Sheer terror: A Cambodian recalls escape from genocide

By Phuoc Tuan   January 10, 2019 | 08:09 pm PT
Escaping from the Khmer Rouge was a desperate act, a thankful survivor recounts, 40 years later.

As fellow villager after fellow villager died under the brutal Pol Pot regime, Lac Son felt he had few options: either get drafted into their army, or stay and die of torture, execution or starvation.

He chose to make a break for freedom.

Lac Son remembers the night his parents led him and his three siblings out of their home village in Cambodia’s Svay Rieng Province in October, 1977. All they had were 20 kilograms of rice, a few rice bowls, pots, clothes and each other. They were desperate enough to risk their lives.

"If we stayed, we would have been killed," he said. Four other families in the village were also slipping away into the night, careful not to be seen or heard as they made their way towards the Vietnamese border.

Escape was on the minds of almost all Cambodia citizens suffering under the Khmer Rouge regime led by Pol Pot. The group tortured and murdered millions of Cambodians as part of their genocidal purges between 1975 to 1979, eventually leading to the deaths of around 25 percent of Cambodia’s population at the time.

Four decades after that fateful night, Son, now 58, is still haunted by the suffocating darkness, the sounds of gunfire echoing behind him, and the last images of his grandfather.

"There was so much horror, so much pain."

Lac Son, 58, recalls the night he and his family ran away from their home village in Svay Rieng Province, Cambodia. Photo by VnExpress/Phuoc Tuan

Lac Son, 58, recalls the night he and his family ran away from their village in Svay Rieng Province, Cambodia. Photo by VnExpress/Phuoc Tuan

Living in fear

Sitting on the front porch of his home in Tan Phu Village, Tan Chau District, An Giang Province, Lac Son, a Khmer-Cambodian, talks often of his home village in Svay Rieng. He talked about the golden paddy fields surrounding the village and how the villagers, despite not having much, lived peaceful lives.

But it all changed when Pol Pot and his followers took over the country in 1975.

"Even before the sun rose and our bellies were empty, [the Khmer Rouge] forced us to go to the fields to work. We only got two meals per day, one at noon and one in the afternoon," he said. When he was 17, Son and hundreds of fellow villagers were forced to plow fields, dig tunnels and sow seeds as the Khmer Rouge carried out their agricultural reform attempts through collectivization, part of their ideology on absolute self-sufficiency and national purity.

Despite horrid, slavery-like working conditions, none dared resist in any manner for fear of being tortured or killed. Son was aware of that early on.

"My cousin was suspected of trying to ‘destroy the community’s unity’ just because he ate alone. One day, he was tied up, blindfolded and taken away. He never returned," Son said, his voice quivering.

Villagers were dying in droves. Many were tortured and executed, and even more were drafted to be a part of their army. The lucky ones who managed to survive were all horrifically malnourished, with no strength in their limbs. Son knew that nothing but death awaited his family if they stayed. Risking their lives and escaping was the only way left, if they wanted to live.

"So we planned to escape to Vietnam."

The escape

In the dead of night, a group of 40 people, including small children and the elderly, packed their belongings and snuck out of the village. As always, every night, numerous Khmer Rouge guards were stationed on all paths in and out of the village.

"If you got caught, they would kill you on the spot," Son said.

The group decided to head east towards the Vietnamese border, approximately 50 kilometers away from the village. They had to wade through water trenches, hide in bushes and crouch until their faces were inches from the ground.

"Whenever we saw the guards’ silhouettes from afar, we had to lie down immediately and literally drag ourselves over the muddy terrain. Our belongings were all wet," Son recalled. They took advantage of the tall rice plants in surrounding paddy fields, he added.

But danger and death lurked at every step.

As the group moved forward, a series of gunshots erupted from behind them. A smaller group, which had lagged behind the main one, had apparently been discovered. There were sounds of gunfire, screams, and then, silence.

"Everyone went hysterical. My brother, who was small back then, wailed in fear after he heard the first gunshot. My mother had to cover his mouth and try to calm him down. We all thought that was it," Son said.

All he could remember afterwards was how their feet took over instead of their brains. They ran and they ran, then they ran some more.

The group finally decided to rest after they reached an abandoned village as the sun set the next day. They couldn’t cook rice for fear the resulting smoke could give away their position, so they had to eat it raw.

While some of them tried to catch some sleep, others started to notice small balls of light flickering in the distance. Shortly after, sounds of men yelling from afar started to get louder and louder. The Khmer Rouge was onto them.

"We immediately leapt up, gathered our things and sprinted towards the paddy fields. Some elderly people were already too weak by that time, so they decided to stay behind instead," Son said, before hesitating for a bit. Then, after a pause, he said that his own grandfather, who was part of the group, couldn’t move properly because his legs were already too swollen after a day of continuous walking and running.

"He told us to run for our lives. He said it’s okay if he died, he had lived long enough," Son said, almost choking on his words.

They didn’t even have time to cry or say further farewells. Son’s parents took off, carrying him and his siblings towards the fields to join the group again. Behind them, guns began firing.


Groups of Cambodians seek asylum in Vietnam to escape from Khmer Rouge. Archival photo retrieved by VnExpress

Groups of Cambodians head towards Vietnam to escape from Khmer Rouge. Archival photo retrieved by VnExpress

Throughout their journey to freedom, Son and his fellow villagers encountered several more life-or-death situations. Until one day, when they saw a squad of soldiers from afar, carrying crimson flags with a golden star in the middle.

They were Vietnamese troops on their way back to their military headquarters.

"We cheered and ran towards them, and they were happy to see us too. They told us to move in front of them so they could cover our backs. Old people and small children were taken on tanks and buses, while adults walked in a line behind," Son recalled.

It was like they were reborn, Son said.

Following the Vietnamese troops, the villagers eventually reached a safe zone in Chau Thanh District of the southern province of Tay Ninh. At the end of 1977, after seeing how the Khmer Rouge had amped up their aggression, provincial authorities relocated these people to the northern province of An Giang instead.

It was there that Son and his family decided to settle down. He eventually married a Khmer woman there, who was also a Cambodian seeking asylum like him.

"After Phnom Penh was liberated, I returned to my hometown, but our old house was demolished and the paddy fields were gone. So I decided to stay in Vietnam," Son said.

In 1977 and 1978, there were tens of thousands of Cambodians like Lac Son who sought asylum in Vietnam, including prominent politicians like Hun Sen, the current Cambodian PM, said Trieu Xuan Hoa, a former Vietnamese commanding officer.

Relocation efforts usually took the asylum seekers to Vietnamese provinces neighboring Cambodia, like Tay Ninh, Binh Phuoc or Long An, he added.

In the beginning, as Vietnam and Cambodia were having negotiations to settle border conflicts, the asylum seekers were sometimes returned to their home country.

"But after seeing how Pol Pot and his forces killed all the returning asylum-seekers, we decided to help them," Hoa said.

Most of the Khmer-Cambodians who live in Tan Chau now are farmers with below average incomes, said Ha Thi Hue, deputy chairwoman of the Tan Phu Village’s People’s Committee.

"They integrate well with the Vietnamese community. We always try to provide them the best conditions to prosper economically, culturally and spiritually," she added.

People of Ratanakiri Province, Cambodia, greet Vietnamese and Cambodian soldiers in 1979. Photo by Vietnam News Agency

People of Ratanakiri Province, Cambodia, greet Vietnamese and Cambodian soldiers in 1979. Photo by Vietnam News Agency

From 1975 to the Khmer Rouge, under the leadership of Pol Pot, general secretary of the Communist Party of Kampuchea, Cambodia's former ruling party, tortured and murdered millions of Cambodians.

Approximately 1.8 million Cambodians, about 25 percent of the population in 1975, lost their lives to the genocidal social engineering policies.

Khmer Rouge forces also invaded Vietnam and killed tens of thousands of Vietnamese during this period, forcing the Vietnamese government to act when Cambodian revolutionaries requested them to. Vietnamese soldiers marched into Phnom Penh in 1979 during a counter-offensive on the southwestern border. The capital was freed from Khmer Rouge's regime on January 7.

For Lac Son, the painful past will forever remain a part of him.

But, he says, "my life is stable now, and I’m happy I chose Vietnam as my second home."

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