IT is not the first time he had to flee his home for political reasons. "The
Lon Nol coup forced me to leave Takeo province for Phnom Penh. Then in 1975 I had
to go back. When the Vietnamese invaded, I had to return to Phnom Penh," said
a long-time resident of war-ravaged Toek Thla on the road to Pochentong.
"Last Sunday, I had to go again. When Funcinpec troops were pushed out and we
saw the CPP bring big artillery onto Pochentong road on Saturday night we started
packing," he recalled. "I took most of my family to Takmao, but decided
it was safe to return Tuesday."
Like thousands of others, he fled the shelling in the capital last weekend, taking
what he could carry. Without a hint of bitterness, he recounted his life with resignation.
"Moving around like this is very difficult," he said. "As you know
as a human being, we want to live in peace and happiness, but it depends on the policies
of the government."
Luckily, he owns his shop house, which was not looted, and had something to come
back to. His brother-in-law volunteered to stay and weather the fighting to keep
the family business intact. He said that about 70% of the residents fled the fierce
fighting and that only one or two men per family stayed in the remaining houses to
protect them from booty-seeking soldiers.
Some did not have so much of a stake in Phnom Penh and decided to keep going. "Many
of the people who have left rented their houses and don't have work now," said
Chan Seang, 53, a construction worker from Taklah. He packed a few clothes and some
food and left his $5 a month house headed east.
"My daughter is a garment-factory [worker] and it was destroyed so we have to
live with relatives in Svay Rieng and help grow rice," he said Tuesday on Rte
1 across the Monivong (Vietnamese) bridge. He told of his neighbors' homes being
looted by CPP soldiers, but said he was spared. "I don't have much to rob. I
am more afraid of the fighting."
Those who fled east during the heat of battle faced the decision of whether to risk
the bridges or pay inflated fares to cross the river. Ferry operators charged between
two and more than ten times the normal price. "There were so many people on
Saturday and Sunday that we had to stop them from coming aboard," said Areksat
dock boat owner Tep Phal. "Usually we leave every 30 minutes, but we left every
ten - the boats filled up very quickly."
She admits that she doubled the price from 500 to 1,000 riels, but added that there
was considerable risk. "We took a big risk to come and go and were very afraid,
but it was an adventure."
Small-boat operators across the Japanese bridge came over to pick up people. "About
30-40 boats from here and the other side ferried back and forth. Some charged up
to 6,000 riels for the crossing [12 times the normal price], but if people had no
money some let them go for free," said a riverside resident. "I have no
idea how many crossed, but most either continued east or have returned."
Of four people from Orphanage No 1 on Street 47 who opted for the Japanese Bridge,
only one made it across. "We were worried about increased fighting between the
Funcinpec headquarters and CPP forces on both sides of us. When we saw Funcinpec
forces ready to fight at 9 am on Sunday, we drove motorcycles towards the Japanese
Bridge 150 meters away," said 25-year old Sok Sorphoan. "On the bridge,
a B40 grenade landed 1.5 meters away and we jumped off the bike."
The lead rider made it across, but the other two motorcycles did not.
Miraculously none of the four were injured and they scattered. Sorphoan hid for 30
minutes waiting for a lull in the fighting and was separated from the group. She
hid in a friend's house nearby. Her friends searched for her over the course of the
day, finally finding her at 5 pm.
Back at the orphanage watching music videos, Sok Seng looked back on the events of
that Sunday. "We were trying to go anywhere away from the shelling," he
recalled. "It was stupid to go. We ended up driving around all day during the
fighting and came back. It would have been safer here."
Seeing a lot of shoes in the road is a good indication that something bad has happened.
Sorphoan's lay on the Japanese Bridge for nearly three days. Then something bizarre
happened. She found them.