By: Michaela Pierre
April 17th, 1975
They gave us one hour.
They gave us one hour to pack up our lives. They gave us one hour to decide whether to die where we live or live where we may die.
I’m sorry, I’m not making any sense, dear journal. But, nothing is quite making sense right now.
I know that the Khmer Rouge soldiers must have won against Lon Nol’s army because it was a Khmer Rouge soldier that knocked on our door. I know that we have to move to Kampong Cham where my father’s family lives because America is about to bomb Phnom Penh. I know that we have only one hour to pack what we believe are necessities and to abandon all that we cannot carry with us. I know that my sisters are crying. I know that my brothers are trying to be stoic. I know that my parents are worried. I know that I know nothing at all.
My mother is calling me to help her pack up food for the journey. I hope that it will be enough.
April 18th, 1975
I was unable to talk to you after that yesterday because after the one hour of packing away food and clothing, we had to wait in the middle of the entire populous of Phnom Penh. My father, winking at me, had told me to not write inside of you where people could see—that was my one condition for keeping you with me.
After standing in the middle of the voices, hushed, filled with “what’s going to happen”s and “what is going on”s, we marched, herded by the Khmer Rouge soldiers.
‘Herded.’ That is certainly the most appropriate word. We are only sheep in their eyes. Animals that have to be guided on a path and are discarded when we cannot continue.
I apologise for smearing blood on you, dear journal. I thought I had scrubbed off all of it.
The Khmer Rouge soldiers had shot a man two paces in front of me. He, they said, was a spy sent from Viet Kong in order to guide them to us. However, I knew that man, he was my neighbour, and he was a schoolteacher at my sister’s primary school. He had lived in Cambodia his entire life.
Somehow, I do not think he will be the first man to be killed.
April 24th, 1975
My feet are tired. There are sores and blisters travelling up the soles of my feet. However, I am older and stronger than my two sisters and two brothers, who are silently crying from the pain. The worst of it is my six year old sister, who cannot be carried by my mother like our two year old brother. My father and my older brother cannot carry anyone since they are too busy carrying the food. I cannot help my sister either because I am carrying the clothing.
How I wish, though. I hate to be useless, and her tears fill me with guilt every time they drop to the ground.
You’re not a good big sister. You’re not a good big sister, they seem to say.
In my guilt, I give my sister an extra piece of my dry fish. I give my fifteen year old sister a piece of my shirt to wrap the blisters. I give my twelve year old brother words of encouragement in order to bring his spirits up.
This is all I can do. This will never be enough.
April 27th, 1975
There are people dying as we walk. Dropping like flies due to starvation or thirst. My family is one of the only ones with food, and every day we are begged to give some up.
Please help us, they scream. Please, my husband is dying. My wife is dying. My child is dying. My brothers, sisters, fathers, mothers, they’re all dying.
We’re all going to die, aren’t we?
The soldiers have gotten tired of some of the cries. I managed to hide my sisters’ eyes from the sight of blood splattering on the ground. Trembling at the sound of gunfire, but who isn’t trembling, really?
Wasted. Everything is just wasted.
May 18th, 1975
We have finally made it to Kampong Cham after a month of walking. The chief of the village is waiting for us, no, the Khmer Rouge soldiers, at the edge. After chatting together, five families, including mine, are dropped off at Kampong Cham and away the soldiers go with the other families from Phnom Penh.
We are switched off to other Khmer Rouge soldiers, and we are herded to our families’ houses. My father’s parents are waiting for us at their door, bowing to the Khmer Rouge soldiers and thanking them for their protection.
We are finally given good food to eat, and we do so as if we were starving men. Perhaps we were. I know that my mother and father were giving up a portion of their food to feed the younger ones, and I know this because I was doing the same. My older brother, however, is selfish and didn’t share.
He ate the most out of all of us, even the elders. And that’s shameful.
May 20th, 1975
My family is being split up. They are splitting up my family.
The Khmer Rouge soldiers have told my parents that we, the three eldest, have to go work at the labour camps. The younger siblings, my parents, and my grandparents will work on the farmland.
I do not want to go, for we will be separated even further. My older brother will head off to the men’s area, and only my sister will be with me.
I have to protect her, I must. She is the only one of my family that I will be able to see daily. The only one that I can protect with my mere presence. I have to be there. I will be there.
I have to protect her.
May 22nd, 1975
There are blisters on my hands that make writing here hard, so I apologise for my messy handwriting.
On the first day here, yesterday, we were told to dig holes squares that measure from five metres across and five metres down. We had until the sun rose and the sun set in order to finish those cubes.
My sister could not finish—she stopped after three feet. Despite the pain I had throughout my body, I helped her dig the last two metres. The commander of the camp saw and told me that I could not help her if I didn’t want ten lashes with the whip.
Today, my back stings.
June 26th, 1975
Life has become monotonous in a way. Dig until you can’t or until you’re done. Help your sister dig her box. Take ten lashes by the whip for helping your sister or by not completing your own box (it’s the same). Eat half of your food and give the other half to your sister. Sleep.
That is the reason why I have not written in you for over a month. I have been too exhausted to even begin the thought of picking up this pencil.
But it’s not just physical exhaustion that has driven me to give up writing. It’s the exhaustion of my mind and spirit. I have seen too many people wither away in front of my eyes. I have seen too many people get taken away in the middle of the night, never to be seen again.
We all know where they go.
They go to hell.
They go to Tuol Sleng, the torture house.
Even just writing that name gives me shudders.
I can hear the commander walking past. I’ll write to you later again.
July 4th, 1975
I’m going to stop now, dear journal.
May 23rd, 1976
They threatened my family. How dare they! How dare they use my family against me as a weapon, a tool, to breed hatred in my heart?
I know that it has been a while, journal, but I’ve been so tired. Recent events have caused me to pick up this pencil.
Before you worry too much, my sister is well, as is my brother. I know nothing about the rest of my family, but I can only hope that they are doing well (as well as you can in these times, at least).
However, my family may not be safe any longer if I do not listen to the village chief. He has told me that I must marry a soldier of the Khmer Rouge. I do not want to, for I do not know him and he is uneducated, but then the village chief told me that I was to be married to his nephew, the soldier, or my family gets sent to Tuol Sleng as soon as possible.
I hear that my brother faces a similar ultimatum as well: marry this woman and procreate or die.
They’re trying to breed new soldiers to kill our country, and I want no part in it. I am only eighteen years old, but I am going to be married to a man twice my age. Smarter than my husband, forced to live and love the people killing my country.
I want no part in it.
But I must. For my family.
May 25th, 1976
I am married now. There were twelve other couples with my brother and his new wife and me and my new husband. The majority of us stated our vows with guns pointed to our heads.
No family. Only the familiar feel of cold steel.
How I wish for oblivion.
Why can’t they just give it to me?
Why can I not just give up?
June 27th, 1976
My husband has found you, dear journal. You with all of my thoughts and feelings. You with my hopes and dreams. You with my poems and stories and songs. You with my everything.
I begged and pleaded to him not to kill my family just because I was educated or because of the disobedient words I have written towards Pol Pot and his regime.
I had been holding out on trying for children because I wanted no part of this marriage; I was forced into it by threats. So far, my husband has respected my wishes, which seemed strange in and of itself but I found it a blessing buried under this horrible situation.
With this, my precious journal that holds everything I love, the evidence to show that I am in fact educated and should be put in Tuol Sleng, has now become my weakness. What I love becomes what I hate. What I hate becomes what I have to love in order to survive.
I feel so conflicted.
September 18th, 1977
Somehow, in some way, I have managed to avoid becoming pregnant after more than a year of sex. It is apparently my fault as the woman, but I believe that my husband is infertile.
I so hope he is. I never want to carry his seed inside of me. I never want to carry on the legacy of the Khmer Rouge within my own body. I already have the scars that will last me a lifetime. I already have the memories that will stay with me for my next one hundred lives. I have no need of a child that serves as a reminder too.
January 10th, 1978
You have become so precious to me.
No, wait, that’s a lie. You’ve already been precious to me. The place where I could put all of my hopes and thoughts and dreams. The place where I could pen down my writings. The place where I could sketch if I wanted.
Now, you’ve become so much more.
You’ve become my object of rebellion, the source of my strength. Even if I haven’t written in you for several months, I remember that you have helped me survive this unfortunate world filled with death and darkness and hate. You are the only link to my past left, the only member of my family that has stayed with me throughout my trials.
You are so precious to me. I do not believe I could survive if I had not had you with me.
Writing is the only thing in my life left.
Please don’t let anyone take this away from me.