Archive for February 1st, 2012

Mekong Journals; 29

February 1, 2012 in Uncategorized | Comments (0)

 

 

[In January 2003  I accompanied an expedition that was conducting a survey of river dolphins on a stretch of the Mekong River in Cambodia. The expedition was led by Isabel Beasley, who was then a PhD student specializing on Orcaella brevirostris: also known as the ‘Irrawaddy Dolphin’ this species is found in many Asian river systems and deltas. The journal I kept during the expedition will appear on this site as a continuous series of posts. This is part 29 of the series.]

 

 

Yesterday the ‘Pol Pot times’ burst upon us unexpectedly. We were in a taxi, driving to Sambok when Mr Seng Kim said, suddenly, that compared to his children’s lives, his own childhood had been so different. His entire family was sent to a camp in Kompong Thom province. His father died and his mother had to keep the family going somehow. ‘Very hard – ver-ry dif-fi-cult.’

 

skulls from 'Pol Pot time'; genocide shrine near Phnom Penh, 1996

Mr. Somany began to laugh uproariously at this and said: ‘Did your mother marry again?’ I had the impression that this exchange was founded on the usual Cambodian unease about the ‘Pol-Pot-time’ – any mention of which seems to occasion uproarious laughter. I thought that he himself was perhaps too young to have experienced the Pol-Pot-time and just wanted to put an end to the older man’s reminiscing. But today, at the place where we’d stopped for lunch, he suddenly exclaimed: ‘It was not just him (Mr. Seng Kim). It was all of us – all of us went through it.’

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

‘You too?’ I said in surprise. ‘Yes!’ he said vehemently. Somany was 6 when Pol Pot came to power. His father died in 1975. They were taken from Phnom Penh to Takeo province – his mother and his four siblings. Once they were in Takeo Province, they were split up, all five of them. Each of them was sent to a different camp. This was in keeping with Pol Pot’s efforts to dissolve the family unit. Somany was sent to a camp for children of his age. As ‘New People’ they were taught how to pay their respects to the ‘Old People’. He saw sick children being abandoned to die. The soldiers wouuld go through the camp and say (about the sick children): ‘Let them be – maybe they’ll die tonight.’ And when they woke up next morning, sure enough, those children were dead. He would be allowed to see his mother only once every month or so. Sometimes she would bring him a sweet potato. Every time he saw her, all she could do was cry and cry. Sometimes he would run run away from his camp to try and find her.

In 1979 he and all the others at the camp heard the sound of bombs and shooting. They heard that the Vietnamese were coming in tanks. He didn’t know what a tank was and he was desperately keen to find out. He ran out on to the road and waited for the tanks. When they came by, the Vietnamese soldiers were standing in the turrets, waving.

 

 

 

 

[Memorial, ‘Killing Field’ near Phnom Penh, 1993]

 

 

 

 

 

After that he managed to find his mother and somehow, miraculously, all the other siblings managed to find her as well. They started walking toward Phnom Penh – ‘it was very, very difficult’ – he couldn’t find words and almost had to stop talking. He pointed to the sandals on his feet and said ‘we had none of these; just had to walk.’ After that he changed the subject and began to talk about the dolphins and the survey work, which he clearly loves and performs with great enthusiasm.

 

Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, Phnom Penh, 1993

 

 


Mekong Journals: 28

in Uncategorized | Comments (0)

 

[In January 2003  I accompanied an expedition that was conducting a survey of river dolphins on a stretch of the Mekong River in Cambodia. The expedition was led by Isabel Beasley, who was then a PhD student specializing on Orcaella brevirostris: also known as the ‘Irrawaddy Dolphin’ this species is found in many Asian river systems and deltas. The journal I kept during the expedition will appear on this site as a continuous series of posts. This is part 28 of the series.]

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Mr Somany and I were talking earlier in the evening and he told me that his mother and wife want him to stop working for the government. They want him to join their business – they make vermicelli noodles. He said that he tries to help them as much as he can – his job usually requires him to be in his office only from 8 to 11. After that he manages to take himself off to help with his mother’s business. But they want him to give up his job altogether, which would be a waste of his hard-earned degree in fisheries.

He took his degree from Nha Trang University in Vietnam. At first it was very hard foor him there – he found it difficult to be away from his family. Food was difficult too; he didn’t like the food there. Even though Vietnamese food is quite similar to Cambodian food it wasn’t what he was used to. But then he made Vietnamese friends and learnt to speak Vietnamese and that made it much easier. Even though he felt that he was missing some words, he knew enough Vietnamese to manage in class. It was in Vietnam too that he started learning English. He became friends with an American who was teaching English in Nha Trang University. Later, back in Cambodia, he started taking private lessons. Working with Isabel has been a great help in his learning English.

 



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