Even though I was only nine years old, I will never forget the 13th of January 1979 as that was the day I saw the Khmer Rouge run away from the village of K’dau at the base of Phnom K’dau where my family had been put to work in the rice fields since being taken from our houses in Battambang nearly four years before.
At first on that day we heard the sound of artillery shells in the distance so it was clear to us that the Vietnamese army were coming closer.
Next we bore witness to car loads of senior Khmer Rouge cadres making their escape northwards towards the Thai border. After the artillery shells came the sound of bullets and then we knew that the fight for K’dau was about to begin. The KR cadre had abandoned their foot soldiers and a platoon of them came running down the road like frightened dogs or animals that had been beaten.
My family were very afraid and cowering in a ditch at the side of the road; however, this group of twenty Khmer Rouge soldiers, still wearing black uniforms, tyre sandals and carrying guns, but with their trousers rolled up so they could run faster, realised that they had been abandoned and their deaths were imminent. They were much more scared than we were and asked us if we had seen any Vietnamese soldiers.
They were not smooth-faced and silent as before but running for their lives. We told them that the Vietnamese hadn’t arrived yet and they ran on. Soon after, the Vietnamese soldiers did arrive and forced us out of our ditch by threatening to throw grenades in and shouted ‘Dee dee dee,’ meaning ‘come out.’ Once they realised we were not Khmer Rouge, but merely victims and civilians, their attitude changed and they were no longer aggressive.
I remember the Vietnamese soldiers as being small and thin but tough fighting men. They were well armed, wore French style helmets covered in camouflaged cloth and leaves and had their rations of cooked rice strapped around their uniforms This first wave of Vietnamese soldiers were experienced veterans from Hanoi and the North of Vietnam who has spent years fighting in the American War.
They treated us well and later on fed us with cake plus in the coming weeks they allowed us to take rice from the vast stores that had been abandoned by the Khmer Rouge. The Khmer Rouge retreat had been a badly organised affair that day and the Vietnamese soldiers had quickly followed them so, unsure what to do or where to go, my family tried to make their way to a house a couple of kilometres away which had been owned by a family member and where we thought we might be able to stay.
When we got there however, we found that it had been already commandeered by the Vietnamese military and to make matters clear, two tanks were parked outside. So that night we slept in a rice field. My family had survived but we were lucky. Previously we had owned twelve apartments in Battambang so the Khmer Rouge viewed us as capitalist landlords. Our survival may have been connected to my father giving gold and his expensive Swiss watch to the wife of a senior local Khmer Rouge boss.
We were also lucky enough to able to stay together as a family unit when many other families had been split up and sent off in seperate mobile work parties to places as far away as Kep on the South Coast. As ‘new people’ though, we had a tough time. All Khmer people were put to work in the fields or on irrigation projects but the people who had lived in the liberated zones looked down on us and were treated better.
We all had to eat rice gruel but they were given bigger portions. We all had to work but the ‘new people’ had to work harder and carry heavier loads. The Khmer Rouge guards who watched over us were fat as they didn’t have to work and got to eat meat and rice every day.
The next day, on the 14th of January my family returned to K’dau Village and my uncle found the dead bodies of that twenty-strong platoon of panicking Khmer Rouge soldiers. The Vietnamese had caught up with them and cut them down.
Mr Chhay Vet currently works as a teacher and translator in Battambang.