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Three Women: Oral Histories: Sambo Thouch

Collected and translated by Elizabeth Chey, in 1995

Sambo Thouch
Born June 6, 1938 in Phnom Penh

I taught grammar for 17 years. I was the Vice Principal, second in charge, at the grammar school for two years -- until the war began. I was the oldest of 11 siblings and only 2 younger sisters survived during the Pol Pot regime. Well, my story is quite long.

They took my husband on May 28, 1975. He was a four-and-half star general, but he wasn't a war general. He never went to battle. During Sihanouk's reign, he served as a police chief in the Police Royale, as they called it. The Police Royale solely served and assisted the king. But when Lon Nol came to power, the police security force was dissolved and my husband and I traveled from province to province in his new position in the military. I was teaching in Kampong Speu when I was promoted to the position of vice principal. But life was interrupted by the Khmer Rouge. Since we feared the encroachment of the communist forces, my husband asked to be transferred back to Phnom Penh. We took our children and went back to live deep inside the city, in a Buddhist hospital right on Monivong Blvd.

We did not stay in the city for long. When the Khmer Rouge entered the city, they commanded everyone to evacuate their homes. We were directed by the Khmer Rouge to walk along National Road No. 1. As we were walking we'd stop along the side to spend the night. My whole family, my husband and six kids and my sisters and mother went along the road with our car. We moved along until we got to Kheann Svay. When we arrived in Kheann Svay, I saw a tall gateway leading into a temple. We walked toward it and some of my husband's underlings came to greet him. He stood silently. All this time he had tried to conceal his rank and identity by wearing layman clothes and rubber sandals, but he was still recognized. He nodded, but we tried to hide ourselves from those few workers.

At that place, there was a big gateway they had built. Yes, they built it to attract people. They extended the gateway by attaching leaves over it to make a roof. Under that roof there was a desk and some civilians sat at the desk recruiting people up to "help rebuild the country." They didn't have Khmer Rouge soldiers sit there, they forced other city people to sit there, so people would trust them. You see, my husband's workers had run to him near the desk. It was hard to conceal his status from them.

My husband wasn't the head honcho at his bureau. He held the second most important job. He held all the bureaucratic and accounting responsibilities under a major war general who was a figure-head office holder. But now we were dressed in rags. Seeing the desk, I thought things were normal and I told my husband to sign up. I didn't know what was to come. I just thought it would help us. They offered a cup of rice for each individual in our family, including the children. At the time, we thought only of food and where we could get it next. At this part of the road, there was no where to grow rice, not water to transplant the stalks. I had never farmed before either. I could never separate the rice from the stalks; that always bothered me. Anyhow, they said he would teach new soldiers for the government. They said he would be educating soldiers on military tactics. They lied. They had taken him for a week and they didn't give us a grain of rice. But the mission was supposed to be three months, as I was later told.

On the day my husband left, I packed his clothes. I asked him if he wanted a blanket and towels. He said, no. He told me not to pack anything. He knew what they were going to do to him, but he said nothing to me. I asked again, thinking it was strange that he should be gone for three months and not want a blanket to keep himself warm. He just took off his wedding band and said, "Save this. Save this so you can feed the children." He left with only the clothes on his body and rubber sandals.

Three months passed and all the wives were getting suspicious as to where their husbands had been sent. We asked them when our husbands would return, and because so many had inquired about their husbands' well-being, the Khmer Rouge leaders held a big meeting for all the wives; about 11 families were there. At the meeting, they said the teaching program was extended to six months. All the wives staying at the temple had been workers; women who held jobs as nurses, teachers and secretaries before the Khmer Rouge disrupted their daily lives. They said in their lingo, "Don't fret. We will all meet each other at that other plain." We'd all be reunited in hell was what they really they meant. When they ordered us to leave the temple, to go back to our hometowns, I realized my husband had been killed. Me and all the wives cried at the announcement. We used to see truckloads of men, dressed in black bring driven away, but we could barely make out the faces and could not recognize that their faces were the faces of our husbands. Until then, I hadn't realized I was being held prisoner. They had a 24-hour surveillance on us and when we left to do work in the fields, they kept tabs.

I don't understand my karma. At the same time we were relieved from the temple, my three youngest kids were suffering from terrible fevers. They were drenched in sweat. Good thing, I knew what to do or else they would have died then and there. I care very much about my children and am very caution about their health and hygiene. But I was thin and weak then. We headed toward Phnom Penh in the car, but discovered that the gasoline was stolen out of the tank. Not only that the car was stripped that night by Khmer Rouge hoodlums. Our nice clothes, that we had saved to trade for food were also taken. It was so rude when we were burglarized. They stole our belongings while we were asleep and they knocked on the window and woke us up to tell us that someone had just run away with the tires.

When we finally got to the town which was the station to go to Phnom Penh, the Khmer Rouge leaders told me that we would take a boat to Phnom Penh. Who'd ever heard of taking a boat to Phnom Penh when it was so near people could drive!? I knew we were going to be settled somewhere else on the other side of Tonle Sap. When we crossed the lake and docked on December 1975 and I gave birth to another child. After three months of traveling with little to eat, I gave birth to a baby, but it died of tetanus nine days after birth.

At the new village I lived in the older people liked me. I told them I sold lotto tickets at the marketplace in Phnom Penh, so they knew I could read Roman numbers, but they didn't know I could read and write in Khmer and French. They asked me how I was separated from my husband. I told them that he was out selling fabric and that the comrades (Khmer Rouge) forced me to leave without him. I lived well there, even though I was sick all the time. We weren't starving, but heavy labor made us all weak.

Later on, I was transferred to Kompong Thom district and in that village a few former employee of my husband settled there too. I recognized him and his family, but they pretended not to recognize me, which kept us both safe and mute. I sewed dresses while I was there. I stayed there until the Vietnamese invaded. Immediately after the invasion, the Khmer Rouge leaders all fled and people from within the village took on leadership roles under the Vietnamese. One day, the former employee sent a few kids to get me and I was quite nervous. When I went to the village center, I saw my name on a chalkboard with the number 85 and the word "votes" behind it. The employee spoke and said, "We have voted you into the position of president of the Women's Club." I didn't want them to think I was going to turn them down, nor did I want to keep the position, so I responded, "I came to this village to be 'educated' (the Khmer Rouge euphemism for the labor camps) and I have yet to learn before I can lead the people. Besides, I wasn't present when you took the vote. How can you vote me in if I am not here to represent myself? And I can't even read." My sentence about being present to represent myself gave me away and they knew it. But that was the very reason they had voted me in. I was made mayor of my village, head of the education reconstruction program and Women's club president under the Vietnamese. After that experience, I figured I did well in my last life, because I survived this time. They gave me a GMC car and adequate supplies such as books, fabric, sugar, and enough cabinets and boards for the classrooms.

Within a year, schools were reopened. The Vietnamese know how to treat the people they use. They gave us a lot to keep us happy. Even though I was working for the Vietnamese, I told myself that this was for the benefit of the Cambodian people. I was helping the people, not the government of Vietnam.

Since I was in a position of authority, I wanted to use it to my advantage. I wanted to save my children from an uncertain future. Their father's death was a lesson for me. If I didn't save my kids, there would be no one to carry on the family name. I saw the opportunity to save my children by going to Phnom Penh. I told the Vietnamese officials that I was going on vacation to visit my mother in the city and that I wanted my children to go as well. But I couldn't take the whole family at once, because they'd think I was fleeing. Luckily a cargo driver was going to Kompong Thom so I asked if he could take us all with him. I gave him money for his services and his silence. He would drive all the way to Phnom Penh. I wrote passes for all of us, just in case the Vietnamese soldiers on the roads would check us, but because there was so many kids they let us pass at each stop. When I got to Phnom Penh I wrote a letter of resignation and sent it back with the cargo driver.

There wasn't much time to waste in Phnom Penh, because I feared the Vietnamese would come after us since they knew we'd rush the border. I sent four of my kids off first, my two daughters and two of my four sons. We had a cousin in Connecticut, so I made sure they had an address with them and that would be their ticket to freedom. That night I cried for my daughters, thinking that if I didn't make it, they would be without a father and a mother. About a month after the separation, I received a telegram form the States and I knew now it was time for me, my two other sons and an orphan boy I adopted to go toward the Thai border. I still wrote out road slips for everyone as added security we'd make it through to the border. You see, they would close roads without warning, to block the refugee trafficking going to the Thai border, so we had to keep all the options open.

When I was on a road to Battambang, Thai soldiers robbed us. We had enough to bribe the soldiers to let us in the gate into Khao-I-Dang. It took a month for me to get there and I stayed there for two years. While I lived there, I volunteered as a teacher and helped at the hospital. When I was transferred to the Philippines, I volunteered all the time and in my two months in Chuon Bury, I was voted President of the Widowed Wives Association. But when I came to the United States I no longer did volunteer work. My ankles and knees give me a lot of pain. My face has changed a lot. Time and health haven't permitted me to help within the community. I also wanted to volunteer at the schools, but I work a lot. I've worked at C. Vitcomon Inc. as a QA inspector for seven years. They call me "Sam" there.


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