She could see them down the street by the edge of town in their dull dark green uniforms, assault rifles slung over their shoulders… coming her way. They were not in any military order, but there were hundreds of them, stone faced, taking up the whole street now, getting closer.
Sarayeth grabbed the hand of Vith, a younger sister, and moved to the side as the first small advance group passed. They seemed to know where they were going and the rest of the soldiers behind them followed, walking five and six abreast. Their sandaled footfalls sounded authoritative and loud as the main group came by. Green transports trucks with more soldiers followed.
Sarayeth and Vith ran alongside, caught up in the excitement. What a big day; hundreds and hundreds of Khmer Rouge soldiers marching into Phnom Penh to take control of the government now that the American-supported regime of Lon Nol had been deposed. It was almost like a movie. Everyone along the way was throwing flowers, waving flags, and shouting encouragement and “SomSvaKom” (welcome). The soldiers did not turn or acknowledge their greetings. They marched intensely on.
The American embassy had been evacuated just five days before, on April 12, 1975. Sarayeth’s own countrymen were in complete control now. She believed what the local radio newscaster said — that the Khmer Rouge were bringing in a new way of life where there would be no corruption, no privileged class, no deference to foreign powers. Angkar was the name the radio announcer used to describe this new government form, as if it was an embodied spirit. Angkar. Where there was waste and laziness before, Angkar would ensure that everyone worked for the common good. No longer Cambodia, their country would be called Democratic Kampuchea, and the soldiers marching by on the main road into the capital city were evidence that the promised change to the just rule of Angkar had arrived.
“I am so excited,” Sarayeth said to Vith, “Look at them. This is so good for us. How young. How serious.”
Just 23 years old, Sarayeth was slim and beautiful. She had a graceful way of walking and an expressive way of talking. She had been tops in her school classes and was known for her intelligence. When she talked among her friends about how to improve life out in the Cambodian countryside, they listened.
Two years before Sarayeth had gotten a job with the Catholic Relief Service (CRS) as a nutrition aid distributor. She had taken great pride in helping her rural countrymen get miracle rice and other food from foreign donors. Now she saw the soldiers of a new Khmer government that promised to provide food to everyone that was grown here, in her own country. To her, Cambodians providing for themselves made them stronger as a country. She expected to get a job in this new government where she could use her organizational, distribution and warehousing skills. She knew she could make a difference. A good worker, she had risen quickly in the CRS ranks, learned English, arrived early to work in the morning, and was almost always the last to leave. She had become a well-known, respected supervisor.
As Sarayeth ran along with her sister, she was so glad that she had chosen to stay, rather than leave with the CRS foreign workers the week before. Her American CRS supervisor had offered her a ride out on the evacuation helicopters. She had heard rumors that the Khmer staff at the U.S. embassy could take up to eight family members each. Maybe if she had said she wanted to go, she could have taken her whole family, but it was just too much. This was her country. She couldn’t ask her family to leave. They did not know what lay ahead outside Cambodia; they had no reason to leave. No, Sarayeth thought, these strong, young, handsome Khmer men, marching so confidently into her city, represented the future she wanted. She was positive about the bright future for her country. She skipped along now, chanting “Som Sva Kom Angkar!!! Welcome Angkar!!!”
That evening in the family home near the center of the city, Sarayeth’s father held a family conference. A tall, deliberate man, he cautioned Sarayeth about her enthusiasm. He was uncertain about the change of government. Sarayeth had three sisters; the youngest, Vath, was four and had been stricken with polio. She had limited movement of her arms and legs – couldn’t feed herself – and needed constant attention. Would the new government provide for her, Sarayeth’s father asked? And her grandparents, who were old and lived with them, would they be looked after?
Some thought city people were part of the problem with the old system. It was the fishermen and farmers in the country who provided food. What did city people provide? What did the Khmer Rouge have in mind for them? Angkar did not sound like a friend. No, her father said, now is the time for caution, not celebration. We must be careful. He nodded his head and all around her, Sarayeth’s family agreed. As she was taking stock of her family, she realized her father was looking directly at her, and she lowered her eyes. “Yes, father,” she said, but that night she dreamed about a kind and gentle Angkar — a happy Cambodia.
Traffic was light on the city streets of Phnom Penh the next day, the 18th of April, 1975. Neighbors talked but were unsure what to do. Anxiety began to creep in to conversations. There was no midafternoon hustle and bustle around the city. Even the birds were quiet. As the sun began to set, Sarayeth heard a loudspeaker on the back of a truck in the distance ordering former military, state officials and people who had worked for foreign organizations to report to their normal job the next morning. All others should get ready to leave their homes.
No one was sure what was best for the family, so they gathered around the radio for the evening announcements. In a Khmer accent common with the peasants in the country, the radio announcer said that at sunrise the following morning everyone who had worked for the Americans should report to their normal place of work. Everyone else in Phnom Penh was to leave their home and go back to the country province where they were born or where their parents were born. The announcer said this drastic measure was necessary because the Americans were going to bomb the city. Everyone was to leave their valuables behind. They should only take what they needed to survive for a few days. The Khmer Rouge soldiers would make sure no one stole anything. Everyone, except the specific people identified as working with the Americans, had to leave. Anyone who remained behind and tried to hide would be shot. These were orders from Angkar.
The announcer’s voice did not sound friendly. His tone was strident and Sarayeth suddenly became afraid.
Her father told her not to follow the radio instructions – she was not to go to work the following morning. He said that they would go as a family for the three or four days out in the countryside.
During the night the power to the city was turned off. In the morning there was no water. At daybreak, loudspeakers told everyone to get out of their homes, go to their work place if they worked for the previous government or for foreigners, others leave town. “Tov! Oy Lernh Lerng! Ey Lov!” (Move. Hurry. Now.)
Sarayeth’s family left the only home she had ever known. Sarayeth watched her father lock the door, put the keys away in his pants pocket and turn to lead his family out to the street. He was followed by Sarayeth’s mother, her grandmother and grandfather, and her aunt and uncle with their eight children. Sarayeth and her three sisters were the last in line. As a group, they took some extra clothing, their most expensive jewelry, personal items, some food — rice, sugar, salt — a bicycle and their father’s motor bike.
Sarayeth knew her father’s plan was to head south from their house and then east over the concrete bridge. Walking slowly, the family was silent. Getting jostled as more and more people crowded the street, they closed ranks to help guard what they were carrying. But they were frighten and unsure of themselves. Sarayeth’s family had trouble staying together so Sarayeth’s uncle took the lead and her father brought up the rear to insure no one was left behind. As they neared the bridge over the river they passed people heading back. They said Khmer Rouge soldiers were across the way, pulling out people identified as having worked for the foreigners. One woman said they had pulled out people who wore glasses.
Down by the two-lane bridge there was chaos. The crowd slowly surged forward a few feet, then back, then forward again. People were yelling. Children were screaming. Heavy possessions were being cast aside. Some people stumbled and fell. Carts, crates, bundles of clothing and household items littered the roadway. Vehicles were abandoned on the side. All around there was the heavy, low rumble of panicked voices.
Sarayeth’s family held their ground in the middle of the road, frozen with fear, looking to her father for directions. He said they could not go forward. He turned, yelling for everyone to follow and they began moving against the crowd to the east.
All that day they fought their way out of the city in the pushing, swirling mass of people, first going against the crowd and then with it. At sundown they pulled off the dirt road to rest and to eat some of the food they had brought. When they had finished, Sarayeth’s father and her uncle decided to keep their group where they were for the night, so they moved the loaded bicycle and motor bike further off the road next to a bamboo thicket. The family huddled together, more for the feeling of security than for warmth.
On the road, people moved by all night. Some crying out. Others grunting in pain as they stumbled and fell in the dark. Off in the distance they could hear gun fire. Sarayeth lay facing her sister Vith. When they would hear noises, they would be wide awake, looking at one another. Vath, their invalid younger sister, was laying with her Mother and throughout the night, when she would whimper, her mother would calm her by saying in a soothing voice that everything would be all right. Those were the only words spoken during the night. Sarayeth father and uncle stayed awake, on guard over their families.
The next morning they continued their eastern trek with other dislocated people from Phnom Penh. Some old people, disoriented and alone, fell out by the side in ditches. Khmer Rouge soldiers came by with their automatic rifles and poked them until they got up and stumbled back into the masses streaming down the road. Other people slowed down, some in an effort to find family members who had gotten separated. Names were yelled out up and down the line. Any pauses and gaps in the crowd got the attention of the soldiers and they would come by shooting their assault rifles into the air. Everyone then pushed and shoved to move ahead.
Noon that second day Sarayeth’s family passed two dead people lying on the side of the road, flies swarming around the dried blood from where they had been shot.
These were the first dead people Sarayeth could ever remember seeing and she stared at them as she passed. No one attended them. No one seemed to care. As her family group was turning a bend in the road Sarayeth looked back at the dead. Eyes wide, seeing but not really believing what was happening.
Late that second day the people on the road were ordered off to the left by young, stern Khmer Rouge soldiers. Standing in a pickup truck, an older military official with a bull horn announced that many former government officials, teachers and foreign aid workers had not reported to their work places in Phnom Penh. Any of those people, plus anyone who spoke English, were to assemble for return to Phnom Penh to help form the new government there. No one else would be allowed back. Not now. Later.
rayeth’s family stood together on the edge of the crowd. “No, we do not go back,” her father said. He looked around to make sure they were not catching the eye of any of the nearby Khmer Rouge soldiers. Everyone leaned in close as he talked. “They will kill you, daughter. They will kill us.” Vath, his youngest daughter, looked around, startled by the fear showing on the faces of her family. “They will kill Vath,” her father said as he pointed to the little girl with polio sitting on the bike seat, her dirty face streaked by tears. “This is very bad for us here, but it is better than going back.”
“OK, but …” Sarayeth’s voice broke, “but so many people know me. Know I worked for CRS. I … they … we cannot hide always. Someone will see me and know.”
“Live. We have to do what we have to do to live. We must not die.” Sarayeth’s father said. “You cannot say you worked for CRS. No one says Sarayeth worked for the Americans. No one ever says these Cambodian words, ever.”
Every member of the family agreed. They had all been badly shaken by the events of the last two days. They did not know what lay ahead, but each one committed to keeping Sarayeth’s past a secret. That in itself was reassuring, that they had something to do.
The next morning they moved back onto the road and trudged on. Along the way that morning they saw dead Chinese hung from roadside trees, their heads stretched at unusual angles, their bodies slowly turning in the wind. First the two people shot dead along the road the day before and now these people, hung. Sarayeth did not take as long to absorb this day’s scene. She realized this could be her fate if her previous CRS employment was ever known, so she hurried on.
Next they passed a pagoda where dead people were laid out side by side in the shade. People on the road were desperately asking for information on what to do, where they were going. Where to get food. Even rumors of one thing or another would have been welcome, yet no one had any idea what lay ahead. Past the pagoda more fly-covered bodies lay along the side of the road.
For three days Sarayeth and her family moved down that road, passing more and more bodies along the way. Abandoned babies wailed. A putrid stench from decaying bodies began to plague the family so some held dirty rags up to their faces to keep out the smell. Around them pasty, sick and drawn people struggled to keep up. Others seem to give up and fell to the side of the road. The further they traveled the more desperate the situation became. Only the tall, dignified figure of Sarayeth’s father leading the way gave them hope.
Near the village of Dey Eit, they stopped to rest. They ate the last of the food they had taken from home. Before going to sleep that evening their father went from group to group stopped nearby bartering family jewelry for rice. He paid hundreds of dollars in gold for a small basket of rice.
They stayed there the next day to gather their strength, reassured by Sarayeth’s father that, in time, everything would be OK. They had to keep their health. He insisted that they were not to be depressed. So they waited, keeping to themselves, waiting for word on what to do, where to go. Sarayeth and her sisters picked fruit and looked for vegetables and roots to eat. Some groups of people moved past them on the road. But as time went by, fewer and fewer passed.
Sarayeth’s father and her uncle decided that going to Siem Reap was not an option because of the chance that people there knew about Sarayeth’s previous work. Going back to Phnom Penh did not appear to be anything to hope for – they did not believe the Khmer Rouge would ever give permission. Sarayeth’s father and uncle decided to hire a boat to take the family across the Tonle Sap River. The family could head back toward some safe spot in the northwest. They had enough jewelry and money left to do this.
The next day, they started to move down the road towards the Tonle Sap. To conserve their strength they did not walk fast and did not join — or even talk — with others still on the move. In three days they reached the river.
They paid a boat taxi to take them across the river. Others, who did not have the fare were camped along the river, sitting in family groups, watching, waiting for who knew what.
On the other side they were fewer people on the road and no one was abandoned along the side. For the first time since they had left their home, Sarayeth could hear birds, and she was not so desperate. Over the first hill they spotted a fruit grove off to their right and the family group went there. From a nearby creek they got some water and washed and cooked a hot meal. Sarayeth’s father and uncle thought they could improve on pushing the bicycle and the motor bike by making a cart with the wheels. They had spotted some metal rods and containers near the river crossing, and while the uncle went back to retrieve them, Sarayeth’s father took the wheels off the bicycle and the motor bike.
By the evening of the second day they had fashioned a study cart with the motor bike tires on the back and the bicycle tires on the front. The overall mood was improved – optimistic – and Sarayeth and her sisters shared a joke, but then off in the distant there was a torrent of rifle fire and they stopped. Their uncle was close by and he said the same words their parents had said earlier, “Everything’s going to be all right.”
The next morning, they loaded all their possession on their cart, placed the grandmother on top with Vath, and with the uncle pushing and their father pulling the cart, they went back to the road and continued on.
Several other families were coming up from the Tonle Sap and joined them. Sarayeth could see how proud her father was of his cart, and there was some light banter in the family. Obviously the river had separated the people with resources from the destitute.
The road passed through a wooded thicket and then over a short hill. When they crested the hill – the father said something about the cart going downhill more easily – but then at the bottom they saw several Khmer Rouge soldiers moving out from the shade, and unsling their rifles, they stood shoulder to shoulder blocking the road.
While Sarayeth’s father wanted to pause and check out the danger, the cart moved them forward and despite themselves they were soon in front of the soldiers.
One of the boys, no more than 15 years old, yelled out in shrill, rapid Khmer that no one continues down the road. All Phnom Penh ”NakThmei” (Newcomers) were to take the path to their left to the village of Prek Tasek, on the Tonle Sap. Angkar – wanted them to dig ditches. That was their new job. “Move, quick, or we kill you.”
The small group turned off the road as the boy continued to yell at them. One of the soldiers fired his weapon in the air, then other joined. Sarayeth thought they were being gunned down and everyone yelling as they ran down the path away from the road – stopping some distant away, heaving to catch their breaths, everyone nervous, shaking. Sarayeth still had her mouth wide open from yelling. One of the Khmer Rouge started running down the path towards them and the group quickly started on their way again.
As they approached the village, Sarayeth’s father could see groups of Khmer Rouge standing on the far side. He asked a villager who was standing by the path if there was a place where his family could stay and the villager, looking over towards the Khmer Rouge, nodded his head to a nearby empty hut. With the soldier still coming up the path from the rear and with the other Khmer Rouge soldiers starting in their direction, Sarayeth’s father led his group up a small bank and into the hut. The cart outside, they were looking around in the dim light when one of the Khmer Rouge soldiers came in.
Everything was quiet, the only sounds of people breathing heavy. The soldier told them loudly to be out front of the hut the next morning at sunrise for work. As he finished, he looked everyone over carefully. He took the measure of Sarayeth’s father and of her uncle who looked away, and then at Sarayeth. He looked at her for the longest time and then left.
The next day, before sunrise the whole family was outside by the path at sunrise. Everyone except the young Vath was placed on work details to dig ditches. “Nak Thmei,” newcomers, in other groups were shot dead for the slightest of reasons. There was gun fire — people dying — all day, anyone showing any sorrow or slowing to tend family member shot, were shot too.
It was the most horrible, the most frightening day of Sarayeth’s life. She tried to stay within groups of people, stayed away from the edges. She never made eye contact with any of the young Khmer Rouge, who were far more violent than those seen along the road… than anyone she had ever known. Every one of them killed at will. A dozen people, all around her, were shot dead that day.
That night several Khmer Rouge soldiers came into the family hut. They looked around at the different family members, until one yelled, reached out and grabbed Sarayeth’s uncle by the hand. He was taken outside and, off to the side, shot dead.
Like Sarayeth’s father, he was tall and dignified. He had held a high government position and carried himself as if he were a man of some consequence. He may have been killed simply because the young Khmer Rouge soldiers did not like his looks. No reason was given to the family when the soldiers came back in the hut to take his possessions. The family, frozen with fear and shocked by what had happened, watched as the soldiers went through everyone’s possessions, taking what they wanted. Sarayeth’s aunt stood wide eyed and frozen, overwhelmed by horror.
The next day Sarayeth’s grandfather would not get up to go on his work detail. He lay on the ground where he had slept, looking off into the distance, perhaps thinking about his son who had been shot the night before. Khmer Rouge soldiers came by and the family stood by helplessly as the young soldiers debated whether to kill the old man or not. They did not, for whatever reason, but the old man didn’t move all that day. He did not eat any food that night, and the next day he died.
Work every day thereafter was from the time the sun came up to sundown. There was little food. Up before the sun, what rice was available was distributed by Sarayeth’s father to family members. They lined up with shovels for work detail at dawn, marched out to open ditches and dug dirt all day. At night, as the sun was going down, they would return to their shelter. Sarayeth’s father would go to the central food supply to get the family’s small ration of rice. He would divide it: some for the evening meal, some for the morning. No one talked. Sarayeth and her sisters patched clothes and bandaged blisters and sores.
Occasionally the “Nak Thmei” were questioned by the Khmer Rouge about their past life in Phnom Penh. In the dark after everyone had laid down for sleep one night Sarayeth’s father reminded them of the story they would give if they were asked about their past. All four of his daughters had worked for him in the Phnom Penh market selling sundries. That was the story they were to tell.
Everyone agreed, but Sarayeth in her heart worried Angkar would find out about her employment by the Americans and that she could speak English. She and her family would be killed. Stories circulated that those who had worked for foreigners or were school teachers, when they were found out, were shot. And then their whole family was killed. There were no stories of anyone discovered to have worked for the Americans who was spared.
Sarayuth was seldom far from the thought of all the people who had died here, her Uncle, her Grandfather. Almost every moment of every day she was in fear of her life, and the life of her family.
Six months the family stayed at Tasek. They worked every single day. Many others were killed. Other died of exhaustion.
Without warning, one day all the “Nak Thmei” were loaded on a Tonle Sap barge and moved to Pursat Province. There, like at a slave market, they were separated by age and size. Sarayeth’s grandmother, her aunt and her cousins were sent to a distant village. Two of Sarayeth’s sisters were assigned to work groups and were sent away. Sarayeth and Vath stayed with her mother and father. The four of them joined others and were marched into the middle of nearby Pou Sadd village and assigned a small thatched hut. The first day of their arrival Sarayeth was called out to work in the fields, while her parents and her disabled sister were assigned menial chores in the village.
Thereafter Sarayeth would get up around 4 o’clock in the morning and walk 4 or 5 kilometers to the field her group of “Nak Thmei” was assigned. They started work when the sun came up. They took no more than a half hour for a lunch of rice soup. After working until sundown, they would return to the village huts and usually were up until 11:00 doing indoor farm work; like shucking and polishing rice, peeling roots. There was never laughter. There were never kind words. There was only endless work and fear and hunger.
A few months after arriving, Sarayeth was working in the fields when she got word that her father was dying. His health had been failing because he couldn’t get enough to eat; because he couldn’t work after a while, his food portions were cut. Sarayeth, Vath and her mother shared their meager portions with him, but every day he became weaker.
Sarayeth’s leader allowed her to go back to their hut and she ran the whole way. Her father was delirious when she arrived. She held him in her arms as he died. Nearby was an uneaten bowl of rice her mother had purchased with the last of the family jewelry.
The next day Sarayeth had to go back to her field work. Vath was given chores to do in the kitchen and her mother was moved to another village. Within a month Sarayeth was told that her mother had died of diarrhea.
Throughout 1975 the village chief and others representing Angkar investigated the background of the “Nak Thmei” assigned to them. Some of the village elders did not believe Sarayeth, but her group leader — who liked Sarayeth — said that she worked hard for the common good and was honest. She was to be believed, said the group leader, and in time they accepted her story that she had previously worked for her father, who had been a merchantman in Phnom Penh. But with each interrogation, Sarayuth was scared almost out of her head, trying not to appear to be lying, not to be afraid. All eyes were on her.
The field work was never easy even though the “Nak Thmei” were told that at Pou Sadd they had it much easier than in other areas. Stories circulated about how Angkar would be displeased with some of the workers — some Khmer Rouge officials even — and they would be sent to re-education camps, never to be seen again. There were no executions in Pou Sadd, but some people were sent away. Others died of exhaustion.
Vath was given the job of cooking swill for the pigs. Because she was in and around village kitchens during the day, she would often be given extra rice and fruit. She always saved these precious extras for Sarayeth. After others went to sleep, they would stay awake in their hut just a bit longer to have little celebrations, sharing a piece of fruit or some extra rice.
Sarayeth had not seen her other sisters for almost a year now. One day a large group of workers passed by. Someone from the group called to her and Sarayeth looked hard before she recognized her sister Vuth, who had lost weight. She looked sick and tired. They ran to each other and hugged. Sarayeth told Vuth about the death of their father and mother; they stood in the middle of the field and cried.
Sarayeth was sustained during these hard times by her unwavering belief that things would get better. But she was always tired and hungry. Every day she lived with fear. But she never lost hope in her future. Never gave up. She remembered her father saying with conviction that everything would be OK, things would get better. She seized on that, remembering how he had said it, the firm inflection in his voice. His sure manner. She constantly told herself, “Things will get better.”
During all the misery she was forced to endure, she thought about America whenever she wanted to think good, happy thoughts. She loved speaking English. She held close to her memories of American movies, music, dress and food. She remembered her American friends warmly. Sometimes when she was working in the fields or lying on the bamboo floor at night she would remember something that one of her American supervisors had said and she would smile.
When she and her family had left Phnom Penh she had taken a book of advanced English grammar titled Learn English, Volume Four. In her darkest moments, alone at night, she would take this book from where she had it hidden in the hut’s door and would study it from the light of a small fish oil lamp. She loved studying English, especially learning clichés and idioms. Although the textbook would certainly mean her death if it was found, reading it and mouthing new English words gave her strength. She would put it away after a few minutes of study and go to sleep imagining conversations with Americans at CRS. Every American she had ever known was kind and likeable.
One day she came in from the field and found that her hut’s door had been removed. No one knew who took it, or why. Inside she was desperate. Maybe Angkar had found her out. Maybe the village chief had her English book and she would be called any moment to answer. She sat in a corner and cried. She jumped at every sound during the night.
She never found out what happened to that door and her beloved book. In time her frantic worry abated. Then one day a group from a neighboring province came to Pou Sadd for political education. As the group was settling in for the lectures, Sarayeth saw a man who had worked with her in CRS. He turned and they locked eyes. Recognition, then fear showed on both their faces. Sarayeth started to open her mouth to say something but then stopped, her mouth agape. She quickly looked away and moved to another section. Eyes wide, she listened to the lectures, expecting any minute for someone from Angkar to come and put a hand on her shoulder. Finally, the lecture was finished; she rushed to her hut and slumped down in desperation.
This time, certainly, she had been found out.
She knew what would happen next. She would have to go before the village council and they would confront her with the man’s report that she had worked for the Americans before and had lied to them all along, had betrayed Angkar. She would be sent away for “re-education.” And she would not return. She cried until there were no more tears. Her little sister Vath came and snuggled up with her on the floor.
No one came for her that night, or the next morning. So she dressed and went outside to join her group for work in the fields. Her group leader came out later and their eyes met. Sarayeth’s asking, pleading for something. The group leader kept a steady gaze. Maybe she imagined it, but Sarayeth thought she saw her, ever so slightly, nod her head and smiled.
Sarayeth did not know for sure if the man reported her, or not. She thought he might have, but then it would have exposed his CRS experience, so maybe he didn’t. She was never sure. She still thought about the door to her hut with its hidden book on American grammar. Her stomach hurt from worry.
She lived every day for four long, hard years in fear for her life.
Then with no warning whatsoever one afternoon, as they came in from the fields, some of the “Nak Thmei” from the village said it was over. The Vietnamese had ousted Pol Pot from Phnom Penh and his government no longer controlled the countryside. Angkar was no more.
The work groups were disbanded and the “Nak Thmei” were allowed to leave to go home or to find their families. Khmer Rouge soldiers were seen for a few days thereafter moving toward the southwest.
Sarayeth had to plan her future. She and Vath moved to Pursat, where she helped organize a dance group to celebrate the defeat of Pol Pot. One of the other organizers had experience as a classical dancer. As they presented programs in the city and in the surrounding villages, Sarayeth became well known among the old “Nak Thmei.” First Vith and then Vuth — her two sisters –heard about their sister with the dance group and came walking up to the dance troupe.
Together again, they sought to locate their extended family. They found that no one else, beside the four of them, who had left the home in Phnom Penh that awful day four years before was still alive. Their grandparents, their parents, their aunt and uncle, and their cousins were dead.
One day Sarayeth was approached by a handsome man about her age. He asked if he could join her troupe. A brother of the most famous composer in Cambodia who had been killed during the Pol Pot period, he was an organist and played the piano. Like his deceased brother, he also wrote music.
They were soon married. Both felt like part of their lives had been taken away by Pol Pot and they were anxious to start a family and move on, to catch up with life.
Their first daughter, Chanlika Kao, was born a year after they married. Sarayeth was so happy. She slept without fear at night, her daughter by her side. Her faith in the future had been rewarded. She was sure her daughter would have the very best life. She would whisper in her ear, “You are the reason I survived Angkar.”
Lina, tour guide, Jim, Sarayuth, Lika and Brenda (Joe took the picture)
It is another story for another time how I came to know Sarayuth – she knew me long before I knew her.
In 1998 Brenda, I and our son Joseph met Sarayuth and Chanlika and the youngest daughter Chanlina at the Angkor Wat, in Cambodia.
Sarayuth was the first to speak. She said in a way that made me think that she had rehearsed this simple introduction dozens of times… She said slowly, “My name is Sarayuth and I am very glad to meet you.” Her eyes watered as she spoke.
Off to the side Joe eventually asked Chanlika – who was about his same age – “You speak English?”
In a soft but clear voice she said, “Yes, my mother taught me since I was very young.”
Joe and Chanlika were married in 1999.
Chanlina, her sister, came to live with us and go to college in the states. March of 2013 she married a fine young American man and they moved to Washington state.
Giving Lina away in her marriage to Tola Touch (she is wearing Brenda’s wedding dress that my mother made)
Sarayuth returned to Cambodia to after Lina’s wedding to look after her sister Vath…
But unlike the fairy tales, not everyone lived happily there after.
After 15 years of marriage Lika and Joe divorced and within months Joe re-married, to his high school sweetheart.
In less than two years after Lina married Tola, they divorced.
We no longer have contact with Lika, Lina and saddest of all, we no longer have contact with strong, scared, America-loving, beautiful Sarayuth.
Sarayuth, the Phoenix Bird