January 7 is a great day in Cambodia. We call it “Bram-pi Makara” in Cambodian. If you are going to celebrate anything, January 7th is a good day. January 7th is the day that Phnom Penh fell to the Cambodian and Vietnamese army setting the way for fall of the Khmer Rouge. Better yet, it was when my wife, Noit, was freed from the Khmer Rouge!
On January 7, the Khmer Rouge began leaving the area where my wife was held in Northwest Cambodia and taking thousands of Cambodians with them. My wife, about 15 years old at the time, was rounded up with a bunch of other children. They had nearly completed building a water canal and in typical Khmer Rouge fashion would be executed after each finished project. They told them to hike west to the mountains that were visible in the distance. You obeyed or died. Upon arrival most of the people would also be killed. My wife headed out, but halfway through the day she became homesick. Not really homesick, because she didn’t have a home, she was living in a grass hut with no walls for nearly four years. She slept on torn grass mats right on the dirt each night. She was so skinny, all you could see was bones on her skeleton. She weighed less than 60 pounds (25 kilos). For the last 3 years, 8 months, and 21 days. . .a day etched in the minds of every Cambodian over forty years old. . . she had lived off of 1 cup of rice a day, divided between 22 people. She missed her mother and wanted to try and find her.
As she ran away from her group, she knew it would be a death sentence if she was caught. She just kept running to get away. Something was pulling inside her to get away. She eventually came to a large road. It was deserted. She huddled in the bushes to rest.
Then she heard a sound: A strange roar coming from down the road. For nearly four years she had seen no vehicles nor heard an engine roar. She was petrified. She peeked down the road to see what was coming. A line of military vehicles with light skinned soldiers was coming. She cowered in fear. They stopped next to her. They were Vietnamese soldiers.
They simply said, “You can go home. The Khmer Rouge are gone.” It was over. January 7, 1979. 31 years ago.
Over 3 million Cambodians died, but my wife was not one of them. She was not one of them because of January 7. Some young people say we should not celebrate January 7 because it also symbolizes the day when the Vietnamese occupied Cambodia. But we remember January 7 because of life that began again on that day.
“If there was no January 7, there would be no Cambodia today.” –Prime Minister Hun Sen, Commander of the Cambodian forces.