When we hear the word “traitor” we think of someone stealing state secrets on military weapons design, or some classified aircraft part. In Cambodia, under the Khmer Rouge a traitor was anyone who stole from “Ongka”. Ongka was what the Khmer Rouge called themselves. It is a word which just means “organization”. Everything, literally, was owned by Ongka, so it was pretty easy to be convicted as a traitor.
Noit was born in Phnom Penh and her father was a teacher, so when the Khmer Rouge took over Cambodia, they considered the “city people” to be the source of all the problems in Cambodia, therefore, as punishment, they were to be worked to death. Under their Maoist brainwashing they determined that no one in the entire country could own anything or have a separate life apart from anyone else. Everyone, in their ideal communist state, would be equal. . . except for the city people. They had no value. Money was abolished and the national bank of Cambodia was blown up. Personal property was seized and destroyed. Colorful clothes were burned. Every person was issued two sets of clothes, all black, by the state. Everyone would eat together from one bowl. No one could live in a house, but instead everyone was required to live in makeshift grass shelters. All families were separated as their mantra went, “You have no family but Ongka.” Everything, every tree, blade of grass, house or cow, including a person’s life, was the property of the state.
Cambodia is a beautiful tropical country in which we have a hot climate all year round and fruit trees are abundant. However, all trees and their fruit belonged to “Ongka”. Anyone who touched a fruit, or even a leaf, would be “re-educated”. A single offence would lead to immediate execution or torture. A second offence would always lead to death. As people were starving to death everything was a temptation to try to eat. People often tried to secretly pick leaves from trees to eat something with some nutrients. However, any stealing of a leaf would have to be done in absolute secret, because the Khmer Rouge nightly grilled every person to see if they had seen any “traitorous” offenses. Most people who were executed for eating leaves or insects were reported on by people who were also starving. In their minds they probably hoped that the Khmer Rouge would be merciful to them for providing information, however, they often executed both the thief and the one who reported them. Fear of being called a traitor gripped everyone. Noit recalls that the most horrible feeling during the Khmer Rouge was not the constant hunger from only receiving a few grains of rice a day, nor the exhaustion, but the fear of being reported as a traitor for eating a leaf and then being tortured to death.
The older grandmothers were taken to a separate place because they were considered useless to the communist cause. They only used them to take care of infant children who were too young to care from themselves. All mothers, once recovered from birth were often separated from the new-born babies so the mothers could return to the fields to work. Care of the babies was left to random old women. They were rarely fed, so they often died. Noit’s youngest brother, Sit, was cared for by such a grandmother. Noit missed her younger brother, but found out that he was only a few kilometers away. She only saw him about once a year though, but even then they had to pretend they weren’t siblings when they did meet. Each time Noit saw an older grandmother she tried to help them. She found she was good at catching insects and little crabs that lived in the rice paddies with her bare hands. Rather than keep the insects and crabs to eat herself she would give them to the grandmothers. Maybe in her heart she was hoping that the grandmothers she helped could be the ones caring for her little brother. Such an act would have made her guilty of treason and certainly she would have been tortured to death, however, the grandmothers were so grateful they kept her secret hidden. Sometimes, when the work was too exhausting, they would help to hide Noit so she wouldn’t die under the workload that was expected of a young teenage girl.
Even today, any Cambodian over forty who survived the Khmer Rouge can walk next to a field and immediately point out any tree or bush which is editable and can describe for you the taste of its leaves. They still sell numerous kinds of insects fried up as snacks as well. For this they were traitors.