Edge of Freekom

BATTAMBANG, only nine miles from Cheng Kdar, was one of the first Cambodian cities attacked by the Vietnamese. A few days later we learned that when the news of the Viet invasion reached Watt Kor where we had lived before Cheng Kdar, the Khmer Rouge wiped out almost the entire adult male population. The soldiers claimed that all the men were secretly loyal to the Viet namese. The men who did survive were forced to run for their lives, deserting their families. I realized that if we had stayed in Watt Kor, I might have had to do the same.

I also learned from my village leader at Cheng Kdar that I was on a master list of people to be killed soon. The list had been sent from Battambang and was drawn up arbitrarily by top Khmer Rouge officials based on the urban backgrounds of those ?selected? for it. Had Vietnam not invaded Battambang and forced the Khmer Rouge officials to flee, I probably would have been executed sometime in January.

When the Vietnamese invaded the country, most of the residents of Cheng Kdar escaped into the mountains to hide ? not so much from the Vietnamese but from the Khmer Rouge. In a panic spree of terror, gangs of Khmer Rouge soldiers were storming through villages, killing wantonly for fear that villages would soon join hands with the Vietnamese forces.

Most people from Cheng Kdar fled to a mountain area about two miles behind the village. When rockets started to fall on our hamlet, Samoeun and I snatched up Wiphousana, grabbed a large bag of rice and ran.

As we were heading up into the hills, Wiphousana, now four years old, asked me, ?Do we go to our Lord?s house now?? I smiled a little and said, ?No, we?re going to the mountains.?

(We prayed with our son often, and many times he would sing prayers we had taught him as he played. He would sing in both Khmer and English, but because he couldn?t speak well yet, no one but Samoeun and me could understand him. That was fortunate, for at times he would sing out, ?Lord, let us out of here! ...?)

Five families fled Cheng Kdar with us, including Samoeun?s former accuser, Ann, and her two children. That night we hid together in the mountains with rockets exploding overhead all night. Ann and her two children had caught up with us as we hurried into the mountains, and that night, as we all huddled together, she expressed how glad she was that she had found us. Samoeun couldn?t resist saying, ?Yes, Ann, you are lucky! I have one more chance not to share with you about Jesus Christ!? That night Ann and two others in our group, a widow and her 18-years-old daughter, invited Jesus Christ into their lives.

After we prayed, Samoeun said to Ann, ?I am so happy that you know Christ now. I prayed a long time ago that you would become my friend.? Ann asked Samoeun if together they could forget the accusations Ann had made. She said the Khmer Rouge actually had asked her to make those charges ? and she was afraid for her own life if she didn?t comply.

We stayed near the mountains for about three days. We could tell that the Khmer Rouge were losing to the Vietnamese; from our hiding place we could observe Khmer Rouge soldiers shuffling by, most with severe wounds and carrying themselves with a defeated bearing.

Our group still had rice to eat but had run out of water. We decided to try going back to Cheng Kdar where there would be a water supply, since it seemed that the Khmer Rouge had been driven out. We moved down the mountain to an area close to the village where other villages were waiting, also pondering their next step.

When the other residents found out we wanted to go into Cheng Kdar, they shook their heads at us and warned us of the chance we were taking. But our group of five families prayed together about the venture and agreed to go on in.

When we arrived in Cheng Kdar it was silent; a strange contrast to the noise and activity of normal life just a few days before. Many houses and shelters were destroyed and bodies were strewn throughout. An occasional hand grenade dotted the ground. We felt uneasy about staying there, so we headed out of town to the main highway that ran throughout Cambodia. Thousands of Cambodians, ?freed? from the clutches of the Khmer Rouge by the Viet invasion, filled the highway.

Vietnamese soldiers were abundant on the highway also, and we were instructed by them to move quickly on the road to Battambang, because the Khmer Rouge was still fighting. Demolished army tanks and trucks from both sides of the conflict sat beside the road as we filed along, and it seemed that people were coming from all directions heading toward Battambang.

We arrived in Battambang that night, having walked about eight miles in a day. Food was scarce, and many people who ventured into hopefully abandoned villages to search out bags of rice were killed tripping land mines left by the Khmer Rouge to hinder just such activity. Some Khmer Rouge soldiers were also hidden around the villages to shoot returning scavengers on sight.

In Battambang, we happened across Mrs. Ngeang, our Chinese friend again. She seemed very happy to see us and said she had been looking for us since the Viet invasion. Then she suggested that if we wanted to get out of Cambodia, we should go with her to Sisophon 1, a city about 37 miles north of the city of Battambang. Mrs. Ngeang was sure we could get across the border from there. When she mentioned Sisophon, Samoeun and I thought back to the letter she had given us from the Khmer Rouge soldier Him Sarom. Perhaps we could contact him from Sisophon.

We could not travel very fast to Sisophon because of the children and because of the need to be cautious about the possible presence of the Khmer Rouge along the way. We asked news of villages up ahead from other travellers to check on the safety of passing by the villages. At night we slept under tress and beside the road along with many other people. After three day of walking, we reached Sisophon.

Naturally we wanted to continue on the road to the border, but the Vietnamese had sealed off the road. So we had to set up ?camp? near Sisophon. We were in a relatively dangerous place. The Khmer Rouge who was still alive or enraptured entered villages and continued their rampage of killing.

The Khmer Rouge were also known at that time to round up people found hidden in the jungle or outside villages and, with a long needle and thread, string villages together through their hands and lead them into the nearest hamlet. People who refused to allow this to be done were usually shot.

Near Sisophon I built a shelter for us all near a Vietnamese army camp, located about 600 feet away. We were soon joined at or site by Mrs. Ngeang?s sister, whom she had just found (they had been separated since the fall of Cambodia) as well as her sister?s husband and their little son. Two young men also joined us, Savonny and Ratha, who was a Christian. Our group now numbered 25. As we waited there at Sisophon, I had much time to converse with different members of the group about Christ?s love for them, and during our days there, 10 people became Christians.

After several days at Sisophon, the 25 of us became anxious to make a move for the border. Everyone in the group had by this time made a commitment to Christ, and so one day we all prayed together for God to reveal to us the next step. After we prayed, we decided to choose Mrs. Ngeang to be our chief strategist: besides her Chinese language fluency, which would be useful in relating too many of the Vietnamese troops, she was, though temperamental, a very friendly person by nature and met people easily. We prayed for her as she went out into Sisophon, asking God to lead her way.

A few days later, Mrs. Ngeang met in Sisophon a Vietnamese army officer who had known her sister in Phnom Penh. The officer and Mrs. Ngeang?s sister had studied communism together secretly, but in 1975, when he saw the extremes to which the Khmer Rouge were going to enforce the doctrine, he escaped to Vietnam and joined the army there.

Mrs. Ngeang related to the officer the suffering she had endured for four years under the Khmer Rouge and told him how much she wanted to escape to Thailand. She mentioned there were 25 people in her group and asked him if he could help. The officer agreed to help prepare the way for us since he was also aiding more than 100 Thais who had been trapped inside Cambodia. However, there was one condition: Mrs. Ngeang and her sister must promise to work for the communists in Thailand after they crossed the border. Mrs. Ngeang at least tacitly agreed to his condition.

The Vietnamese officer then introduced Mrs. Ngeang to other officers who were secretly involved in getting people safety across the border. The officers asked her to give them our names and then she returned to our camp to tell us the good news.

That night we divided into small groups to pray for the continued success of our mission. I noticed quickly that Mrs. Ngeang refused to join in our prayed and became concerned that she might be getting upset, as she had in Watt Kor when she felt slighted because of our focus on God.

One day, the Vietnamese officer gave a letter to Mrs. Ngeang, written in French. In the letter he said that he had made contact with Vietnamese across the border, and they then mentioned the man who would meet us in Cambodia and secretly lead us out. His name: Him Sarom.

After Mrs. Ngeang showed me the letter and I saw Him?s name, I wanted to jump for joy. I thought back to his letter to us in Norea in 1976, and felt that God?s hand was in our efforts. That night I asked everyone to pray again for God?s further leading.

It was very obvious by now that Mrs. Ngeang was upset again. As everyone else was praying, she took me aside and said, ?Huong, why do you need to pray? If I hadn?t gone to seek a way for us to gain permission, you never would have received it! Would God have found permission for you without me??

Mrs. Ngeang stalked off, and the next day she came up to me to tell me that she had found another group of people who wanted to escape. She said that these people were able to pay her in large amounts of gold and other valuables for hew knowledge and the contacts she could make.

Mrs. Ngeang then told me that she would be making her escape attempt eventually with the new group and offered to take us along. After thinking about her offer, I decided to discuss it with the members of our group, even though for myself I knew I would not be going with her.

That same day another offer to escape came our way. About two months before, Ratha, one of the young men who joined our group at Sisophon, had introduced me to a Christian women named Mrs. Phalla, 1 also staying in Sisophon. Mrs. Phalla had been anxious to meet us, having had no contact with other Christians during her four years under the Khmer Rouge. During the intervening two months, Mrs. Phalla introduced us to 18 of her relatives who were staying with her, and each of these family members became Christians. Our two groups visited frequently at our shelter site, and it was refreshing to be able to freely follow up their decisions for Christ be teaching Christian songs and helping them learn the portions of the Bible we had memorized before Cambodia?s fall to the Khmer Rouge.

On the day I decided to part ways with Mrs. Ngeang, Mrs. Phalla came to my shelter. She had come to say goodbye, because she and her group would be making an attempt the next day to reach Thailand. I asked Mrs. Phalla how she was making the trip ? by herself, or was she paying a guide?

Mrs. Phalla said she would be paying a guide, and when I asked what it cost for each person, she answered that it was $350 in gold. My heart sank at that figure, because I knew I had no money for myself, much less anyone else. She also mentioned that her guide did not want to lead a very large group through the jungle, and in addition to the 18 people in her family there were two more nephews and another family who had asked to join her. Samoeun and I prayed with Mrs. Phalla for God?s blessing on her journey, and she turned to leave our shelter.

A few steps later, Mrs. Phalla stopped. She turned around and said she?d just thought of something: Why not send two people from our group along with hers to learn the way? Then those two would return to bring us out the same path. My spirit brightened at the new proposal, and I told Mrs. Phalla that our group would be meeting that night and I would present her idea, letting her know of the decision early in the morning.

Our group met that night as planned, and took votes to see who would be leaving with Mrs. Ngeang and who would stay with us. When we took the vote, 11 people chose to go. With Mrs. Ngeang, and six out of our original 25 decided to stay in Sisophon a later for their escape attempts. That left eight of us ready to escape as soon as possible.

After the meeting adjourned, our new group of eight met together and appointed Svonny and Ratha, the two young men, to scout out the trail with Mrs. Phalla?s party.

Early in the morning of April 21, Savonny and Ratha crept out of our shelter area over to Mrs. Phalla?s. About an hour later Ratha came running back, ?Huong,? he panted, ?Mrs. Phalla asked me to tell you that the other family in her party plus the two nephews decided not to join her. She has invited all eight of us to come, and she will pay the guide enough for each of us!?

Within minutes we had all gathered our things and were slipping quietly away to meet Mrs. Phalla.

A little after 7 a.m., April 21, 1979, we all prayed together and then started toward the border.

Even with our guide secured, success could not be guaranteed: the only possible escape routes were through thick, uninhabited jungle, and the guides, no matter how large their payment, could never be totally trusted not to abandon their groups in the midst of the bamboo forests, slipping away with gold in hand. Some guides were actually secret Khmer Rouge agents who would murder their charges deep in the dense wilderness.