In 1975, I was a young wife and teacher. Although I knew about the Vietnam War, I was blissfully unaware of the U.S. bombings of Cambodia that greatly facilitated the take-over of that country by the Khmer Rouge. I wouldn’t hear about the killing fields until decades later.
Meanwhile, five-year-old Geng, born in Cambodia to Chinese parents, was about to have her world turned upside down. Along with her parents (a photographer and a hair dresser), her brother, and two sisters, she was driven from her home and relocated by the Khmer Rouge.
The next four and a half years consisted of death marches, starvation, forced labor, and dreams of escape. In Beautiful Hero: How We Survived The Khmer Rouge, Geng (now known as Jennifer H. Lau), details their trials and credits her mother, Meiyeng (Beautiful Hero), with keeping the family together and alive.
The beginning of the book, which deals with Lau’s parents’ background, moved slowly for me. But once the story began, the words melted away, and I was immersed in the family’s struggle. Lau uses simple language to narrate the experience from the viewpoint of her five-year-old self, forced by circumstance to endure at a young age what no one should ever have to experience. She describes the crowds of people leaving her village in a forced evacuation, carrying with them prized possessions they had only minutes to gather. Her father carried cameras, protecting his business investment. Her mother packed practical things, food, medicine. They joined their extended family in the street and started their long trek to an unknown future, their terror punctuated with occasional gun shots from the Khmer soldiers accompanying them.
Meiyeng, considering all the information she gleaned from conversations with other evacuees, came up with a strategy for their Khmer Rouge interrogations. She instructed her children, “Never say we had people working for us. Only family members. Never admit we owned land. Never mention we can read and write.” Traditional villagers held value for the Khmer Rouge; those tainted by capitalistic ideas needed “re-education.” Payment of bribes increased their chances of survival, while other Cambodians disappeared, rumored “whacked and dumped.”
Many people talked about escaping to Thailand. In fact, many had fled before the Khmer Rouge came, only to be turned back at the border by soldiers mowing down escapees.
Geng’s extended family decided to separate themselves from their evacuation group while the soldiers were distracted, backtrack toward home, and continue onward to Thailand. They camped for two weeks at a farm, Geng’s father working for the local chief’s collective. Meijing traded her jewelry for rice and livestock, which they slaughtered for food. Unfortuately, the Khmer Rouge knew their whereabouts, and soon came with trucks to round them up, along with others who had been earmarked for termination.
But first they were taken to a labor camp. Their survival depended on their ability to perform long hours of back-breaking labor. Geng’s father was part of a team of men yoked together to pull a plow. Meiyeng planted rice. The work continued beyond their exhaustion. People died from overwork, or from being shot for trying to escape.
Soon, they were marched to a different village where they were allowed to build a hut. They were even allowed to plant a garden, which they did, because food was scarce.
In this village, children were told to watch the newcomers and to report if anyone did anything suspicious or forbidden. Khmer Rouge came to search the family’s hut, and found Geng’s father’s cameras. The soldiers accused them of being spies. Why else would they have so many cameras?
Meiyeng quickly explained they were photographers by trade and apologized that they had not turned in their cameras before then. Her quick thinking, offering the cameras to the soldiers, saved their lives.
Once Meiyeng’s sewing skills were revealed, she worked as a seamstress, making uniforms for the head chief and doing patching and alterations for the villagers. After work, women came to her to have their hair cut to the required bob, and paid her in plants, seeds, rice, and meat.
As the plants in the garden thrived, Meiyeng gave propagations to family and friends, helping them survive the austere conditions. Her dedication to the garden assured the Khmer Rouge she was not a flight risk.
Other villagers advised Meiyeng about how not to draw attention to herself. The family gave up practicing Chinese traditions and spoke only Khmer.
Meanwhile, Geng’s father caught fish at night for his family, defying the regulation that all fish caught belonged to the collective. Later, when he was sent to a labor camp, the loss of the fish brought them close to starvation.
The children’s lives fell into a routine. They were responsible for chores, but they also found time to play. Geng was in charge of the woodpile, and was severely punished if it ran out.
Illness was a constant challenge. Meiyeng administered traditional Chinese healing teachniques to her extended family, like “coining”—scraping the body with the tip of a spoon to rid the sufferer of toxins. The remedy for intestinal worms was much worse. I’ll let you consult the book for that.
Meiyeng became the middleman for the black market in the village. Fluent in Khmer and three Chinese dialects, she moved between the haves and the have-nots, facilitating trades of goods, usually jewelry for rice, and taking a commission.
In May of 1979, when I was a new mother, halfway around the world Geng’s family joined a group of Cambodians fleeing to Thailand. Geng was now nine years old; she had a new baby sister. They entered the jungle with a guide and twelve other families, walking single file in silence, due to soldiers patrolling and fighting nearby. They walked throughout he night, while battles raged around them. After a short nap, they continued, cautioned to watch out for booby traps, until they met up with Thai soldiers, an indication they had crossed the border.
The soldiers were less than benevolent; they searched the refugees’ belongings and took whatever pleased them.
The family joined a large crowd of fellow runaways in a refugee camp. Thai citizens handed them plastic baggies of water, rice, and a blue tarp to use as a tent. After a time, they were herded toward buses to be transported. Again, locals gave them gifts of water, rice, and candy. Finally, someone called to them in Chinese that they were on their way to be “dumped,” but there was no escape. They were forced onto the bus by soldiers’ rifle butts.
Thirteen hours later, they were unloaded at the top of a cliff, and pressed toward the edge with thousands of other refugees. Below them lay Cambodia. And an unmarked minefield. The soldiers commanded them to descend.
For six hours, the crowd stood at the precipice. Then the soldiers fired a barrage. With no other alternative but death, one by one the people jumped off the cliff and rolled down the steep side of the mountain, grabbing at tree roots and boulders, trying to slow their falling bodies. Like a steady waterfall, people streamed down the mountain, forcing those at the bottom to spread out and move away, some triggering mines and getting blown to bits.
Those who survived the descent off the cliff now carefully picked their way across the minefield. Some of the trailblazers lost their lives by accidentally detonating explosives; others successfully navigated by carefully placing their feet in the footprints of those who had gone before, surrounded by the stench of decaying corpses. It took them three months to return to the area of Cambodia they had tried so hard to leave.
I have given you some of the highlights from Beautiful Hero; but the story is by no means complete. I barely touched on what Geng’s family suffered, and the horrifying number of Cambodians who were annihilated at the hands of the Khmer Rouge.
I am ashamed that I was totally oblivious to what happened in Cambodia. Millions of Americans probably have no idea what transpired there. I am thankful to have read this account by a survivor of the atrocities. Jennifer Lau’s Beautiful Hero is a compelling read, a story of perseverance through great adversity. I read it in Kindle format.