Soft-spoken and shy, Thu Sok, 49, begins our interview with an apology. “I’m illiterate,” he says, “I don’t think I can answer any of your questions.”
We’re sitting in this tiny wood-walled, dirt-floored café on Koh Trung, a Mekong River island over 300km northeast of Phnom Penh. Everyone on the island farms: rice, bananas, beans, cucumbers, pomelos, coconuts… Indigo blue butterflies flit between the trees—more butterflies than I’ve ever seen—while the sonorous chanting of monks can be heard rising and falling from a nearby pagoda.
Across the muddy river is Kratie—a small town of weather-stained colonial shops and old wooden houses. When I visited the town in September 2011, more than half of it was flooded.
Thu Sok supports his wife and children by farming, selling coconuts, and hauling sacks of coal. He doesn’t complain about his quality of life—his simple and unchanging poverty is paradise compared to the horrors he endured in the 1970s.
At 14, a local Khmer Rouge commander forced Thu Sok to join Pol Pot’s army. Thu Sok had no choice: it was death now, or death later. The farm boy learned how to fire pistols, machine guns, and RPGs.
“In 1977, they sent us to defend Memot District in Kampong Cham Province,” Thu Sok says. Memot District is a piece of land that juts right into southern Vietnam.
Cambodia and South Vietnam’s pro-American governments fell to communist forces within two weeks of each other in April 1975. Earlier that month, Cambodia’s Prince Sirik Matak penned a response to the U.S. ambassador’s asylum offer: “I cannot, alas, leave in such a cowardly fashion… I never believed for a moment that you would have this sentiment of abandoning a people which has chosen liberty… I have only committed the mistake of believing in you, the Americans.” Shortly after the fall of Phnom Penh, Prince Sirik Matak was shot in the stomach by the Khmer Rouge, then left to die of his wounds.
The Vietnam People’s Army and the Khmer Rouge, once allies in their fight against Western imperialism, began engaging each other in small border skirmishes in May of 1975. By late 1978, these skirmishes had turned into an all-out war—a war that would lead to Vietnam’s ten-year occupation of Cambodia, the ousting of the Khmer Rouge, and the end of Cambodia’s horrific social genocide.
“The Vietnamese surrounded us,” Thu Sok says. “They completely destroyed our unit: there was no way to escape.” Outnumbered and outgunned with his comrades dead and dying around him, Thu Sok decided to put down his weapon and run. Along with several other boy-soldiers, Thu Sok managed to slip through Vietnamese lines and flee into the jungle. Together, the boys walked through the forests and back roads of Kampong Cham and Kratie Provinces. They avoided main arteries—they were afraid of being executed for desertion. “We kept getting lost,” Thu Sok says. “It took a very long time to get home.”
Since getting married in 1986, little has changed in Thu Sok’s life. While his island home has been purged of wildlife, he sees this as a mixed blessing—“at least there are no more cobras.” But, with a $5 billion USD hydroelectric dam about to be opened a short distance upstream—a Chinese-funded project that the inter-governmental Mekong River Commission says will displace nearly 20,000 people and cause irreparable damage to the Mekong’s ecosystem—Thu Sok’s future is anything but certain.
“I try to forget my war experiences,” Thu Sok says. “The 1970s were a miserable time—not only for me, but for the entire country… I like my life the way it is now. I wouldn’t want to change a thing.”