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Thong Phoeun, Colonel

Phoeun first saw me one evening when I was walking to the river to have a bath. He kept watching me and followed me whenever I went to the market. He came to my parents to ask for my hand in marriage. My father didn’t agree at first because he hadn’t brought any elderly people along to act as middlemen. So, he came back a second time with his relatives, and my father accepted his proposal. I was 18 and he was 28. He was a small man, so he looked young.

I wore my own embroidered blouse during the hair-cutting ceremony for my wedding. I also wore silk pants that were brought up between the legs and tucked in at the back. My hair was short, so the hairdresser tucked a flower behind my ear to represent a woman’s beauty. I wore many different clothes during the wedding; each one had to fit the color of my skin.

Phoeun came from a family with high position, but his parents died when he was very young. After he earned a Baccalaureate I, he joined the army. He only worked in the military office as a financial manager, where he had a high rank and was responsible for paying salaries. My husband earned a lot of money and was able to ride a bicycle to work every day. I quit my job selling fruits and vegetables at the market and stayed at home to raise our children.

During the Lon Nol regime, there was fighting in my village, so Phoeun was ordered to work in Takhmau near Phnom Penh. In the military office where he worked, they had information on where there was fighting around the country. But then they began bombing the military office in Takhmau, so we moved into the city. 

When my husband told me about the political situation, I became very frightened and told him to pack our belongings. But when the evacuation day came, I burned all sorts of documents related to my husband and took only three bottles of soy sauce, a cooking pot, some plates, and rice.

As we were being evacuated to our home village, one of our children died along the way because it was too hot and there wasn’t enough to eat. The Khmer Rouge kept asking about my husband’s position; I told them he was a cyclo [pedicab] driver. He dressed in civilian clothing to disguise his past.

Even though we were living back in my own home town, the Khmer Rouge soldiers called us April 17 people. They wouldn’t let us live with my parents and then sent us to Por Village in Pursat Province. It was deep in the jungle and there were wolves at night. The 400 families there were from Phnom Penh and a few other provinces.

One night, the Angkar told many people that they were taking them to the Tonle Sap River. We spied on them and watched what was happening. The Khmer Rouge put those people in a house, doused it with fuel, and set the house on fire. Some of the people had children and tried to protect them with their arms. Others cried aloud for their mothers, wives, and children.

Most of the others in Por Village, however, died from starvation, and some from execution. Once they accused some of the new people of being Vietnamese. The execution took place at 3 in the afternoon. They killed the people not far from the village and put music on the loudspeakers to prevent their cries from being heard.

I was assigned to find vegetables, while my husband was told to gather firewood and take care of cows in a nearby village. Men, who had been a friend of Phoeun’s and worked with him in the military, was assigned to work in the same unit with him. The Angkar caught Men. He said to them, “If you caught me, why didn’t you catch Phoeun as well? He was a colonel.” 

The Angkar investigated my husband and came to our house one afternoon. They said “Comrade, come downstairs. Don’t bring anything with you, not mosquito nets or blankets. The place where you are going will be very comfortable.” I tried to give him a karma [checkered scarf], but the cadres said he wouldn’t need it as the new place had mosquito nets. They led Phoeun away, saying he would return in four or five days.

But Phoeun came back that the same night and told me he had escaped. I saw that his face was badly bruised and told him that if he were caught again, he would be killed. A spy who had been standing under our house overheard our conversation, and at midnight the cadres came and took him again.

The next morning, I was asked to attend a meeting. There, the cadres put a watch, cigarette lighter, pair of shoes, and karma on the table; I knew they were my husband’s and that he was dead. Later, the chief of the woman’s unit told me in secret that my husband was buried along the road I walked on each day to go to the rice fields. She also said I should work harder or I, too, would be killed.

Fifteen days later, I delivered a baby girl, and ten days after that, I returned to work, this time feeding pigs. I was very thin, so the pigs knocked me over often. I recovered once my unit chief found some medicine for me, but my daughter died of starvation when she was three months old. Another of my children was collecting cow dung and disappeared. The chief of my unit said he died from vomiting and dizziness.

I ran away from the village after a local couple told me that the Angkar wanted to kill me. That couple saved me, but later the Khmer Rouge accused them of cooperating with an April 17 person and executed them.

I kept walking until I arrived at Sam San and saw a brick-making site. There were over 10,000 people working there, and because they didn’t have tractors, they used elephants to pull the bricks to dams they were building.  I went to work there and they gave us enough to eat. 

One day I saw many cars speeding by. The people inside them were wearing black clothes and red karmas around their necks. They looked Chinese. They drove on top of the dams while I and other workers were underneath. A few days later, the Vietnamese liberated the country and I decided to go home.

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