We'd walk to the fields to work and see the bodies. They left them there to scare us
She was only 15 when the Khmer Rouge seized control of Cambodia. Now, 30 years after she fled, Somaly Lun recalls the horror of Pol Pot's regime, and how she found a new life in Oxfordshire - by Andrew Anthony (guardian.co.uk)
Somaly's childhood was shaped by the war in neighbouring Vietnam. When she was 10, her hometown of Kratie, which was close to the Vietnamese border, was illegally bombed by American B-52s. The Americans were trying to cut off Vietnamese supply lines, and on one occasion a US F-11 fighter plane flew so low in an attack that Somaly could see the pilot. Her hearing was left permanently impaired. The family fled to Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia, where Somaly's father was a doctor at one of the main hospitals. She was 15 when the Khmer Rouge first entered her life, in 1975, when they subjected Phnom Penh to relentless artillery bombardment. It was the last stage of a civil war between the corrupt Lon Nol government, supported by the Americans, and the Chinese-backed insurgents of the Khmer Rouge. Trapped and terrified, the battle-weary inhabitants were so relieved when the shelling finally ended that crowds came out to greet the victorious communist troops when they entered Phnom Penh, on 17 April 1975. "We were thinking it was going to be really peaceful," recalls Somaly.
The Khmer Rouge had other ideas. They responded to the welcome by announcing that everyone had to leave the city immediately. Hospitals were emptied of the sick and injured. The severely wounded were left to die on the streets. It was the first sign of the terror that was about to engulf Somaly, her family and millions of Cambodians. An estimated 20,000 people lost their lives in the forced evacuation of Phnom Penh. People were shot or beaten to death for offering the smallest sign of resistance, or even, in many cases, daring to question why they had to leave their homes. Overnight, money was banned, towns and cities abandoned, and all forms of commerce ended. Year Zero, a dark, pre-industrial age of universal enslavement, had begun. All the stunned and baffled Cambodians were told was that a mysterious authority called Angkar now oversaw every aspect of life and, as it would frequently turn out, death. Scarcely anyone within Cambodia realised that Angkar's presiding force was a failed electronics student named Saloth Sar, otherwise known as Brother Number One and, most notoriously, Pol Pot.
A small woman with finely attractive features animated by a large, easy smile, Somaly betrays nothing in her lively demeanour of the nightmare in which she was to spend the remainder of her teenage years. "My father tried to keep us calm," she says, remembering those first few days of uncertainty. "There were nine children. I had an elder brother, elder sister and then six younger brothers." Of the 11 family members, only four survived the killing fields. Democratic Kampuchea, as it was called, promised liberation, but in reality it was an enormous prison in which hunger, torture, forced labour and the ever-present threat of death formed the parameters of existence. At first, the family walked to Somaly's grandparent's village, where, under the command of the Khmer Rouge, they were put to work in the fields. "They treated us quite bad because they said we were soft," she says. "You know, we had soft hands and soft feet. So they made us work hard and they criticised us every day after work." Family members were forced to accuse and inform on one another. At night, spies would listen to any whispers of dissent. "We had to learn very quickly," says Somaly, "because there were people being taken away because of what they'd been saying." "Taken away", as Somaly soon learned, was a euphemism for murdered. Those killed, usually beaten with spades and clubs, were left in open graves for everyone to see. "You walked to the field to do your work and you'd see the mass collection of bodies. They were doing it to scare us."
As food became increasingly scarce, the family was moved to Pursat, deep in the countryside, in what amounted to a concentration camp. Her father was soon taken away, first to treat a senior party official and then, inevitably, to be murdered. Although all the senior members of the Khmer Rouge were educated abroad in France, anyone else with an education, including much-needed doctors, was seen as a dangerous class enemy that had to be eliminated. Later, Somaly's eldest brother was caught hoarding food rations. "He was accused of being a spy for the CIA and the KGB," she says, now speaking very quietly. "He would not admit it, but whether you admit it or not didn't make any difference. He was beaten to death." Malaria and typhoid were a constant threat and food rations hovered around starvation level – thousands died from malnutrition, and many more were killed for attempting to find food. "My little brother was 10," says Somaly. "When you're 10, you're hungry. He saw a sweet potato and he dug it up and took it. And the punishment was death. He was led away and put into…" she stops, struggling to articulate the appalling image in her mind "…it was like a hut. They got about 50 or 100 people in there. He was led into it and they burned them alive. I heard the screams. Because it's too exhausting for them to kill them by beating them to death, so burning them was easier. They just hated us, even though we are the same people. That's what I couldn't understand. Every day I'd think, why doesn't anyone get up and fight?"
Crying was forbidden and brought extreme punishment, so Somaly would wait until night to allow herself silent tears. In the midst of this revolutionary dystopia, one of the most difficult ideas for the teenager to accept was the thought that the world had abandoned Cambodia. "I kept thinking all the time, 'Why does no one come and rescue us?' We'd look up in the sky for the sign of a plane. Any little sound of gunfire got us excited – Somebody must have come! But it was just them killing somebody who had escaped, otherwise they wouldn't waste their bullets." For most of her time living under the Khmer Rouge, she was separated from her family and transferred around the country on a work brigade. During the rainy season, she would plant rice, working up to 18 hours a day, and in the dry season she would take part in dam construction and maintenance. Four more of her brothers were to die from a mixture of exhaustion, starvation and sickness.
By August 1979, the Vietnamese were in control of most of Cambodia, but Somaly and her family were in a part of the country still ruled by the Khmer Rouge. Just weeks from liberation, one of her two surviving brothers came to her complaining of illness. "He was malnourished, his belly swollen. Then suddenly he got this bubble of water beneath his skin and he cried and said: 'Look what happened to me.' And I knew that he wouldn't last. A week later he died. You just see your brother die in front of you. Just like that." Facing outright defeat, the Khmer Rouge had begun a desperate campaign to kill as many Cambodians as possible rather than allow them to be taken by the Vietnamese. In Pursat, hundreds were forced off cliffs to their deaths. And where Somaly was stationed, a mass killing meant the only hope of staying alive was to escape. Along with 100 or so other captives, Somaly fled at night into the jungle. They were chased by the Khmer Rouge – "people lost their babies, people were shot" – as they were pursued through mangrove swamps. "I had no legs," she remembers. "When you haven't had much food to eat and you try to run and they're shooting at us… I said, 'Just go, leave me.'"
One of the things that Somaly learned during that period in Cambodia was that often in the darkest and most despairing moments, someone would offer a word of comfort or a hand of help. And so it was that one of the other escapees reached out and dragged her through the swamp, yanking her up from the fatalism of exhaustion. They still had to hide for four days in a boat on Tonle Sap lake without any food. One night they came within feet of a Khmer Rouge patrol, but managed to silently slip away. Finally, their nerves shattered, they reached the Vietnamese zone. By this time, Somaly had learned of the killings at Pursat and feared that the remainder of her family had perished. Even so, she decided to maintain a vigil by a road on which an endless tide of Cambodians was heading towards Phnom Penh. After almost four weeks of asking passersby if they'd heard anything of her family, she spotted her mother. Once again her legs failed her when she tried to run. So instead, she started shouting "Mum! Mum! Mum!" Her mother was with the two other surviving siblings, a younger brother and older sister. "We all just cried," Somaly recalls, beaming at the memory. "It was the happiest day of my life."
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