Living with the War (Part II)
I did learn at grade 7 at the Sansom Kosal pagoda. Students need to take exam to pass to grade 6. Students could choose which secondary school to go for an exam and to study there after passing the exam. So, it depends on how many students a school could take and how many students applied for the exam. The chance to get through was quite tough in Tuol Svay prey high school, the former name of Tuol Sleng museum now. I decided to take the exam in that school, because it had a very good reputation and it is in the middle of the capital.
During the exam, 25 students were in my room. It was hard for me. I did not know anybody, but I learned very hard and I was convinced that I would pass it. I had done my tasks very well. When the result was announced, five students passed, and I was one among them. I was very happy to hear that great news. It was also corrupt practices in school and corruption was also widespread when the war escalated. However, I had no money to pay for anyone or anything. I relied only on my capacity to pass the exam. Finally, I did it.
The new school year begun in September 1974. I entered my class room, which was on the ground floor in the building D, in the northern part of the school compound. We did not have full time in class since there were several disruptions when fighting was intense and artillery and mortar shells were rained on the capital. We were all in uncertainty. What came next? Phnom Penh was in chaos. From a city of 600.000 inhabitants, it was packed by refugee after refugee. It was estimated that there were around 2 million people living in town at that time. The food supply was short and the inflation went to record high. What would happen if the Phnom Penh was lost to the other side? Would Prince Sihanouk and peace return to Cambodia? On 12 April, 1975, US marines helicopters were sent to Phnom Penh to pick up Americans, embassy staffs, high ranking government officials to escape to Thailand and then to the US. We assumed that the fall of Phnom Penh is imminent. But, what could we do? Just wait and see.
Finally, in the morning of 17 April, 1975, the government’s soldiers capitulated and the young Khmer Rouge soldiers became the masters of the boulevards in the city. They were greeted with joyful faces of Phnom Penh’s inhabitants. But, they were serious. Nobody really knew what would happen next, including the soldiers themselves. I and our relatives were staying in one apartment of my aunt at Deum Ampil market, not far away from Tuol Sleng. At around noon time, one soldier with black clothes came to knock our door and asked us to leave our apartment and Phnom Penh immediately. We were speechless. We could not do anything anyway, except following their order or die. We packed some of our belonging and took to the road in the south direction. On the boulevards and streets of the city, we could see sea of people marching in a slowly pace towards the outskirts of the city. We saw corps and wounded people along the street.
I was one among them. With the hope of returning back to school, I took my bags with books and other learning materials with me. It took us nearly one whole night just to march for about five-six kilometers. We turned right and went to the house of my uncle in Boeung Tumpun area where we stayed there up to 21 April. We were kicked off again then and headed to our home village in Roveang commune, Samrong district, Takeo province. The war was over, but the real suffering just started.