Even though I was only seven years old, my childhood ended abruptly on April 17, 1975. That was the day the Communist Khmer Rouge guerilla forces captured the city of Phnom Penh and Cambodia fell under the control of a murderous regime whose reign of terror resulted in the deaths of almost two million Cambodians.
As the mostly teen-aged soldiers marched into our city, they had flowers in the muzzles of their guns and waved to the crowds of Cambodians who celebrated their peaceful arrival. The celebration quickly turned into chaos when the Khmer Rouge soldiers began to order people from their homes and into the streets where they began a forced death-march into the countryside. Within two days, my parents, my older brother and I walked with two million other Cambodians who were forced from their homes leaving the city of Phnom Penh completely deserted. Those who protested or did not leave quickly enough were shot. No one was spared.
My eighth birthday passed during that terrifying three-month march where most of the sick and elderly died on the sides of the road. Shortly after we arrived at our labor camp, my father and brother were taken away to work in different mobile work groups. We were told that the Khmer Rouge leaders were our family and we now lived in the year zero. There was no music, manufacturing, mail, toilet facilities, medicine, motor vehicles or anything to make life easy or enjoyable. There was only work and death. Cambodia was brought back to the pre-industrial age in a radical social experiment that was horribly flawed.
My father was executed about six months after we were forced from the city and it was painfully obvious that death was the most likely outcome of our own ordeal. The Khmer Rouge’s leader Pol Pot condemned anything modern or western and blamed the plight of Cambodia’s peasant farmers on those who lived in the city. Professional and skilled workers were executed along with anyone who spoke a foreign language or wore glasses. Anyone who was even suspected of any formal education was murdered.
To read more, follow the link below…
Pisey Leng, who now lives in New Zealand, was born in Cambodia in 1968. She has recently written a book about living under the Khmer Rouge as a child, and how this effected her later life. Her book is entitled: The Wisdom Seeker: Finding the Seed of Advantage in the Khmer Rouge.
A message I wrote to Pisey Leng and her reply:
From Kirsteen McLay-Knopp: An amazing story, Pisey Leng. As a New Zealander who has been to Cambodia and spent time living in Vietnam, I am so glad you were able to make Aotearoa into your new home and a place where you could find peace. 🙂
From Pisey Leng: Kirsteen, Thank you. As I said New Zealand holds a very special place in my heart. Aotearoa gave me a heavenly home after 14 years of labour camps and refugee camps not knowing where my life would end up. It has given me much more than just a home. It has given me a new life, stability, hope and identity as a person. I’m no longer just a number in the labour camps or refugee camps. I can now walk proudly as a rightful citizen of Aotearoa. I’m Truly Blessed.