IN MEMORY OF MY MOTHER - Nâng Thet Borey 1931-2008
 


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 confronting the past
 By Vorak Ny
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THE DAM PROJECT


Mong-Chrey Dam

As I stepped out of the car in Mong Russey and felt my foot touching the ground, I was instantly reminded of standing to wait for instructions from the Khmer Rouge. It made me feel strange in a way I cannot explain. I was alone in a familiar place.

I stood watching the taxi departed north to Battambang; I was on the very spot where my family stood many years ago. The road seemed wider and there were fewer trees; it was now filled with food stalls and waiting moto-dops.

Gone was the roadblock erected across the national road during the regime to prevent people from traveling. Now, there were more houses along the road, Mong Market had been reopened, and there was a health clinic across from the pagoda where my brother Dara died.

 

As soon as I stepped off the paved road, I began to feel that I was back where I left off more than thirty years ago. I began looking for familiar faces and names, like that of my brother Omarith who had disappeared while building a dam in 1977.

My first thought was to look for the dam. Just before the Vietnamese invaded, the floodgates had been brought in by ox carts and trucks; they were to be installed and tested for the rainy season, just few months away.


Mong-Chrey Canal

I stood on the edge of the bank looking at a man taking a bath and washing his clothes, thinking how I once took part in building the dam. I remember standing in line, passing baskets full of dirt to the next person 50 meters away.

A man named Ry oversaw this part of the project. While he was supervising, cadre Shay usually wandered around smoking and yelling at people, who were compelled to listen to revolutionary songs that were broadcast over loudspeakers. My twin brother Phal was in a different group further down along the dam.

Looking around for something that might be recognizable, I saw that the giant Por Tree on the opposite riverbank is still standing tall; it is no taller, but it is aging. Behind it are two small buildings: one older one of wood and a brick office building that is under construction. Chey Pagoda has been rebuilt with contributions from Cambodians living in the US and France. They are dedicated many of the stupas and Buddhist shrines to their lost family members.

On the opposite bank, a health clinic has been replaced with the community center built in early 1976. This was where the Khmer Rouge detained Bunthan before sending him to his death, presumably at Wat Tom Ma Yut.

By this time, many memories began to reappear: the trees I climbed, ponds I swam in, and places where I hid things from the eyes of the Khmer Rouge.


Our First Hut

As I crossed the river, the first person who came to mind was cadre Daz, his wife, and their two sons, Tuy and Roun, but there was no trace of them. Along the dirt road leading to our hut, I began asking villagers about the people I had known. Many of them gave conflicting accounts of them.

If my memory served me well, I recognized the five palm trees that were behind our thatched hut. One morning, a man fell to his death while trying to cut off leaves to make a roof for his hut. Across the road was the house where cadre Daz had lived, and to the right was cadre Soth's s house.

Our first hut was about 6 by 8 feet and stood a foot off the ground. To me, it was simply a place to sleep (it had no kitchen). Every rainy season the floods would reach within an inch of our house. During the first few months we were there, I would sit in the hut, swinging my feet, looking around at the neighbors and enjoying my time.

My mother cleared the area near the house and began planting mints and vegetables, and putting up fences to protect her garden from chickens and intruders. But most important, this was the way she marked her sanctuary.

Living in a world without color is unimaginable. But by 1976, anything that nature hadn't killed, the Khmer Rouge did. Chrey village has fertile soil and a river, which made it easy to plant rice, corn, potatoes and a rich assortment of citrus and other fruits, giving farmers not only good harvests but also plenty of fish and fresh water year-round. But as the days turned into weeks and years, I sat in the hut and watched the leaves gradually disappeared from the trees.

By late 1977, as more people died, Chrey village also became like a graveyard. At night the village was dark and lonely, left entirely to wild dogs roaming and howling, and scavenging for food. My mother spent most nights alone, afraid for her life. She remained there until the village was regrouped as people scattered in a 2-3 kilometer radius of the village.
Also Read: To My Mother With Love

For nearly four years, the thatched hut in Chrey village was my whole world. The regime taught me to never wander anywhere unless instructed otherwise. Almost every day, with friends and foes alike, I struggled to live for a bowl of rice. But it was always clear to me that a home is a home: a concept laden with significance in Khmer culture. And, of course, I wanted to be close to my mother and the knowledge that she was alive comforted me.

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About the Author: Vorak, Ny is the founder of www.khmerwriter.com. A survivor of Democratic Kampuchea and a reader of Searching for the truth

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