The exterior of the old Carmelite convent in Chruy Changvar on the banks of the Tonle Sap
HE yellow walls of Chruy Changvar's former Car-melite nunnery now keep the flood
waters of the Tonle Sap at bay.
For 80 years those same walls have provided refuge from the world - first as a cloister
for Carmelite nuns and, more recently, as a state-run home for abandoned and orphaned
In 1919 ten Carmelite nuns from Saigon came to Phnom Penh. The nuns settled near
the Catholic church at Chruy Changvar - on the bank of the river opposite Phnom Penh.
The land for the convent was given by a Vietnamese mandarin, Ho Thieng, the boss
of the Tonle Sap fisheries and mayor of the village.
Uy Heur, 80, a retired farmer, spent his childhood years playing near the nunnery.
"I was a good friend of a Vietnamese tycoon, Ho Thieng," says Heur. "His
daughter, Co Chin, was a nun. I called her Co-Co. She allowed me to get into his
house and see the valuables belonging to him.. When I visited their house he gave
me food and lots of things because I was a charming boy - but I do not want to praise
"I did not hate the Vietnamese people living at Chruy Changvar. They were good
people and the nuns were so beautiful," said Heur.
But in later years other Cambodians did not share Heur's tolerance for the presence
of Vietnamese in their country.
In 1970, after the overthrow of Prince Sihanouk, Catholic churches were suspected
by the Lon Nol Government of harboring Viet Cong and their supplies. "Racial
hatred degenerated rapidly into veritable pogroms," wrote Francois Ponchaud
in his book The Cathedral of the Rice Paddy. In April that year Lon Nol's soldiers
began rounding up and killing Vietnamese.
On the night of April 12 and 13, soldiers surrounded the village of Chruy Changvar
which was inhabited almost exclusively by Vietnamese Catholics.
All men 15 years or older were arrested and forced into landing barges and taken
to a place about 30km downstream.
Over the next few days thousands of Vietnamese bodies floated down the Mekong, including
524 victims from Chruy Changvar. Many of the village's girls and women were raped.
Keo Eng, 45, arrived at Chruy Changvar three years after the massacre. Originally
from Kandal Province's Moath Prasas village, Eng is the only person now living in
Cambodia to experience first-hand the life of the Carmelite nuns.
"My parents came from China and I was Catholic from birth," she says. "I
went to a Catholic church in my village that preached in Vietnamese.
"I first went to Carmel de Chruy Changvar to attend the 100th anniversary of
Saint Teresa in 1973. I went to pray during the ceremony, and I met Ma Mère
Gertrude who was the head of the nuns. She came from Belgium. It seemed to us that
we had the same fate."
Eng, whose name was changed to Mary Agnes, was 17 years old when she went to live
at the Carmelite sanctuary as a novice in 1973. "Then, our lives went on peacefully.
There was no fear." she said.
"Ma Mère let me live there as a novice, to adapt my life to the nunnery.
The social life of the nunnery was quite different. Regulations inside the Carmel
were very strict. A time was set for praying, studying the bible, sewing, eating,
and even for relaxing and chatting. Nuns could talk only twice a day.
"I believe that people could not live at the Carmel if it was not their fate."
Eng said it was believed that Ma Mère had special healing powers and a sixth
sense about when someone would die. "Ma Mère gave some sick people, who
came to her for help, a crucifix - and they would be rid of their disease. If Ma
Mère gave the patient some ground soil then it meant they were soon going
to die. Ma Mère would then say a prayer for that person."
Eng said out of the 19 nuns living there at the time, only three were permitted to
go outside, or to receive people who came seeking help from the church. But they
had to conceal their faces.
A typical day at the nunnery began at 6 am with an hour of prayers. After taking
breakfast, the nuns silently went about their duties.
"We had the right to chat at exactly 12 pm. We knitted and sewed while chatting.
Our conversations were different from normal people - we could not talk about romance
or flirting, but we could speak and laugh loudly inside our rooms. When the bell
rang at 1 pm we had to kneel down to pray. Then the chatting ended."
The nuns would retire to their rooms at 7:30 every evening. "We made prayers
before entering bed rooms. Some nuns committed self-torture by whipping their bodies.
They whipped themselves for 10 to 15 minutes. I did not see that by my eyes, I just
heard the whipping from the room next to mine. I did not hear them cry out. I knew
that they were suffering silently. I was just a novice, so I was not encouraged to
But Eng's peaceful interlude at the Carmel came to an end as Khmer Rouge forces neared
"Just before the fall of Phnom Penh to the Khmer Rouge in April 1975, Ma Mère
told me that she would say goodbye to me very soon. She said to me that if she was
granted a passport, Cambodia would be in trouble.
"Just when we received information that the passports had been issued, a strong
wind suddenly blew across the nunnery's compound. Twenty-two ducks convulsed with
that wind and died. All the nuns knelt down to pray and the wind subsided.
On April 4, 1975, the Carmelites were ordered to evacuate to Bangkok by Bishop Ramousse
"I saw the nuns off at Pochentong airport. Their plane came under attack. The
nuns were praying on board. A rocket landed next to the plane's wing, but there was
no damage. When the plane took off, three rockets landed at the place where the plane
had been parked. They left me behind because they thought that I might abandon the
order when I arrived in another country because I missed my family.
"During the Khmer Rouge regime, I could only pray in my heart. Three times the
Khmer Rouge tied me up and dragged me to the edge of a grave. I knelt down in front
of the grave, and prayed to God, but they did not kill me. I received too much pain
at that time," said Eng.
Sary O'mar, 49, a boatman, said between 1975 and 1979 Khmer Rouge soldiers used the
nunnery as a barracks and erected a large antenna there for military radio communication.
The cloistered quadrangle within the nunnery looks much as it would have been when nuns strolled its paths 30 years ago
O'mar worked as a fisherman for the soldiers based at the former nunnery.
In 1976 the Khmer Rouge set off bombs to destroy the church beside the nunnery.
"I did not know why they destroyed the church. They did not talk about politics
with me. I heard the explosion and saw black smoke rising into the air," said
Kang Siyeth, 43, a father of eight, settled next to the nunnery in 1979.
That year he dug through the rubble of the church seeing what could be salvaged.
"I found a big bell and many crucifixes," said Siyeth. "When I hit
the bell it sounded very sharply. I knew that it was made of alloy. The crucifixes
were made of bronze. I sold them for scrap metal. Villagers ransacked the ruined
church for planks of wood and stones."
In the late 1980s people destroyed the tombs to get iron scrap, but they did not
unearth the graves to search for gold.
"Now I am a caretaker of the cemetery, preventing people from destroying the
Last year Siyeth cleared part of the cemetery so he could plant vegetables there.
"That night, I dreamed of many French priests and nuns in black clothes passing
by my house. Later I burned incense and candles to say an apology to them, praying
they would have mercy and let me farm on the cemetery ground."
It has been 26 years since Keo Eng fled from the nunnery as the Khmer Rouge advanced
on Phnom Penh - but she still can't bring herself to return.
"Sometimes I just stand on the opposite bank of the river to look at the nunnery
from a distance and cry."