Share This Article
Netra Hawkins recounts the story of her mum’s encounters with the terrors of the Khmer Rouge in 1975, Phnom Penh Cambodia as an 8 year old girl. Written from the perspective of her mum growing up in the war, this is an emotional recount of having lost family members and fighting every day to survive at an age most children take safety for granted. From what it was like to leave everything you knew behind to travel by foot to the countryside, or to lessons she gathered from her experiences working in a labour camp and cooking for the people who kidnapped her father, this article will provide a direct glimpse into what it was like to live through the Khmer Rouge.
I was eight when the war broke out. Cambodia is a small country in South East Asia surrounded by Vietnam, Thailand and Laos as neighbours. On April 17th 1975, Cambodia had a civil war. It was at this time that the communist party, the Khmer Rouge, which directly translates to the ‘Red Cambodians’, took over.
As an 8 year old girl, I did not understand the concept or definition of communism, or what the revolution was all about. What I remember from the morning of the 17th of April was complete and utter chaos. I remember the army marching into the country wearing all black and the symbolic red and white scarf wrapped around their necks. Each soldier was armed with a rifle or gun, firing warning shots into the air demanding everyone to leave their homes. Everyone was confused, in shock and completely unprepared.
But even amidst all the chaos, my dad remained calm. It was not a shock for him. He was prepared for this day, he didn’t necessarily know when it was going to happen but he knew that the communists were coming as he was a member of parliament and he knew that some of the leaders had been slowly disappearing in order to form the revolution. He had many chances to flee the country, but I remember him telling me that if you leave your country to live in a foreign person’s country then you are nobody. He strongly believed in staying in your home, your country, to look after your own people. So he was prepared mentally and physically to face the horrors that he predicted would come upon us.
We had a huge family. Possibly 6 families worth of people all living together. It was not possible to keep us all together, so he had to let a lot of his sisters and brothers leave the city first. It was a very hard moment for me, to watch them march by foot and say goodbye to the people I had lived with my whole life. I remember I stood in the middle of the road to see them walk into the distance until I couldn’t see them anymore. All I was able to do was race through thousands of unanswered questions in my mind.
Why couldn’t I go with them? What did my mom and dad plan for us?
But I didn’t ask these questions because I knew it was something that I did not need to know. I knew that if I was going to survive I had to listen and observe carefully. Our family did not leave with everyone else because my dad wanted to stay behind in the city to see what was happening. My mom and dad had many connections and were able to hide and pretend to work in the main hospital in the city as very low profile workers. My dad worked as a cleaner and my mom worked in the kitchen to help with the cooking. My family hid behind the hospital in a small apartment. One day, there was a soldier who followed my mom to our house where we were hiding. It was terrifying.
The soldier followed my mom into the house but for some reason we could tell he meant no harm. He asked to close the door leaving us all very confused and in fear for our safety. He turned to my mom and said “I know who you are. I know you are not a cook, and I know your husband is not a cleaner at the hospital”. We thought that this was the moment that we were going to be caught. But what he said next surprised us all; he turned and spoke to my mother, “You were my teacher”. Suddenly it dawned on my mother (who used to be a teacher at a school before the revolution began) that this soldier was once a student of hers. He had recognised her and she had a special place in his heart because she was kind and taught him many things as a child, so he wanted to repay her with sharing some advice.
He explained what the Khmer Rouge were doing, and their ideals on communism. He explained how they wanted to eliminate capitalism, eliminate classes, eliminate inequality and hierarchy. He explained that everyone was being migrated to the countryside to start a fresh life as common labourers where everyone would live in the same conditions, same community, with the same standards and the same opportunities. They had started to eliminate any well educated people who might question their methods such as doctors, teachers and government officials. They had even gone as far as eliminating people who wore glasses because it was seen as a sign of intelligence. The soldier said to my mom that there is no need to hide who she is because we had friends who are the leaders in the Khmer rouge. But if we wanted to survive we had to turn in all our weapons and submit to the communist party and leave the city with the rest of our people.
The time had come for our family to leave everything we had ever known and make the journey to the countryside. Before we left the city, my parents gave me and my siblings survival backpacks that we were instructed to always keep by our sides. Inside the backpack included the biography of our parents, some dry food and some medicine. There were no cell phones and anything we could use to contact one another.
We were extremely lucky, because of some of the connections my parents had, we were able to travel hidden inside a truck. On the way, I recognised people who left the city weeks ago still travelling by foot. Whoever couldn’t walk was killed on the spot. Whether this was from exhaustion, starvation, or illness, each time a gunshot radiated through the air it meant another life lost who could not keep up. I don’t know how to tell you how I felt at that time. It was a void full of fear and confusion. We were transported to a very small cottage for a family of five, on a fresh piece of land that we were supposed to help cultivate to build a new village.
Not long after we arrived, someone came for my dad.
One day he went to work and never returned home. My siblings and I were all full of questions but we never asked any of them because we were too scared of the consequences. We had no idea where they took him but all we knew was that he was taken away. But where he was, how long he was going to be gone for or if he was even ok would remain unknown to us. We didn’t have the right or the luxury to ask. Eventually we came to understand that people were disappearing every night. Family by family. We just knew that they were killed and never came back.
I can’t remember how long it was but it felt like months later. To everyone’s complete surprise, my dad came back. I remember that afternoon so clearly. My younger brother and I were in our cottage because we were too young to work in the rice fields, we were doing whatever chores we could to help out and we were waiting for my mom and other siblings to come back from work in the evening. I remember hearing his voice and thinking I must have been dreaming. It had been months and we knew nothing better than to assume he was dead and that we would never be able to say a proper goodbye.
But we heard his voice, we heard him shouting our names and that he was home again. I couldn’t believe it and rushed to the gate and couldn’t believe my eyes. There was my dad, home, carrying as much farmers produce as his arms could bear the weight of and he told us it was ok for me to cook them and serve it for our family. He told me it was ok to cook for our family because even though we lived on a cottage with good land, anything that we grew on the land did not belong to us.
We grew papayas, sweet potatoes and other delicious crops but we could only eat them if we presented them to the community kitchen to share. When the other villagers found out my dad had returned, they had so many questions. Everyday they came to ask him questions but my dad always ran to hide in the bushes behind our house. Questions about lost brothers and sisters. Mothers and fathers who disappeared. Missing children who had never returned. But my dad never answered anyone and never told us why. But by this time we knew that asking questions was pointless and the only way to survive was to stay silent and accept what was happening around us.
Not long after when I turned 9, it was time for me to leave the family to join the children’s labour camp. It was hard to leave. I was scared. And my dad knew he had no right to fight to keep me at home. So instead of making the transition harder than it was, my dad just whispered something into my ear to give me the strength he knew I would need to persevere. All he said was “Just be useful”. I had no idea what he meant. But I held onto those words for dear life because that’s all I had.
A typical day during the war at a labour camp for a child like myself in a labour camp would be waking up at 5:30 in the morning before sunrise with no breakfast. We would head to the rice fields in the cold winter air, our bare feet freezing in the water and working without break until noon, where we would receive bare minimum for lunch. Regardless of weather conditions, whether this be harsh rain or scorching sun, we would continue to work until past dark with only a painfully light meal for dinner to look forward to. If we were lucky this would consist of a handful of rice and some salt.
I remember that soon my feet became infected from standing in dirty water hours on end every day. Because of this, I wasn’t able to work in the rice fields until they healed. I was terrified. I was scared that my already scarce portions of food would be reduced because I wasn’t able to help on the fields. But what is more is that I didn’t want to not work on the rice fields because if I couldn’t work then it meant I was no longer useful. So I decided to ask the guards if I could help to bind the straws to make roofs for the cottages and they agreed. From this point on and with each obstacle, I started to understand more and more what my dad meant by his message. Do what you can to your ability. I believe that this was the reason I survived. If I can’t do one job then I must find a way to make myself useful in something else.
Sometimes we could catch a glimpse of some rice crackers in the kitchen. During the war, seeing these rice crackers was like seeing pizza or seeing a chocolate cake. I knew that those rice crackers would taste like heaven and help to quiet the constant starving rumble in my stomach. But I also knew that I could not simply ask for them because I would never be allowed anywhere near them. So I thought about what my dad told me and made myself useful. I went to the kitchen and found the man in charge of the kitchen. I found work in fanning the fire and fanning the kitchen and picking up small jobs wherever I could. In return they offered me the rice crackers as a reward. Every time I needed something, I always repeated what my father said to me. To make myself useful. I lived by it.
One day I was working on a farm cleaning up land which is very labour intensive work. Everyday we had to clean an area of land 10 meters in width and 100 meters in length. On this particular day two buffaloes were running around. The male buffalo was chasing the female buffalo and the female buffalo began to run towards humans in desperation for some help. I was fortunate to be on a nice area of land that day on the top of a hill with beautiful views and scenery. The only problem was when the people at the bottom of the hill tried to shout at me to warn me about the buffaloes running in my direction I could not hear them. Before I even had time to process what had happened all I can remember is the feeling of being trampled by two massive full grown buffalos and the feeling of 8 hoofs stamping across me. It was a wonder I even survived. But when I was pulled out of the mud that I had been hammered into all I can remember feeling was the searing pain of my shoulder dangling off my body surrounded by shredded cloth and blood. My shoulder was broken.
Today a broken shoulder would be painful and inconvenient, nothing a cast and some rest couldn’t fix. But in the war your survival depended on your ability to work. In the war this could mean the difference between life and death. The only thoughts going through my head were panic about my survival. If I couldn’t work then they would get rid of me. This brought me back to what my father said to me. At first when he said to me to make myself useful I didn’t fully understand what he meant. But it was times like these that the full meaning dawned on me.
I refused to let myself go this easily. I knew I couldn’t work on the fields anymore so with one arm I made myself work in the kitchen and did anything I could to prove that I was useful and that I was more valuable alive than dead. That decision saved my life. I am only here today because of those words that I lived by. Your mind is your survival kit, your hands are your tools. Whatever you do in life, take advantage of it. Whether it’s to yourself, to your family, to your community or to your country. Be useful.