An Old Woman’s Story of Survival in Cambodia
By Lorraine Harding
I met a Cambodian woman named Rona, who is 74. The reason why this story is so meaningful – because the average age in Cambodia is 32 years old and this is because many of the older generation had been killed during war.
To get this opportunity is unique because Rona speaks candidly about her life during the “very bad years” and has words that are relevant today.
As I drive into the village on the back of a motor bike, which is only about 15 minutes from Siem Reap town, I can see the country life permeating everywhere. Children run around as they chase each other with sticks, while the occasional cow strolls by in not much of a hurry.
The houses look tired – but they are someones loved and cherished homes lining each side of the narrow, dusty street. Behind one of these walls are memories that will soon scratch the surface and almost too hard to bear. They have been locked away for decades in the memory of a woman, who today will reflect on her life that is unimaginable to most.
Here, I had the opportunity to meet Rona and slight lady, dressed in a traditional long shirt and white top. I cannot help but notice through the thin material of her blouse, the bundle of small notes she has close to her skin. As she smiles at us, I also see the pain hidden behind her eyes.
Sitting down on the varnished wooden floor of the simple two story home, she welcomes us then begins to tell me of her life. Her memory is sketchy about the dates – but her mind is as sharp as a tack, while she recalls the events that shaped her life.
Unable to speak English and my Khmer is not as good as it should be, I am helped with the aid of an interpreter and our only way of communicating.
Rona begins to speak, telling me she was the oldest in her family, having 2 younger brothers. She recalls her earliest memory and thinks it was about the age of 7.
Her first childhood recollection is of being caught in a country that is torn by a vicious coup that would consume her life for the next 30 years.
Born at the end of the second World War, Cambodia was under military rule and there is a great deal of political conflict being stirring up among people. The whole area is in turmoil, which ended military coup that took over the entire country.
With memories that are vivid, she recalls the painful pictures that reflect back from her eyes. Her first mental snapshots is of hiding in bushes with her grandparents and seeing big men walking passed holding guns. She remembers hearing gun fire – there were no bombs back then she specifies – just guns being shot both day and night.
During this time, her family were separated and she does not know how or why. She didn’t see her parents or brothers until many years later, after being convinced they were all dead.
As Rona grew older, things began settling over time with the help of French intervention, but by now the country of Cambodia (Kampuchea) had been pillaged.
During the military coup, her already poor grandparents had lost everything. They had no choice but to labor at a rice farm, just to have food in their bellies and shelter at night.
Rona recalls that she was about 9 years old at this time and old enough to work the fields with her grandparents, where many other displaced people were doing the same.
They were given a small amount of rice each day that was barely enough to feed them. As Rona grew up, she would often go into the forest and dig for potatoes at night, so she and her grandparents could survive.
They worked hard on the farm from sun up to sun down and life settles into an uncomfortable normal. When she was around 16, Rona was reunited with her family, who she thought were dead.
When she met her family for the first time in many years, they arrived with a stranger – a boy who they had been helping along the way. He was about her age and would later become her husband.
Life was poor for the newly weds and Rona went on to have 9 children of her own – but she reveals no more words about this subject. Her memories hide painful wounds that have been torn open by our question.
Life did not get any easier, but she managed to scratch living selling spices and herbs to local people. Cambodia, now a shattered country started to get back on its feet…but things began to stall again.
As the 70’s crawled in, Cambodia went through period that many Khmer people remember as being the worse time in modern history – which lasted 3 years, 3 months and 20 days.
People were starving, being shot and neighbors would turn on one another. Now having children of her own, Rona found herself amidst another military coup and at the start of what we know as the Pol Pot era.
Now bombs were being used, while the military swept through Cambodia spreading propaganda and lies. All she wanted to do was protect her children, while many people around her were dying.
The memories stir that seem to have been trapped in the corners of Rona’s mind undisturbed for a very long time. She hesitates several times, while trying to find the right words in her native language, while the interpreter listens intently.
She recalls having to bury herself and children in the dirt.
They hid while the Khmer Rouge (Pol Pots army) went through with guns scouring the land. “It was a terrible time for everyone and many people were killed during this period”, she sighs with the weary sadness clouding her eyes.
Somehow she survived – but is reluctant to talk about it anymore, keeping some of the memories only for herself – but the pain on her face speaks a thousand words.
I am moved by what she is telling us and her secret recollections that she has not shared with anyone. Then I ask her how her life is now?
Her eyes instantly change as she gently rubs her great-grandson’s foot sleeping next to her on the mattress. Her face softening as she leans closer and speaking quietly as if sharing a cherished secret.
“My life is very good”, she replies quietly. “If I am hungry – I can eat. If I am thirsty I can drink…but most importantly I am free now.”
She goes on to state her own political views especially as there is an up coming election in 2018, which seems to be worrying some people. Hun Sen has been the President of Cambodia since the end of the Pol Pot regime and has brought peace to the region.
With Hun Sen still holding power, the younger generation want change, which is understandable and the price of progress.
Rona who has lived through the bad times in Cambodia suddenly gets passion in her eyes as she begins speaking.
“What the younger generation don’t realize is that me and my family owe everything to Hun Sen.”
She pauses as she thinks about her words carefully. “He brought peace to this land. They have never known war – I have – but now we can bring up our families in peace. This is all because of Hun Sen and the young people need to know this.”
Her voice tone softens as she continues to speak. “We don’t want anymore war. Our people have been through too much.”
The interpreter who is sitting with me is riveted at hearing this story for the first time.
The old lady goes on to say one more thing before we are finish and her eyes fix straight at the interpreter sitting next to me.
“Look forward in your life – never look back”, she almost whispers with a gentle smile touching her lips.
You see – this interpreter is someone special to the old woman and who needed to hear this story. It is her own Grand Daughter and she had never known her Grand Mother’s secrets – up until today.
Lorraine M. Harding.