January 13th was the day my family was liberated by the Vietnamese but the fighting carried on for many weeks afterwards. Many Khmer Rouge soldiers were desperate and decided to fight on until their deaths.
Kropeu means crocodile and Kropeu Village is near Kamping Puoy. It was here that one group of Khmer Rouge soldiers hid by digging a bunker for themselves in a harvested rice field and then covering it with hay.
For days they hid there and managed to kill many Vietnamese soldiers by sniping at them from this hidden position. The Vietnamese just didn’t know where the shooting was coming from. Finally one of the Khmer Rouge soldier’s gun overheated, set fire to the hay and revealed their position. Before they could escape, the Vietnamese fired rocket propelled grenades at the bunker and killed them all.
Many incidents like this happened throughout January. Some Khmer Rouge soldiers simply swapped their black pyjamas for ordinary clothes but we heard that they were recognised and killed by their former comrades. On the 15th my family, once again, returned to our old house near Phnom Sampeou and were relieved to find that it had been abandoned by the Vietnamese soldiers who had been occupying it the day before. They had moved on towards Pailin but instead a large family of displaced Khmer people had moved in instead and it took us a further two days to get them out. Eventually though we had somewhere to live and we’d stay in this house for a few years. It seems strange now but there was no money in 1979 and cans of rice became the common currency.
If you wanted to buy noodles then you’d barter with cans of rice. If you wanted new clothes you’d barter with more cans of rice. It wasn’t long though before an economy had established itself, a little market opened up at the base of Phnom Sampeou and my mother opened a stall selling noodles.
Many people had hidden their valuables years before and now managed to find the gold or jewellery they had buried. They’d cross the Thai border, sell what they could and use the Thai baht they’d acquired to open up little businesses when they got back. Some didn’t get back though as they were robbed and murdered by Thai soldiers at the border. The Vietnamese finally established their headquarters in the pagoda at the top of Phnom Sampheou but often they’d come down and eat noodles or drink tea at my mother’s stall. As I said before, the first troops – the assault soldiers – were very disciplined and were almost all from the North Vietnamese Army that had beaten the Americans but they moved on to fight the Khmer Rouge near Pailin.
These were really tough guys and I remember one of them saying to me, ‘If they let us fight the Thai’s we’d be in Bangkok in a month.’ I believed him.
Over time though the quality of the Vietnamese soldiers changed and so did their attitude towards us. Many of the original soldiers were rushed back to Northern Vietnam when China sent troops there in February 1979 in order to punish Vietnam for its invasion of Cambodia. The replacements sent to Cambodia weren’t as disciplined and by 1985 the Vietnamese soldiers based at Phnom Sampeou were all young conscripts who spoke with South Vietnamese accents, many of whom were cruel to us.
The relationship we had with them changed for the worse. We were also unsure when they would ever leave or if they would ever leave. My mother told me that she had spoken to the local commander and he had joked, ‘We’ll stay here until my beard has grown as long and as grey as Ho Chi Minh’s, until after I’ve died of old age and until after my wife has married again.’ In 1985 robberies began to happen at the market and the culprits were young Vietnamese conscripts. Eventually a couple of traders were even murdered and my family decided that it was no longer safe to live at Phnom Sampeou so near to the Vietnamese army base.
We moved back to Battambang and back to the house we had originally owned on Street Number One by the Sangker River. I still live there now.