Wat Phnom is a Buddhist Temple that has stood atop of the only hill in Phnom Penh since 1373. Late in the afternoon, as the sun was setting over Phnom Penh, we stood at its entrance talking with Mao Virak, our guide. Predictably, our conversation turned to the Killing Fields and “did you know of anyone who lost loved ones?” Everyone did. In the mid 1970’s the population of Cambodia was eight million. The Khmer Rouge killed two million people, a fourth of the country’s citizens. Our driver lost four family members and his wife’s family, six. At that most peaceful time of day, at the most serene place in Phnom Penh, Virak shared his story:
On April 17, 1975, the Khmer Rouge marched into Phnom Penh and began the systematic evacuation of the city and turning the entire country into a prison. They started by sending all intellectuals to the countryside for “re-education.” Virak’s father was a literature teacher and therefore considered an intellectual. In 1976, when Virak was seven, the Khmer Rouge soldiers came to his house and took his father away. The young boy ran after him but was turned back when one of the soldiers clubbed him with a rifle butt. He would never see his father again, a victim of the “Killing Fields.” His mother, brother and he fled to a small village in the countryside. When Virak was nine, the Khmer Rouge took him from his family to a concentration camp with several hundred other children. They lived in a cave and were forced to dig and carry dirt to construct rice paddies. The children barely survived on the little rice they were given and the roots and leaves they were able to scavenge. After two years Virak escaped. Not knowing his way home and afraid to ask for directions, he finally found his mother and brother’s village. What a tearful reunion. After two years his mother believed he had been killed. Feeling unsafe and fearing retributions from the Khmer Rouge, the family fled as refugees to the Vietnam border. The trek was fraught with danger. At that time, in late1978, the Vietnamese were invading Cambodia to liberate the country from the Khmer Rouge. They were advancing on the very roads Virak’s family were traveling. Fearing for their lives at the hands of the Vietnamese army, they left the highway and walked through rice paddies they knew were peppered with landmines. On January 7, 1979, Cambodia was liberated and soon after that Virak, his mother and brother returned to Phnom Penh. At that time there were only a few hundred people there. Most all of the over two million residents had either been killed or had fled the city. They went to their old home and found it was too damaged from bombs to live in so they took up residence in one of the hundreds of uninhabited houses in the city. Virak’s mother was able to find work in a shoe factory. Because of famine and civil strife life in Cambodia remained difficult for many years.
Today Mao Virak has a family and is a successful licensed tour guide. His mother is living in California and hopes to become a US citizen this year.