Co-authored by SreyReath Kuy, DPM.
We'd like to share excerpts from the forthcoming book, The Heart of a Tiger, a compilation of stories about a family's survival during the Cambodian Killing Fields. I hope that you are blessed and inspired by these stories. I hope that from this book you draw the strength to have The Heart of a Tiger.
"Bang!" The Song family looked up from their meal. What was that noise? It sounded like a gunshot. "Bang!" This time it sounded closer. There was also the faint murmur of shouting voices coming from down the street, sounding like a swelling crowd. Vanna got up, and poked her head out of the front door to see what all of the commotion was about.
Her eyes widened in surprise. Soldiers wearing red and white checked Krama scarves were going door-to-door, wielding their guns, barking orders, and forcing people out of their homes at gunpoint.
Khmer Rouge soldiers! Vanna thought, recognizing them by their signature Krama scarves. What are they doing? What's going on?
Vanna saw the gunmen entering her neighbor's home and forcing the Prans to leave. The Pran family had no time to gather anything. At gunpoint, they were simply ordered to leave everything and join the growing mass of people walking in the street. They looked confused and scared. A Khmer Rouge soldier harshly screamed, "Hurry up!" as he jabbed the steel barrel of his rifle into the back of an elderly, gray-haired woman.
Vanna quickly ducked her head back inside, where her seventy-four year old mother, Tevy, and her husband, Vireak, were now standing and watching out the window in shock. Vanna started running frantically around the house, gathering baby clothes for her daughter Davi and food, which she shoved into a suitcase.
She yelled, "Hurry, mother! Grab anything you can and put it in this suitcase!"
Tevy looked at her in confusion. "Honey, what is going on?"
Vanna yelled, "I don't know! Soldiers are going door-to-door, and they're forcing everyone to leave."
Vanna continued furiously stuffing anything she could grab into the suitcase, including her Teacher's College diploma that she snatched off the wall, government paperwork for Vireak's job, a few pots, and baby supplies.
Bang! Bang! And, screams.
Vanna froze, then ran back to look out the window. Two people were lying face down as Khmer Rouge soldiers stood over them. Over a megaphone, a booming voice was heard.
"Citizens! You have only two choices. You must leave your home now or if you choose to stay, you are choosing death. Leave now! Join the others in the street immediately."
In the street, a woman desperately pleaded with a soldier. "But Comrade, my husband hasn't returned from work, and my son has gone to the marketplace. Please, I must wait for them!" she begged.
The Khmer Rouge soldier angrily yelled at her, "Woman, get moving! Leave your home immediately!"
The soldiers barged through the front door of the Song's house. The lead soldier turned to Vireak and barked, "How many in your family?"
Vireak nervously gulped, "Um, there is me and my wife, our baby girl and my mother-in-law."
The soldier shouted, "All of you, leave at once. Now!"
The Song family joined the growing stampede of people in the street. The crowd had swelled into hundreds of thousands of people, as all the inhabitants of Phnom Penh were driven out of the city. Vanna looked around at the mass of disheveled people streaming through the street like hordes of locust. Relatives tried to keep one another close by holding hands and clinging to each other's clothing, but still they were separated by the tide of people, and some never saw each other again. Parents were desperately calling out the names of their children.
The sun and moon rose and set as the days went by. Soon, days stretched into weeks.
As weeks stretched to months, Vanna and her family now walked with a smaller group. They had walked more than 200 kilometers from Phnom Penh to Prey Chkar. As they continued walking, the trail became narrower. The jungle was thick and humid with an ominous rain cloud overhead. It was the start of the monsoon rain season. Giant mosquitos swarmed them as they walked. The skies opened, and poured out a burst of rain, like a woman weeping. Giant pellets of water soaked through their clothes, and drenched their skin as they trudged on the boggy ground. A woman slipped in the mud and fell. She stayed down on the muddy ground, not even trying to get up. She sat in the rain, bespattered with the black soggy muck, covering her face with her hands in utter despair. Vanna ran back to help her and tried to make the woman stand up.
"Come! Get up! Don't give up now," Vanna shouted as she tugged on the woman's arm, trying to pull her up.
"It's no use," the woman mumbled, shaking her head. "We are all going to die anyway." She wouldn't budge. Nothing Vanna said would change her mind.
Vanna ran to catch up with Tevy, who was carrying baby Davi. The woman stayed sitting on the soggy ground, as the group continued following the soldiers. The soldiers looked back and saw her sitting. One of teenage soldiers turned around and walked back to her. As the group continued walking, they heard from behind a gun blast and a scream, then silence. Everyone gasped and stopped.
"Keep walking!" the young Khmer Rouge soldier screamed, as he violently shook his rifle at them. He looked like a boy waving a toy gun. The surreal sight of the child soldier looked absurd. But it wasn't a toy, it was real. Their world had been turned upside down. Now a child having a tantrum had just slaughtered an adult. Their lives were in the hands of children. The despondent people looked down, and continued following in silence.
Vanna whispered to Tevy, "If only I could have made her get up. She just gave up."
Tevy replied, "We cannot put ourselves in someone else's shoes. Now, we are all wearing the same shoes."
Vanna whispered, "Why? Why are they doing this, Mom? Why are they killing so many people like this?" She stopped herself, then looked at the ground, and kept walking.
The path eventually led to a clearing in the jungle. Rows of dilapidated bamboo huts with straw roofs appeared within sight. There was a main path through the strip of shacks on stilts. The soldier stopped in his tracks and ordered the people to line up. They nervously obeyed, unsure what was going to happen next.
All the local people from the village started coming out of their homes, and trickled into the center of the village. Out of one of the shacks emerged a surly looking man. He was the local Khmer Rouge leader.
The head comrade approached the group, and stared at them.
"You! All of you!" he screamed. "You were fattened off the backs of the proletariat! Living in your fancy houses in your fancy cities! Well, this is a new regime. Today, you become the Third Class Citizens! We are the First Class Citizens now! You do what we say! If you do not obey these orders, you die! It is your choice."
He glared at the bedraggled group, with a sneer on his face. "From now on, you will stay here. You will become workers for the Regime to plant the rice that feeds the engine of this mighty regime. Now, each of you will be assigned to stay with a First Class family."
He then turned, to address the villagers. "People of the village! You will be sharing your homes with these Third Class Citizens. These are Pol Pot's orders!"
Relief washed over the faces of the weary travelers. Their lives had been spared. But, spared for what? They gazed around at the dilapidated village. Rain fell over their heads and trickled down their forlorn faces.
The soldier directed them into small groups. There were approximately twenty families who lived in the village. The villagers chose which families would stay with them. Vanna, Vireak, Tevy and Davi were chosen by Roun and Rithy. They led them to their hut and pointed to the open area underneath the hut.
Tevy humbly bowed, and said, "Thank you for letting us stay with you."
Roun answered, "We have no choice."
Vanna and her family huddled together, underneath the shack. Vanna cradled her baby in her arm. She hunched over, trying to shield Davi to keep her warm and dry. The rain hurtled down, and flashes of lightening illuminated the dreary village.
In the flooded rice paddy, Vanna stood barefoot. Her toes squished in the mud, as she bent over to pull up the rice seedlings. She watched the other women, from the corner of her eye.
How do they do it? she wondered to herself.
She had to look like she knew what she was doing. Any hint of ignorance and her cover would be blown. The Khmer Rouge had already executed everyone they knew to be educated. Vanna had hidden her identity as a teacher, pretending to be a rice farmer. She knew that her life now hung in the balance.
Vanna glanced to one side, and saw the grim faced Khmer Rouge soldiers on the outskirts of the rice field, toting their rifles over their shoulders. Saree, the woman next to her, leaned forward, grabbed a handful of the rice seedlings at their base near the ground, wound them around her wrist with a twist, and then forcefully jerked it out of the ground in one fluid motion. Holding the young rice plants, with their intact roots dangling from the bottom, the woman skillfully took one long slender leaf, and tied the seedlings into a bundle. She then tossed the bundle into a growing pile, and leaned down to grab another handful of rice plants. Vanna looked on in awe.
Whoa, she's like a machine! she thought.
Vanna looked down at her own puny arms and skinny wrists. She had been frail her whole life. Now, the starvation and harsh conditions had left her emaciated. She didn't know how, but she had to learn.
"Here goes something!" she mumbled to herself. She grabbed a big fistful of rice seedlings in her right hand, and forcefully jerked with all her might.
"Arrghh!" Vanna choked back the scream in her mouth as she fell backwards in the muddy rice paddy, landing on her backside. She still clutched her precious fistful of seedlings. Searing pain tore through her right shoulder. She felt like she had ripped out her arm at the shoulder socket. She looked at the rice seedlings clenched in her fist. They didn't even have their roots attached like Saree's plants! The plants had broken off at the base, leaving a clump of roots still in the mud. They were useless for transplanting.
"Vanna! What's the matter?" Saree asked, looking quizzically at her.
"Oh, I'm just playing around," Vanna laughed, trying to muster a weak smile. It looked more like a grimace.
"Vanna, stop goofing off!" Saree admonished her, looking fearfully in the direction of the soldiers. They hadn't seemed to notice anything. "They could kill you for goofing off like that!"
Vanna scrambled up, rubbing her sore shoulder. She gritted her teeth, and grabbed another bundle of seedlings. This time, she didn't fall over. But she still hadn't gotten the roots to come with the plants. It was hard work. Vanna furrowed her brows, and tried again.
One afternoon while Vanna was working, Tevy heard a pounding noise at the front door of the bamboo shack. Her eyes grew wide in fear. A Khmer Rouge soldier stood there, with a gun slung across his back.
The soldier demanded, "Where is your daughter?"
Tevy nervously replied, "She's working in the fields with everyone else."
The soldier barked at her, "Tell her the leader wants to see her first thing in the morning."
Tevy gasped, as the Khmer Rouge soldier turned around abruptly and walked away.
It was night time when Vanna finally returned after a long, fourteen hour day of work. She had stopped by the well to draw up a pail of water, which she brought to wash herself. She saw her mother sitting on the ground, sobbing. Tevy's eyes were swollen and red. She cradled baby Maly and held Davi close by.
"Mom, what happened?" Vanna exclaimed.
Tevy sobbed, "Oh Honey, they came for you today! They said you are to go to the leader's house in the morning. You know what this means. They're going to kill you!" Tevy wailed, "Honey, let me go in your place tomorrow. I can't take care of these babies on my own. They need you. Let me take your place."
Vanna threw the pail on the ground. It sloshed water all over her feet.
"No mother. I'm sick of this! What's the use of living anymore? This isn't even living. We're worse than animals. We wait for the day when they will kill us, and until then, we are already the walking dead."
Suddenly, a steely resolve entered Vanna's eyes and she felt a cooling sense of peace.
Vanna said adamantly, "Mom, I'm coming back tomorrow after I meet with them. I am not going to die. I will come back."
As the leaves crackled under her bare feet on the path to the killer's headquarters, Vanna felt a newfound confidence that she had never experienced. After living in sheer terror for the last three years, it was perhaps her last walk ever. She took in the surroundings and the beauty of nature. Vanna sensed she was not alone. She felt God's presence. She didn't feel fear. She felt peace.
Vanna stood in the front room of the Talien headquarters building, where the lead Khmer Rouge Comrade resided. Several grim faced Khmer Rouge soldiers stood guard with guns. She waited to speak with Comrade Mao. Comrade Mao was corpulent, as he was one of the few well fed people in the regime. In the midst of everyone else's starvation, a roll of fat hung off Comrade Mao's double chin. After a while, he called her into his room.
Comrade Mao sat comfortably in a rattan chair. Vanna kneeled respectfully in front of him.
She said, "Greetings Comrade Mao. My mother told me to come see you this morning."
Comrade Mao answered, "Yes, Vanna. I do need to speak with you." His voice was syrupy, dripping with false sweetness.
"The leaders want you to be honest. If you are honest, I can help you, my dear."
He motioned for Vanna to take a seat on the stool in front of him.
Comrade Mao continued, "We have been told by people who know you that you were a teacher and that your husband was a colonel in the army. Is that the truth? An honest answer can save your life."
Vanna looked puzzled. "Is that so? Comrade Mao, I could never be a teacher. I don't even know how to read or write, let alone spell my own name! Look at these hands." She held out her scarred, calloused, and dirty hands. They were gnarled after three years of hard labor under the Regime. Vanna continued, "These hands could never be the hands of a school teacher. Teachers have beautiful, delicate, slender fingers. They have never done an honest day of labor in their lives. I have the hands of a rice farmer. And as for my husband, a colonel?"
She snorted in disbelief. "Have you seen my husband? He is so short. He couldn't carry a rifle. It would drag on the ground!" She shook her head. "No, none of this is true."
Vanna asked, "Comrade, please allow me to tell you a story my father used to tell me as a child."
Comrade Mao looked at Vanna dumbfounded; astonished as to why this woman who was about to be executed would want to waste his time with a story, instead of begging for her life. She was starting to annoy him now. This was not the usual turn of events.
He sniped, "Fine, go ahead and tell your story."
Vanna started, "Once upon a time, there was a very wealthy merchant. Many thieves had tried to break into his house to rob him, but none ever succeeded. The merchant had two watch dogs that were very fierce and very good at protecting their master's property. They were so loyal to their master! Thieves tried and failed to break in. They were always savagely torn apart by these dogs.
One day, one of the thieves got a cunning idea. He took several pieces of meat and attached them to a string and dragged it in front of the dogs, leading them off of the property. The poor, innocent dogs, not knowing better, chased after the meat, salivating. After getting into the village, the burglar started shouting, 'Mad dogs! Mad dogs!' Upon which, all the neighbors thought the dogs were rabid, armed themselves with clubs and killed the poor dogs. After that, the thief broke into the house, killed the merchant and his family, and stole all of the merchant's belongings."
Vanna paused and looked straight into the Comrade's eyes.
"Sir, I am like those loyal dogs. I am so loyal to Pol Pot and the Regime. I am no teacher. The person who told you that I am a teacher and that my husband is a colonel is like the thief. They want to kill me, but do not have the power to do so. So instead, they are using you to kill me. The thief yelled 'Mad Dogs!' These people say that my husband is a colonel and that I am a teacher. If you kill me, you will be tricked by their cunning ways and used by them as their tool."
An air of anticipation hung heavily in the room. Comrade Mao sat staring at Vanna. His gluttonous face looked stupid. His mouth was ajar, after listening to such an incredible story. Comrade Mao was confused.
He said feebly, "Uh, well then. Um, if you are not a teacher, then I suppose you can go home."
Vanna stood up and respectfully bowed before him.
"Thank you, Comrade." She walked out the door. Once she got outside in the open air, Vanna looked up at the sky and let out a long, big breath.
"Thank you, God." she whispered.
Vanna escaped death, this time. How will Vanna survive the rest of the Cambodian Genocide? Read the rest of the story in the forthcoming book, The Heart of a Tiger.
Today, Dr. SreyRam Kuy is a surgeon, taking care of our nation's veterans. Dr. SreyReath Kuy is a podiatrist, taking care of underserved populations. Their hope is to inspire courage and hope through the stories of The Heart of a Tiger.)