Hopes & Disappointments

In our village group at Norea, Samoeun and I Had come to know a Chinese woman, Mrs. Chhuy Ngeagn, 1 whose husband repaired cars for the Khmer Rouge in Battambang. Occasionally she was given permission to visit him.

During one of Mrs. Ngeang?s visits to Battambang she had met a leader in the Khmer Rouge named Him Sarm 2. One day, in the course of conversation, she told Him Sarom about us and about our Christian faith, mentioning our training with Campus Crusade in Manila, and about our desire to get out of Cambodia. Secretly, Him Sarom had replied to Mrs. Ngeang that he was not in agreement with the Khmer Rouge revolution and that he wanted to escape the country too. He told Mrs. Ngeang that he considered us his friends, even though we had never met.

In the afternoon of the day that we prayed to know God?s will about leaving Norea, Mrs. Ngeang slipped us a letter from Him Sarom. The letter read:

To Brother and sister Huong and Samoeun,

I left Cambodia to Thailand ahead [of you]. I was in a hurry. I could not bring you along with me. We are brother(s) and sister of one Heavenly Father, though we [do] now know each other.... I know how much you want to get out, but don?t worry. Someday I will come back and bring you out, or send someone to bring you out.

God bless you.

Him Sarom

After reading Him Sarom?s letter, Samoeun and I agreed that it was God?s answer to our prayer. Even though we had not yet met our new friend, we felt it was God?s will to wait for His plan.

Our relationship with Mrs. Ngeang continued to grow, and often I shared coconuts with her and her three children. One day Mrs. Ngeang told me that she was going to seek permission through her husband in Battambang to leave Norea for Watt Kor, a village to the north where she had heard food was more plentiful. She said that she would seek permission for us also, claiming us to be her relatives. Since Mrs. Ngeang knew I was a Christian and because I had shared with her the miracle that had brought us from Kok Trom to Norea, she asked us to pray for a similar miracle as she sought permission to leave Norea.

Soon after Mrs. Ngeang requested permission, she received a letter granting all of us the opportunity to leave for Watt Kor. It was amazing to receive such permission ? it almost seemed as if it would be easier to go from one country to another than from village to village under the Khmer Rouge?s Cambodia. Even if someone had heard word that his parents, living in another village, had died, he would not have been able to go bury them; the Khmer Rouge felt it would be a waste of time. Going to see a dead body would not raise it to life again!

Not only was it unusual to receive permission so easily, but it was also not common to receive an accompanying letter. Usually the Khmer Rouge province leader just gave a spoken yes or no. When I showed our letter to the village leadership, they were extremely surprised, having never seemed permission by letter.

About one month after Mrs. Ngeang and her three children and Samoeun, Wiphousana and I arrived in Watt Kor, we met a woman who had escaped from Norea. She told me, ?Huong, you are very lucky. After you left Norea, the Khmer Rouge executed everyone who had either worked for the Lon Nol government or had been a student during his regime.?

Samorun and I joyfully thanked God for leading us out safely, but when we told Mrs. Ngeang how God had worked, she suddenly became very angry. She told us that we had no right to thank God whet it was she who was responsible for saving our lives. She said that many people had offered her gold to help get them out, but because she cared for us she chose to help us, though we had nothing we could offer for payment. Now we had turned around and thanked God instead!

We tried to explain to Mrs. Ngeang that we hadn?t meant to exclude her from our appreciation but that she could feel honoured because God had used her in such a special way. But her anger smouldered, and within a day or two she had gone to the Watt Kor village leaders, telling them that we were Christians, that we worked for an American organization (another crime worthy of death) and that we had received training in Manila.

We learned later from an acquaintance of Samoeun?s in Watt Kor that when the village leader heard Mrs. Ngeang?s accusations, he communicated them to the Khmer Rouge official responsible for ordering executions. The agent contacted one person in the village who knew us before the country?s fall: a Lon Nol army pilot?s widow who was a classmate of Samoeun?s during high school days.

Samoeun?s classmate gave the official a very favourable report about us, denying we had ever exhibited disloyalty to the Khmer Rouge or loyalty to western influences. The agent believed her a dropped the charges.

A few weeks later, the Khmer Rouge asked Mrs. Ngeang to return to her husband in Battambang. As she left, she told Samoeun and me that she would be going immediately to the highest Khmer Rouge officials in Battambang with her accusations against us ? and recommend us to be killed.

Meanwhile, as had happened in each previous village we lived in, our food rations were progressively cut back. Soon we had very little food. My family had a little relief for a while; one man who was responsible in his group for catching fish would secretly bring us a few fish every day before he took the rest to his group.

Wiphousana was now a year and seven months old. Samoeun?s job in Watt Kor was to grind rice in a mill, and she was able to keep Wiphousana with her as she worked. My job was cutting bamboo; those of us performing that task were transported by truck for a couple of weeks at a time into a jungle area only 10 miles from the Thailand-Cambodia border.

When I first learned about my job I vowed to Somoeun that, even though we would be working so near the border, I would not think of escaping without her and Wiphousana. I assured her that if one day I didn?t return, she would know I had been killed by the Khmer Rouge or died from a disease in the jungle. There was no medicine provided if we fell ill, and one of our co-workers had already died of malaria during one of our two-week stays.

Two months after we had moved to Watt Kor, I heard it announced that 30 families were to be moved from Watt Kor to a village called Cheng Kdar 1, four miles away. All we knew about Cheng Kdar was that it had been established recently and already had a reputation for severe strictness and little food. The people of Watt Kor became very upset at this news, dreading the thought of being sent there.

When Samoeun and I heard the news, we committed the situation to God. A few days after the announcement the list was announced, and we were named among the families chosen to leave. There was much anxiety about the move on the part of most of those chosen, but Samoeun and I felt peaceful, believing that God would care for us.

Everyone?s fears about Cheng Kdar proved to be justified. We were worked harder there than at any place we had been so far and once again had very little to eat. We were not allowed to catch fish for extra food or keep for ourselves vegetables we might grow near our place, planted on work breaks. If fish or vegetables were found hidden in our huts, it would mean certain death.

Our ?home? in Cheng Kdar was a tiny room in a small house that had once been occupied by Buddhist monks before the accompanying pagoda was razed by the Khmer Rouge. Several families occupied the cramped dwelling. It was Khmer Rouge policy here to deny families any sense of privacy so that we should be more aware of things we could accuse each other of.

Our work schedule carried us from sunup to sundown, and our strength began to drain away. If we became too sick to work, the Khmer Rouge would accuse us of being lazy, taunting that if we could walk and eat, surely we could work!

For awhile, Samoeun and I gained some relief from the meagre diet. At Cheng Kdar one of the group operations was the making of sugar from the sap of palm trees. Not long after we arriving our group leader asked me to help him, secretly and on my free time, with the sugar mill?s accounting and paperwork. In return he secretly gave me palm juice and sugar every day, and told me I could have some any time I wanted. From that sugar, we found enough each day with increased stamina.

Fear of the Khmer Rouge was intense in Cheng Kdar. Suicides became a frequent occurrence as the weeks and months went by. Many husbands deserted their wives when a chance for escape came, and from their despair some of the abandoned wives hanged themselves. Severe psychological depression had taken root as most people became totally apathetic about tomorrow ? never knowing if they would be alive to see it. For Samoeun and me, we had, out of necessity, become apathetic primarily about our bodies, having long since given up bathing, combing our hair or brushing our teeth.

At Cheng Kdar, we had opportunity quietly to share our faith in Christ with about 10 or 20 people, and one of our co-workers committed his life to Christ. When we talked with them God?s plan for salvation, but also told them as much as we could about how to grow spiritually, knowing that if they became Christians had no way to continue to help them to grow.

Many times we asked God, ?Why, when we want to serve You so much, do we not have the chance?? When we became discouraged about our ministry limitations, we would often review in our minds a talk from our Campus Crusade training, ?How to Rest in God?s Plan.? Recalling this message helped us to remember that God had a special plan for us, and we could rest in His revelation of it step-by-step.

Almost as a symbol of my faith I had kept my Campus Crusade ID card secretly, since Takao, hoping that if we reached the border it could be shown to a journalist or someone who could then inform other Campus Crusade staff that we were still alive.

Samoeun?s job at Cheng Kdar was to help clear out the jungle areas for planting rice. She would often hum softly to herself as she worked, and at times would sing songs in English that we had learned from our training in Manila. She had no idea that anyone could hear.

On her lunch break one day, after she had eaten, Samoeun?s group leader, Ann, brusquely told her that she was being summoned into a k ? sang, convening immediately. Samoeun?s heart was pounding as she came into the meeting, and she tried to recall what she might have done wrong.

Once inside the meeting room, she was surrounded by Ann, the village leader and some of Ann?s assistants. Then Ann started the accusations, calling Samoeun was physically strong many of the older women outworked her. Samoeun was also accused of singing ?imperialist? American songs and being a secret member of the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency. Ann?s assistants repeated the accusations, and Samoeun was warned that a second k ? sang would mean death.

By the time the group had finished accusing Samoeun, her tears started to flow. But she kept quiet, knowing that if she tried to defend herself against the charges, the group would only intensify the accusations.

Back in our little room where Samoeun and I usually met after lunch to visit until our lunch break war over, I began to worry. Presently Samoeun came into our room, and when she saw me she burst into tears.

I became very anxious inside when she started crying, out of fear for what she had to tell me coupled with concern that a neighbour would see her crying and accuse her. But I comforted her, and as I wiped away her tears, Samoeun told me what had transpired at the k ? sang.

After she had told me the whole story, I said to her quietly, ?Samoeun, we must not be angry with the leaders. We have God, so let?s pray now.? We stole behind our house to a place hidden from everyone?s view. We began to pray there, asking God to take care of us and to forgive Samoeun?s accusers. We prayed especially for Ann that she would become Somoeun?s friend.

Not long after Samoeun?s k ? sang , Ann?s husband, who had been a government worker under Lon Nol, and one of his friends, a former professor, came to me secretly. They told me that because of my ties with Campus Crusade, and American organization, I was sure to be killed soon. They asked me if I would like to escape with them. There was a condition, however: if I agreed to go, I couldn?t bring my family.

I refused their offer, and soon after I talked t them, I learned that they had escaped, leaving their families, including Ann and her two children, behind.

After her husband left, Ann became very frightened that the communists might accuse her of harbouring disloyal attitudes. She was afraid, too, for the safety of her children because they were still small. One day, as she and Samoeun walked out to the fields together, Ann suddenly broke down. She told Samoeun how depressed and alone she felt since her husband left. ?Every day my heart is so sad,? she cried. ?My life on this earth is nothing. If I wasn?t afraid for my children, I would take my life today.?

Samoeun whispered to her, ?Ann, I have had many upsets and sad things happen. But I have peace in my heart because of Jesus living in me.? Samoeun then told Ann how she could come to know Christ too. When she finished, Ann was very quiet, and after a long silence, she wiped her tears from her eyes and walked on ahead of Samoeun to work.

Because of my educational background, my city upbringing and my ties with the western world through Campus Crusade, I was looked upon with great suspicion at Cheng kdar. Following my position as an ?accountant? with the village leader at the sugar mill, I was moved down the job scale. For an entire year my chief responsibility was together all the villages? excrement for use as fertilizer in the village?s agricultural endeavours. I was not given a shovel for the job, but a narrow board, and since I had not used soap since we fled Phnom Penh, I?m sure Samoeun?s marriage commitment to me was tested often during that year! During my whole time in that job, a Khmer Rouge officer was assigned to watch me constantly, which may have been a wise idea: escape seemed very attractive to me many times that year.

The official?s purpose, of course, in such close surveillance was to find something I could be accused of. But after I had been at the excrement job for a year, the village leaders apparently began to trust me, and I was given a new job, that of teaching the village?s children to read.

I became a teacher in name only, because the children were allowed only five hours of instruction per week. The rest of the time I was responsible to oversee them as they worked in the fields. Then, not long after I began teaching. I was asked to become I leader of 10 village families.

I was very surprised when they asked me to become a group leader, because usually that job was given only to those who had been peasant workers before Cambodia?s fall. I even protested the appointment on that basis, but the village leader wouldn?t let me say no.

I enjoyed being a group leader; especially because the job left me time to care for Wiphousana. At that time Samoeun was often gone two weeks at a time planting rice some distance away, and though I had to work, too, I was able t keep Wiphousana with me.

I also enjoyed being a group leader because, in some ways, I was able to lead the group as I chose. I had the authority to give my group their allotted days off, and I made certain that they got them consistently. One day, after I had decreed a rest day, Ann, who was in our group, said to me, ?Huong, the love you have for us is a very good love!?

As a group leader I also gained some popularity because of the way I conducted the group meetings required every three days. Instead of holding accusation sessions, I used the time to teach my group as much as I could about patience, love, kindness and other Christ-like character qualities.

One day, near the end of 1978, Mrs. Ngeang, the Chinese woman who had left us in vengeful anger at Watt Kor, suddenly appeared in our village. She had come to look for me, having heard that we were living a good life, relatively speaking, at Cheng Kdar, and that we had food to eat.

I was shocked when I saw Mrs. Ngeang; her head was swollen and she was extremely thin, obviously suffering severely from malnutrition. Mrs. Ngeang told me that the Khmer Rouge had killed her husband, having suspected him of working with the Vietnamese who had been threatening an invasion of Cambodia.

Because of my position as a leader, I was able to give Mrs. Ngeang all the extra food I could ? potatoes from our small private garden and sugar from the mill. As we expressed kindness and acceptance toward her, she asked us our forgiveness for the attitudes she had held toward us. She noted sadly that she had indeed wanted the Khmer Rouge to kill us, but instead they killed her husband.

We wanted Mrs. Ngeang to stay at Cheng Kdar, but our village leader would not grant her permission. So we gave her as much extra food as we could gather, and she left, returning to the village from which she had come.

Near the end of December, 1978 the Vietnamese invaded Cambodia.