About 5 kilometres north east of the town of Kampong Trach there is a village that has a dark Khmer Rouge history. KOTE talked to two families who spent these years here. Eng and his wife Rin moved there after successfully negotiating various KR checkpoints after April 1975. Seth and his wife have lived in the same house here their whole life.
The stories from the families interviewed suggest life under the KR was different at least from other provinces. Both Eng and Seth’s families lost only one child with six surviving. Both families said they slept in their own houses at night, so keeping the family together. While Seth was considered neak moulthan (old person), Eng and Rin were not.
Eng and Rin at their home in Kampot
Eng and Rin
“In Kampot during 1974/75, there was fighting between the Khmer Rouge, who had come down from Phnom Voar (Vine Mountain), and the Lon Nol army. At this time I was in the Lon Nol army near Phnom Penh, in Areyksaet District in Kandal Province.
“When Pol Pot's forces controlled all of Phnom Penh, we were told by our commanders to leave our position and get away. After that, I threw away my uniform and equipment and went along Road 3 from the city to Chhouk, then to Touk Meas.
“When I reached Touk Meas, the Pol Pot army was there and asking everyone who arrived what was their background, as they said they wanted everyone to go back to their previous jobs. Teachers were put into one group, Lon Nol army soldiers into another group and farm workers were sent home.
“I decided to tell them I was a farm worker and after questioning me, luckily they believed my story and let me go home. One month later, the KR checked my story with the local community. My wife had sensibly thrown away the army uniform that I had at home and no-one betrayed me.
“On my journey back to Kampot Province I decided it was safer for my community, family and me if I lived some distance away from them, as so many questions were being asked. At this time Rin and I had three children.
“First I went to a community at the big bridge near Kep and then onto a village, near Kompong Trach. From 1975 to 1979, during the Pol Pot period, I lived in Prey Totueng village, which was part of the Kanthao commune. My job was to farm rice ‒ plant the seeds, tend the crop and then harvest it. We used a cow with a plough to prepare the paddy fields for planting.
“I was a good worker so my life was relatively safe, but you had to follow all orders with no protests.
“Everyone ate together at lunchtime ‒ we got rice gruel (bo bor), not rice. If we were lucky we got to cook some palm sugar in a big pot. We never felt full. Sometimes we made a soup with water lilly stems and a bit of fish paste.
“You must keep silent about what you think. If you complained about the food to your co-workers, the Khmer Rouge would hear you or find out from someone and kill you.
“In 1977/78 the Khmer Rouge invented a new way to fool us. A group of workers got lured to a temple1 near to us called Kang Tao (now Ansophea) on the edge of Kampong Trach. The KR told them people had been hurt and extra workers were needed to help them ‒ when the 180 people went the temple they were deceived and taken away to the edge of the village and killed.
Eng with a friend he had not seen since the Pol Pot times
“Their relatives came back after the Pol Pot army was gone and found them.
“The village where we stayed overnight was on the far side of the rice paddies. The people who already lived there were also forced to work in the fields alongside those who had been brought here.
“I was considered to be one of the neak thmey [new people from the city, who the Khmer Rouge despised]. You were a new person even if you were the Khmer from the countryside ‒ only if you came from the village where you were being forced work were you considered as a more respectable neak thmey (‘old people’).
“I always wanted someone to come and take me away ‒ I didn’t want to live in this sad time.
“The walls of the place I lived were made from coconut leaves. There were coconut trees all around it, which are still here today. At night I used to secretly climb these trees and bring down coconuts, using a piece of wire and some string, for people to eat. If the KR had found out I took the coconuts, they would kill me.”
Seth and Eng meet again
Seth and Yan
Seth was born in 1939 and met Eng during the Pol Pot years. Seth and Yan farm the same plot of land they had before the KR years. They lost two children, one during Pol Pot the other while fighting for the Cambodian army (after Pol Pot)
“To start with, the Khmer Rouge were not scary, but then they told some people they were going to a new village and took them away. We never saw them again
“They told lies. We were asked what had been our job before they took power and if we said the wrong thing, like we had been in the army or a teacher, they would take us away.
“Some of the Khmer Rouge soldiers were from here, others from other places. If KR soldiers were killed by the KR, then they brought in new soldiers from outside the area. They came from Chhouk and Takeo.
“During the time the Khmer Rouge ruled [three years and almost nine months] our village leader was changed three times ‒ all of them were killed. Jealous people told lies to the Khmer Rouge about the leaders and then the leaders were killed.
“The entire family of my wife’s uncle, including three children, were killed. He made a small mistake but the Khmer Rouge thought it was a big mistake. They were told they were going to a new village and taken away.
“Eng and I met again by accident in Kampot about six years ago. I was very pleased to see him.”
Khmer Rouge soldiers marching into Phnom Penh on April 17, 19751
The Khmer Rouge had managed territory under its control in some areas (such as much of Kampot province) since before 1970. They gradually implemented their social ideas and experimented over the next 5 years. In April 1975, when they took control of the whole country, this experiment became writ large, and the first part of this was to empty the cities.