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The Reprieve

In 1977, Sophia Srey Sharp was seventeen years old, working with a group digging canals and building dikes in Prey Veng province. Everyone called her by her nickname, Srey. She had been evacuated from Phnom Penh, and had been sent to Phum Kok Thom, the "Big Hill Village." The cadre in Phum Kok Thom was strict and short-tempered. Each night everyone in the village was required to attend a meeting at which the cadre would speak about the wisdom of Angkar, and the necessity of working hard. He would often detail exactly how many meters of earth they had moved during the day, and how much more work remained to be done.

From time to time people disappeared from the village; the cadre did not talk about what had happened to them, and no one dared to ask.

Sophia Srey Sharp When their work area was far from the village, they would set up temporary shelters near the work site, eating and sleeping there until the project was completed. They were given one hour for lunch, and most of the workers in the group would eat quickly and try to lay down briefly before returning to the field. One afternoon Srey had laid down on a crude bench; a friend saw her resting there and came to sit beside her. But the benchtop was fashioned from a pair of unsecured planks, and when she sat down the planks buckled together, pinching Srey's bare foot and tearing the skin off of the underside of one toe. It bled profusely; the young woman soldier who served as the "doctor" for the group cleaned the wound and wrapped Srey's foot with a bandage of torn cloth. Srey walked back to work slowly. She had no shoes, and the trip back to the field, which took most of the group fifteen minutes, took her almost half an hour. Each step was painful.

After two weeks, the wound had still not healed. Every day she left lunch early to try to make it back to the field at the same time as the other workers, but in the morning there was no way to keep up. Everyone left in a single group as soon as it became light, and she was always the last one to the field.

On one evening, everyone had gathered to listen to the cadre's nightly speech, and Srey sat in the middle of a long line of exhausted women, fighting off the urge to sleep. The cadre began by naming one young woman who had stolen a skirt. The woman was one of the "old people," not one of the evacuees from the city, and it was rare to hear the "old people" criticized. But the cadre's anger was obvious. He stared straight into the woman's face and gestured out toward the rice fields. "Maybe you want to sleep out there?" he asked. A hush fell over the listeners: two hundred people, dead silent, because every one of them knew what his question really meant. The cadre then turned to another young man. The man had jokingly referred to the homemade medicine used by the Khmer Rouge as "rabbit shit." "You look down on Angkar's medicine?" he asked. "Maybe you look down on Angkar, too? I have a place for you." He pointed out toward the shallow canals that cut through the fields. "It's easy for me. I don't even have to dig a new hole."

The cadre paused briefly, letting his words soak in before he continued. Then he called out one more name:

"Neary Srey Phum Kok Thom."

Srey did not just hear her name: she felt it, like the hard impact of a shovel to the back of her head, a chill that tore her heart away and left her hollow inside. From a few rows away, she could see her brother turn toward her in horror, his eyes asking: What did you do??

The cadre looked down at Srey. "Neary Srey..." he said. "I watch you every day." He paused.

"You are a hard worker," he said. "Even though you are hurt, you still go to work every day, and you never complain."

Srey felt her heart begin to beat again as relief washed over her. Her brother smiled broadly. The cadre continued talking, discussing how they must all learn to follow the example set by such hard workers, how they should all forget their own problems and concentrate on serving Angkar.

The next morning the cadre gave Srey the day off. It was a luxury rarely afforded to anyone. For Srey, the moment she heard her name is still burned into her memory. She heard a death sentence in one breath, and a reprieve in the next.

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