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Light in Darkness: Khemarey’s Journeys



by Sambath Meas


It has been six years since I parted from you and the family. Mae has told me you had not been the same since you found out what Julie and her friends did to me and the other girls. You hated yourself for leaving me with her. I don’t blame you for what happened, Pouk.
As I am sitting here, watching you lying unconscious at Calumet’s hospital, my mind is full of rage and hatred. Wave after wave of bad memories come crashing through my mind, my heart, and my soul.
It all started on that misty morning when our family woke up to the burring and then the roaring sounds of bulldozers. A penetrating voice echoed through our village, “Attention, squatters. You must leave Doan Neang, immediately. This land now belongs to Oknha Xeng Bun Heng.”

I was terrified and confused. Squatters? This was our home. It stretched as far as the eyes could see. It was where we cultivated rice, planted our produce and vegetables, and raised our livestock. Our community and our Buddhist temple were here. You had lived here all your life. Grandfather had lived here all his life, even during the Khmer Rouge era, and so did great grandfather, and so on. “Can they do that, Pouk?” I asked you. “Can they come here, kick us out, and grab our land, just like that?” You could not answer. The situation left you speechless and beyond comprehension.

Many nights leading to this morning, I had overheard you, the village chief, and others talked about the many changes Srok Khmer (Khmer Land) had experienced—none of which had improved our lives, at least, not for the poor and defenseless people like us. As naturalists, we made ends meet. We were simple people, with simple needs. Nature blessed us with abundant resources. Like our ancestors, we just wanted to work on our rice fields to feed our stomachs, attend our school to communicate with others, go to our temple to learn moral values and other teaching of Lord Buddha, and practice our culture. We did not bother anyone. Since ancient history, outsiders have labeled us barbarians. They occupied our country to “civilize” us; it was just their justification for exploiting our labor and our land for their personal gains.

But we did not go without a fight. We had always managed to survive, along with our tradition, language, culture, and religion, but during the Khmer Rouge era, infiltrators hijacked our victory and laid the foundation for what took place today. We had no one now, no government or armed forces to back us. I understood that much—that our livelihood was threatened, and no one cared.
“No matter what,” you and others said, “we will fight to the death to protect the subsistence of our posterity.” Not all of us were strong, Pouk. A few families had poisoned themselves, and some had hung themselves. This was too much for them to cope with. I heard adults repeat the deceased’s sentiment—that taking our land away from us was like cutting off our arms and legs. They were slowly killing us.
The authorities had warned us many days before that if we did not leave, they would use excessive force against us. “Where would we go?” our villagers asked.
“It’s not our problem,” the authority replied.
The adults talked among themselves, reflecting on how it was not as if the country were an empty, vast land. Every inch had been seized or occupied by others. Grandpa used to say, “In the past, we did not build fences around our properties, and we never locked our doors. We could freely enter the forests to hunt and gather fruits, berries, and woods. We had no one to answer to but Mother Nature. As long as we did not abuse our privileges, we could take what we needed for our survival. Now they seize and privatize every part of the land. Even the rivers, valleys, and basins are owned by the oknhas, who would charge a person to enter.”
They shot us peasants, adults or kids, who accidentally wandered into “their” land. They callously killed my friends, Rith and Nak.
“It’s a big joke,” Grandpa once said. “The word oknha used to carry meaning. It had value. The King would bestow this title on the most intelligent and benevolent person with honestly earned wealth and who showed great leadership in building and serving the community. Now any pea brain with courage of a dragon and a heart of a baboon can buy it. Most of the time, their wealth came from robbing and exploiting other people.” I used to wonder what he meant by that. It is sad to say, Pouk, I found that out in the most painful and agonizing way.
The situation looked bleak that morning. Mae and big brothers looked frightened and shaken. You were too. You put on a brave face and told us to grab our most valuable possession. Everything was valuable to us: our land, our livestock, and our home. They provided our livelihood. Who were they to demand us off our land where our ancestors lived for hundreds or even thousands of years? What right do they have to seize it? I took our family’s only photograph of Grandfather, Grandmother, you, Mom, my two older brothers, and me.
We stepped outside of our wooden, stilt home. Others had already exited their homes and waited. We looked out farther to find bulldozers, trucks, tanks, and armed forces coming toward us. You and other adults told us children to stay back in one place. Big and small, we cried and refused to leave your sides. You insisted that the older ones look after the younger ones.
Beset by these enemy forces, about one hundred families, stood ready with axes, sticks, stones, and fuming rages. One brave woman shouted at them, “Why are you doing this to your own fellow Khmers? Why have you sold your souls to them?” In agreement, other villagers asked the same questions, but the policemen and soldiers did not answer. They stood there like robots, in their protective gear, with their batons, and long rifles, waiting to take orders.
The authority announced once more, “If you don’t want to get hurt, you must evacuate this property, immediately.”
The village chief shouted, “Over my dead body!” Others echoed his sentiment. When they started to bulldoze our houses, the villagers chased after them with axes, sticks, and stones. The armed forces came at you with tear gas, batons, and rifles. It was like watching eggs rolling through rocks. The gruesome and chaotic scenes of our parents being beaten and shot at made us wail. Some of the older ones, including my twelve and fourteen year-old brothers, picked up what they could to avenge our parents.
The sky was still gray. Our fellow villagers were screaming and wailing in agony. “Why, why is this happening? Why is no one helping us?” I cried. “Pouk, Mae, big brother Ra, big brother Reth!” I bellowed as I scanned the battle. The people were no match with the soldiers. They showed no mercy either.
As the fighting died down, I ran to look for all of you. Dead bodies lay scattered everywhere. Pools of blood drained from the many bodies and seeped into the ground. I shook in fear. My heart race rapidly. I ran through the field to look for all of you. I found the bodies of Grandfather and Grandmother with their eyes open. I shook them, but they did not budge. “Ta, Yeay,” I called out to them, but they were gone. Then I screamed for you and Mom. I looked to my left to find a woman screaming, rolling, and kicking in agony on the ground; she covered her face, with her hands.
I realized it was Mae. I darted to her. “Mae, Mae, what’s happening? Are you all right?” I asked her.
She screamed in agony, “My eyes. My eyes!” I kneeled down and uncovered mom’s hands to find that she had been shot in the eyes. I wrapped my arms around her, and she held onto me, crying, as blood oozed out of her wounded eyes. She screamed louder and louder. I did not know whether the physical pain caught up to her or if the mental pain of being dehumanized and abused by others got to her, or both. She asked if I saw the rest of you. I told her that Dad’s parents were dead. She tried hard to breathe as she cried and cried.
I did not know what to do, Pouk. Then I saw you and other men, young and old, with bare bodies, except for the black shorts, sitting with legs folded to the side, heels to buttocks. Our brothers sat by your sides. Your hands were tied behind your backs. Your heads slumped. You looked beaten, humiliated, and disheartened. I ran to you , as fast as my legs allowed me, but the authority caught me. “Let my father and brothers go! Let my father and brothers go,” I screamed and kicked.
“Go to your mother, my daughter,” you said with a lump in your throat. You did not even look up. Tears streamed down my eyes. I could not stand it. You, a masculine man, had been tied up like an animal. “Pouk, bang Ra, bang Reth,” I howled as they dragged you and loaded you into a truck with other survivors.
A man from another village gave Mae and me a ride on his buffalo cart. He told us there was a Red Cross clinic not too far away. “Your mother can seek free medical treatment there,” he said.
We met up with other injured villagers: most had serious injuries, and some had minor ones. It took a long time before they saw Mae. She was in a lot of pain. People with money got in faster, while the rest of us who did not have any waited until those nurses and doctors felt like seeing us. For a charity clinic, they seemed cold and arrogant. Like you, I felt so helpless, Pouk. Just like when I saw you being tied down and when I saw you in prison. Who knew it would be a brief reunion for us: you, Mae, my two older brothers, and me?
Remember when we first met her, Pouk? She was around Mae’s age. A slew of journalists, cameramen, and other strange people walked into the congested prison behind her. Clad in black, high-heeled shoes and a knee-high, tight black skirt, and a white blouse, she wore her slick, black hair tied in a bun. She toted a stylish alligator print, burgundy bag and removed her big sunglasses to greet us. A set of double stranded pearls adorned her swan-like neck. Her skin was smooth and light like an eggshell. “Hello there. My name is Julie Lam.” She spoke Khmer with a foreign accent. “I’m the president of Human Rights and Justice.” Her thin lips appeared lopsided whenever she spoke.
“I’m here on your behalf.” She looked around and across the room and the cellblocks. “I’ve requested the police chief to release you. You have rights as human beings. We’re a developing nation. We should not treat each other like animals. The world is watching us. All of you are free to go.”
Words could not express how we felt. “What an admirable woman,” I thought to myself. Others eyed her with the same awe and respect. She exuded confidence and authority. Everyone obsequiously thanked her.
I ran to hug you and brothers Ra and Reth when they released you. Then you and brothers embraced Mae. All of us looked at her with pain, compassion and sadness. She was born with all body parts, only to lose both of her eyes in her thirties. You had a lot to deal with: the deaths of your parents and the worries of how to go about finding food for your handicapped wife and three children. You appeared to be a broken man.
After talking to journalists who asked her many questions and being photographed in every pose, Julie decided to gather some families around, including ours. “We don’t know how we’ll ever repay you,” you and other villagers told her.
She let out a gentle laugh and waved her hand. “It’s nothing. We’re all human beings. We have rights and should respect one other.” She looked at all of us and then curved her mouth in a smile, as if she had thought of something clever. “I’ll tell you what. I have a proposition. Since it is going to be a long time until you get on your feet, I would like to take your little girls off of your hands. They are very vulnerable at such young ages. I want to give them a bright future. I’ll feed them, clothe them, and educate them. When they’re eighteen, they can find a high paying job and help you out,” she said with a wide smile.
The parents looked at each other with mixed feelings. The other girls and I cried. I hugged Mae and said, “I don’t want to go. I don’t want to go. I want to be with you. Please don’t send me away, Pouk … Mae.”
Julie bent down and said, “Little girl, I’m not taking you away from your parents. I just want to give you an opportunity to better yourself. Don’t you want a bright future? Let me help you to help yourselves,” she said, as she stood up to look at all of us. “Okay. I will give you a little bit of time to think about this. Do you want your young girls to wander with you while you’re trying to piece your lives back together? You’ll have one less mouth to feed. Meanwhile, I will take good care of them. Trust me. I have an organization that helps young girls become a positive force in this society. Girls and women are the most vulnerable and the most uneducated in this society. I’m giving your girls a head start. Go ahead. Please talk among yourselves. I’m a very busy woman. I would like to get back to work. I have many more people to save and seek justice for.”
Our family huddled around. “I think we should let Khemarey go with her,” you said to Mae.
She cried and felt through the empty space to reach for me. I walked closer to her. We embraced each other. She said, “No. She’s my baby. She’s only eight years old. I can’t part from any of my children. Only a mother knows when her child is hungry, scared, and ill. I want to be there when she experiences any one of these things.”
You said to her, “We must think about the future. The world has changed. We must change with it. She needs a proper education that will bring her wealth. People with wealth have power. Bad people can take her wealth, but they can’t take her knowledge. Look at Ms. Julie. Her education has made her rich and powerful. Besides, we can go and visit Khemarey,” you said.
You turned around to ask Julie. “Ms., can we visit our daughter?”
“Oh, yes. Sure. Definitely.” She took a stack of cards from her purse and handed them to the parents. “You can reach me at this number. My assistant can update you on your kids. We can make arrangement for you to come and visit after you have been settled. Remember, I am doing this for you and them. I’m providing them with a bright future. Like you said,” she said looking at Pouk, “bad people can take her wealth, but they can’t take her knowledge. She will use it to generate more wealth, if she pleases.”
She winked and smiled at me. What she said sounded great, but neither Mae nor I wanted to let each other go. I knew and felt that you loved me and did not want to let me go either, but you were adamant about wanting a bright future for me that you were willing to sacrifice and be separated from me, your only daughter.
A big, black car drove the five of us to Phnom Penh. The other girls could not be more than five and six years old. Their dark and round, innocent eyes set upon me. They held onto me. They looked up at me as a big sister. Fear and uncertainty enveloped me, too. I stared out the windows of the speeding car to see acres of lands that had become the properties of the oknhas and foreign companies, as indicated by big signs in Khmer and some other language. I wondered what would happen to those people, including you, who had been kicked off of their lands.
The car entered the bustling city of Phnom Penh, where tall buildings, bridges, and paved roads greeted us. Cars, motorcycles, cyclos, and buses congested the place. Billboards of advertisement with glamorous white Asians were erected at every intersection. Red Chinese signs were plastered on the door of every building. The smell of the gas and leather of the car made me nauseous.
Our car moved at the speed of a turtle for a few hours before it pulled into a gated white villa with spacious front, side, and back lawns. Beautiful trees, flowers, and other plants adorned the place. A few teenage maids came to receive us. “Ry and Theary, take these girls to the back room. Have them bathed and give them new clothes to wear. Prepare some food for them, too.”
“Yes, madam.” The two skinny teenagers took our hands. We followed them. We could not take our eyes off the opulence of the landscape and the villa.
A four year-old girl, in a chiffon pink dress, with skin as light as the cloud called out, “Mamma. Mamma.” A white man, whose hair was light like corn, toted her to Julie, who lifted, twirled, and kissed the little girl. Then she kissed the man on his lips. We cringed in embarrassment, for we had never seen such public display of affection before. They spoke to each in a language that we did not understand. He looked at us, back at her, and then smiled.
The two girls did not take us inside the villa. Instead, they took us around back to a small, but nice house, behind a large swimming pool and a spacious flower and evergreen tree garden. They opened the door and walked us down the hall to a small room with four bunk beds. The lower beds pulled out another bed, as demonstrated by one of the girls. Then they showed us the bathroom, which everyone shared. They showed us how to turn on the water, sit on the toilet, clean ourselves, and flush it.
We had not seen the inside of the villa for many days, not until Julie and her husband hosted a party. Upon entering the big room, the first images greeted us were big red Chinese signs and ancestry altars in the middle of the room on the floor, as well up high on the wall. She had furnished the inside in a luxurious western style. Elegantly framed pictures of Julie posing with family, relatives, friends, and dignitaries hung on her walls and sat on her finely crafted tables.
“This party is for you girls,” Julie greeted us. Draped in a long, fancy, white dress and bejeweled by diamond bracelets and earrings, she introduced us to the many smiling western and other foreign guests who looked on and nodded in approval. The girls and I huddled together. We were very scared, Pouk.
When the party died down, she sent three girls with two old white men and Sopheak and me back to our room. We screamed, kicked, and cried out for each other. All we had were each other, and now we were being torn apart. “Please let us stay together,” we cried.
“We’re doing this for your own good. My husband and I can’t take care all of you,” said Julie.
Sopheak and I held onto each other and cried in our room. I missed you, Mae, and my two brothers, miserably. Sopheak cried, asking for her parents, until she fell asleep. I could not sleep. Tossing and turning, I heard fainted voices from the pool and garden area. The small house was quiet. The maids had not come into the small house yet. Sopheak was sound asleep. I covered her up and decided to creep out and watch the rich people.
I tiptoed out. Then I saw an older maid and four western men coming toward the direction of the small house. I hid behind one of the evergreen trees in a form of an animal topiary. I did not understand why these men were coming here. I sat on the ground with my shaking arms wrapped around my shaking knees. I could not move. The pit of my stomach stirred, violently. My heart raced. I heard giggles and laughter. I peaked through the crevice of the evergreen trees that were trimmed and pruned in a row.
Under the moon and the nightlight that bounced and reflected from the pool, sat three glamorous women in their fancy gowns. I had met the other two earlier. The woman in a yellow flowing dress was chum teav Lin Ung, the wife of a powerful senator. The one in a fitted and knee-length red dress was Née Lee Sun, the wife of the richest and most powerful oknha in Phnom Penh. They lounged around on their outdoor furniture; two bottles of liquor sat on a table between them. They each held a glass of the liquor in one hand and a big cigar in another. Julie held the cigar between her index finger and her thump. She wrapped her slender lips around it and drew a puff of smoke into her mouth, held it, and then opened her mouth slowly. A ring of smoke formed. The three women cackled. Something seemed unbecoming about a woman sucking on a big cigar. I did not know why I felt that way.
At first they spoke in a foreign language, and then they broke into Phnom Penh Khmer. “Ahhhh, what a wonderful life we’re living. It’s so good to be us. We’re at the top of our game. We are untouchable. We are the untouchables,” said Julie.
“Don’t forget unstoppable,” chimed in the other light skinned and silky haired woman in a red dress. They raised their glasses and cheered.
“I know,” continued Julie. “Who knew it could be this easy to make money and destroy a group people at the same time. You,” she pointed to Lin, “grab lands through out this stupid country to sell to Vietnam, China, Singapore, Korea, Thailand, Kuwait, etc. While you,” she turned to Née, “buy up lands to build condos, villas, and other commercial buildings for wealthy people from abroad. And I get hundreds of millions of dollars of funding from around the world for my non-for-profit organization and activist activities. I get to play a heroine who saves these flat nose, curly hair, dark skin, ugly, and lazy Khmers.” They broke into thunderous laughter.
“We’re geniuses. By making these people poorer and more stupid, we can manipulate them anyway we want. We can make them kill each other, too. Did you see how stupid and desperate those policemen and soldiers were? They went the extra miles to please us and be in our good graces by beating and shooting their fellow Khmers. And all for what: a small amount of money, booze, and women? These bastards are so predictable. We’ll make them hate and destroy each other for our benefits. These savages will regret ever killing our parents during the Khmer Rouge era. They’ll regret making us hide our identity. We have begun to make them ashamed of their identity and their skin color.
“Did you see how they spend every penny they earned from business people like us in turn to return it to us by buying our whitening cream, our good luck signs, and altars. They even abandoned their own ancestors by worshipping ours. Even the ghosts of their doan ta have nothing to eat while they lavish our kong ma with foods that’s worth three months of their salary. They can’t even read Chinese, yet they plaster their houses with our signs and erect our altars. They’ll never amount to anything. From government to entertainment, we will keep them out. We’ll keep flaunting our cleverness, beautiful white skin, and wealth on billboards, magazines, televisions, radios, and movies. Meanwhile, we’ll keep them down, way down, from being anything but bare footed soldiers, maids, and slaves. We’ll sell their children into slavery, work, and rape them to death. We’ll make them suffer until they disappear from the face of this earth.”
“Isn’t life grand? What I love the most is that we can take their lands, torture them, humiliate them, and kill them with impunity. We’ll never, ever have to suffer the consequences. We are like god. No one can touch us,” said Lin.
“That’s because no one cares to,” said Nee. “Who cares? Do we care? This is not our mother’s country. We do whatever we want with it, and exploiting these savages is an added bonus. Hey, they have no one to blame but their own stupidity, laziness, and ugliness. Even foreign writers and historians agreed with us that there is no one to blame but these stupid Khmers themselves. And we’ll make sure their self-esteem remain that way. We must continue to make them believe they are ugly, lazy, and stupid. We must wipe out these savages. Only clever, wealthy, and beautiful light skin people like us should exist on this planet.”
The women cheered, raised their glasses, drank, and puffed their cigars.
Burning heat emitted my entire body. I shook, uncontrollably. I caught myself weeping and breaking into hysteria. I tried to be strong, Pouk, but it was so hard, when you’re small and all alone. I prayed that you and Mae would change your minds and come and get me. It was all a lie. She was not going to shelter and educate us. She was going to sell us into slavery. I could not listen anymore.
It must have been an hour or longer when those men came back out. As soon as they all went into the villa, I rushed into our room and noticed that Sopheak was gone. I became worried. Then I heard a weak cry from the other room. The light was on. I ran over. I nearly collapsed when I saw her naked body tied and spread-eagled on a bed. Blood soaked the sheets between her legs and was all over her body. I screamed in agony. “No! No! Sopheak, Sopheak. Somebody help us. Help us. Somebody, please help us.”
My hands shook as I untied her and wrapped her frail and cold body in a blanket. She looked at me, like I had betrayed her. “I want my mom. I want my mom,” she cried and cried.
“I’m sorry, Sopheak. I should have never left you alone. What did they do to you?” I asked her. We both trembled like rabbits.
“Dalin tied me up for those men. They surrounded me and took turns …,” she broke off and wept. “Why? Why did they do this to me?” She sobbed in a weak tone, as she went in and out of consciousness.
Just then the maid, Dalin, came in. “Oh. They’re done?” she said, nonchalantly.
I could not believe what I was hearing. “Why? Why did you bring those men to do this to her?” I shouted.
“I thought you were taken somewhere,” Dalin said. “It’s your fault anyway. If you had not run off, four men wouldn’t have shared her. Don’t fret. You’ll get your chance. Stop crying. She’ll live. Julie will send her to Japan and have her virginity sewn back. Then she can be resold at a higher price,” said the woman coldly.
“What’s wrong with you? She’s only six years old. Why do you grown people do this to her? To us? We’re kids. Why? Why?” My body convulsed with sobs as I cradled Sopheak. I did not bother to wipe my snots and tears away. I told Sopheak to be strong and feel better soon , so that we could escape.
While she convalesced, I received a good beating for not staying in the small house to be raped by those four men. Over the next few days later, I consistently received slapping, whippings, and kicking, for not doing enough around the house for Julie and her family. I received a severe punishment for questioning their behaviors towards me or for talking back.
One day, I no longer saw Sopheak. The last time I saw her, she had not been nursed back to health yet. I did not know what happened to her. I prayed she would be well and alive. I told myself that they probably took her to Japan, as Dalin said. I missed her, terribly. I cried, every time I thought about her. That horrid image of her lying on that bed and covered in blood and her innocent round, dark eyes never left me, Pouk.
Many days after she disappeared, Julie pounded me until I was unconscious. I had no idea how long I had been knocked out, but when I came to, I was inside a truck, with other Khmers, bound and gagged, stopping at the Khmer-Thai border. The other people in the truck consisted of young and old men and women. Some were maimed. We were tied up like chickens and pigs being transported to the market.
The door of the trucked opened, and they divided us into different vans. The drivers sent the maimed ones to a man whom they referred to as hia Tan, where he would disperse them to beg tourists for spare change. They segregated the younger and older able-bodied ones. I knew we were no longer in Srok Khmer, for the truckers switched from the Khmer language to the Thai language.
I felt sick and disoriented, Pouk. I no longer knew what to do or what to think. I was just going through the motions to survive. Maybe, if I just did what I was told, I would not suffer so much.
The driver brought us to a dark warehouse where we would be auctioned off. A tall, slender woman, probably around Julie’s age put on gloves to examine me. The auctioneer referred to her as Khunying. She squeezed open my mouth to check my teeth. She said something to the auctioneer, and he nodded. Darkness had fallen, with streetlights dimly illuminating the outside. The women pushed my head, nearly causing a whiplash, into an old car, where a skinny driver with cut off hands had been waiting. She got into a shiny and fancy car with a well-dressed chauffeur. The driver of my car followed behind them. We drove to a huge mansion with a blue corrugated brick roof.
A female maid, probably a few years older than Khunying, ran out to receive the woman. The maid knelt down on her knees on the concrete ground with her hands clasp together in a prayer like gesture. The lady of the house said something and pointed at me and then to the back. I followed the maid to the back and noticed a small, fancier, house than the one in Phnom Penh that belonged to Julie. I cried, screamed, and ran toward the gate. Khunying called to her nicely dressed chauffeur who chased after me and grabbed me for her. They brought me back to her. She yelled at me, slapped me a few rounds, dragged me by the hair to the back house, and threw me into a closet sized room. She locked the door so that I couldn’t get out. The image of being tied up and raped by many men sent me into hysteria. I clawed the door and the walls, trying to get out, but I was only a feather in a box. I sat on the floor with my arms wrapped around my legs, sobbing for you and Mae until I fell asleep.
Apparently, Khunying bought me to care for her invalid mother whom she stashed away in the smaller house. Her room was spacious, nicely furnished, and full of rich people amenities. Khunying told her maid to give me a rug made of kok for me to sleep on the floor of her mother’s room. I was to attend to her every need, including, cleaning her waste and bathing her. Luckily, the elderly mother was kinder. She told me to call her Grandma Jaidee. She gave me her leftovers to eat.
For the two years that I took care of her, she taught me how to read and write Thai. She said that the Thai language was mostly borrowed from Khmer, so I should not have any difficulty, if I could read, write, and speak Khmer. In her younger days, she used to study in England, so she taught me the English language too. I had more difficulty with it than Thai, but I managed, because you thought I deserved an education.
We kept it a secret between us because her daughter would not like it. “If Khunying finds out, she’ll beat you on the head so hard that you’ll forget everything, including your mother and father,” she said. I never wanted to forget you, Mae, and my brothers. I thought about you all the time, day and night. Your memories kept me moving forward. I often wondered how you had been getting on, where you were living, what you had to eat, and if the government and the oknhas were still abusing you and other Khmer people.
Even though I was taking good care of her, at her deathbed, before she asked to say good-bye to her children, her grandchildren, and in-laws, Grandma Jaidee confessed that she could not fight any longer. She had to go, wherever her next journey would take her. She said that her doctor told her that she only had a few months to live before she met me, but her compassion for me delayed her death. She had to stay alive much longer to see me grow up because the other slave Khunying bought she abused her to death.
“I scolded her and guided her with Buddha’s teachings not to look down on others. I asked her to show mercy on every living thing, but she laughed my words off, saying that the Khamens were brutes and that destroying them was an act of benevolence for human kind.” She shook her head, sighed, and said, “Thai society has been very bad towards Burmese, Khmers, Laotians, and the Malay Muslims. It also promotes the big people/small people mentality and greatly influences people like my daughter. I’m sorry, little girl. I wish our minds and hearts are as advanced as our technologies.” She prayed that I would be safe after she was gone. It saddened me to see her go.
Sure enough, not long after Grandma Jaidee passed away, I received barrages of verbal abuses from Khunying and her children. They would look for any excuses to abuse me. One day, I was ironing their clothes for her children to go to school. When the little five-year-old girl put on her shirt, she screamed that the shirt was hot and burning her skin. Right away, Khunying ran out from the mansion, with her husband following behind, fuming with rage. She slapped me hard across the face, asking how dare I ruin her daughter’s beautiful milky skin. “Just because you’re black and ugly, you’re jealous of my daughter’s beautiful white skin. Is that why you want to burn her, huh?”
The shirt was at most warm, but not hot enough to burn even a baby’s skin. But no matter what, she was right and I was wrong. She was rich. I was poor. Poor people had no rights, as she and other rich people often reminded me. She went into such a violent fit that she snatched up the hot iron. I winched when she was about to press it against my face. Her husband pulled her hand. “Khunying, don’t ruin her face. We can make good money off of her. Since she’s not good with housework, we can make more money on her then when we bought her. My friend is in need of supplies of children, especially girls. There are plenty of American men wanting to rape little girls. They are willing to pay $30,000 to rape a virgin and $10,000 for gang rape or pornofests,” he said.
“No, please, no,” I got down on my knees to beg them. “I’m very sorry. I’ll do a good job next time. I’ll work much harder. Please, please,” I sobbed, hysterically. Khunying kicked me in the chest and knocked me backward. She dragged me by the hair, shoved me, and locked me in my confined room.
The next thing I knew, I woke up to the smells of urine and feces in a confined box with other children. They consisted of little boys and little girls. Everyone looked scared and docile. We did not say anything to each other and learned to suffer in silence. We remained quiet through out the turbulent ride. From the inside, I could hear loud engine and wind noises. The metal box had many adult thump size holes through which the air entered. I felt sleepy and tired.
I woke up to the sounds of the roaring trucks and vans. I peaked through the hole. They had brought us to a warehouse. When they unlocked the door and dragged us out, I noticed the high ceiling and wide space that could fit a few airplanes. Speaking of which, their sounds rang in my ears. I looked around the warehouse to find groups of bound women and children. Black, brown, red, white, and yellow faces suggested they came from all nationalities and races. As human beings, we are all sitting ducks, waiting for someone to turn on us.
All of us remained obedient. We learned that resistance would only lead to violence. We complied to survive. However, another side of me refused to live in fear and abuses. I entertained the thought of escaping, like I had done before in Julie’s and Khunying’s gated mansion. I kept eying the surrounding area. Every time a truck or van came in to drop off or transport us, a big door was raised to the ceiling and closed back down. I thought about breaking from the group and running as fast as I could. As we moved up the line, where the traffickers wrote down our information, my heart raced. My head spun with many thoughts. I had a small window of opportunity to escape before they loaded me into this big, windowless, black van to be sold and raped. I must do something.
My wandering eyes met a pair of blue eyes young girl whose hair radiated like the sun. She was probably five or six years older than me. She looked at the automatic door and than at me. Somehow we understood each other. When the door opened again, she created a diversion by screaming and yelling. I darted towards the door. One of the traffickers yelled at another one to close the door. I did not know how many men were chasing after me. The door came down quickly. In my bound hands, I slid through as it was closing down.
“Help, help,” I screamed as I ran, competing with the sounds of roaring airplanes arriving and taking off. I kept on running and did not look back. Then a man came out of a car and grabbed me. I screamed and kicked as hard as I could. Cars with sirens, flashing red and blue lights, arrived at the scene. Blue uniform men emerged out of nowhere with guns and rifles. The tall and stout white man told me to calm down—that I was safe.
The policemen cuffed the traffickers and put them into marked trucks. The authorities drove us from JFK Airport in New York to the police station. They put us victims in holding cells, two people per cell, located in a municipal police department’s custody area. We had two beds, a toilet, and a phone. A young Asian girl shared my cell. Though she was a light skin Asian girl, she reminded me of Sopheak. She held onto the stuffed animal that one of the detectives gave her. A policewoman stood guard outside the glass door and looked in on us , once in a while. Police and social service providers, white, black, brown, they all came to asked us questions. We remained muted. I understood only every other word. Besides, I still felt suspicious of anyone I met.
The next day, a middle age man and woman who claimed they were representatives of the Chinese Association took the little girl away. A few days later, a white woman brought in a Thai woman. They found out that I was flown in from Thailand. In a sweet voice, she asked where my hometown was, to which I responded, “Doan Neang, Srok Khmer.” The woman relayed in English that I came from Cambodia.” To us our motherland is simply Khmer land; to outsiders, it’s Cambodia.
The next morning, I woke up to the aroma of steamed rice and stir-fry lemon grass chicken. I opened my eyes right away, thinking it was Mae, only to find a copper young skinned woman with wavy hair, round eyes, a narrow nose, and full lips sitting on the other bed. She wore a tailored black sateen blazer and slacks that perfectly fit her slender and sylphlike figure.
“Soursdey, Poan Srey,” she said, gently. It had been a long time since anyone spoke Khmer to me. Tears streamed from my eyes. It brought me back to my familiar surrounding, when I was with you and the family. I missed home, terribly. “Don’t cry. Everything will be okay,” she said. She pulled out a handkerchief and wiped my tears. “My name is Maliss. What’s your name?”
“That’s a very pretty name. My big brother’s name was Khemarin.”
I eyed her inquisitively.
“It’s a long story. Why don’t you eat first? Here, have some water to moisten your throat,” she said, as she opened and handed me the bottled water. “My mother made these foods for you. She even made you my favorite dessert.”
Maliss spoke to many people before she led me out. “Come on, Khemrey. Let’s go home.” As I walked along her, I saw a white man and a white woman, running past me to hug a teenage girl. They cried, embraced, and kissed each other on the cheeks. It was the girl who created a diversion when I ran. She glanced over and saw me. She let go of her parents’ embrace and walked over to me. She bent down to my level, with her knees on the floor, and said, “You were brave!” Then she wrapped her arms around me. I forgot how good human affection had felt. The warmth of her kindness soothed my soul.
It took me a long time to warm up to Maliss and her parents, but they were very patient with me. They understood what I was going through. They took me to many places and provided me with an education. They represented the Khmer chet chea that Grandfather used to talk about. Maliss’ father reminded me of Grandpa. He lost his son in a war.
“It hurts every time I thought about what happened to us, to our country. But when my mind and heart are fluttered with rage and hatred, the words of Maliss’ father calm me down: “Let us live happily by not hating those who hate us.”
The world is not so bad when we come together as human beings. I have been living in a place where evil people are an aberration, not the norm. In a truly civilized country, people, poor or wealthy, black or white, are treated with equality, dignity, and respect. It has shown me that beauty and brain are not determined by one’s skin color or one’s bank account. Moreover, it has law and order to protect good people. I want you to see this world.
Please wake up, Pouk. Life won’t be the same without you. The family needs you. I need you. There is a long road ahead of us, and I would feel much stronger, if you are around. Please wake up. I love you. I miss you, Pouk.

Copyright © 2012 Sambath Meas

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