On April 17, 1975, the Khmer Rouge took Phnom Penh and began evacuating residents to the countryside where they would endure nearly four gruelling years of forced labour, starvation, disease, torture and execution. Kim San, 71, who survived the regime, was one of the people driven out of the capital that day. Her story is particularly remarkable: she gave birth to her daughter the day she and her family were forced out to the provinces. To commemorate next week’s anniversary of when the Khmer Rouge took power, she spoke to Emily Wight about her memories.
Can you tell me about the birth of your daughter ?
I was about to go into labour on April 16 1975, so my husband took me to hospital, but I had to wait for a day and then I delivered my baby on April 17. We were at Kirirom Hospital, which was just in front of my house. The Khmer Rouge soldiers were already coming into Phnom Penh.
What happened after you gave birth ?
The soldiers put guns to our heads so we had to leave. I hadn’t brought anything to the hospital with me, as my house was so near, and they didn’t even let me go back there. There was blood all over me from giving birth, but I didn’t have a change of clothes. My husband carried my baby in his kroma, and my two-year-old son on his shoulders. The soldiers kept shouting at us to hurry up.
Where did you end up stopping ?
We walked all the way to Kampot province, and everyone stayed in an old pagoda there. After we’d been there for two days, soldiers took my husband away to work. He was scared to go with them, because he thought they might kill him, and he wanted to take care of my daughter, who was just 28 days old. But a soldier shot a gun next to his head to scare him, and he went with him. He didn’t go to work – he was killed. He never came back.
Can you describe your daily life during the regime ?
After my husband was killed, Angkar (“organisation”, a name the regime gave itself) told me to water plants. In just one day, I had to carry around 50 watering cans. I was swollen for two months, and couldn’t produce breast milk so my baby daughter just ate small amounts of porridge, and she was so thin. My son was forced to collect cow dung to use as fertiliser for farming. When my daughter turned two, I had to start farming work, but I didn’t know how to. In Phnom Penh, my husband had been a public servant. I’d never worked in the fields like this before, so I was weak. I was so hungry during the regime, because we had such a small amount of food – we’d share one can of rice between 30 people.
What did the soldiers do to scare you ?
Once I saw a lady steal a papaya fruit, and Angkar caught her. As punishment, they made her eat the whole papaya in front of everyone, without cleaning it or cutting it up. If she couldn’t eat it all they would kill her. After that, her mouth was sore and she couldn’t eat any rice. My sister-in-law was too sick to work one day, but the Khmer Rouge thought she was just pretending. They forced her to go with them to work in another place. But I know that they killed her, just like they killed my husband. I never stole from anyone, because I was afraid Angkar would kill me. I felt like I couldn’t talk to anybody else, because I’d seen so many people killed in front of me and I was so scared. Nobody could talk because we were all traumatised. Only Angkar had the power – we just did whatever they told us to.
How did you keep yourself and your children alive during the regime ?
I knew that if I died, nobody would look after my children. My husband told me that I had to take care of them if anything happened to him. So I kept on going, for them and for his memory. During the night, Angkar would separate families and move people to other villages, so I made sure my children held onto me tight so that we wouldn’t be separated or we wouldn’t get lost. I advised them not to do anything wrong. I also saw many children die from drinking dirty water, so I made sure my children only drank boiled water. I learned that when I was a housewife in Phnom Penh. I only ate half of my food, and gave the other half to my children.
When the regime came to an end, did you move back to your home in Phnom Penh ?
I did, but my house had another family living in it. It looked like they hadn’t lost anyone. I didn’t want to see them like this because it would remind me of life with my husband before the Khmer Rouge. I went to live in Takeo province for a year before going back to Phnom Penh to live with relatives.
Additional reporting by Vandy Muong