A Tale of Two Sisters
Part I – Keo Botevy’s Story
(As told to Margie King and Interviewed by Steve Wallwork)
Botevy was born in 1961, at Prash Ponlear Village, Kom Pong Ro District, Svay Rieng Province located next to the border of Vietnam. In her family, she is the oldest child of three girls and three boys who consider this place their homeland (her youngest brother was born in Battambang). Botevy lived there the first eight years of her life attending school at Prash Ponlear Primary School where her father was the Director of the school.
In 1968, the country of Cambodia had many groups of people organizing in the forests preparing to cause a civil fight against King Sihanouk. Therefore, the King ordered all government officials to become members of the Army Reserve. Botevy’s father was required to become the Colonel of the Army for two years in a military camp in Pursat.
By 1970, all of the infrastructures of Cambodia were being destroyed by many groups of organized demonstrators. They would break down and burn the government offices, private companies and big shops in the city plus tearing down and burning signs along the roads. Their anger was against King Sihanouk as they screamed demanding that he leave his throne so they could change the landscape of Cambodia. The situation during this time was cause for all the people of Cambodia to be filled with fear. Most parents would gather their children both young and old to seek shelter being protected in their homes.
A few days after the demonstration, one side emerged in many groups ”wearing black clothes with guns and bullets around their shoulders and waists” coming across the location of Botevy’s home to the Vietnam border. And on the other side was the Cambodian Army with many kinds of guns including bullets localizing at Botevy’s house at the beginning of declaring war. At that time, Bovey’s father was called to go to fight in the Cambodian Army against the group with the black clothes — the Khmer Rouge.
Many of Botevy’s relatives were poor farmers (80% of the population of Cambodia is rural) and considered the Cambodian Army that of the “rich man who would buy cheap and sell rich” so they wanted to be on the side of the Khmer Rouge. Because one of her mother’s sisters and her husband were considered rich (this uncle volunteered to protect the house of Botevy’s family) he was later tied up with pillows and burned in his own home which was destroyed. Often there were people who showed allegiance to both sides and would spy one side against the other selling their secrets.
There were many people in the family and village of Botevy’s that were extremely worried about this war. Her house was the centerpiece of the fighting such that the Cambodian Army kept their big cannon right next to the house’s fence where they were shooting to the other side. Her house was made out of cement so they considered her house’s wall to be high enough but also risked the danger of the bullets coming over from one side. Therefore, her mother and grandparents worried a great deal about the family.
At that same time, her father sent a letter from Pursat to her mother which said “Please tell all of our relatives to bring all of the light value wealth and all of the children from the house to the safe place and other heavy things digging a deep hole and put things in it. Tonight there will be a big fight in our village.” So they started to follow the instructions from her father in the letter and left the house to go to her mother’s uncle that was not far away from their house (perhaps 3 kilometers or almost 2 miles) along with many other people in the village finding a safe place.
During that night, her uncle-in-law volunteered to guard the five houses of her village while some of them thought they would sleep safely at the uncle’s house. But at 7:00pm that night, a few of them were sitting on the floor, hearing the sounds of gun shots. Some of them ran to see and they saw a lot of sparks of shotguns firing back and forth. In the village, a brave and strong man screamed loudly “All, everyone of you get down from the first floor and run fast to the pond under the thicket of bamboo.” Botevy came back to her family and hurriedly got everyone down quickly to run as she was holding her younger brother in the right hand and younger sister on the other side to run to the pond where they tried to sleep on the ground while watching the sparks of shotguns.
About ten minutes later, Botevy could hear her mother shouting out to her (“AVY”) and her brother (“AVUTH”) and wondered “where are you?” Then Botevy called out to her “Yes, Mom, we are at the pond!” Perhaps two more minutes passed when her mother shouted “Oh, oh, help . . . help I got shot with the bullet.” During that time, her mother was carrying her baby brother and he started crying seriously. When Botevy heard her mother shouting, they all started to cry including her cousins who were there (more than ten persons). The situation was difficult to handle so the strong man in the village crawled to her mother and brought her to the pond. All of them were crying so hard when a loud voice shouted to them “All of you stop crying – if you cry, we cannot help your mother.” It was Botevy’s grandfather giving them advice. “I took my hands to shut closed my young brother’s mouth and sister’s — I tried to bite my own lips to turn down my voice of crying.” The brave man crawled to find something that the Khmer use for a twisted or sprained ankle to reduce the swelling in her mother’s palm of her hand. That night was spent sleeping on the ground under the thicket of bamboo to protect their lives.
In spite of the horror of the night, “In the morning, the fresh sun light was shimmering.” The teenagers and children were not yet awake because during the former night they did not sleep even after midnight. As for her mother, she did not sleep for a full night. It was perhaps at 6:00am, when her father came and saw his wife’s palm of her hand. Crowds of people in that village gathered around him to ask questions about further information. While her father listened and answered their questions, he eventually observed on his wife and baby son that the bullet which shot into his wife’s palm sharply pierced her baby’s calf going through his leg that eventually made the hole in her mother’s palm. That was why the baby was crying so hard as he was only six months old at the time. Botevy’s father took his wife and baby to the hospital at Svay Rieng town, and he told her grandparents to “Please tell all the people in this village to leave far away because tonight will be even more fighting and hurry up to collect all of our relatives to go to Svay Rieng city, we cannot stay here as the big war will happen more and more!” After hearing his advice, all of her relatives and villagers made a decision to leave the village and go away to a safer location.
During that situation, the Khmer people isolated throughout the country into two groups: one group went to the forest and one group went to the city (like into Phnom Penh or a place in the central provinces) Botevy’s extended family and relatives brought only a small amount of wealth with them going to Battambang Province. Botevy and her immediate family stayed at Svay Rieng Province because her father worked there.
In 1971 – 1973, Botevy’s schooling began again after a half-year absence at Svay Rieng Krong Primary School and Ouk Vanneth’s attended Peay Yob Primary School. They both played on basketball teams from their own schools and would compete against each other’s school when they first met one another. But at this time, they were only competitors and not close friends. Vanneth was two years older than Botevy. Even though Botevy’s life in Svay Rieng was chaotic, she was able to make friends and loved school being a good student studying her favorite subjects which were Math and History.
During this period of time, the people in Svay Rieng town were not happy. They moved from place to place escaping from the artillery shells, and because of that, Svay Rieng town became smaller and smaller as it was surrounded by the Army of the black clothes – Khmer Rouge. At daytime or at night, her family always slept in an embankment — the place where there were sandbags stacked up into a room with a strong roof on the top to protect them from the shots of the bullets.
In 1974, the entire family moved to Battambang where other members of the family (including her grandfather) lived so that Botevy’s mother could give birth to her last child, a son. Her father flew from Siem Reap to Phnom Penh and then onto Battambang to see her and the baby when he was born. It was a government private airplane with only a few seats and a little rice and prohawk to eat. Some people would come to Phnom Penh because of the airport in case they wanted to leave Cambodia. Botevy’s father had a friend in America who offered to bring his family there but her father refused as he had a mother in his homeland and must stay here for her as well.
Once her mother recovered from the birth, she moved to Phnom Penh to be with her husband. Botevy, however, stayed one year in Battambang so that she and the older siblings could complete their schooling in the care of their aunt.
During the 1973-1975 period of time, her father’s Army group had moved to along the Mekong River that was near Phnom Penh. Botevy was able to start school again in Phnom Penh in Toule Slang Primary School. After two years, she went to Tuol Svay Preay High School as they are only one kilometer apart. These schools would later become the location of where most of Khmer Rouge’s worst deeds were performed. Today it is now a museum for the public to view.
The Khmer Rouge leadership included Paris-educated Pol Pot and Eang Sary. They became a devious power as they executed many ranking military personnel who they perceived as a threat. Pol Pot wanted to destroy any evidence of the culture so educated and people of the Fine Arts were educated as well.
In April 17, 1975, a takeover of the entire country of Cambodia occurred when the Khmer Rouge had overcome any other opposition. The Army of Khmer Rouge had been scattered with many kinds of guns. They tied around their heads and over their forearm a red cloth as the red sign all over Phnom Penh indicated that they won the war. The Khmer Rouge made an announcement loudly on the voice of the microphone along the streets that all the people in Phnom Penh must leave out of the city to their homeland for three days. That is why all the people in Phnom Penh prepared only light things to carry as they went to their homeland by foot. But Botevy’s mother prepared the things that can help them stay overnight such as clothes, blankets, mats, mosquito netting, plastic tent, rice, etc. She kept it all in the car but members of their family walked by foot except my youngest brother.
Leaving their home, the Army of the Khmer Rouge ordered them along the main streets only which caused crowds of people with similar supplies much like Botevy’s family until they could not move their car. Her house was near Tuol Tom Poung Market (Russian Market) so her family went along Monivong Street toward the Kbal Thnal Friendship Bridge but midway the same thing happened as their family could not move the car due to the large crowds of people so they stopped at the corner of the Bok Ko stop light — they stayed from 9:00am until 7:00pm where they ate lunch and dinner at the corner of the stop light. While there, she walked into the villas outside the big house and the people went to the inside of the house finding some things to eat. They had prohawk in the house that she found in the ground as she brought a lot of things out – not only her but a lot of people. It was the house of the Prime Minister.
At 7:30pm, there was a huge gasoline fire at the gas station near them and people were panic stricken running back and forth which separated their family along with other families in their panic. Her mother was bringing her brothers and sisters who ran away from Botevy as her mother said she would take all of the small children asking her father to leave everything in the car and not try to take anything but just the two oldest children. After saying this, she ran away with the younger children quickly. Botevy asked her father to run away quickly with her mother but he said “No, the fire will stop soon and we need to take the food as your brothers and sisters will go hungry with nothing to eat. I think they will come back if they do not see us.” Botevy said nothing but simply cried because she worried about her mother and younger siblings. She started running around the place with her loud, shouting voice, “Mom, where are you? . . . Mom, where are you?”
By then it was so dark as she held her brother’s hand stepping on bodies of people. There was a pregnant woman and she said to her “I am sorry” for stepping on her but the woman said nothing back to her so Botevy bent down to look at her as she knew “she was a body with sleep, but her face up, open her eyes.” She then realized she was looking at a dead body, so she ran quickly stepping on many other bodies that were “as an Army of government and others sleeping in two lines.” She told her brother “let us go back to our Dad.” While they were at the car, they didn’t see him because he went back to find them! They waited for him perhaps twenty minutes when he came back and the three of them were so glad to see one another. Her father said to them “Both of you stop leaving me” and they agreed and ran to hug him.
The three of them slept leaning on the outside of the car. Some people sat down and slept, other people were the patients leaving from the hospital as they slept lamenting over their sorrow, the oldest ones were carrying their children in the hammocks – little babies were crying as they didn’t have a place to sleep and some people were crying as they couldn’t find their children.
“I saw all the terrible life around me it hurt my feelings. I was very worried and thinking of my brothers, sisters and my Mom. It was so dark but I still saw my father’s face as he was so sad and quiet.” I tried to assure him that “Papa, do not worry as tomorrow you stay here, I will find Mom and all of the sisters and brothers – please sleep, I promise.” He said nothing. Botevy’s brother said to her “Avy, do you dare go back? I saw many bodies sleeping in two lines that smell was so bad!” Botevy shuttered as she was afraid of the bodies and said “No, we won’t go back, we go ahead and find them easier than now because it is in daytime.” Two days later, they still had not yet found their Mom and the car had just moved a little but not too much. They were trying to find a good way to move ahead. Her father found an ox cart from the “good old days” that they kept for an exhibition, so they took all of the things out of their car and put them into the ox cart. They moved ahead across the Kbal Thnal Friendship Bridge and stayed over there for five days.
Botevy tried to find her mother for seven days and fortunately, she found her at Vill Sbov Pagoda. During those seven days, her mother and siblings became beggars as they acknowledged (bowed) people and asked for rice to eat. Her mother tried to rely on the money she had, but no one would sell anything to her as they were saving food for their own families. When they all met one another, they were so very glad and happy but continued their travail ahead toward her father’s homeland.
Along the street, there were many controls done thoroughly along the way by the Khmer Rouge. They would stop them and ask many questions but her mother was so clever, she would always lie to them. They would ask “What is your occupation while you were in the city?” This was the important question and if they answer wrong, they would be killed midway to their homeland. Botevy’s mother would answer their questions very quickly because her father was so honest. If he answered the question telling the truth what his occupation was, she would answer and say “Oh, he was a teacher and I stay home as we are so poor.” After they would pass by the place where they question the people, her father always would complain to her “Why do you lie like this as I am a big Colonel in the Cambodian Army – and if you tell the truth, they will let us go back home and they will give me a big job in the city, they ask like this because they are finding the high knowledge person to help them for preparing the new country that was just released from Lon Nol regime!” My mother said “No, you don’t be thinking like that as if we say the truth as they will bring us to the place to be executed and kill us lest we go.”
From Phnom Penh to Svay Rieng Province, it is about 122 kilometers or 75 miles. They spent one month to go there by foot. When at the border between Prey Veng and Svay Rieng Province, there was a Khmer Rouge that stopped them and brought her father inside the Pagoda. They waited for him to come out until 6:00pm on the outside of the Pagoda fence wondering why they kept him so long.
Finally the Army of the Khmer Rouge came out to them “All of you go to your homeland first as Mr. Keo Kann will follow you after we ask him some questions.” Keo Kann is the name of her father. Because many of the relatives and friends of their family were on the side of the Khmer Rouge, there was speculation that the Khmer Rouge were indeed awaiting his arrival as they were stopped at the Control Station. Botevy was tearful to the man and said “No, I don’t go if without my dad, I wait until you finish your questions please as soon as possible, and please give him some drink of water because we were walking for a long time.” The man said nothing but went back inside. Without his information about her father “the sun started to set, the voice of a tiny bird at the big tree of Pagoda shouted piercing to all my family’s feelings especially my mom . . .” then they continued their travail without their much-loved father.
It was so dark and they walked “with the sadness feeling,” and when the dog barked so seriously, her mother carried her youngest brother as he was only eighteen months old. Botevy suggested to her mother, “Please give Ny to get on my bicycle and I can hold him because I saw my mom walking unsteady with her feelings about my dad.” From the Control Station that stopped her father to her grandfather’s house, it was about 30 kilometers or 18 miles, so her tiny brothers and sisters had to walk for two more days. Her mother used the jewelry, watches and other things like medicine to barter for getting rice for them to eat. In the long way to her grandfather’s house, there was not only their family but many families walking along the dirt road toward their homeland and also there were many kinds of terrible life of Khmer people.
When they finally reached her paternal grandfather’s house, he pitied them so very much and asked her mother many questions regarding her father (their son). They stayed at her grandfather’s for two more days, and then they were divided into the people coming from Phnom Penh to stay in one group and the people from other Provinces into another group. The name they gave to the people was Captives but they were identified by their location (i.e. Phnom Penh Captives and Province Captives. The Leader of that village “would call for a Captive Meeting two or three times a day as they would teach us many kinds of things that made our feelings known about their new policy.” They wanted all the people to have equal rights without poor or rich persons without master, engineer, without all occupations they said in the meeting. ”We are all best farmers, without protest if anyone does not agree, you will get killed by the new rule, no talking to each other more than five words only, building the hut (tent for protection) by yourself and collecting anything of value to give to Ongka (leaders in Pol Pot regime).”
Pol Pot’s Army continued to keep the Captive’s house for living divided into the two groups: one group from Phnom Penh and the other group from the Provinces. Because it made it easier for them to make an investigation as every night they appointed an investigator to listen secretly around the Captive’s house. If they found the information that they considered to be a betrayal of Ongka, they would kill that family. All of these people were further divided into the following groups:
- The group of older people that cannot work at the rice field and have to take care of children from 1-2-3-4 years old, and guard the dry rice before it is sent to mill (grinding the rice into flour without machines as they used their hands and feet) using a hammer.
- The father and mother that work at the rice field around the village.
- Some children from 5-12 years old work with father and mother – some take care of ox, cow and water buffalo.
The adults from 13-25 or single have to live in the big groups they called the Frontline Troop that work as mobile groups everywhere. The younger ones were organized into Youth Groups. They worked very hard in the rice fields and were called “lazy” when in fact, they were just tired. Often they would pretend to be sick just to get a chance to rest. When they got very sick with a serious fever, the doctor of Pol Pot gave injections of coconut juice and for all kinds of other diseases, they were given the same medicine made from the skin (bark) of the tree (they pounded the skin of the tree with the mortar making it into a powder and added honey, then rolling it into a small ball and drying it in the sun). But many of them were executed. They were not allowed to mix socially with the opposite sex or even to look at them — if anyone was found to be with another member of the opposite sex by investigators, they were warned and spent time in the “no wall jail.” If caught one more time, they were executed.
During this time when Botevy was appointed by the manager of the Frontline Group, she met Vanneth for the first time as they slept in the same tent of 48 women sleeping on two slatted beds of 24 on each. When they first met, they pointed to one another and Vanneth asked me “Have you ever studied at Svay Rieng Krong School?” And Botevy answered “Yes, I have, and also I remember you were in the group of basketball girls for Neary School, do you still remember me?” Neary School was an all-girl school. Vanneth said “Yes, I do, we have ever competed the basketball together.” Botevy replied “Yes, how are you friend?” She said “I am fine and how about you?” Botevy said “I am good but not happy because I miss my mom and dad.” Vanneth came close to Botevy and whispered “Don’t be sad and make your face happy when they look at us.” Then they smiled “with the tear.” Botevy loved Vanneth so very much as she was so kind to her and worked very hard with no complaints. When Botevy would feel sad thinking about her father, she would go up to Vanneth and say something to make her feel happy.
In this setting, they would get up very early in the morning from 3:30am to squat in line and ordered to sing the Khmer Rouge national song (a new song in the Pol Pot generation) — then getting their assignments for the day. Direct orders were given that they repeated over and over again. The meeting lasted 20-30 minutes and they would leave without any breakfast. They departed walking in line barefoot in the dark until they reached their work site where they were divided into smaller groups until their work was completed. When each of the groups finished, they were able to rest or return to the tent. Rarely did that happen as there was so much work to be done for the entire group. They worked very hard until the sun set, sometimes they were not finished. In that case, the other group would often help the group next to them.
The work consisted of laboring in the rice fields in the dry season and building up walls of dirt (by hand carrying the dirt in fishing baskets) to create lakes during the monsoon season. Their lunch period was a brief 30 minutes long and consisted of a cup full of rice porridge which was usually cooked a long time with a few spoonfuls of rice in large cooking pots with mostly water in which salt was added. Because there was little rice, it did not satisfy their hunger for a long period of time. To get more food, the Captives would forage through fields looking into the dirt for anything edible. They picked fruit from trees, leaves from bushes and trees and drank well water where they could find it. But if they were caught getting food, they were executed. They were given no time to rest except during the eating periods.
At 8:00pm in the evening, they would leave their place of work to walk the long way to their tents in the dark of the night. The Captives would eat a small dinner (the same as the lunch) and then would bathe before retiring with each grouping of three women sharing one small pan of water. There were no shoes on their feet and many suffered from severe cuts on the bottom of their feet walking over leaves, twigs and thorns. They were issued once a year two suits of clothes and one krammar (scarf) for protection from the sun per year.
At times the youth group was tented close to Botevy’s house and during the time when the moon was full and there was light overhead, she would slowly and carefully come to her house often with her cousin. They did not have enough food to eat at the youth group so her mother would save food for her. Then she would return when they called for them to get back into their group. The people told her that they kill people by hanging them from a tree by their necks so the people would be afraid of ghosts. But the two of them were not afraid. If their tent was close enough to her house, she would even get away to spend the night sleeping at her house.
As the youth group moved around, it was a big job for everyone to help with it not only moving the tent, but also all of the equipment as well. Botevy would carry the rice and the pan they cooked it in. They had to carry their own small supply of clothes and their water to drink from the bottle. She carried the hoe to dig in the ground and any other hardware or tools to bring it all together with food, salt and things for catching fish to make prohawk – a special food loved by Cambodians!
One day a group of hundreds of members of the Ta Saus District were asked by their District President to come and watch a movie in the pagoda (there were no monks now in the pagodas). Within the Khmer Rouge, there were two groups – one was made up of friendly members and another group of wicked men. These evil men of the Khmer Rouge told the group of young men and women to leave the pagoda to instead sit inside a very large hole that they helped to dig, with the movie screen at one end. They waited for one hour and Botevy was getting restless for the movie to start when her own District President asked his members to come out of the hole and return to their tents. The next day they found the remaining young people in the hole had all be killed by a bomb thrown into the hole on them.
Botevy’s family never knew for sure where her father was located. He was captured in May of 1975 as they had been walking for one month at that time when he was taken away from them. Prisoners were generally held in a pagoda with no monks inside. But one time when Botevy was digging in the ground to make a canal to take the water to the rice plants, she saw him in a line walking where they had his hands tied behind him, not only him but 20 other prisoners along the road. He did not see Botevy as she had the Kramma over her head during the time the sun was so strong. She said to her friend as they were digging, “It looks like my father.” And her friend and cousin said “Yes, it is your father!” And when her father looked over at us . . . one person in my family that came to join with the our group called to the youth group to “work hard – work hard” so that perhaps her father would look over at them and it seemed like he did. She ran ahead to the hole to try to see him better but not dare go into the hole as that is where you would die. But her father’s location was along the road — Botevy and her group asked the Army of Pol Pot to let her go to that place where her father lives with Pol Pot’s Army. They were so kind and agreed to let her father go to where her mother lives.
When her father arrived, his own father greeted and met him, they hugged each other as they cried saying “Ooh, ooh” in a sorrowful voice. Botevy was able to get permission to go to her mother’s house to run and give him a hug. This house where they lived was made by her Uncle-in-law and had only one room. Her brother caught two chickens and then Botevy killed them even though it was against their Buddhist belief to kill anything. Her mother cooked the chickens and gave it to her husband to eat but he did not eat or drink saying to Botevy “All your brothers and sisters, I know they are hungry.” He said that because they are the children and were hungry – he said he would not eat. And he looked on at his own six children eating the food, and they never had chicken so good as this to eat.
Her father was there only two hours. Botevy walked with her family to the grandfather’s house one kilometer from the small house – and then her father and grandfather wanted to see the tent house that Botevy lived in. She was given permission to go back to her mother’s house. Even though her father did not eat the chicken, they fixed chicken and sticky rice for him to take back with him in the Kramma. Her father joined back with the group of men and Botevy thinks that he never ate that food as Pol Pot’s men were hungry too and they were kind enough to allow him to go and meet his family.
There was one more time that Botevy got to see her father again. Botevy had gone with her grandmother in the field when someone pointed out to her a house that her father was living in. It was a hard time to try to get closer to the house as they were harvesting the red and yellow rice. Now Botevy had her mother with her when they came closer and closer to the house. Once they got close enough, Botevy asked the guard with the gun about her father but they did not let her inside the house. They waited and waited from a little farther back and then her father came out and pretended to walk to get exercise but they could not call off to him to look their way. She wanted to call “Papa, Papa” (as that is what she called him) but they were not allowed to do that. And then the two of them just looked at each other feeling so sad as they cannot talk to him — and it was the last time to see him. Perhaps two or three months later, they heard that he died. He suffered much during his imprisonment as they asked him two times every night the same question that he would never answer to them – “What did you do in the Lon Nol generation?” The last time they asked him the question, he truly could not answer as he became too sick — they were told he died from the sickness and starvation. They found out from her father’s cousin who is with the Army of Pol Pot and comes to her mother at night and tells her he is dead. Her mother acted like she was crazy as she was so afraid so they moved far away. Botevy did not see her mother any more while working in the youth group.
Part II – Ouk Vanneth’s Story
(as told to her daughter, Neth)
In my childhood, I, Vanneth lived with my parents for a very short time because my family had little happiness. My father always made arguments with my mother – he was an addict with girls, would drink and gamble at games until my mother could not put up with him any longer. They were divorced with much violence and torture.
From that time when my mother became single, she sold Banh Duk to afford us three daughters. She would make Banh Duk for me to carry everyday from early morning until night to sell.
Because of facing poverty, my mother decided to bring me to live with my aunt and uncle. I didn’t study so much because no one supported my studying. I plucked the vegetables and carried them to sell to get a small income to buy clothes and study material. Because of my circumstances, I did not get high knowledge.
When I was studying, I had two or three friends and among them, Tevy (Botevy) was my closest friend. She is very kind and of good behavior. We studied in different schools, as I studied at Neary School and she studied in Svay Reing School in the town. We would rarely meet each other, and we met only at the time that our school set the football match.
From 1970 until 1975, the war and revolution was happening continually. Khmer Rouge changed Lon Nol regime to a killing regime. They exiled people who lived in the city to live in rural areas in all of the country. They forced the people to do many kinds of hard work and killed without pity. Husbands, wives and children did not live together as they were separated to live in the different places. Pol Pot brought me and other people to work in a mobile group. They forced us to transplant and seed the rice, build the rice field dike by digging the canal from 3:00am until 7:00pm at night. Sometimes when we arrived at our place, we didn’t have a bath and we only had a little rice or porridge – we slept with the wet tattered cloth. Because we had only one suit of clothes on our body and no other clothes to change in to, we were very cold and chilled most of the time.
In this time, I met Keo Botevy and we were very happy when we met each other. Pol Pot regime was a very long three years, eight months and twenty days. In the year of 1979, all the people were free from the Pol Pot regime, and they came back to their homeland. Tevy and I went a different way, and I did not know where she went and if she was dead or alive.
My life after the freedom from the Pol Pot regime left me with no parents or relatives anymore. I came to Phnom Penh and worked as a garment factory worker. At that time, I was married to a man, and we went back to live in Svay Reing. I hoped we would have happiness, but everything wasn’t like what I ever thought. He left me and our four children. My children became a Father orphaned, and I became a widow – we were very pitiful and struggled in Svay Reing Province.
In the year of 1997, I brought my children to live in Phnom Penh because they needed to study. From the year of 2001 to 2002, the Elders of my church were spreading the good news. My children asked me to get the good news from the God. I agreed with them and told them to study and try to take good things from the good news because the good news never teaches a bad thing.
When the Elders invited me to the church, I didn’t want to go because I thought of myself as a strange person. From one week to one week, the Elders still tried to invite me to go to the church until I agreed to bring my children there. The Elders were very happy when I agreed to go to the church. In the church, many members and Elders were very nice giving me a very warm welcome. I had no longer felt alone anymore. The time I nearly left the church, the Elders asked me to join the head down into the water ceremony (baptism). Then I stood near the door and suddenly I saw a woman who seemed ever known to me from before. At that time, the woman turned to me and saw me, then we pointed to each other and asked “Are you Tevy?” — ”Are you Vanneth?” and then we ran to each other with tears from our two eyesl. After I introduced my children to Tevy – I have four children – three sons and one daughter. And Tevy has three daughters.
In the year of 2002, I and my children agreed to head down into the water full of belief. By then, I didn’t go to church very often because I had a chronic sickness, but I always have a strong belief. Because of my belief to Jesus, the God offered my daughter to have the opportunity to study in the U.S.A.
In the year of 2006, I and Tevy set up an NGO named CICFO.
Part III – The end of the tale . . . and beginning of CICFO.
At that time, in the beginning of 1979, an agreement with Hun Sen’s group who went to ask the Vietnamese Army to release the Cambodians being held from Pol Pot’s Army. All Cambodian people living near the border next to Vietnam had to move from the field of fighting – Pol Pot’s Army fighting with the Vietnamese Army, some of the Cambodian Army joins with the Vietnamese Army to release Cambodia from Pol Pot, and there were lots of sounds of the guns shooting so our family moved with other people to Neak Leng River to move away from the gun shooting. In a week, there was an announcement from the radio that the Cambodian population was released from Pol Pot generation. It was a bad situation at that time as the pro-Cambodian and pro-Pol Pot people were fighting because Cambodians had the freedom to fight back to the Khmer Rouge so they had a small war from that – individual fighting. But her family was not fighting with that and moved back to Phnom Penh. Vanneth’s family moved to Svay Reing.
Then finally on 7 January 1979, Vietnamese and United Front for the National Salvation of Kampuchea troops entered Phnom Penh and ended the reign of the Khmer Rouge. The Khmer Rouge fled to sanctuaries along the Thai border. In Phnom Penh, the People’s Republic of Cambodia is proclaimed with Heng Samrin as Prime Minister and Hun Sen as Foreign Minister. It gains control of over 90% of the country including all provincial capitals. The ruling party is named the People’s Revolutionary Party of Kampuchea.
Botevy and Vanneth never met again until 1980. At that time, Botevy became a teacher in the Primary Ouna Loum School teaching and making tests for the teachers, and Vanneth worked at the Coca Cola Factory in front of Ouna Loum School. Only one time did they see one another by just waving to each other as they didn’t have time to talk.
In the year of 1985, Botevy ended her employment to be a teacher at the Primary School because her baby was born, and she could not teach the students. She worked as a receptionist at the Hawaii Hotel in Phnom Penh, also doing tailor work in her home. They left their house to live in the Toul Kork District and her business was now running the Karaoke Shop. She earned a lot of money until 2002, when she closed the shop and was unemployed. Botevy took all of that money to purchase land and “my hand was empty with no money. I felt very hopeless as I am so poor and I have my husband, three daughters and myself with no money.”
Botevy tried hard to learn English at her home with her daughter. Her cousin was her English teacher for a while when she first learned English, but she wanted to learn with a natural English-speaking teacher. Botevy asked her cousin which school has the natural English teachers, and she said that she knows one church that has many American English teachers, and they teach free of charge. So one day she decided to go to the church and asked the teacher if she could learn English with them. Sister Erikson was her first English teacher in the church. She also tries to teach her how to play the piano, but she was a poor student and didn’t learn how to play the piano.
One day she saw a lot of people who were at the church getting their teeth fixed so she wanted to get her teeth fixed as well. She asked the people in front of the door the people passed to go into the room to have their teeth checked, “Can I go inside and have the dentist fix my teeth?” They asked her if she was a member of the church, and she said “no” she was not yet a member. And then she asked “How can I become a member of your church and get a document of the church?” He replied that she could not get a document to apply for the church but to come to church on Sunday.
That Sunday, she came with her daughter to join in with the church and the people and young missionaries welcomed her to come inside. That day she attended church for two hours. The missionaries made an appointment with her to teach her a lesson at her house about the Book of Mormon. They taught her how to pray in English and in Khmer. Then one Sunday, they had a Conference at the Inter-Continental Hotel, Botevy her daughter joined in the Conference. She still remembers that Sunday being a very important one for her life ”I know that the God is very true for my praying as He answered my prayers to Him about my land. Someone called me that very day about buying my land. I wanted to sell my land so long ago and it never happened for me. Then I knew that God listened and answered my prayers. I have a testimony every Sunday for that happening to me and I believe in Jesus Christ still to this day.”
Botevy learned and accepted the lessons with the missionaries, and at the time she received Lesson 4 – she amazingly met Vanneth at church as she was sitting in front of Botevy — she reached up and touched her arm saying “Are you Vanneth?” during Sunday School class. And she turned around and said “Ah, Tevy!” After they met at church, they joined each other learning English together in the church. Both of their families attended church every Sunday and saw each other a lot. Botevy and her whole family were baptized on 29 December 2002, and Vanneth a few months later on 2 February 2003 – first her oldest son, Vichaka, joined the church and Neth later on. They both agree, it is so nice to have the two of them in church together as they were both in Branch 7 until it was divided.
During this time, Botevy was asked to be a Counselor in the Relief Society Branch 7 – and then later she became their President of the Relief Society. In 2004, Vanneth returned from a six-month trip to France to visit her son, Vichaka. At that time, a woman asked Vanneth and Botevy to help her set up an organization that would help many orphaned and abandoned children along the streets. Twenty children were collected by sharing their own funds to support all of the children living at the center on Vanneth’s ex-husband’s land. The name was Children Rehabilitation Organization. For one year, the woman was the President but it became difficult as the funding received from an Elder’s parents was in her hands and never seen by Botevy and Vanneth. After the funders also became disenchanted with her leadership of the organization, they denied funding the organization so the women divided up the children within ten days. The children were told, and they were all crying together as they worried and did not want to be split up or go to another place.
At the same time, Margie King on her mission reported that a person in America was willing to take on the funding getting people in America to support the organization through the Give2Asia Foundation. The original woman was wanting to use the new funding by making extravagant demands rather than prudent judgment with the money — eventually she gave up trying. She backed out of the organization as they divided up the physical assets equally. At that time, the old organization was officially closed down with the Ministry of Interior.
Botevy and Vanneth started a new organization as now their lives would be once again entwined. They considered when registering the new organization with the Ministry of Interior naming it Cambodian and International Children Friend Organization (CICFO) how they could impact Cambodia’s most significant and prized group – its children! The organization was set up with its vision to be an equitable, peaceful, self-reliant and independent life for the children who are most vulnerable to have opportunities to actively participate in their society. Their Mission is to support and enhance the most vulnerable children and teenagers to have equal rights and opportunities to fully be responsible for their independent life. Part of this is guiding the children to be good citizens, support appropriate local initiatives, staff to work closely with government, Ministry of Education and classroom teachers to make sure their education is promoted and relevant. CICFO works closely with the families whose goal is to be able to return any of the children to their own village if and when the family is capable of caring properly for them including their education. Thus far 35% of the children of CICFO have been successfully reunited with their former family.
6 June 2006 was their beginning when CICFO officially became registered with the Ministry of Interior at the offices of government of Cambodia. Koe Botevy is the Director and Ouk Vanneth is her Assistant. There were 26 children at that time. Since then, the children have been living with happiness through loving care in a home which shelters and feeds (but so much more) – their own self-proclaimed motto is “Best Home – Best Family!” They are all enrolled in the public schools and transported by a TukTuk initially, and now their own bus. Besides learning general subjects at the public schools, their lives have been enhanced by being taught English and Korean both the language and culture, singing, dancing, sports, farming, cooking and self-help skills. From its beginning, the children have the opportunity to learn computer skills and that coupled with the acquired languages will afford them additional opportunities to acquire a job to support themselves and perhaps someday, a family of their own.
The country of Cambodia has two seasons: the dry season and the monsoon season. During the monsoon season, there was much flooding until more flood control systems were created on the main roads leading to the orphanage and fill dirt brought into the CICFO facility itself. But during that time, visitors were coming to see the orphanage from Hong Kong, and the sisters and children wanted their friends, Elder and Sister Bulpitt, to be able to easily come to see them. They filled bags with sand and found stepping stones (a backbreaking job for the women and children) to lie across the top of the sand bags which made access to CICFO easy and safe. There was much joy in their hearts to please their dear friends.
The children have been exposed to many memorable outings in their bus to places outside of Phnom Penh – Bassith Mountain, Svay Rieng Province, the beach at Sihanoukville, Reim Island, Kball Chay Resort – and local outings here in Phnom Penh such as the Soriya Market, Royal Palace, Diamond Island, Raffles Hotel, Water Park and the Water Festival.
It is important for the children to learn about their culture and a big part of that is gaining the skills of the traditional dances and music. These skills started off slowly as they gained the opportunity to dance the traditional Coconut Dance at first taught to them from a local friend (Kong Seiha) and then hired teachers to come to CICFO teaching more traditional dances including the Monkey Dance. The children had an opportunity for six months to attend the local Apsara Dancing Studio where their skills improved even more. These acquired skills have now been enjoyed many times in performances within the society here in Cambodia both at the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and the Youth Art Festival of Phnom Penh, attended by the King. Their desire to share willingly is realized in the fact that it is done with the sole purpose of instilling pride in their beloved country and its culture rather than being paid for their efforts. Pattika, one of the oldest children, practices with the children each evening to keep up their skills plus teach the younger ones their cultural dances.
Many of the children demonstrate their artist abilities by painting and drawing plus some have learned how to crochet and make beautiful works of art such as cards and calendars. The children are producing colorful bracelets now being sold internationally which theglobaloutreach group (who sends volunteers here to work with the children for a month at a time) have spearheaded. Many of Sophanuth’s and Phanith’s drawings have been made into greeting cards. This is their first try in earning their own money and now they will be getting training on saving their money in working toward a self-determined goal. The goods sold at their home are in the CICFO Children’s Boutique.
The Kang Name Korean School here in Phnom Penh has been teaching the children not only their Korean language but how to play musical instruments including the guitar, keyboard and drums. One of the children, Phanith, made two home-made drum sets and then was given by friends of the orphanage a complete professional drum set and now many of the children can play the drums. Both the guitar and keyboard skills have been taught to the children who in turn, teach the other children how to enjoy performing music. The chimes are played annually as well especially during the Christmas season.
Some of the schools from South Korea, have been making annual trips with new groups of young adults through the COPION organization to offer additional Korean language training and also provide the opportunity to create or improve the physical properties of the orphanage. Some of the projects include building structures, painting walls, creating signs and cement work for a new gate. This is done while playing games with the children and truly having fun with them. The Koreans share their culture with songs, dancing and also their foods. While they start off as strangers, in a matter of a few days, there are tears in both groups when the Korean youth depart.
The Sky Program they joined involved bringing the 15 to 17 year old children together to teach them skills to prepare themselves for a life of independent living. The program has been very useful for the youth at CICFO and even at one time included all of the children in a fun all-day activity with games to play and each child getting their own briefcase.
Mushroom Farming was started to help the orphanage become more self-sufficient. This is a wonderful skill that is taught as CICFO children all know how to produce them through the various steps that yield a much sought-after harvest. This unique skill they perform will eventually equip those that leave the orphanage the ability to become a very productive adult to employ in seeking meaningful work.
The children use good hygiene practices, keeping themselves and their belongings clean including their clothes. They have daily jobs that they all share in including cooking, cleaning the bus, helping to repair the driveway to the orphanage, keeping the trash and rubbish both at the orphanage, along their street and in their community picked up and put into the trash receptacles. Some of the youth at CICFO belong to organizations at school including Boy Scouts of Cambodia and the Cambodian Red Cross participating in many local community services.
Another wonderful happening at CICFO is the care with which the children give to one another – they are more like a real family. They act like siblings (and many are) helping each other with school, but also anything they may need to learn. They are very polite to visitors and make them feel welcome. People who come here often say there is a very special feeling amongst the children who are so loving and kind.
CICFO offers up its gratitude to the persons who have given their time, talents and means to offer the Charity they try to instill in the children. Many people have shared with CICFO including foreigners and missionaries have given in the way of sharing their culture and whatever means of helping with meeting the children’s needs. Their kindnesses have been given by siblings, children/grandchildren or close friends for a specific needs of CICFO to fulfill such needs as construction work, a school bus, computers, professional eye examinations with corrective lens glasses, cement work, the basketball standard, bags of rice, clothing, shoes, hygiene kits, blankets, school supplies and uniforms, haircuts, Christmas dinner and gifts for Christmas and birthdays. They were even taught by a Canadian cowboy the art of lassoing a calf!
The boys (and eventually the girls) have been given the opportunity to gain skills in their beloved sport – soccer. They have played games in their first pair of shoes at the Olympic Stadium and participate in an all-day sports activity there being very confident and have demonstrated promising ability which might be offered to pursue for themselves in the future. Their encouraging coach is a Nigerian.
While CICFO has been able to provide English and computer skills to the children there, others in the neighborhood have also been allowed to come to the CICFO facility and learn along with the orphans as their abundance of love and goodness is shared willingly with others who are in need of the same knowledge.
Other people have been kind in providing necessities such as a water filtration system to have clean water just from a quick visit to the orphanage having felt the feeling that most who come there share “This orphanage is different than the others we have seen.” The difference they observe are the sisters, Botevy and Vanneth, who direct its operation as they are LDS Cambodians unlike almost all of the other orphanages in Cambodia that may have often employ Cambodian caregivers but are directed by foreign NGO’s.
The people of Cambodia are a rare race of people, in spite of their hardships, hold no guile, are giving and kind, soft-spoken and their degree of Charity is innate and abundant. Years of war in Cambodia might have left them angered and resentful – centuries of Cambodian Kings selling off much of their country which once covered most of Southeast Asia to Thailand and Vietnam, the war in Vietnam in the 60’s left many of the Vietnamese fleeing to Cambodia and still remain in Cambodia, fatal land mines remained throughout the country killing or leaving many people without limbs. Soon thereafter, the Pol Pot regime took over decimating the country brutally killing anyone who was in the Cambodian government, the educated and in the fine arts, destroying documents or anything that would relate to their unique way of life, turning the country upside down and when they were emancipated, leaving survivors near starvation with nothing but their own lives having lost family members or separating loved ones to the extent that many never have become reunited.
The good news is that the younger generation is “thirsty” for an education spending any spare time they have studying, reading and attending classes in English and computer skills that will enhance their ability to earn money and become self-sufficient. Cambodians are not given to begging and often their own people refer to beggars as “lazy people.” Much of the labor performed in Cambodia is manual as one observes construction workers doing excavation work with their own hands and even carrying off the dirt in fishing baskets! Pulleys are used to lift heavy bricks in large paint buckets up to the desired floor of remodeling jobs. Cambodians are not afraid to work and do so abundantly. They remain a proud people (in a good way) of their Kampuchea (Cambodia) and love to share its virtues with those who come here. Tourism is making a difference and many countries (South Korea and Japan) have come here to help these people get “back on their feet” once again. The Cambodians have survived for Centuries and no doubt, they will again become the proud nation of people who exemplify goodness in all that they do. Their ability to retain their own innate goodness remains and hopefully in spite of the Western world’s influences, they will hold strong to their beautiful ways of life.
CICFO has always held fast to their initial purpose of trying to provide a loving family-like atmosphere for these children who for whatever reason have needed care outside of their original family, but because their own family is their ultimate goal, a large number of the children who have come to CICFO have been successfully returned to whatever remaining family members can now give them the proper care and education they deserve. Family is considered the highest form of life here on the Earth, and is respected and honored by CICFO for each of these precious children.
And the two sisters in this epic story – Vanneth’s eldest son, Vichaka, is a well-known make-up artist living the last several years near Paris, France. Neth, her daughter is a recent graduate from Brigham Young University at Hawaii majoring in Social Work. After further studies, she will return to her beloved Cambodia to the delight of all of the children at the orphanage! Her second son, Phanou, is married and works side-by-side with his new wife in their own family business. Sophanuth is a promising student in High School following his mother’s artistic abilities and hopes to get further schooling to explore his aspirations of becoming a well-known artist.
Botevy and her husband and daughters have all been sealed in the Hong Kong Temple. Of Botevy’s three grown daughters, her oldest daughter is married and awaiting her Visa to live in America working as a manicurist. Her second daughter is married to a successful Cambodian who lives in France. She has her own Beauty Salon. Her youngest is pursuing her career in beauty enhancements.
And if that isn’t enough . . . their tale will be never ending as both sisters have adopted infant sons one year apart. So their story will continue on – and someday they will be with the most righteous ones in the Heavens above for their valiant and untiring service to the children here in their beloved Cambodia!