in Vietnam, where the former Soviet Union backed North Vietnam's communist army.
By the early 1970s, the conflict spilled over into officially neutral Cambodia, as the North Vietnamese moved men and materiel down the Ho Chi Minh trail which wound from north to south through the forests of eastern Cambodia.
Massive US bombing raids in 1973 dropped more than 250,000 tons of bombs in Cambodia, 1.5 times more than had been dropped in Japan during World War II. Some scholars say the devastation inflicted on Cambodia during those raids drove thousands of furious peasants into Cambodia's insurgent Communist army, the Khmer Rouge.
Cambodia's Communists were a shadowy group that coalesced around a small core of educated revolutionaries eventually led by Saloth Sar, later known to the world as Pol Pot. Starting in the 1940s, the best and brightest of the country's students were sent to study in France, where some became ardent Marxists. They developed radical ideas about turning Cambodia into a pure agrarian society where there would only be two kinds of people: "base" people, or peasants, who labored on the land; and "new" people, city dwellers and Westernized professionals the Khmer Rouge believed lived parasitically off the labor of the peasants. To do this, they believed they had to smash the existing social order and start again from the beginning.
Cambodia, weakened and corrupted by colonial France and then seduced and battered by the United States, must throw off those degenerate influences and return to the pure Khmer culture of the days of Angkor. The corrupted "new" people must leave the cities for the countryside, where they would shed their decadent Western ways under the tutelage of the "base" people. It would be a difficult but ennobling life, with all Khmers working shoulder to shoulder to restore the country's ancient greatness.
Scholars differ on just why the Khmer Rouge drove people out of the cities so ruthlessly in April of 1975. Some think the uneducated soldiers-many of whom had been living in the jungle for years, and some of whom had never been in a city before-simply followed orders blindly. Others say the evacuations were deliberately brutal, in order to frighten people into submission and to break up groups that might unite in resistance. The Khmer Rouge themselves have said they moved people into the countryside because there was not enough food in the cities to keep them alive, and that they had a better chance of surviving if they were spread out across the country. What seems clear is that conditions were ripe for a number of ominous developments. The small core of zealots that made up the Khmer Rouge leadership cut off virtually all communication with the outside world and essentially holed up in Phnom Penh. The people had no idea who they were. They were called simply "Angkar", or the Organization. Workers were ordered to give their all for Angkar, which in turn promised to take care of them in a new, egalitarian society unlike any on earth.
But as Angkar implemented its policies, there was no independent feedback on what was working, what was failing, and why. So that when the nation's rice harvest fell short of Angkar's goals, the leadership apparently never considered that the goals might have been wildly unrealistic to begin with. They concluded, instead, that the revolution was being undermined from within, and that they must seek out and purge the traitors if they were to succeed in building the new Cambodia.
Thus was born the infamous network of interrogation centers that led to the killing fields of Cambodia, where thousands of supposed traitors were slaughtered. Pol Pot himself was said to believe that the Cambodian people, who had built the marvelous temples of Angkor, were intrinsically superior to the neighboring Thais, Laotians and Vietnamese. His hatred of Vietnam in particular was virulent, leading the Khmer Rouge to engage in repeated hostilities with their much larger and stronger neighbor.
That sense of superiority also led him to believe that Cambodia was uniquely qualified to revolutionize its society faster and more drastically than any country in history. Impressed by China's brutal Cultural Revolution, he determined to outdo China by the rigor and ideological purity of Cambodia's revolution.
In short order the Khmer Rouge abolished banks, markets and money. They drove the country's revered Buddhist monks out of the pagodas, forcing them into the rice fields with everyone else. They executed officials of the fallen Lon Nol regime. They closed the schools and executed teachers. Ninety percent of the country's performing artists either died or fled. Anyone with an education, anyone who spoke a foreign language, anyone who even wore glasses, was suspect.
Perhaps worst of all, as the revolution ground on they worked to destroy families and social networks. Children were separated from their parents and put into work brigades. Traditional three-day weddings were banned; Angkar decided who would marry, and the mass ceremonies were brief and joyless.
Families could no longer eat together, but were instead herded into groups served by communal kitchens. As the harvests failed and food grew scarce, hundreds of thousands died of disease, overwork and starvation.
The slightest misstep could mean death. Those caught stealing food might be killed; Khmer Rouge cadre checked peoples' feces every day to see if anyone was eating extra food. Even foraging for food was seen as disloyal, an implied criticism of Angkar.
With the stakes so high, people turned on each other. Friends might denounce friends, to save their own lives. Children spied on their parents. People learned to give the right answer - rather than the true answer - when questioned.
There was no contact with the outside world. People could not travel, even to the next village, without Angkar's permission. An individual's world shrank to his bed, the field where he worked, and the communal kitchen that fed him.
Some areas were worse than others, of course. Angkar appeared to be a monolith from outside, but on the inside the organization was riven with rivalries and cliques. Leaders of the Eastern Zone, along the border with Vietnam, treated people better than those governing the rice-growing region around Battambang.
Eventually Angkar turned on the less ideological Eastern Zone commanders, purging them as traitors and sending in more brutal officials from the Southwest Zone to instill greater discipline.
Nuon Phaly spent the first year of the Khmer Rouge regime in the Eastern Zone, in Prey Veng. She was later transferred to the Battambang area, where she spent the remainder of the war.
Memory is strange. You expect it to run like the cinema, an orderly stream of images that tell a story of happy times and sad. But mine is more like a slide show of uneven quality. Some of the slides are sharp and clear, charged with light and life. Others are murky and blurred, hard to make out. Still others are gone altogether, leaving black holes.
I will try to tell you how it was, as best I can. There are things I cannot remember, and things I will not remember. Still, I will try to tell you the truth. You must know, however, that one of the worst things the Khmer Rouge did to the people of Cambodia was to make us a nation of liars. We learned to lie because we wanted to live.
I do not apologize for that, because I think most people would lie under such conditions. Maybe even you. I tell you this so you will understand, and in memory of the nice little girl I was so long ago. I never lied before the Khmer Rouge came; I don't think many people did. We had no need.
The day the Khmer Rouge came to Phnom Penh, I was 32 years old. For 12 years I had been married to Si Than, a man from a rich family who had a responsible position at the state glassworks. We had two children: Vanni, my daughter, who was 11; and my son Thero, who was just three. The new baby was due any day. If you had asked me then, I would have said my life was not so happy. Si Than was a difficult husband, although not in the usual sense. He did not drink or beat me, or take up with other women as many Khmer men do. But he was extremely jealous and demanding, insisting that I stay secluded at home instead of going out with friends. If he even saw me chatting with a neighbor, he would become furious. I was naturally exuberant, and this made me feel lonely, trapped, and resentful. I found what solace I could with my children and my younger sisters.
As the eldest child of seven, I was expected to do all I could for my younger siblings. Already I had sent my brothers to school and found a good job for one, Saroeun; my sisters Yuen and Nen lived with me. Yuen was 15; Nen, only 12. They were such dears, and such a help to me. I wish I could show you a picture, so you could see what they were like. But the pictures disappeared during the Pol Pot time. The Khmer Rouge considered such things useless, even degenerate. Though they took photos of their own, the photos of all the people they tortured and killed at the Tuol Sleng interrogation center. We did not know that until later.
My sisters were old-fashioned girls, even then. Sweet, dutiful, and so loving. I think they knew I was not happy, and they tied to do little things to cheer me. Both were good students, like me; but where I was lively and outgoing, they were quiet and shy. They liked to stay at home and work on their embroidery, or other little projects. Yuen, I used to call her "Am," it means my love, honey. I loved them so much.
Despite my husband's jealous nature, I worked not one but two jobs, and both were prestigious. My main job was at the Societe Khmer Distillery, Cambodia's premier brewery, where I worked for his Excellency Naeck Choulong. Another of my bosses was Pen Thol, the son of Samdech Pen Noth, the right-hand man of Prince Norodom Sihanouk. My other job was at the Ministry of Finance, where I worked for his Excellency Chine Rene; they would call me in nights and weekends, whenever they needed my help. I worked as a secretary and French translator.
Compared to the average Cambodian family, we had plenty of money, good connections and excellent prospects. We lived in a roomy wooden house near the Tuol Turn Pong market. In the Cambodian fashion, it was built on stilts, which made it cooler and safe from the annual wet-season flooding. We owned a car, and had all we could wish for in the way of material things. Perhaps that is why I was not so frightened when the Khmer Rouge told us to leave. I had no understanding of what it was to be in real danger, although the country had been at war for five years. The fighting had always been far away, and in our minds it was something that happened to other people, country people. Within minutes of leaving home, however, it was clear something tremendous was occurring. What was happening was just so crazy, and so cruel. It didn't matter if you were old, or sick, or pregnant-all were forced into the mob of slowly moving humanity.
If the evacuation had been thought out or organized, it might have been easier. If they had done it in stages, for example. But there was no possibility of discussion, or debate. The entire population - some three million people - had to leave at once, carrying what they could. The heat was nearly unbearable. April is the cruelest month in Cambodia, which lies less than 15 degrees from the equator. Temperatures routinely top 100 degrees Fahrenheit, and the sun is pitiless. During hot season people get up well before dawn to work before the temperature climbs; little is accomplished between noon and 2 p.m., when most people nap in the shade.
That life had just ended.
Stone-faced boys in black stood along the road, using their rifles to club those who fell behind. They were thin and small, but their muscles were like ropes. People who fainted were shoved to the side. Those who resisted were shot. As we walked, we saw the Khmer Rouge systematically going through each neighborhood. Some people tried to hide inside their houses; they were dragged out, and some were killed. We inched our way eastward across the city to the Monivong Bridge and Route 1, the main road to Vietnam. I had grown up on that road, in a house owned by my grandparents and occupied now by cousins; maybe that would be far enough. Route 1 was a major road, and I knew there would be many markets and food vendors.
But I had not realized everyone would be on the move. The hundreds of vendors along the way were gone-no doubt part of the same slow river of misery. The houses we passed were deserted, as were the markets. We picked some fruit from trees that we passed; at first I felt uneasy, taking someone else's fruit, but soon I was too hungry for such fine distinctions.
The next five days are confused in my memory. Somehow, my husband found us in that mob. When we finally made it across the bridge, we were turned to the south, walking down the east bank of the Bassac River. In village after village, we were turned away.
"You cannot stay here," they told us. "We have no food."
At some point, the Khmer Rouge confiscated the car, telling us we wouldn't be needing it. Eventually, they ordered us to turn around and retrace our steps, heading back north to Route 1 and resuming our trek to the east. On the fifth night, in a village called Prey Aing 10 kilometers from Phnom Penh, my baby was born by the side of the road. Women who had been walking near us were kind to me. Some were my neighbors from Phnom Penh; they held up a blanket to shield me as I groaned on the ground under some trees. I was lucky that the birth went well; the baby was a beautiful boy.
After he was born, a group of soldiers approached. "What are you doing here?" they asked. "She is having a baby," the women said. The soldiers said, "Go! Go! Don't sleep here, don't stay here. We have to reach a goal, so go to your goal. Don't stop until we tell you to stop." I was in terrible pain, and exhausted. It had been days since I had eaten, and I was very weak, but they made me go. I was carrying the baby and the blood was running down my legs. We walked and walked, it seemed like an eternity. On both sides of the road, I saw people lying dead, women, boys, girls, old and young. Life, I remember thinking, cannot get worse than this.
I was wrong, as you will see.
My memories grow confused again. I know we kept walking to the east, and then turned south again. About a week after the baby was born we were in Sway Rolum, a village south of Phnom Penh on the west bank of the Bassac River, when my husband Si Than collapsed. It must have been in the first week of May; I know it was just two weeks after we were forced from the city. Si Than suffered greatly during the evacuation. He was from a rich family, as I have said, and unused to physical exertion. He was only three years older than me, but he was not strong. Now, after two weeks with virtually no food, he became delirious. As he lay on the ground, he raved about his work at the glass factory, about how his boss wanted him to do something and he had to go right now and get it done. He was so distressed that it seemed almost a mercy when his voice finally faltered and he fell into a coma. It was not long before he died. I buried hlm in Sway Rolum, in a grave I dug myself in the forest. The village chief helped me carry him. I did not cry. I would not let the Khmer Rouge see me cry.
Now I was alone, responsible for my three children and my two sisters. And while I had gold and American dollars hidden beneath my clothes, the Khmer Rouge had declared that money no longer had value.
A week after Si Than died, I escaped from Sway Rolum. I wanted to continue east to an area where the harvests were more bountiful. We needed first to cross the Bassac River; I promised the ferryman my diamond ring if he would take us. Halfway across, he said he didn't want the ring, he wanted rice.
"But I don't have any," I said, "except this pot of rice and pickle for the children."
He snatched it from my hands and kept both it and the ring. What could I do? I had no weapon, no husband, no one to help me. We alighted at the other bank and began a long trek to Kok Robei village, near the border with Vietnam.
On the way, Nen began to falter. She was just a girl of 12, but it was as if the life force was draining out of her before our eyes. While we scrabbled for roots and leaves to eat, she lost the will to fight. One day, she sat down under a tree, and would not move. She sat there all day. And then she died.
Oh, I felt such pity for her. And I could do nothing for her. In the Khmer Rouge regime, they made all of us help each other, our "comrades," people who had no relationship to each other. Nen was my own blood sister, yet I could not help her.
I buried her too. I carried water, and bathed her, and looked after her. I have no words for such sadness.
Yes, I have gaps in my memory, but some scenes are branded on my heart. Others can be glimpsed through a black fog of hunger and fatigue, anger, fear and hopelessness. I know we spent a month in Kok Robei. The base people were kind to us, especially after I gave them my watch and a length of fine silk. They had never seen anything so lovely.
They told us to go north, into Prey Veng, where the harvests were better and the Khmer Rouge commanders not so strict. It turned out to be good information; we found more food in Prey Veng, and I began to understand what I needed to do to survive.
Over the next few months, life slowly began to get better. But it was too late for my baby. I had named him Therac, and he was a good, patient boy, sweet-natured and uncomplaining. Hunger had dried up my milk, and I had nothing else to give him. He was beautiful, but so thin. So thin.
Before he died, he looked at me and he wanted me to hold him. But he didn't know how to say it - he was only six months old. He looked at me, and he reached out, and he touched me on the arm. Five minutes later he died. He died in my arms. I carried his body by myself, and I buried him by myself. I buried him under the trees by a lake in Prey Veng. I thought then that my life was over, that I would never be happy again. I had lost all hope. My only solution was to work, because if I didn't work I would be killed.
My husband died, my sister died, my child died, and I could not cry. Today what hurts the most is I have nothing of them to remember them by.
My childhood is so remote from what followed, it might have belonged to another person entirely. It seems impossible that a country could change as much as Cambodia has changed in my lifetime. But you can judge for yourself. My family was not rich or noble, but we had something better than money: entrée into the Royal Palace. It gave us great prestige; the Cambodian people loved Prince Norodom Sihanouk dearly, as they do to this day, when he serves as their King.
We lived just outside Phnom Penh with my grandfather, who was one of the Prince's fortune-tellers. It may seem odd today that someone as forward-looking as the Prince would have fortune-tellers, but at that time all the great families kept them. They were a standard element in a well-ordered household, like a good cook or a chic seamstress. The work was difficult and demanding, but it paid very well. You served at the whim of your employer, and a bad fortune could mean an abrupt end to your employment. But a clever man could manage to stay employed, and my grandfather was clever. He and my grandmother had two daughters, and my mother, Un Son, grew up to be a very skilled cook. She would prepare special dishes for the royal family, and a doctor from the palace would watch her closely and taste the food. My father, Nuon Vath, was a driver for the Banque Khmer pour le Commerce, the Commercial Bank.
Life at the palace was very strict. When we talked to people there, we had to bow our heads. We could not walk freely. We had to use a special language to speak to members of the royal family.
There were many benefits, however. When my mother got married, everything came from the palace - the silks, the ornaments, the jewelry. It was beautiful material, the very best. I am so sorry we lost all the photos in the Pol Pot time. My mother looked very pretty.
As a child, I did not go to the palace, but stayed at home in the big wooden stilt house just south of Route I . As the eldest child I was expected to help my mother with the household and the younger children; my tasks included washing clothes, helping my mother cook and fetching water daily from the river to fill the big clay jars that served the whole household.
We lived in a low-lying area near the Bassac River which flooded every year during the wet season, when heavy rains combine with swollen rivers to turn much of Cambodia into a shallow pond. The country is mostly flat river-delta land, ringed by small mountains; it is well-suited for growing rice, which has been the major crop for centuries.
In the dry season, my grandmother and aunt would sit in the shade under the house and work their great looms, filling the air with a soothing rhythm of thumps and clicks that lulled us to sleep in the hot afternoons. My grandmother wove beautiful lengths of silk to be wrapped into traditional skirts, while my aunt made mosquito nets of cotton. They mostly wove just for the family, although if a silk piece was particularly fine, my grandmother would give it to my grandfather to present to the palace.
Sometimes I would go with my grandmother to land she owned nearby, where we would gather firewood for my mother to cook with. The 10-hectare plot was not far from the house, and was filled with big trees; during the Khmer Rouge years, all the trees were cut down, and today the land is full of strangers' houses. Private property was abolished during the Pol Pot time.
In my youth the area was quite rural, with few houses and lots of trees. On Sundays, I remember, one of the Sisowath princes used to come out from the city to visit my grandfather and listen to traditional music; it must have seemed like a country outing to him, with the added attraction of excellent food cooked by my mother.
Every day I would walk to school at the Chbar Arnpoeuv Elementary School, on the east side of the Bassac River just outside Phnom Penh. I was a very good student, one of 28 enrolled in the superior class. Only four of us survived the war.
One of my classmates was a boy from a poor family named Hem Soeurn. I was the best in French and he was the best in mathematics. He was very fond of me and I liked him too, but we went our separate ways after high school. Years later he would become my second husband, but I will tell you about that later.
At the age of 13, I began to go to the palace twice a week to study classical Cambodian dance at the Chan Chhaya pavilion on the palace grounds. This was a great honor and privilege, as the royal dancers were overseen directly by Queen Kossamak, Prince Sihanouk's mother. His daughter, Princess Bopha Devi, danced very well.
I studied for only three years, because I knew I would not be a professional dancer. The traditional dance teaches us to walk well, to move gracefully, to hold ourselves erect. To talk with a smile. I enjoyed it very much, although my teachers were very, very strict. I was beaten and pinched if I did not do it properly. But we were taught never to cry, always to smile, no matter how much it hurt.
There were 20 girls in my group, but there were a number of different groups, made up of girls at varying skill levels. In all, there were more than 100 students. My group practiced twice a week, on Thursdays and Sundays. Many of the girls in my group went on to become dancers or teachers. All of them died during the Pol Pot time.
I studied at Chbar Ampoeuv until the age of 14, when we passed our examinations. In those days we could have been certified then as teachers, but my high scores and skill in French encouraged me to take the examination for Preah Norodom College, then Cambodia's only high school for girls. I was very proud when I was accepted, and I worked very hard to get good grades. There were only 20 girls in my class, and the teachers were almost as strict as the dance teachers at the palace. You could not look out the window, or talk to a boy, without getting in trouble.
Several months after I graduated in 1960, I won a scholarship to study in France at La Maison du Cambodge. I'm sure our palace connections helped me, although I was proficient in French after four years of taking extra classes at the Lycee Descartes. At about this time my parents were approached by the family of a 21-year-old named Si Than, who wanted to marry me. They were richer than we were, but I was a good prospect for a wife due to my connections, education and language skills.
It was agreed that we would many once I completed my studies in France. Such arranged marriages were the rule in Cambodia at that time, and indeed are still popular today.
Imagine traveling to Paris at the age of 18, on your first trip out of Cambodia! Everything was so strange it was sometimes alarming. As we disembarked at the airport, I saw a foreign man and woman kissing each other, something you would never, ever see in Cambodia.
I was so shocked I could not take my eyes off them, and I actually walked into a pillar and hurt myself. My face was all red and black the next morning, and I could not go to classes for a week. There were 14 students in my class, 7 boys and 7 girls. The maison was a Cambodian-style building where we lived, and we made many trips to museums and other educational locations.
We knew we were very lucky, because very few students got to go abroad, and the French government paid for it all. We studied French language, conversation, and how to write; the French system of government; and French history.
France is a beautiful country. I had never seen a developed nation before. Our teachers were French, and the French people were very kind to us, very friendly. The food was good, too. We had bread, we had rice, we had bananas, everything we liked. Not like Italy-Italian food is too sour for me.
We were very happy, but I did not want to stay too long. I was homesick, and did not like the change of seasons. In the summer it looked very nice, and in the spring, when the trees had flowers but no leaves. But in the winter I was surprised how cold it was. We could not go out. And if we did, we had to put on so many clothes, we looked ridiculous, more like pillows than people.
I was only supposed to study for one year, but they liked me so much they let me stay on for three. In 1963, I finally returned home, where I thought I knew how the next chapter in my life would play out. It certainly started out the way I expected. Si Than and I had a big wedding at the La Lune Restaurant near Olympic Stadium, and then, for many more hours, the ceremonies continued at home. I wore silks from the palace, just like my mother.
Cambodian brides change their clothes many times in a ceremony that can go on for three days, although sophisticated city dwellers like me usually compressed it into one long day. I remember the most glorious dress was gold, with a wide band folded across my chest, and I wore such nice shoes, curled at the toes. I was only sorry that my grandfather had died by then, and was not there to see me. He could have told my fortune for me, and I would have expected it to be brilliant.
When I was born, he told my mother that I would have a power, that when I spoke people would listen to me, and I would have a good job and a good heart and I would help people. But he also said when I helped people they would reflect bad things back at me. I have observed myself that this is true. Some people are jealous and they try to hurt me.
But who thinks of such things at 21, when they are just home from Paris and newly married? I found a good job with Societe Khmer Distillery, one of a series of industries the government was supporting to make Cambodia more prosperous. The glassworks where Si Than worked was another such venture. Prince Sihanouk bubbled with enthusiasm, and ideas to bring Cambodia into the modern age.
Phnom Penh in the 1960's was called the Paris of Southeast Asia, and in truth it was a pleasant place, with handsome French colonial buildings interspersed with interesting modern architecture and traditional Cambodian buildings. The Prince was making movies, and writing lighthearted love songs. There were wonderful parties and good restaurants, and women dressed elegantly.
Life looked very good for us. I didn't know anything about politics. We were young and we were just working, getting money to support our family. I was sad when Lon Nol took over, but I thought that Sihanouk would win. I thought he would come back.
Those who meet King Norodom Sihanouk speak of his charm, his gaiety, and the zest he brings to life. He is also said to be a master politician with an unparalleled understanding of the complexities of Cambodian politics.
The stresses of the 1960s, however, revealed a darker side to the then-Prince, who was faced with the virtually impossible task of keeping Cambodia out of the war in neighboring Vietnam, the bone over which the superpower United States, Soviet Union and Peoples Republic of China were growling.
As the decade wore on Sihanouk moved ruthlessly to suppress any form of opposition inside Cambodia. He was also a seemingly capricious political opportunist, adopting whatever creed or ideology he thought would gain his ends. Sometimes he moved to the right, and sometimes to the left, depending on circumstances. For example, although Cambodia was officially neutral in the Vietnamese war, Sihanouk secretly allowed Vietnamese communists to use eastern Cambodia to move men and equipment from North Vietnam to the south along the Ho Chi Minh trail.
In Cambodia, however, he targeted Cambodia's tiny Communist party and its sympathizers; they were eventually driven out of the cities and into hiding in the country's remote jungles. One was the man who would become Pol Pot. Saloth Sar, like Nuon Phaly, had close family connections to the palace. His aunt was one of the court's classical dancers.
In 1963, the year Phaly married Si Than, Saloth Sar and many other Communists disappeared into the mountainous country along Cambodia's eastern border with Vietnam. For the next 12 years they would work among the country people, exhorting them to throw off the shackles of Cambodia's decadent society and join the only movement that promised them real equality.
At first, few were convinced, although the Khmer Rouge were widely admired for their discipline and incorruptibility. It was said their soldiers would not steal so much as a grain of rice, while treating women with respect and deference.
As the war in Vietnam progressed, however, the United States increased its bombing runs on the Ho Chi Minh trail. Thousands of Cambodians were killed or maimed by the bombs; livestock and houses and villages were destroyed.
The Khmer Rouge movement, with its twin promises to restore Cambodia to its former greatness while expelling the murderous foreigners, drew more and more converts. The Khmer Rouge gained control over larger and larger swaths of land as the central government in Phnom Penh fell into disarray.
Sihanouk's efforts to keep Cambodia out of the Vietnam conflict throughout the decade caused increasing hardship. To please China, he renounced American financial aid in 1963, lopping off 16 percent of Cambodia's gross national product; two years later, he broke off diplomatic relations with the United States.
Foreign investment dropped; to make things worse, China, engrossed in its own Cultural Revolution, cut back its support. Prices began to rise; jobs dried up and corruption increased. As life became more difficult for the people, Sihanouk's popularity eroded. In 1970, the Prince was overthrown by Lon Nol, a general supported by the United States. Sihanouk did another about-face. Retreating to Beijing, he declared he was joining forces with the Khmer Rouge against the Lon Nol government. He urged his supporters to join the revolutionaries in the jungle to fight against his usurpers. The Khmer Rouge used Sihanouk's popularity to gain adherents, but never meant him to be more than a figurehead. The Lon Nol government, meanwhile, was so corrupt and ineffectual that, by April of 1975, it was like a rotten fruit hanging by a thread. The slightest touch sent it smashing to the ground.
Talking about the Pol Pot time is like trying to describe a madness. How do I find the words?
For me, every moment of every day was a lie. If I had ever showed my true face to a Khmer Rouge, I would have been killed. We learned to slither like snakes, those of us who survived.
If I had ever expressed a true thought, or even talked innocently about my childhood or my family, I would have been killed. If I ever forgot and said something to my son in French, I would have been killed. You could be killed for complaining about the fact you were starving to death, for questioning whether the Khmer Rouge knew what they were doing, even for singing a song from the old regime, like the songs I sang for my childhood friends.
One of the saddest legacies of the Pol Pot time is a saying we have in Khmer, that "all of the good ones died." What that means is that those who could not learn to lie, those who stood up and said, "This is crazy, and cruel, and wrong" were all killed. Others who could not adapt themselves to deception died of what I would call broken hearts. They lost the will to live. My sister Yuen died like that, three months after I buried my son Therac. She was only 15.
But many of us did not die, and the reasons are probably as varied as we are. In my case a rage burned inside me. I hated the communists, hated them more than I can express. I hate them to this day. They had taken everything from me--my home, my child, my sisters, my husband, my very self--and for no constructive reason that I could see.
They kept saying we were building a better, more equal life for all Cambodians. But it was not equal. Khmer Rouge officials ate better than the base people, and the base people ate better than we did. And it was not a better life. They just dragged all of us down to the level of draft animals, who lived only to work.
There was no beauty, no music, no conversation, no thoughts or dreams of anything beyond how much rice we might get at the next meal. And the stupidity! If we hadn't been so hungry that might have been the hardest to bear, the sheer idiocy of our lives. Sometimes small children would tell us what to do. They knew nothing. How can that be the way to live?
We would labor like slaves on, say, an irrigation project, digging a ditch or a canal to get water to the rice paddies. If the cadre in charge was clever, it might work. If not, it wouldn't. And even if people in the work crew knew how to do it properly, or had a better idea, it was too dangerous to speak up. It might get you killed. But we hardly thought about all this, because we were more concerned with getting enough food to stay alive.
I was lucky that I learned quickly how to survive. After the people in Kok Robei told us to go to Prey Veng, we walked more than 100 kilometers into Srach Presdach district, a country with good rice paddies. I went to a village chief, and I laid my whole body down on the ground in front of him, and I begged him to let us stay in the village.
I told him I was a farmer, although I knew nothing. But I was clever, and I watched the others. I saw how they harvested the rice, how they threshed the rice. I learned quickly and I worked hard; soon they put me in charge of the new people.
Vanni was taken away from me, and went to live with a youth work brigade. They were sent various places to work on projects. I saw her from time to time, enough to know she was very unhappy. Thero was so young they let him stay with me, though I only saw him at night, when we came in from the fields.
What more can I say about our life under the Khmer Rouge? Every day was like every other day. The only days that stood out were the days something bad happened. I don't remember any days when good things happened. And this went on for nearly four years.
They watched us all the time, wherever we went. They hated civilized people. They said we had betrayed Cambodia, that we were lazy and soft while they were living in the forest and fighting the war. They knew we never made rice, never went to the fields. They wanted us to become like them.
So we did, at least on the outside. At night we had to go to indoctrination meetings, but I never listened. I knew how to fool them, though. They thought that I listened. Inside, I felt such hatred. Outside, I had to show I loved them.
I got in trouble three times during the Khmer Rouge years. I don't say serious trouble, because any trouble was serious then. Each time, they were going to kill me. Each time, I survived.
The first time was over a bag of rice. This was before they made us all eat together, in the communal kitchens. I had missed the regular rice ration distribution, because I was sick. Someone saw me carrying the rice after the usual distribution time, and accused me of stealing it. The chief’s wife spoke up for me then, and said, no, Phaly was sick earlier, that is just her regular rice. I had worked hard to make this woman my friend, by making baby clothes for her child. What a thing to owe your life to!
The second time was over Vanni. When she was 14, the Khmer Rouge decided she was old enough to get married. They had a policy at that time of marrying the young girls to disabled soldiers, thinking that the soldiers would not be able to get wives otherwise and that this would boost their morale. I told them Vanni was not old enough, that she did not yet have her period, although she did.
For several months, the Khmer Rouge followed her every day, and finally obtained proof that she was menstruating. I was dragged before the officials. "Why did you lie to us about this girl?" they demanded. "I did not lie," I said. "She just now got her period. I was going to come and tell you." They could not prove I lied, so they let me live. She was married soon after to a Khmer Rouge soldier she had never seen before; six months later she was pregnant.
The third time was in 1978, and I never knew why I was targeted that time. All of us new people were rounded up and marched to Phnom Penh, where we were to board the train for Battambang province. Each of us was given a new blue krama, the checked cotton scarf worn by virtually all rural Cambodians.
It was my first sight of Phnom Penh since the forced evacuation, and what a desolate sight! So empty, so shabby, so filled with rubble and trash. The National Bank and the Catholic cathedral were gone. Banana trees had been planted in the traffic circle surrounding the once-bustling Central Market, where we stopped to buy food for the trip. In the market I heard one cadre whisper to another, "Don't wear the blue krama," and I realized the kramas were to mark those who were to be killed.
We rode the train to a spot near Krakor, in Pursat province. I did not wear the blue krarna, but stuffed it in my bag. When we got off the train we did not go to Krakor but started walking into the forest, toward Battambang. I had Vanni and Thero with me, and it was very far. I remember crossing Prey Kloat, and Cham Ran. We walked for about 20 days until we reached a village, I forget its name. They asked us to build a hut, and sent me to work in the field. The others, who wore the blue krama, trucks came at night and took them away.
We grew rice, and later we cut the trees. That's all we did. We stayed in this area for about a year, until the Vietnamese came. I found out later that my second husband, Hem Soeurn, was not far away at this time. He lost almost his whole family during the Pol Pot time, and to this day he cries when he thinks about his father.
They were in Takeo province together, not long after the evacuation of Phnom Penh. His father was too weak to survive the harsh conditions. Late one night, he called to Soeum and said, "My dear son, I want to eat a small piece of palm sugar."
But Soeurn could not go and get him one, the Khmer Rouge would not let him. At five that morning, he woke to find his father cold beside him. It breaks his heart to think he could not do such a small thing for his father, his last request.
By the time the Vietnamese came, I had no more hope. I was just trying to stay alive, day after day. I never thought I would be free again. I was like a machine.
How did it end? One day we heard that the base people were afraid. They tried to keep us very far away from the Vietnamese troops. They said the Vietnamese would kill us.
The Pol Pots began to leave, and they tried to take us with them, to run farther into the jungle. Some of us knew not to go with them. I didn't go. When the Vietnamese soldiers came to the village, they told us, "Don't be afraid. We have come to help you."
They asked us where the Pol Pots were, and I pointed out the way they had gone. I'd like to say it gave me some joy to take such vengeance, but I felt nothing. After so many months and years as a draft animal, I don't think I had any human emotions left.
The Vietnamese told us we could go to our home villages. We began to walk towards the main road, along with many other people. We were thin, and ragged, and in a state of shock. It was as if the whole country had awakened from a nightmare at the same time.
We did not know what to do. We did not know where to go. After so many months of trusting no one, we hardly knew what to say to each other. Was the war really over? Were we really free, or would the Khmer Rouge manage to repulse the Vietnamese and reassert control?
We didn't know it then, but it would be nearly 20 years before the shooting finally stopped. And the scars left on our hearts and minds were far worse than anything that happened to our bodies. Sometimes I think we will never be truly free.
It took the Vietnamese months to gain control of most of Cambodia. Fighting all the way, the Khmer Rouge were forced back to the difficult terrain along the northwest border with Thailand, retreating to the mountains and deep forests. They would remain there for the next 20 years.
Some people went with them voluntarily, afraid they would be killed by the Vietnamese; others were forced along at gunpoint.
The rest of us, for the first time in nearly four years, could make our own decisions about where to go and what to do. We learned later that as many as 1.7 million Cambodians had died or been killed during the Khmer Rouge regime; virtually every family had lost members.
With Vanni and Thero, I made my way to the province of Pursat, south of the Tonle Sap lake on the main road to Phnom Penh. Vanni's baby was born in Pursat; it was a girl, and we named her Soktheavy. Vanni had not seen her husband for months. As it happened, she never saw him again.
At first I supported us by making little cakes from sticky rice, pumpkin, coconut and sugar. They were delicious, and we sold many. Actually, there was no monetary system yet, so we exchanged them for rice. They were so good people knew I wasn't a Pol Potist. They were delicious and clean. They knew we were city people.
We stayed near Pursat for eight months, growing corn and pumpkins on a hectare of land. I traded them for rice and sometimes beef. I built a house for us, myself. I was a businesswoman.
After that I worked in Pursat for three months at a school run by a woman named Phany, a good woman I think of as my adoptive sister. Her whole family had died, and she was very lonely. I taught the Cambodian language, French, and writing. Then Phany got a loan from a friend and we set up a trading partnership.
We would cross into Thailand and buy cloth, and then I would take it on the train to Phnom Penh, where I would sell it at the Tuol Tum Pong market, near my old house. There was so little in the markets then! Nobody had cloth, and we earned a lot of money.
During my trips to Phnom Penh, I would look for my family. I went to my grandparents' house, and found my aunt living there. She said my parents were alive, living in a nearby suburb with my youngest brother, who had been only 6 when the city was evacuated.
There were no phones then, or any way to contact my mother. For almost a month, she and I tried to find each other, walking back and forth the five miles from my aunt's house to my mother's. Finally my aunt told my mother, "Just stay here and wait until Phaly comes again" and at last, we met. My mother came to me and cried.
My father was still alive, but very weak from the years of too little food. They were very sad to hear my story. They thought I had died, because I had never had to struggle in my life before, and they had lost so many children. Only three of the seven survived; me, and my brothers Sarouen and Savann.
Phnom Penh was chaotic in those days. People straggled in every day, from all parts of Cambodia. Everyone was looking for family members. Those who had lived in Phnom Penh tried to return to their homes; often the houses were occupied by strangers, who refused to leave.
The abolition of private property by the Khmer Rouge had left everything up for grabs. People who anived too late to find land or houses built squatter settlements in the temples, public parks and along the railroad tracks; some of those settlements exist today.
My parents went to live on two hectares of land they had owned before the war near Pochentong Auport, west of the city. They were afraid that someone would occupy the land if they weren't there, and in fact they did lose three houses on the property to strangers.
My grandparents' house had been taken over by five families of country people, who had no idea how to live in the city. They just threw rubbish everywhere. My aunt had to go to the local authorities to get it back; she had to pay the people $10,000 before they would leave. It took us a long time to clean it up.
As the months passed, I learned terrible things - that my cousins, beautiful girls, had been raped and killed; that my brother's two little daughters had burned to death in an accident; that two of my younger brothers had died, just like my sisters. So many relatives, so many friends, were just gone. Sometimes we never found out what had happened to them.
I went to work as a vendor again, this time in Kandal market near the Royal Palace where I sold beauty supplies like face cream and rouge. Such things had been banned during the Pol Pot time; there was such pent-up demand I made a good living. It was a little sign of hope, that women wanted to be pretty again.
One day I was riding my bicycle to the market when someone shouted my name. It was Hem Souern, my old classmate. He was so happy to see me he cried. I was happy to see him too.
I had always known that he was in love with me, but I had thought of him as my brother. He did not know until he saw me that day that Si Than had died. So we rode our bicycles to the market, and he told me that he did not know what had happened to his wife.
Eventually we found her, but she was not interested in resuming the marriage. Many families fell apart like that during the war, just as many families replaced missing members by taking in children or even adults who had no one. After some time we married, but it was not a big celebration like before. We had so few friends and relatives left, there was no one to invite.
Everyone was trying to get back to normal, but life was not normal. Phnom Penh was full of Vietnamese soldiers, and although the government was nominally headed by Cambodians it was clear who was really in charge. Many Cambodians harbor bitter feelings toward the Vietnamese, whom they believe want to conquer Cambodia; now the hated foe had become both savior and occupier. It was difficult to know what to think.
But when the government issued a call for all educated people to help rebuild the country, I knew I could not work for the Vietnamese. I have told you, I had come to hate the communists, and I wanted no part of the Vietnamese-controlled Peoples Republic of Kampuchea, as Cambodia was now called. I also remembered when the Khmer Rouge issued a similar call, and those who responded were killed.
We held a family council, and decided we would leave for the border. We were afraid we would be killed for not cooperating if we stayed in Phnom Penh. Since the invasion, thousands upon thousands of Cambodians had fled the country, hoping to build new lives elsewhere; some were resettled in France, Australia or the United States. Others had stayed in the border region, near the wild areas held by the Khmer Rouge, hoping to return when the Vietnamese withdrew or were defeated.
My parents decided to stay to protect their land near the airport. Since they were uneducated, they felt the Vietnamese would not persecute them. Nine of us wanted to go: me, my two children and my granddaughter; my husband; his two sons; his sister and her daughter.
We took the train to Battambang. In those days trains in Cambodia weren't nice, like in France or Japan, but more like freight cars. There were no seats inside, no glass in the windows. People found what space they could for themselves and their possessions.
The two first cars on every train - in front of the engine - were open flat-bed platforms. You could ride up there for free, but only the poorest and most desperate did. The cars were free because the tracks were so often mined, and those passengers risked being blown to bits. And yet those cars were often full.
In Battambang we hired two guides to take us to the border. It was a dangerous journey, because the Phnom Penh government did not want people to leave and the various factions opposing the government - including the Khmer Rouge - controlled different areas of the border. They all wanted to control the refugees.
Our goal was an anti-communist resistance camp on Cambodian territory called Rithysen, near the town of Nong Samet, where many refugees engaged in an active blackmarket trade with Thailand. We walked for three days and nights; at least, we walked at night and hid during the days.
The journey was very frightening. We walked through forests of huge trees, and had to hide from Vietnamese soldiers and Khmer Rouge soldiers. If they had found us, we would have been robbed and killed, and the women would have been raped. During the day, we hid ourselves under brush and tree branches. At night, we walked through fallen leaves, and sometimes we stepped on snakes.
But we were very lucky. The only soldiers we met were resistance soldiers, and they helped us, although we had to give them money. We didn't mind, as they did not have food to eat or cigarettes. They showed us the way.
In all, it was an expensive trip, costing us hundreds of dollars worth of gold. When we arrived, we were happy to see many non-governmental organizations at work in the camp. Both Hem Soeurn and I were experienced in working with foreigners, and we knew we would quickly learn our way around in this new world.
We did not know what to expect, but I know we did not realize the border camps would remain in existence for more than 12 years, with a population ranging between 350,000 to 700,000 Cambodians. Or that two-thirds of them would not be resettled in third countries, but would remain in limbo for years, caught between two countries. Or that the violence so devastating to Cambodia would follow us into this place of refuge.
I would stay in the border camps until they were finally closed in 1992. When I left to return home, I would be responsible for nine widows and 91 children orphaned or abandoned by the war.
Although about 17,000 Cambodians escaped into Thailand in 1975, the year Pol Pot came to power, comparatively few made it out during the Khmer Rouge years. According to the United Nations, the number of Khmer refugees fell to 6,500 in 1976,7,000 in 1977, and 3,500 in 1978.
In 1979, however, that figure jumped to 138,000, putting severe pressure on the Thai government, which was also dealing with a flood of refugees from Laos and Vietnam. Between 1975 and 1993, Thailand received inore than 750,000 refugees from its three neighbors, more than any other country in the region.
Cambodians began coming in large numbers in April of 1979, in numbers that apparently panicked the Thai soldiers guarding the border. That June, in an incident that shocked the world, the Thais loaded more than 40,000 refugees onto buses and drove them to the Dangrek Mountains along the northern border, near the Preah Vihear temple. Cambodians remember it today as the Dangrek massacre.
The refugees were forced back into Cambodia at gunpoint, into an area that had been heavily mined by the Khmer Rouge. Thousands died, stepping on the mines or shot by soldiers. After that, the United Nations became involved, promising the Thais money and assistance in establishing a network of refugee camps.
The first refugees emerging from Cambodia in 1979 were in desperate shape. Starved and sickly, they were dying at a rate of 30 per day at one camp.
In October, the Thai prime minister visited the area; he was so appalled at the condition of the refugees that, in November, Thailand opened its border to Cambodian refugees. The door stayed open for three months, during which 150,000 people took refuge in Thailand. After February of 1980, however, new arrivals were confined to camps set up on Cambodian territory along the border. They entered a kind of limbo that would go on for years.
Once again, the Cambodians were caught in a power struggle that extended far beyond the country's borders. As many as 17 camps existed at various times along the border, some controlled by the Khmer Rouge, some by anti-communist factions opposed to the Vietnamese-backed Phnom Penh government, and only two - farther inside Thailand - administered by the United Nations.
Those in the UN camps had a chance of being resettled in a foreign country. The rest did not have refugee status but were considered "displaced persons," to be returned home when the fighting inside Cambodia ended. Many were wives and families of soldiers, both resistance and the Khmer Rouge, who were fighting the Vietnamese.
The Thais wanted the camps to serve as a buffer against the Vietnamese troops, preventing them from entering Thailand. Yet at the same time border officials did not want millions of war-weary Cambodians flocking to the border in search of an easier life.
Their solution was a policy they called "humane deterrence," which meant confining the refugees behind barbed wire while providing only food, water, and minimal housing. Non-governmental organizations were left with the job of organizing education, health care and other services for the refugees.
At Site II, the largest of the camps, each family of six was allotted living space measuring four by six meters; 16 families shared a common latrine.
At first, border security was provided by the Thai army, which in some cases preyed on the refugees. Extortion, rape, robbery and beatings were common. Eventually, camp security squads were established, curbing some of the worst abuses.
Food and materials donated by the international community ended up indirectly supporting three armies along the border: the Khmer Rouge, the forces loyal to Prince Sihanouk, and those fighting for Son Sann, a former prime minister who headed the Khmer Peoples Liberation Front. The three had nothing in common but opposition to the Vietnamese-backed Phnom Penh government.
Once again, the superpowers were involved, with the Chinese supporting the Khmer Rouge, the US backing Thailand, and the Soviet Union supporting the Phnom Penh government. In 1989, however, the collapse of the Soviet Union brought a sudden end to its long financial support for the Vietnamese military.
Without Soviet aid, Vietnam could no longer afford to maintain an army in Cambodia. In April, Vietnam announced it would withdraw all military units by September, and the people in the camps began to think about going home.
In the camps, life was surreal. Most of us had grown up in villages or large extended families, living all our lives in the same places. So many families were destroyed during the Pol Pot time. Now we were all jammed together as strangers, thinking we would only be living under these conditions for a short while.
Once again, we had to reinvent ourselves as we tried to build new lives. But we were young then, and strong, and we felt hopeful. At least in the camps, we weren't afraid of being killed if we sang the wrong song or had the wrong thoughts. If you have been sleeping on the ground, a bamboo shack looks good, no matter how small.
I had begun to study English secretly in Phnom Penh before we left, and I continued my studies now. French belonged to the old life, the nice life. I now understood that life was never coming back.
Many foreign organizations were working in the camps, trying to help the people. The Catholic Office of Emergency Relief and Refugees was very active at Rithysen, and I began to study the Bible and attend the Catholic church. Hem Soeurn and I found jobs working for Mr. Kam Sos from the United States Embassy in Bangkok; our job was to help interview the 60,000 refugees and gather information so the foreign agencies would know what to do.
The United Nations Border Relief Organization gave us bamboo and materials to build a house. We were each earning a salary of 300 baht a month; Vanni stayed at home and looked after the children while my husband and I went to work every day.
Those who did not have jobs had little to do but wait - wait for food, wait for water, wait for the meager supplies that were handed out. Most of the camps were located in remote, undeveloped areas that had little natural water. That meant the UN had to truck water to the sites; each family was responsible for fetching its daily water ration from the trucks.
They gave us rice, canned fish, vegetable oil and beans. In an effort to keep the rations from going straight to the armies, ration cards were distributed only to women, who periodically had to prove how many children they were feeding.
At first, life in the camps was very strict. They would not let people leave to work or buy food in Thailand. But people did not have enough to eat, so some would try to sneak out. That was very dangerous. Many were shot or attacked by soldiers; many women were raped.
After a while it got a little easier, and people were given a little more room, enough to grow vegetables for their families to eat, and to exchange. Eventually they allowed us to set up markets inside the camps, but that was years later.
For most of the people, most of the time, life in the camps was bitter. No one had come expecting to stay for long, but as the months stretched into years, more and more people lost hope. Life began to seem meaningless. Overcrowded, the people fought their neighbors. The camps were rife with violence and treachery. And you never knew when things would take a turn for the worse.
Six months after we arrived at Rithysen, we were celebrating Christmas Eve with a party at the Catholic church when shells started falling inside the camp. For several years the Phnom Penh government had attacked the border area each year during the dry season, hoping to drive refugees out of the camps and back into Cambodia. In December of 1984, they decided to attack in earnest, to close down the camps on Cambodian territory for good.
People had no choice but to run into Thailand if they wanted to live. The whole camp broke apart and began running. I heard the sounds of tanks, driving through the forest. We had to leave everything behind. I lost everything I could not carry by myself. People were crying and running past my house, 60,000 people running into Thailand.
For five hours, we had no place to go. We thought we were going to die. A big antitank ditch separated Cambodia from Thailand, and we could look over that ditch and see small hills. The Thai soldiers would not allow Cambodian people to enter. They asked us to sit down, as the bombs were falling behind us. They said we could not go in until they had obtained permission. So for five hours we sat there, afiaid we would be killed at any moment.
Finally they let us go to a place called Red Hill, where we stayed for one month. It was a terrible situation. Nobody protected us. The resistance soldiers were fighting the Vietnamese soldiers, and everything was destroyed. Many Cambodian people died, they were killed by Thai soldiers and Vietnamese soldiers and also by Cambodian soldiers.
After Red Hill, we moved to a camp called Bang Phou, where we stayed for eight months. It was near the big UN camp at Khao-I-Dang. Everyone from Rithysen eventually turned up at Bang Phou. That was a horrible time.
It was not safe, not safe. There was no security there. The Thai soldiers attacked the people every day, every morning and every night. I grew to hate them like I hated the communists, because they were cruel to the Cambodian people. They raped young girls and young women, they killed men, women and children.
People tried to hide from the soldiers but it was hard. The soldiers were in towers around the periphery of the camp; when people tried to sneak out to get food or find work, the soldiers would catch them. If they caught you, you had to pay, or they would beat or rape or even kill you.
I do not know why the Thai soldiers were so cruel. I think they thought of us as animals, there for their profit or entertainment. Cambodian girls were afraid to go anywhere by themselves, so they would ask male friends to pretend to be their husbands. The soldiers would catch them and say, "Well, if he is your husband, prove it." And they would force the couple to have sex, while they watched.
There is a terrible, sad story I would like to tell you. In the camp lived a couple, the man was handicapped. He had two children with his wife. She would leave the camp to go to work because he could not. On her way home, she would pick wild mushrooms in the mountains to sell.
One day a Thai soldier found her in the forest and raped her. Then he killed her. When her husband came to look for her, they shot and killed him too. The little children were left orphans. This story was so horrible many people cried to hear it. It could not be hushed up. Officials from UNBRO complained to the Thai government, said the soldiers must stop mistreating the Cambodian people. At that time UNBRO was giving the Thai government a lot of money. From that time forward, there were fewer problems.
In 1985 the UN built a new camp to house the people who had been driven into Thailand from six camps along the border. The new camp was called Site II and it became the largest camp, home to as many as 175,000 people.
Our lives changed once again at Site II. We had gone to the border hoping to eventually resettle in a third country. In the earlier camps we had still been worried about surviving, but at Site II we found a different kind of work to do. It was so engrossing that we came to abandon our idea about leaving, and instead began to think about some day returning to Cambodia.
I have not said much about my daughter Vanni, but I will tell you now that she had been terribly changed by the Khmer Rouge years. Although she was a young woman, she was very depressed. She did not want even to speak to a man, and she did not want to see anybody. She told me she felt that her life had been destroyed.
She said she felt as if she were a frog, living in a well. She could not see the sun or the light. All she knew was darkness.
As you can imagine, many Cambodians suffered mental problems stemming from their experiences during the war. Depression was the most common complaint, and it afflicted many. Several foreign organizations in the camps began to offer mental health services, including COERR and Harvard University in the US state of Massachusetts.
Hem Soeurn and I both began to work with the foreigners, and we completed training courses in how to treat mental illnesses. At first I went around the camp and visited people in their homes, and then they began coming to our house. Only five women at first, then 10, then 15, men and women.
The need was great. The trauma of the Pol Pot time, combined with the sometimes awful conditions in the camps, had left many people with serious problems. Domestic violence, substance abuse, and stress compounded the depression. We tried to explain to them how they could help each other and not feel despair.
We began getting more and more patients. In 1988, with money and support from the foreigners, we built the Khmer Peoples' Depression Relief Center. We combined Western and traditional Cambodian treatments and medicines. Most of our clients were women, and the most common complaint was depression.
Our Western colleagues were especially fascinated by a phenomenon we called "tiing moon" in the Khmer language. We translate it as "dummy personality," and it means a state of psychological withdrawal or hibernation that can seem like stoicism, callousness, or dishonesty. Many people adopted this behavior during the Khmer Rouge years, and continued it in the camps as a defense against the violence and hopelessness of living in limbo at the border. I think it can still be seen in Cambodia today.
Oh, the center was a nice place! It was built of bamboo and set in a garden that I planted. The camp gave us a hectare of land, and we planted trees and flowering shrubs. I think a garden is good for the soul, it reminds you there is beauty in the world. The space quickly filled with children-those first 15 people had 30 children among them, and many were unable to care for them properly.
By the time I left Site 11, I was responsible for 91 children. Some were orphans, but others were children of parents who could not take care of them. They were the nucleus of what would become the Future Light Orphanage, and some are still with me today.
My son Thero grew up in Site 11, and in some ways he had many opportunities. He learned to speak English well, and toward the end he was sent to Bangkok to learn computer skills. He also learned to speak Thai fluently, but he will not speak it today. He says he cannot forget how the Thai soldiers treated the Cambodians.
At Site II I also organized some of the women into a weaving cooperative. Many foreigners came to the camps, and I could see that they wanted to help us. Rather than ask them for money, we began to make cotton and silk scarves and skirts to sell.
They were very popular, and we made a lot of money. The foreign aid workers helped me by buying thread and dye in the Thai markets, which the women wove into traditional Cambodian cloth. The looms were built by men in the camp. Since we spent virtually no money in the camps, I was able to save a sizable nest egg, money I knew I would need when we finally returned to Phnom Penh.
Because in 1989, with the withdrawal of the Vietnamese, we began to think about going home. There was still fighting between the Phnom Penh government, the resistance forces and the Khmer Rouge, but we knew the United Nations was going to make a big push to resolve the conflicts and hold democratic elections in Cambodia. They set up another organization-the United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia-to oversee the elections.
Thero was the first to leave, in early 1992. He was 20 years old then, and he and a friend walked back into Cambodia through the border town of Poipet. They had to walk through minefields, walking very carefully on a small path. He said you could see the landmines.
In Phnom Penh, he got a very good job working for UNTAC. Very few Cambodians spoke English then; those who did were snapped up by the international agencies. We followed about four months later, but it took us longer because we were bringing nine widows and 91 children with us.
These were the people who had been coming to the Khmer Peoples' Depression Relief Center for treatment, and I was responsible for continuing to care for them.
I was a little bit worried about how we would live, but I had drawn up a plan in Site 11, creating my own organization. I wrote up the by-laws and the rules, following the guidelines used by the foreign non-governmental organizations. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees approved of my plans and paid me $50 per person to transport the widows and children to Phnom Penh and cover their expenses, and the World Food Program gave us rice for the children.
That was the beginning of the Future Light Orphanage. It did not come together too smoothly. At first we lived in a house near the Olympic Stadium - at least, some of us did. We had widows and children living all over, with various members of my family.
And people in Cambodia were not too happy to have us back. Many resented us, for fleeing the country. They felt we had betrayed Cambodia, that we were not to be trusted. That attitude forced me to leave a good job at the Cambodian Mine Action Center demining agency after only a year. The people there were jealous of me, because I spoke French and English and they felt the foreigners liked me too much. They spoke against me, as my grandfather had foretold.
But good things happened too. I applied to the King and Queen for permission to open the orphanage, and it was granted. Some French journalists heard about the work I was doing and they wrote a big story on me for a French magazine. I was very surprised when, in 1993, I won the Humanitarian Action Prize in France, known as the Figaro Award. It was 16,000 francs, a lot of money, and I was invited to come to France to receive it. Hem Soeurn came with me. It was the first time in his life he had traveled outside Cambodia.
That same year, my mother died and left me the land near the airport. My father had died while we were in the camps. I took my savings and the Figaro award money and began to build the orphanage. It was not easy, as the land was rice paddy and needed to be filled in with dirt before we could build on it. One of the first things I did was to plant a garden.
In 1994, Thero got a job working for Bernard Krisher, an American journalist living in Japan who publishes The Cambodia Daily, a newspaper in Phnom Penh that prints stories six days a week in English and Khmer. His goal is to teach Cambodian journalists Western standards of journalism.
One day Thero brought him to the orphanage to meet me. At first, Mr. Krisher thought all of the children were mine, and wondered that Thero had so many brothers and sisters! But when he learned we were running an orphanage, he offered to help us by finding foster parents for the children, people who would donate $10 per month to help feed and clothe them.
Over the years Mr. Krisher, who supports a number of philanthropic projects in Cambodia including a hospital, library, and a growing number of schools, found other generous donors who contributed money and equipment to the orphanage. And in 1998, I received a great honor, when I was awarded the Ramon Magsaysay Award in the Philippines. The $50,000 award is given for humanitarian achievements; past winners include Mother Theresa, the Dalai Lama, Akira Kurosawa, and Ravi Shankar. The year I won, four others were honored too, including Corazon Aquino, former president of the Philippines.
Let me tell you first about the Future Light Orphanage as it is today, and then I will tell you about all the people who have helped to make it happen. After the dark period Cambodia experienced, it has been a wonderful experience for us to learn how many kind people there are in the world.
Today the orphanage occupies about four hectares of land, as we have been able to purchase adjoining parcels over the years. Most of the buildings are on the original two-hectare plot; we hope to use the additional land for future expansion.
From the original 91 children, our orphanage has grown to support 300 children. Only about one in four of our children are true orphans, in the sense that both parents are dead. The others may have one or even two parents, but come from families too poor or too dysfunctional to care for them.
They come to us from all over Cambodia. Sometimes they hear about us from another family who has sent a child here; sometimes they know a staff member, sometimes they are referred to us by social service workers.
Many want to send their children here, because they know the children will get instruction in English and computer skills, will be fed nourishing food, and will have a safe place to sleep. All of these services are free, supported by donations from philanthropists and foster parents, many of whom are foreigners.
The orphanage is more like a village than an institution; many people earn their livings here, working to help our children achieve a better future. We employ cooks and teachers and maintenance people, weavers and sewers and sometimes musicians.
About 100 children live at the orphanage, while another 150 live in the villages nearby and come each day for instruction and meals.
The remaining 50 are older children who have learned enough to work as assistant teachers in the provinces at a series of schools built by Mr. Krisher and other donors. They get paid small stipends for six-month assignments; after two years they will be old enough, and experienced enough, to obtain jobs on their own.
The children attend local schools during the day, and study here at the orphanage at night or when they have a break in their schedules. We also offer training in sewing, and sometimes in art, classical music, dance, and agriculture, so that students can master skills that will help them find jobs when they leave us.
Of the original 91 children we started with, 25 have grown up and left the orphanage; some have landed good jobs as translators, tour guides or teachers. Many of the girls want jobs in the garment factories (now Cambodia's biggest industry), so the sewing training is popular.
Phai Meng, a man who worked with us in the camps, is the manager of the FLO compound. "Yes, it is difficult to keep track of so many children," he says. "One or two is hard enough." He says the older children help to keep their juniors in line, and that all are so busy they don't have much time for mischief.
The children start their day with breakfast at 5:45 a.m. Half of the younger students head out for school at 6 a.m., while the others study English or computer at the orphanage with children from the nearby villages.
At midday, those who attended school in the morning return for lunch; in the afternoon, they will study at the orphanage while the others head out to school. High school students, who attend school all day, will study at the orphanage at night.
Sisters Srey Srash, 14, and Srey Makara, 18, are typical of the children who live with us. They have been with us for 12 years, since the camp. Their mother is still alive, though they have not seen her in four years; their father was a resistance soldier in the Khmer People's Liberation Front, who died on the battlefield.
"My mother is old now," says Makara. "She is a cook. It makes me sad that I haven't seen her in so long, but I do not know where she is." She says the orphanage has been a good place to live, and she is grateful for the skills she is learning.
"We hope we will have a better life because we have learned English and computer," she says. "My dream is to have a job when I finish school here, to make some money and take care of my old mother, to stay with her. But I have to find a job first."
A more recent arrival is Seng Srey Touch, 14, who has been with us for four years. Her father died many years ago; when her mother succumbed to leukemia six years ago, her older siblings took care of her for two years before they learned about FLO.
Now the older siblings live in Phnom Penh, where both have jobs; they visit her every month. "If I hadn't come here, maybe I would be in trouble and my family in misery," she says. She hopes to rejoin them after completing her studies.
Khat Socheat, 18, has been at FLO for five months. "I arrived here from Siem Reap, where I was living with my granny," he says as he wolfs down a lunch of rice, fish and vegetables. "My parents died when I was four. A teacher from FLO came through Siem Reap and told us about the center. I like it. I am learning a lot."
Most of the students live in the big, two-story dormitory called the Bishiken Future House, which was built by Mr. Toshu Fukarni, one of our most generous donors. It is a beautiful wooden building in the Khmer style, with smooth wooden floors and a shaded porch.
Children sleep under mosquito nets on mats on the floor. They keep their belongings in trunks stacked neatly against the wall and hang their clothes on hooks. Boys live on the first floor, girls on the second, and each dormitory is overseen by staffers with the help of older students, who serve as prefects.
All the children eat their meals in an open-air pavilion donated by Queen Norodom Monineath.
Mr. Fukami has also built us a beautiful computer classroom, which is air conditioned to protect the computers. Mr. Fukami believes individual donors can be more effective than government programs, because they can move more quickly.
"Every single one of us has the right to do our best to achieve our dreams," he says.
It is hard for a child to achieve self-realization in a country without enough schools or books or computers, he notes.
He is quite a remarkable man with many interests, including the arts, business, and philanthropy. Although he is an accomplished musician and an ordained Zen Buddhist priest in the Rinzai tradition, he has achieved great worldly success as a business consultant and motivational speaker. He has written more than 60 books and has mastered an astonishing variety of arts, from poetry to drama to dance, calligraphy, the tea ceremony and flower arrangement.
Mr. Fukami has devoted much time and resources to philanthropy. In Cambodia, he supports the Sihanouk Hospital in Phnom Penh as well as FLO, while in Japan he is honorary chairman of the Japanese Blind Golf Association and vice-chairman of the International Shinto Foundation and chairman of the International Foundation for Arts and Culture.
While Mr. Fukami has been our major donor, many others have helped, including Mr. Nicholas Negroponte of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who donated computers for the children to use. Ilka Wilbert, a German journalist, donated three independent buildings that now house 18 of the smallest children.
Mr. Krisher has been responsible for finding us scores of donors and foster parents over the years, a reliable source of income that has allowed us to plan for the future. And for many years we have received aid fiom Les Infants du Mekong, a French NGO, and the UN's World Food Program.
We have been blessed to find many skilled teachers, such as Chan Norn, a 29-yearold former monk who teaches English, or 30-year-old Heang Narith, who teaches computer. The students who will go on to be assistant teachers in the provinces must also learn basic repairs, as they will be working in areas that lack electricity, let alone technical support. In those schools, the computers are powered by solar panels.
As for the future, we hope to build several independent houses on the new parcels of land, where older students can go to live by themselves as they prepare to leave the orphanage. While they live with us, we provide everything-food, laundry, school supplies-until they turn 18, when they suddenly are expected to fend for themselves in the outside world.
It would be better to prepare them, starting at age 16, by moving them into these independent houses with a staffer and a small group of others, so they can start learning the living skills they will need to thrive on their own.
As for the future, we have many ideas and hopes. We are very happy to report that the silk business we began so long ago in the camps has continued to grow and prosper. Last year we opened a shop on the riverfront in Phnom Penh, in the district frequented by foreign tourists. It is doing very well, so well that some day it might be prosperous enough to support the orphanage.
In the shop, we sell some small articles made by students at FLO, but most of the stock is very high-quality silk made by skilled weavers with many years' experience. The quality and unusual nature of our silk products have brought us orders from Thailand, Singapore, France, Japan and the US.
The silk business is taking up more and more of my time, as I must take orders and designs to the weavers and sometimes consult with the customers. Some day, I hope we can sell our products online. But Hem Soeurn fills in for me when I must be away.
Sometimes, when I think of all I have lost in my life, I worry that the Khmer Rouge could come again, or the government, and take this all away. I think, if that were to happen, I would die. Before, I was strong enough to fight. Now I am old. I worry that I would not have the energy to work and to keep going.
But then I remember why we named the orphanage Future Light. As my husband reminds me, there are many poor people in Cambodia, and none face a harder life than the orphans and the poor children. They have no hope for the future. We want the orphans to have future light, to have hope. So we will stay with them.