He was 15 when they came.
Soldiers dressed all in black. Telling them they had to leave. Abandon their home and exit the city, with only the clothes on their back and what they could carry.
He and his mother, siblings, aunt, uncle and cousins gathered together in the countryside. They made makeshift shelters from bamboo leaves that barely stopped the rain and every day reported for work in the village. Food was rationed to each family, but everyone was always hungry.
There was nothing to be done; the Khmer Rouge had the guns and the power. And quickly everyone learned the rules. Do what you’re told, go where you’re told, say nothing, think nothing.
Everything stopped. No one went to school or work or the market. No one talked with friends; no one really was a friend. There was no more gathering around the radio at night to listen to news; there wasn’t even music anymore. The revolutionary anthem was the only song you were allowed to sing.
His father had escaped, hiding in another village where there was more food and fewer rules. But couldn’t stay away for long. Not able to be apart from them all, surviving, while they starved.
It only took five days for someone to turn his father in. They had less than a week together.
He and his older brother were working when they found out. And he started to cry. “Stop,” said his brother, “Or they’ll kill you too.”
It got worse. They were separated. All but the youngest siblings were sent to different camps, with others their own age. The camps moved constantly, travelling from field to field, growing rice. There was so much rice. This was the province with the richest crops. But they were only given enough to stay alive one more day. If that.
He lost count of how many times his camp moved. Maybe 40 or 50 times in three years, he guessed. Sometimes they stayed outside by the fields. Sometimes in abandoned pagodas. Once houses of peace, they were turned into something evil. They were no longer places of worship but of fear, where men were punished for the smallest crime. Shackled at the feet and hands in rows and rows, lying in their own filth under the hot sun for days.
“Were you ever punished?” I asked him, sick to my stomach. He couldn’t really answer, just looked at me sombrely, voice cracking and said, “It was very bad.” I couldn’t bear to ask exactly what they did to him.
“Did you think you were going to survive?” I questioned.
“Every day I thought I was going to die,” he answered.
There was no hope.