KHATH OURNG 1,990 words
610 KNORR STREET (One-Time Rights)
PHILADELPHIA, PA 19111
THE COST OF GAINING FREEDOM: FREEDOM IS NOT FREE
BY KHATH OURNG
An old Cambodian proverb states: “Cool water, fishes gathering;
but hot water drives them away.”
Freedom from confinement or capture is worth risking one’s life. Cambodians escaping from dictatorship, running through war zones, proves this worthy freedom. There is no freedom without sacrifices, just as the phrase in English states: “No pain, no gain.” The pain my people and I have been through is so dear to me that I will never forget it. But I want to share this story with the world to illustrate that there is no freedom without risking lives, and freedom is worth the risk.
In 1978 when I was fifteen years old, Vietnamese soldiers helped the Khmer Emerging Power to fight the Khmer Rouge and free our people from the bonds of Communism. The war started in Battambang, Cambodia, and it involved two main places: Veay Charb Mountain and the fighting zones.
With Vietnamese soldiers fighting alongside, the Khmer Emerging Power had the upper hand. This combined powerful army defeated and chased the Khmer Rouge out of villages from the Southern border of Cambodia and Vietnam to the Northwest border of Cambodia and Thailand.
Generally speaking, the news of the war was not good, but the fighting gave Cambodian peasants a fresh hope for freedom. For three years, we had been yearning for freedom, life and food. Now was our chance to escape the Communist bonds and grasp onto these deserved and yearned-for elements.
While the Khmer Rouge’s power was shaken by the bullets of the new emerging power, it gave some of us courage to escape from Phnom Cheay Parng village to hide on Veay Charb Mountain, which was about 12 kilometers away. There we joined thousands of other people who had run from their villages.
Veay Charb Mountain was 8 kilometers square and consisted of big trees and shrubs, but no wild animals. Maybe all the wild animals had died during the Cambodian Civil War or during Pol Pot’s time. (Pol Pot was the one held responsible for the death of over one million Cambodian people.) Though the mountain was huge, it could only provide drops of water falling off rocks, unlike Coleen Mountain in Seam Reap that had streams running down the slope all the way to Angkor Watt.
Due to the lack of water, we all had to wait in line to collect water for our daily consumption. Sometimes we did not wash ourselves except just once a week. Sometimes we substituted water with squash, using liquid from the squash to cook our food. This way we could spare water from the rocks to wash our bodies and other things.
In addition, we did not have enough food to eat with cooked rice once a day. When the rice was very scarce, we went without it for a couple days each week. Sometimes we substituted potatoes, corn, and beans for rice, or cooked rice mixed with these produces. Facing this difficulty made us wonder what kind of freedom we had found.
On the other hand, we knew that if we had stayed within the village we never would have survived, for some of our relatives and friends had been killed by the Communist leaders. Then we appreciated our lives living on this mountain, and continued our pursuit of freedom and searching for food to stay alive.
Although the mountain had little food and water, down the slope there was plenty of both. We could find various kinds of vegetables, sugarcane, potatoes, beans, corns, rice, and water—enough to feed us all. However, two main problems prevented us from easily getting our food and water.
The Sar Mourn was a group of soldiers, who resided on the slope, touring all these areas and shooting at everyone they met. Some of the Khmer Rouge, who had been chased from their homes by Vietnamese soldiers, also traveled and rested along this mountain slope. They not only ate up whatever food they could find; they also shot and killed many people they met along the road. Some of my friends had been caught and shot to death by this Khmer Rouge.
For four months, we wandered tiredly on top of Veay Charb Mountain, hiding among the Old Khmer Rouge, who used to control us in the villages. They had power not only to tell us what to do but could kill us as well, and we had lived in fear of them for three years. During these years, they had killed many people, including my uncle’s family. Their theory of killing was to pull out the entire grass root and not leave any member of the family behind. However, they now were running for their lives just like us. The Southwest Khmer Rouge had come and taken charge, and they had guns and power to kill the Old Khmer Rouge and everyone who did not listen to them or who acted against them.
The Old Khmer Rouge guarded us against enemies down the mountain. One night 200 of us went down the slope to the nearby village in search of rice and food, with members of the Old Khmer Rouge escorting us with their guns. We found some rice and spent half an hour collecting it and loading it into our individual bags nicely. When finished, we started walking step by step silently up to the mountain. Since we were many, no matter how hard we tried to walk quietly; the sounds from our feet were magnified throughout the dark atmosphere, enough to disturb our enemy residing by the road.
Suddenly, our enemy started shooting at us. We were frightened and flew like antelope running for their lives from hunters. I did not care anymore about rice spilling from my bag.
We ran through the darkness up the mountain. I heard many sounds of guns and rifles shooting between our guards and the enemy. We escaped the bullets and reached safety where we rested for the night.
Our pursuit of freedom was hard—beyond our imagination. However, we strived forward with high optimism that with the help of our guards we could reach a new government, where there were peace, food, and wealth.
After hiding on the mountain for four months, we got help from Khmer soldiers who were working with the Vietnamese power. Fifteen men came to rescue us with guns and rifles, with a plan to take us down the mountain within a day and a night to safety at Sampov Mountain village.
Thank God, our hope for rescue had arrived! This was a fresh beginning for the freedom for which we had been dreaming more than four months. Tomorrow these fifteen men would bridge us to our dreamed land, freedom, a fresh beginning. Through the night, we were so excited that some of us hardly slept. We celebrated by singing freedom songs, packed our little belongings, and prepared to leave.
Early in the morning, 3,000 people walked down the mountain and crossed Sangare River, where the water level was up to the adults’ knees. After crossing the river, we stopped at a sugarcane field, where we cooked and ate food and rested until evening. We were full of energy. We were eager to journey forward. We wanted to reach freedom in no time.
Then we journeyed again through the night, crossing several villages and reaching the main highway from Battambang to Pailin. As we approached the fighting zone, we saw lights in the sky and heard the sound of big guns shooting from far away through the sky from both ends of the fighting zone. These lights and sounds running through the sky worried and scared us; but for the sake of freedom, we pressed forward.
After crossing the main highway, we rested for one hour while our rescuers inspected the road ahead. When they returned, they told us to walk in line to Boeng Krosal village, which was located behind Snoung Village. By morning, we were standing at the edge of the village, and we did not hear any shooting. It was a big relief from the sound of guns and rifles shooting—but not for long.
As we walked off the edge of the village, some Khmer Rouge soldiers who were guarding behind us stepped forward to stop us from walking into the fighting zone. They did not really know what had brought us here. Therefore, they came and talked to our guards, thinking that our guards were of the same group. However, our rescuers fooled them by saying, “I tell you to stay in the forest! Do not come here with guns! You scare the people!” Then our rescuers shouted to us to run to Sampov Mountain for freedom, and the commotion started.
Shouting from our guards now mixed with sounds of the Khmer Rouge soldiers and guns and rifles, and big machine guns shooting at us from Kro Par Mountain. The enemies shouted at us to return to Snoung or back to Boeng Krosal village. We were confused by the messages and did not know which message was right.
The distance from the fighting zone to Sampov Mountain was three kilometers. The worst thing was that some of Khmer Rouge soldiers were riding on horseback, chasing people with their guns. We had no help from our Vietnamese soldiers, who were staying along Sampov Mountain highway. Now, we wondered what was going on with our rescuers. Wasn’t this new powerful army supposed to free us from the Khmer Rouge’s captivity? However, we had no time to stop and reason; instead, we ran as fast as we could to survive the shooting.
Some of us were able to reach safety at Sampov Mountain village, where I saw thousands and thousands of people—mothers with little children, old grumpy folks, and young boney ones—who like us had survived various war zones. Children were looking for missing parents. Parents were looking for their children. Aunts and uncles were looking for nieces and nephews. Grandpa and grandma were missing from the family. They all had died in the war zones.
We the fortunate ones, lived to continue our journey and testify about our story—the enormous sacrifice and great tragedy of people fleeing for freedom.
We had escaped the bullets and the captivity of the Khmer Rouge to live under a temporary safety net of the new emerging power. Some who stayed settled down with the new powerful government. I do not know how much freedom these people received under the new government, but my family and I continued our journey into the Koa E. Dang Refugee Camp in Thailand and eventually to the United States.
Not everyone may satisfy our individual expectations of real freedom, but at least we had fled from the Khmer Rouge’s captivity, where there was no freedom at all.
Recently I met a man from Guinea, West Africa, and asked him how he likes the United States. He replied, “Freedom – a free country.”
Last month I toured around Washington, DC, with my family and relatives, and we visited the Korean War Veteran Memorial. There I saw statues of soldiers, who were standing holding guns and radiotelephones in a small triangular area. They wore big raincoats and helmets, and their faces were pale as dead people. As I walked toward a smooth circular surface with water flowing over, I saw a wall with the statement: “Freedom is not free.”
My Cambodian war experience on Veay Charb Mountain and the fighting zone is supported by Patrick Henry’s historic phrase: “Give me liberty or give me death.”
We Cambodians risked our lives for freedom, just as the American people risked their lives for freedom from Great Britain in the Revolutionary War. This proves that there is no freedom without sacrifice, for freedom can only be found at great cost.
Wrylilt, you might want to delete your comment and reply with the "post a reply" rather than replying to his post.
Otherwise even if he deletes it, his whole text will still be in your comment!
I've just noticed that if you read the forums in "threaded" format, you can't see that you've quoted his entire post.
Switch to chronological and you'll see what I mean.
Did you know that when you reply to a post, you can click "import and edit the quote" in the blurb above, and that will show you what you're quoting? Then you can edit out the bits you don't want.
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