The Exodus

WITH Wiphousana in my arms, Samoeun and I made our way through Phnom Penh?s turbulent streets to our home. We packed urgently, though unsure of what to take. We did agree to leave in our car rather than on foot and to carry with us as much Christian literature as possible as well as a supply of powdered milk for Wiphousana.

I decided that we should hide in our house for as long as possible, to see if we could avoid the evacuation. After we gathered our bundles of clothes, supplies and materials, we crouched low in our house to wait.

The victory the Khmer Rouge had now secured was not bringing the random violence to a halt. As I Peered out a window, right in front of our house a Khmer Rouge confronted a Lon Nol government soldier, asking him to remove his shirt and drop his gun. As the soldier did so, he was sot at point-blank.

We stayed hidden in our house through the morning and early afternoon of April 18. Around 3 p.m., I looked out behind the house and saw Khmer Rouge soldiers going from house to house, checking for inhabitants. I was able to observe the consequences of a resident?s resistance: those who refused to leave their homes were being executed without hesitation.

We grabbed our belongings and jumped into our car. Crowds were still pouring through the city?s streets; the Khmer Rouge was attempting to clean out the city literally overnight.

There were no exceptions to the rule. Hospital patients were thrown out into the fray along with everyone else. As we crept along the streets, patients rolled by still on their wheeled hospital beds, pushed along by relatives or friends. Many had tubes from intravenous feeding trailing from arms and legs.

Most of those patients would die within hours along the road; doctors and nurses had dropped many surgeries in process, caught up in the struggle for their own survival. We passed many pregnant women who were dying while giving birth along the road.

As for our little family, I drove our car slowly through the crowds, but I had no idea where to go. So Samoeun and I prayed, and asked God to lead us.

When we had left our house, two carloads of neighbors had left with us, and our three cars were trying to stay together as much as possible. About a quarter mile into our trip-without-a-destination, five gun-carrying men in Khmer Rouge black stopped our cars and asked to go with us. They told us that they would tell us where we should be headed, but their real intent was obvious as they eyed the few possessions we and our neighbors had packed in our cars.

When we were first stopped be the men, I wondered in the back of my mid why they had chosen us, out of all the hundreds of automobiles pushing their way out of Phnom Penh. I wondered of God might not have a plan for us in it all. I was soon to find out.

Though several of the soldiers had actually climbed inside the first two cars, the men with our car elected to ride on our hood as we drove. About one mile down the road, the lead car broke down. We all stopped as the five soldiers gathered around the first car and turned their full attention toward trying to fix it.

My neighbour in the second car got out and came over to me. We decided to try something risky. Our plan was to leave our families in our cars temporarily and disappear into the crowds, hoping that, when the soldiers realized we were gone, they would become impatient and abandon our group, not wanting to take our cars on ahead without the drivers.

When the first car was fixed, they turned around and looked for us in the crowd. We had hidden so that we could watch their actions; they waited for about 15 minutes and then all piled into the first car and drove on.

My neighbours and I ran back to our cars when the soldiers drove off. We found out the next day that the soldiers had taken our neighbours to an out-of-the-way spot and ransacked their car; stealing everything inside.

The forced exodus out of Phnom Penh continued, and the Khmer Rouge walked along beside the trudging crowds, keeping everyone moving. Whenever we asked our destination, we were told, ?far away! Keep going!? At night people slept under trees, in fields, along the roads. As the days wore on, we passed village after village with houses in shambles, and the sight of bodies strewn along the road became commonplace.

In spite of the chaos, young Wiphousana slept often and peacefully. Samoeun?s delivery of our son two months earlier had been difficult, and some stitches had been removed by her sister just a week before Phnom Penh fell ? it would have been hope-lees to try having them taken out at any of Phnom Penh?s overflowing hospitals. Samoeun was still bleeding sporadically from the stitch removal, and because of our car she was spared walking. I conserved on the gasoline supply by pushing the car on flat portions of the road and letting it coast down the declines of hilly sections.

As we continued on the road, we prayed often to God, asked Him again to lead us where we should go. After about two weeks of weary travel, we reached the Takoa Province and the village of Pey 3 Takoa had been controlled by the Khmer Rouge for two or three years already, so most of the villagers had good relations with the occupying soldiers.

It was here in the village of Pey that I received my first introduction into the realities of our new lie under the Red Cambodians. When I registered our name with the village leaders, we were questioned about our backgrounds, where we were from, who we worked for and how many brothers and sisters we had.

After I answered the registrar?s questions, he asked me, ?Did any of your brothers or sisters work for the enemy??

I answered him, ?What do you mean by ?enemy?? What kind of ?enemy? do you want me to day??

The registrar then told me, in essence, that any professional person under the old regime ? whether he worked in the military, in education, medicine or for the government ? was considered the ?enemy? now. I had already heard via rumour that the Khmer Rouge were beginning a systematic slaughter of anyone associated professionally with the old Cambodia.

I knew I had to maintain my commitment to truth as I answered the man?s questions, and so I told him of my brother Chhirc?s occupation as an army officer. I silently entrusted my life to God, because of my relation to Chhirc, it would only mean reaching heaven sooner and eternity with Him.

The registrar didn?t react much when I gave him the information about Chhirc; he just wrote down everything I said. As we settled into the village, I would find myself being asked these same questions almost every day. And I would find out soon that Samoeun was being secretly pulled aside and asked of me ? in an effort, of course, to see if our answers corroborated, thus making sure I was telling the truth.

On the evening of the fourth day after we had joined the village, all the ?newcomers? were gathered together for a meeting with the village leader. There were about 100 of us there, and we shared one thing in common ? we were all from cities and had been traumatically displaced by forced evacuation.

When Somoeun and I arrived in the meeting room, it was dark, with just one lamp flickering. Chairs had been pushed aside, and we wee asked to sit on the ground.

To being the meeting, the village leader asked, ?Is there anything I can do for you?? One man stood up and said, ?I have orders now to word in the fields far away from my children. They desperately need salt to go with their rice.? (In Pey, our food each day was rationed rice mixed with water, making a thin, tasteless gruel.)

The Khmer Rouge leader replied angrily, we have had to use ashes for our ?salt!? In no less an angry manner, he then accused the entire group of being weak and soft because of our city upbringing. For most of us, that was the first time we would learn that being raised in the city was now a crime.

As our group heard the leader?s harsh response to the request for salt, an atmosphere of fear invaded the room. The leader asked once more if there was anything we needed. There was no response, and the meeting soon ended.

Each village under Khmer Rouge control was broken down into groups, with a Khmer Rouge leader overseeing each group. In Pey, we were assigned to one group during our group leader took a special interest in us.

Samoeun was still bleeding sporadically, and so our befriending leader allowed me to perform my assigned job ? hoeing land and planting vegetables ? close to our makeshift shelter so that I could carry water periodically to my wife and Wiphousana from a well about 150 feet away.

He also took unusual compassion on me in regards to our daily food. Our portions of rice for porridge each day were not nearly enough to satisfy hunger; although the village residents were given plenty, the ?newcomers? from the city were rationed strictly and meagrely. My group leader would often cook extra rice at his house for Samoeun and me, and after dark we would slip over to his house unnoticed and eat the extra nourishment.

As time went on, some of the long time residents of the village also took an interest in us and gave us extra food. It was always done in secret, however, as they would sneak it up to our doorway when a Khmer Rouge soldier wasn?t looking and run away. To be caught aiding newcomers in this way could mean death for them.

As well as being riskily generous with his rice, my leader friend also was generous with village secrets. For example, about three evenings after that first village meeting, another meeting was called for the newcomers. In this meeting, the village leader asked everyone who had been an officer in the Lon Nol army to write his name on a list, and then head back to the fields and rice paddies to his work. Told that the list was being compiled to start sending people back home to Phnom Penh, the newcomers obliged with happy surprise.

But my group leader had told me that when the former officers returned to the fields that night, death was awaiting each one at the hands and knives of the Khmer Rouge. The next morning, other workers were welcomed to their day?s work in the rice paddies by the bodies of the officers floating in the water. The purge of the ?enemy? I had previously heard rumoured was now proven fact.

My leader also let me in on another secret: Khmer Rouge agents were routinely hiding beside our shelter at night, listening in on private conversations between Samoeun and me to catch anything that might further incriminate us as city people. We heeded the warning well; but it was difficult to believe that not even the night time could provide a haven from the ever-present Khmer Rouge.

In an effort to emphasize our need for wariness in what we spoke even privately, my group leader took me secretly a few times to a mountain near our village, less than a mile from my shelter. There he would show me the deposited bodies in shallow mass graves of those newcomers who had already been spied upon and found guilty of often nothing more than city-dwelling. The smell from the mountain was overwhelmingly bad, and occasionally it wafted down into the village, serving as a sharp reminder to me to proceed about my daily life with the utmost caution.

After two or three weeks of living in Pey, Samoeun and I realized how limited our chances were to talk to others about our faith in Christ. Besides the uncertainty of not knowing if any given conversation was being monitored, there was no time to serve God. Each day I worked from 6 a.m. and from 8 until were to go on living, we would be brought out of the captivity of the Khmer Rouge?s Cambodia and into a place of true liberty in order to serve God fully.

So we asked God to pave the way for us to leave Pey and somehow get to Battambang, a province near the Thailand-Cambodia border: Perhaps if we reached Battambang we could escape across the border into freedom.

Then, about four months after we had arrived in Takoa Province, the leader of my group asked me to begin packing our things; the Khmer Rouge were moving all the newcomers to new locations.

I asked him where we would be going. He told me the group was being divided and would be sent three different places ? one of which was Battambang.