Cambodia: surviving the Khmer Rouge

About the author
Var Hong Ashe was born in Cambodia where she worked as an English teacher. She escaped Cambodia at the end of the Khmer Rouge period (1975-79), and has lived in England since 1979. She is the author of From Phnom Penh to Paradise (Hodder & Stoughton, 1988), and runs a website on Khmer food culture, Amok Cuisine

I was born and raised in the small south-east Asian country of Cambodia, and brought up in the town of Takeo, south of the capital Phnom Penh. Cambodia was then ruled by King Norodom Sihanouk, and in its first years of independence from French colonial rule. In March 1970, Sihanouk was overthrown in a coup led by General Lon Nol, who declared the country a republic seven months later. This, along with the encroachment of the war from neighbouring Vietnam, threw the country into civil war.

My family and social background was rather privileged. My parents lived a comfortable life. They always employed domestic help for household tasks, in the kitchen and even with raising the children. By 1975 I was married with two girls (4 years and 20 months old at the time). My husband worked for Unesco, and I was an English teacher in a Phnom Penh college.

On 17 April 1975, we applauded the parade of victorious Khmer Rouge soldiers in the streets of Phnom Penh. Everyone was so happy just thinking it was the end of the civil war, which had lasted for five years and had already created so much suffering. We could not have imagined what was to come.

A few hours later, our misery started. The Khmer Rouge ordered us to leave the city “for three hours only” and to carry nothing with us so that they could search the place for republican soldiers who had gone into hiding. This order applied to all towns and cities, small or large, throughout the country. Of course, people did what they were ordered to do.

I left my house with my mother (who was going blind for lack of essential care after an eye operation), my two daughters, three sisters and two brothers. My father and my husband were not with us, and I was to learn their fates only later. My father, a colonel and head of a regiment of 2,000 soldiers was at the frontline; the Khmer Rouge killed him along with his brother officers when they surrendered. My husband was in Paris during this period; the Khmer Rouge tricked him into returning to Cambodia, and killed him on his arrival.

Five hours passed, one day, two days, three days…. We realised by now that this was a trip without return. The Khmer Rouge fired machine-gun rounds in the air to force us to advance under the intense heat of the scorching sun (April is the hottest month of the year in Cambodia). The children cried of thirst and hunger; the elderly were exhausted; pregnant women gave birth on the roadside; young people broke into houses along the road – empty since their owners had been evacuated ahead of us – to seek food.

We saw unbearable scenes: the decaying corpses of those who had dared question the orders to leave or refused to satisfy the whims of the Khmer Rouge; old people who pleaded not to be left behind; children wailing, having lost their parents; the wounded who had been waiting for an operation and who were forced to leave the hospitals, hardly able to hold themselves upright, with their wounds still open. It was extremely painful and alarming.

Everyone was in a pitiful physical state and an utterly powerless state of mind. Nobody could come to the assistance of others. We were faced with a hopeless situation.

The Khmer Rouge, I understood later, intended to eliminate the rich, the intellectuals, and anyone educated – like doctors, engineers and professors, the majority of whom tended to live in the city. For the Khmer Rouge these people were part of a dictatorial and corrupt regime that exploited the poor, and they sought to destroy everything they thought belonged to this world: buildings, luxury cars, villas, refrigerators.

On the edge of life

After about a month, completely exhausted, we stopped in a village where the Khmer Rouge started to integrate arriving city-dwellers like us into the life of the rural inhabitants. They distinguished us from the villagers, whom they called neak mool-thaan (old people) by describing us as neak jum-leah (new people) or, in some villages pror-cheer-chun thmey (new population).

It was still the dry season. My family and the other new people families were assigned to dig irrigation canals, ponds, dams, and cut trees in the forest and the jungle to make sites for orchards. When the rainy season started, we were woken up at 4 o’clock in the morning to go to work in the fields to plant rice. We were permitted to return home at 7 o’clock in the evening to eat. We were then forced to attend brainwashing sessions between 9 and 11 o’clock. At 4 the next morning, after a few hours rest, it all started again.

It continued like this during the entire harvest season. During the day, we were given a small bowl of salted rice porridge. This was eventually reduced to two tablespoons of clear porridge soup, twice a day. Everyone became very thin and extremely feeble. We came home exhausted after a day of planting rice. Then it was time for the brainwashing sessions.

The Khmer Rouge used to keep us on the move from village to village so that we couldn’t organise an insurrection. We usually travelled on foot or by ox-cart, but on one occasion we were sent by train. The long, slow train journey lasted three days and two nights. The coaches were crammed and we were like sardines in a tin. Most of us in a coach of more than 150 people had to stand.

A baby died. In the next coach an old woman also died. The authorities refused to stop the train for time and safety reasons. With some travellers complaining, and after long, cruel, anguished deliberations, the families of the dead had no other option than to throw the bodies out of the window.

Everyone became quiet for a long time while wondering who would be the next victim. My heart was heavy with sorrow for the families of the deceased. Moreover, I had almost lost my daughters in the jungle during this same journey – a story too long to describe here.

With time, more and more of the new people died – from hunger, disease, from a plague of sheer exhaustion, but most of all from the massacres perpetrated by the Khmer Rouge. They killed people on perfectly ridiculous pretexts: wearing spectacles, knowing how to read or how to open the door of a car, even for having a white mark on the wrist (a sign of having worn a watch). For the Khmer Rouge, these were all signs that the person concerned belonged to a rich, dictatorial class.

It was common to see a man whose face was pale, trembling with fear, being paraded through the village with his hands bound behind the back, guarded on either side by Khmer Rouge cadre carrying large machetes. It was terrifying: everyone knew that they were going to decapitate this man. The scene served its purpose of warning us that the Khmer Rouge wielded absolute power. We lived from one day to the next. We had no idea what might happen to us in the night or on the following day.

Dicing with death

How did I manage to survive? It was not easy. You constantly had to keep your presence of mind and be alert to the ways the Khmer Rouge might deceive you. They tested us constantly and without warning. On two occasions I managed to outsmart them.

The first time, a Khmer Rouge cadre gave me a piece of paper to read. Thinking rapidly, I held it upside down, and asked him what he wanted me to do with this sheet. He laughed and told me that I was stupid to try to read it upside down.

The second time, one of my former students recognised me in front of a Khmer Rouge soldier and addressed me as neak kroo (teacher). She quickly realised that she had made a terrible mistake. The soldier looked me up and down. A thousand thoughts crossed my mind in an instant. I needed to react very quickly. In that moment, I recalled that the Khmer word neak kroo can also mean “wise woman”. I pretended to be quite calm and started to address the Khmer Rouge soldier, smiling: “Now what do you think of this? My profession was to be a fortune-teller, and I was one of the best clairvoyants in my village”.

When he heard this, the soldier asked me to read his palm and predict his future. “My God”, I told myself, “help me!” Then I remembered what my mother had once said to me: peasants in Cambodia can be credulous…you have learn a little of their mentality. Almost all Khmer Rouge had been young peasant boys and girls – some of them so young that they could not even carry their rifle properly. I drew on my experiences at parents’ evenings, where I met parents of all social classes, on my studies of psychology at the Phnom Penh’s faculty of pedagogy, and on some books of astrology I had read, to mislead this Khmer Rouge soldier sufficiently to convince him that I was really a fortune-teller.

I think that on this day God was with me. Because of this terrifying incident, I could continue to play the role of clairvoyant. I even could gain some advantage from it: the Khmer Rouges cadres whose futures I portrayed gave me in “exchange” small amounts of food which helped keep my family alive.

This was not my only brush with death. After this incident, I was nearly killed on three more occasions, and many other horrible events occurred. Just to mention one: my small, then 7-year-old daughter was once tied to a tree and beaten in front of me. I could not do anything to help her. It was terribly painful and it still makes me dreadfully upset just to think about it.

The Khmer Rouge continued frequently to move the new people from one place to another. My family ended up in a distant village surrounded by jungle, at the foot of the Cardamom mountains in western Cambodia, near the border with Thailand. We heard distant rumours that the Vietnamese army had invaded Cambodia and were fighting against the Khmer Rouge. The arrival of Vietnamese soldiers in our area confirmed that it was true, and the Khmer Rouge fled into the mountains.

I had learned to speak Vietnamese in Phnom Penh, and quickly became friendly with the Vietnamese forces stationed in the village. They gave me food for my children and vitamins and drugs for my mother. This good luck did not last: the Vietnamese soon had to withdraw, and the returning Khmer Rouge accused me of being a spy for the Vietnamese army. They searched for me everywhere in order to kill me. A good friend warned me, and I managed to hide. My mother had to pretend she was very angry with me because I had abandoned my children to follow the Vietnamese. She cried (in fact they were tears of fear) and said that I was an ungrateful daughter. The Khmer Rouge appeared convinced.

In my hiding-place I spent my time mending clothes and hats from palm-tree leaves for fellow-fugitives, in exchange for food. I still lived in constant fear and apprehension. I was convinced that the Khmer Rouge would find me.

One day, a girl carrying palm-tree leaves came to see me. I received her with joy, thinking that this meant work and therefore food for my family and myself. But the girl acted in a strange way, looking from side to side and whispering. I was becoming afraid when she assured me that she had good news.

Her brother Yom, who knew the Thai-Khmer border like his pocket, had just arrived from Thailand on a mission to find the family of a Khmer friend, a former helicopter pilot who now lived in Thailand. By chance, the wife of this pilot had the same first name as me, two daughters around the same age as mine, and a blind aunt. The girl was convinced that I was the pilot’s wife. I told the girl that I was not the person Yom was looking for, but she believed without any doubt that I was. She was convinced that I was afraid of a Khmer Rouge trick and so did not trust her.

After the girl left, my mother and I discussed what to do. If it was a Khmer Rouge trap, why did they not just come directly and arrest me? Perhaps the girl was honest and did only want to help her brother to achieve his mission? In the end, the decisive point was that I had had enough of living in hiding. I had a better chance of surviving the Khmer Rouge by trying to escape to Thailand.

A few days later, Vietnamese troops returned to the area and the Khmer Rouge fled once more towards the mountains. Yom’s sister came back to see me, again with palm-tree leaves in hand. I resolved to follow her brother’s plan. We met Yom, who told me that it was impossible to bring my mother with us. I had to agree. I thus decided to take with me my two daughters and one of my sisters, leaving two other sisters to take care of my mother and other members of my family.

Yom suggested that we benefit from the sudden departure of the Khmer Rouge, along with their own families, by pretending to be part of a Khmer Rouge retinue. We gathered in Yom’s village, not far from mine. By nightfall, more than a hundred villagers (all of them Yom’s relatives) left on a track towards the border. All of us were on foot, except for some old men and women who rode in ox-carts.

As Yom had foretold, distant strange sounds – like night birds – responded to the sound of the ox-carts. Yom told us that the Khmer Rouge had invented these as signals to communicate among themselves. Fortunately, Yom could understand them and answered that we also were Khmer Rouge in the process of evacuation.

After a few hours trekking, Yom announced that we had entered the zone of mines and traps. Everyone had to walk in line closely behind him. My heart beat quickly, I did not dare even to breathe. Further on, Yom pointed to large holes in the ground covered by branches, which had bamboo-spikes at the bottom: traps for people who tried to escape towards Thailand. It was a nightmarish night.

At 5 o’clock in the morning, we heard the cocks crow. Although I was completely exhausted and ravenously hungry, my heart was filled with joy because I knew that finally we had arrived in a Thai village. We were almost free.

Yom, before disappearing, had instructed us about what to say and do when we met the Thai authorities. The Thai police sent us in army trucks to a refugee camp almost forty kilometres away from the border. When I arrived in the camp, exhausted but happy, I breathed intensely as if I had never been so free in my life.

Soon, for the first time in four years I tasted tap water and ate a bowl of rice with meat, had electricity, and saw people with clean clothes with different colours (we wore only black under the Khmer Rouge). I had to tell myself repeatedly that this wasn’t a dream.

After such ecstasy, I knelt down to thank God who had protected me and saved my life. I had passed the hardest trials of my life and emerged from them healthy and safe, along with several members of my family.

In the refugee camp, I met Robert Ashe, a young Englishman who worked for the United Nations High Commission for Refugees. A year later, in a small village in Gloucestershire called “Paradise”, we were married.

I remained for a long time traumatised by the cruelty, cowardice and inhumanity of the Khmer Rouge who walked into Phnom Penh on 17 April 1975. It is painful even now to recall and write these memories. Since then, I have lived other lifetimes, which include a return to Cambodia to revisit what remains of my home, my family and my country. Everything I went through, and all those who were lost, still haunt me.