Cyclo driver Koy Tong remembers fighting Germans, Japanese and Vietnamese during World War II.
CYCLO DRIVER Koy Tong creases his face in concentration, dredges back the memories of a half-century ago and says: "Yes, I remember the German troops."
Tong, now 76, was a timid, boyish-looking 23-year-old from Sa'ang district, Kandal, when - in 1945 - he volunteered to join French troops fighting in Vietnam.
"My mates used to call me laeth - the small, short boy," he says, the old times slowly beginning to flood back. "You know, I was fast in the battlefield. I only got wounded once, a little burn on my arm by the careless way I carried my cannon," he said, smiling and shaking his head.
Tong is a Red Foot army veteran, a Cambodian force so called because of the red cloth used in the pant legs of some of their uniforms.
He found himself in Prey Nokor, later known as Saigon then Ho Chi Minh City, "wearing a French uniform and fighting Ho Chi Minh's troops".
The aftermath of World War II dragged on into Vietnam from 1946 to 1949, part of the ultimately unsuccessful French colonial efforts to subdue "Uncle Ho's" nationalistic forces.
Tong remembers the battlefields of Ben Giang Phu, Ben Co, Phan Thet, Bieng Hoa, and Prey Bava: "The most serious battle was at Ben Giang Phu, where fighting lasted four days and three nights... We besieged each other so heavily," he says proudly, adding that the Vietnamese broke off the fight after losing many soldiers.
He could only remember 20 or so of his comrades being wounded.
Tong said he saw Japanese and other troops, whom he soon found out were German, fighting alongside the Vietnamese. "I saw a number of troops approaching our unit and I was confused because they certainly looked French.
"When I first saw them I thought 'Oh, they are barang [French]', and I asked my [French] commander, are they also our troops?
"But my commander shouted at me 'No, no. Shoot them, or they will shoot us!'"
Tong ended his army service in 1949 after four years, simply leaving his unit one day and wandering back to his village.
Later, Tong joined the Royal Guard unit which guarded the Royal Palace until the downfall of the Lon Nol regime in 1975. Like many others, this veteran and his family were deported by the Khmer Rouge to Battambang, where his son and he were forced to take care of cattle.
"The Khmer Rouge asked my background, but I never told them that I was a soldier because I knew that they hated soldiers very much," he said.
Tong lost five of his children to starvation during the Khmer Rouge regime. When Vietnamese forces invaded Cambodia and toppled the Khmer Rouge, Tong and his family returned to Phnom Penh where he became a cyclo driver.
Then, in late 1995, Tong said "a very bright thing happened to me." The French Embassy made a public statement inviting old veterans to receive a gift in thanks for their military service with French troops.
"I was given an invitation from the French embassy, asking me to attend a ceremony," he says, proudly unfolding an embossed letter signed by French Ambassador Gildas Le Lidec. The letter invited Tong to meet the former ambassador Pierre Gorce.
Tong said he didn't recognize any of the 30 old Cambodian veterans who attended the Dec 12 meeting, but he was really excited. "I was given $150," he beamed, "but that's the only payment I've had so far. I haven't had any more information from the French Embassy."
Tong, who now has five children to feed, lives in a poor hut on the outskirts of Phnom Penh. Gently complaining he is now tired and disappointed with the poverty of his old age, Tong said that the Royal Palace and the government should help the old veterans a bit more than they do.
"The French people helped us, how about the Palace and the government of Cambodia?"