Three Women: Oral Histories: Leng Houth
Born in 1951 in Svay Rieng
I was the second from the oldest child, but the oldest daughter so I took care of my younger brothers and sisters. I went to primary school for six years and came home at noon to take care of the younger kids. Our family lived as traders. My mother opened shop, like a supermarket on our front door step and her and my father ran the business. My mother was illiterate and she wanted me to study and go to school and get a high education. She also had me learn Vietnamese, because our home was so near the Khmer-Vietnamese border, she felt it would benefit me. I went to high school and later went on to two years of college and I went for teacher qualification tests in Phnom Penh when I was 18.
While I was in school I met my husband, Houth Lach. We had gone to high school together and were interested in each other since them. But he left to serve in the Police Militaire for a year and left Svay Rieng to work in Phnom Penh. He visited my family daily that year and finally we were engaged in November of 1971. We married soon after and settled in Svay Rieng in a house of our own near my mother's home. By that time the war was escalating but everything was so uncertain, we weren't in a rush to do anything just yet.
I had my first child in November of 1972. Maranet, my daughter, stayed with her grandmother for a month as it is tradition to have the grandmother be a caretaker for the first child. Meanwhile, I never got into teaching, so I opened my own fabric company. Marital life was full of joys for me. My husband was very caring and an easy-going man. He helped with everything in the house and loved his daughter very much. He was gentle and careful with her always. Maranet was born in our home. I was in labor for only two hours and he had helped with the childbirth.
The roads turned in 1975. On April 12, 1975 my husband knew it was time for us to leave Svay Rieng and find shelter in the city. Maranet was 3-years-old now and I was six-months pregnant with my second child. I remember the day very clearly. It was the last time I saw my husband. He sent me on a plane and promised that we would meet up again in the city when he could get out. I saw him waving and he had tears in his eyes. It was just like that movie, "The Killing Fields." I knew how much he loved his children and never doubted that he would not come for us. When we got to Pochetong Airport in Phnom Penh bombs were falling like pebbles from the sky. I rushed to hear the news reports over the radio. Four hours after I touched down in the city, Svay Rieng was surrendered to the Khmer Rouge. I hoped my husband would be spared.
Five days after I arrived in Phnom Penh, the Khmer Rouge arrived and "liberated" the city. We were all told to go back to our hometowns. There was ten people in my group and I was pregnant still. We walked along for a month and a half before we reached Svay Rieng. The killings were already starting. As walked along the road we stepped over corpses which had either been people who could not make the trip or were killed and left on the roadside. I drank from ponds that had dead bodies floating in them.
Before we left on our journey, the Khmer Rouge had given us two-day's worth of rice and salt. They set up stations along the roadside and handed us more rice every five-six kilometers we walked. It was just enough rice to get us by. We fished in nearby ponds and picked vegetables that grew along the road. I was with my family and my brothers did all the fishing.
We finally got to a village on the outskirts of Svay Rieng and settled beneath a hut where the "old people" lived. The old people were the Khmer Rouge peasant families who were like village keepers in the commune. The first thing they asked for were volunteers who had been former students, teachers, soldiers, doctors or anyone with an education to help them on special assignments. My brother, who had worked for the Red Cross with Americans and was in his second year of university studies volunteered. My mother later discovered that they had sent him to a big labor camp down the road. The we ordered to dig up huge ditches and they were fed nothing. My mother-- she's a courageous woman--she, went up into the camp and asked the camp leader, she pleaded with him to see her son. They let her see him and when she did, she found his head was full of lice and he had been starving for days. She snuck grains into his hands. They couldn't say anything to each other. He worked at gunpoint. They just looked at each other.
While I was living in this village, I was surprised by a visit from my husband's uncle. It was May 1976 and he had come with news that my husband was still alive. All along I knew my hope was not left for vain. But strangely I had a bad premonition. My mother warned me not to go and I decided to stay with my mother instead of be reunited with my husband. I let my chance pass by.
I remember one day in 1977. Thirty people--all teachers, soldiers, doctors and nurses-- were gathered together for a big feast. They took all their utensils and burning wood and had a huge meal with the best foods, like lemongrass fish soup and roasted beef and fried fish. It all the foods I hadn't seen in two years. The Khmer Rouge fed them very well that night, but I knew they were to disappear the next day. And sure enough, the next day, when I went to the water well to fetch water, I found it full with floating bodies. I ran away full of fear, running in silence, afraid someone would hear me and punish me for seeing what I wasn't supposed to.
Thinking of food, I remember the things we lived on. We all ate at a community kitchen where we'd get our daily share of rice porridge which had more water than rice. I worked in the kitchen, chopping vegetables and roots. They fed us potatoes and roots on occasion. One day as I was chopping roots and I was so hungry my stomach churned. As I chopped I thought of stowing away the scraps of the roots, the tips that weren't being used for the group soup. I slipped them in my pocket, hoping no one would notice. Then a felt a hard thump on my back. I don't remember anything from that experience, but my mother told me I was unconscious for three days. My mother told me she prayed everyday for my life and for my sanity. She said I would sit up and make strange noises then faint back again. I was stiff as a rock, my muscles were tight when I regained my consciousness. My poor children thought I was crazy. That was my first brush with death.
In that same year, I was almost killed again. You see, my family was one of two Chinese-Cambodian families and there was only four families who were pure Chinese, full-blooded Chinese. One night I saw a young group of Khmer Rouge soldiers, they must have been around 13 or 14 years old. These boys were holding ropes and knives in their hands and they took the four Chinese families and killed them. I know they killed them because the next day, I saw the same boys wearing the Chinese families' clothes.
Two weeks after that night, rumor circulated that our families were to be the next victims. The "old people" who lived above us came to us with the news. The old grandma whispered it to us, that there was plans to take away all the Chinese-Cambodians in the village. After she told us, she asked for our clothes. I gave them to her, thinking we'd have no use for them since we'd be dead soon anyway. That night at around seven in the evening, we heard horses coming toward our village. It was three men on horseback. But just as they entered our village, two men ran to them and told them to away. They told the men on horses that "Angkar Leou" had declared a decree to stop all killing! The whole village knew they had come for us and that they left without us. Oh, I can't tell you how relieved I was.
But it is August 20, 1978 when I celebrated my new life. I've celebrated it every year ever since. Early that morning, the Khmer Rouge woke me up at 4 a.m. and told me to bring my two daughters. We were scheduled for a meeting with "Angkar Thom," they told me. The took us to the kitchen area, where we meet with some 240 families who had come from four different villages. There must have been about 400 women and children there, who were all wives and children of former soldiers. Many of the women were dressed in their best clothes, because they knew they were going to die. They fed us with the best foods, just like they fed that group of people I had seen. I ate as I had never eaten before and I fed my kids until they were stuffed. The Khmer Rouge asked me what my husband used to do and I told him that he sold ice at the market. Even though, I knew I was going to die, I felt this urge to save myself from the situation. I went to talk to the Khmer Rouge village leaders and said smilingly, "This is a very nice meal you've planned, but why can't my whole family come with me?" The leader smiled and said nothing. Just then, my little brother came running into my arms, sobbing like a baby. It surprised me so much, I nearly yelled at him for risking his life just to come after me. But on seeing this the leader, told me to take him and my daughters back to the village. I was saved. I was so elated and joyous that as a ran back to the village, I felt like I was flying. I have never felt so grateful in my life. That day all 240 wives died with their children, I was the only one to survive from that massacre.
By the end of 1978, the Vietnamese had entered Svay Rieng and they reached Phnom Penh by January of 1979. When the Vietnamese came, our village's food stock had been exhausted. We had no rice, no salt and the harvest had been very bad that year. The Vietnamese asked us if we wanted better food and offered to take anyone to Phnom Penh to get new clothes. My family went to Svay Rieng.
It was when I returned to Svay Rieng in 1979 that I found my father-in-law. He told me the story of how my husband died. I don't want to tell you, because it is so gruesome. In 1975, my husband was taken in chains out his parent's home. One of his cousins who had entered the Khmer Rouge forces, came in and dragged my husband out shouting at his parents and my husband, calling them "khmang," enemy. Enemy of the people, he said. Enemy of the regime. It was his first cousin. My mother-in-law died instantly of shock when my husband was taken away. She just died from all the trauma. My father-in- law saw the beating. My husband was beaten over the head with a thorny tree branch. His cousin pounded him again and again until his head cracked and blood seeped out. I cry every time I think of it. Until I heard the story from my father-in-law's lips, I always help the hope that my husband was alive. It is painful still when I think of him. I think of him all the time. But I had to live on for my daughters and the rest of my family.
Money was no longer valuable so we bartered gold for grains. My family and I thought of starting a business. We would make rice porridge and sell it in the streets. We sold rice porridge with fish for cans of rice which we then bartered for gold. Eventually we profited, supplying ourselves with a lot of grain and enough gold for us to sustain ourselves. Then another opportunity arose. A former physics/chemistry of mine and my brothers who escaped to Vietnam was back in Phnom Penh and recommended my brother for a teaching position at the university. So our family moved to Phnom Penh. Since we had learned Vietnamese when we were younger, we were given government positions. My brothers both worked for the Vietnamese. At one point, they wanted to send my brother to Hanoi, but our family was the idea so we had to escape to Battambang so we could make it to the Thai border. My two brothers and their families left first in mid-1979 and sent a letter when they reached the Thai camps.
In 1980, I went with my daughters and my mother. My mother was having serious problems with her kidney, so with the gold we earned from the porridge sales, we paid for her to have surgery. Three weeks after the surgery, we left for the border. Heng Samrin officials were already hounding us about my brothers, so it was time to leave. We went along Svay Si Sopon on bike. We melted down the gold we had left and inserted it in our anuses. The roads were very bumpy, so it was a very painful trip. It took a few days before we reached the gates into Khao-I-Dang. It rained the night we got to the gates, so we slept out in the rain and removed the gold then. When it was early morning, but still dark we crossed over the wall, first bribing the Thai guards to let us in.
My first impression of the camp was that there was so much water and plastic. So the first morning I was there I took a nice long shower, pouring all the water that was rationed to us in one sitting. I was wrong. Water was such a scarce commodity that a small jug was priced at a chunk of gold. I was foolish for wasting all that water.
I stayed in Khao-I-Dang for one year and I was a teacher while I was there. In 1982, we were transferred to Kampot for six months then to the Philippines in Bataan for six months to learn ESL and American lifestyle basics, like working a toilet. Then in March 16, 1983 my family and I arrived in America.