by Men Pechet
I have rarely, next to never, observed my mother’s hands. Yet one day before I left home for the office, I glanced at my mother, and then, at her hands. I noticed wrinkles have conquered the smooth hands I used to hold. We did not exchange a word; I just roared down the road on my motorbike as usual.
During my commute, my mind kept returning to the image of my mother’s hands. Memories of my childhood overwhelmed me. Suddenly, I realised that time has whisked away the bittersweet memories of the past without my having noticed. Inexplicably, the story of my mother’s childhood experiences during the Khmer Rouge regime settled in my mind.
Before 1970, my mother’s family led a blissful life while living in Kandal province. In a twist of fate, their lives changed dramatically as Cambodian territory endured carpet bombing every day during the 1970 coup d’état.
In response to the chaos, my grandparents relocated with their children to Battambang province. Forced to earn a meager income as vendors, the standard of living of my mother’s family suffered. At the time, my mother was 11 or 12 years old. Each morning she sold Cambodian cakes; in the afternoon she went to the rice mill to beg for remains of the milled rice for cooking.
In 1974, my mother’s family resettled in Siem Reap province, where they supported themselves by growing fruit and vegetables to sell at a local market. Although the family was not wealthy, they managed to survive happily and peacefully. In 1975, during the sudden forced evacuation of the population to different parts of the country by Angkar, my mother’s family met a Khmer Rouge cadre.
They never learned his name, but in a conversation with my mother, the cadre realised my grandparents were close friends with his parents while they were living in Kandal. In a sympathetic gesture, the cadre urged my grandparents to wear old clothes and have their hair cut so that Angkar would not suspect that they were capitalists due to their light skin. He also suggested that if Angkar inquired about what they did for a living, they should respond that they were labourers. If they were not classified as labourers, they would be evacuated to a more remote location.
Ultimately, the Khmer Rouge sent my mother’s family to live in Ang Krang village in Siem Reap province, where my mother was assigned to a mobile work brigade, digging the earth and building canals during the dry season.
When the rainy season began, she was reassigned to do farming. Sometimes she was served rice at meals; other times she was only given watery rice gruel. After a year, my mother was sent to dig canals. A short time later, she was ordered to prepare salted fish in Klaing village near the Tonle Sap, where fifty to sixty people lived.
Each morning she had to kill and clean the fish. In the evening, she coated the fish with salt and then dried them. She never knew what Angkar did with the fish. When the fishing season ended, Angkar ordered my mother to clear land for planting potatoes in Loley.
When the liberation army arrived in 1979, my mother was harvesting rice under the intense sun. Once she heard the shooting on April 17, she immediately joined many other people in returning home. The hands that used to carry pens had become hardened. After the Khmer Rouge regime collapse in 1979, more than 50 percent of survivors were women. Since then, they have tirelessly and silently rebuilt Cambodia, culturally, educationally, and economically.
My mother’s hands remain a vivid memory for me – the hands that cooked meals for us, the hands that bathed and dressed us, the hands that could sense a fever if we were sick, the supportive hands that propped us up when we first learned how to walk, the hands that worked relentlessly to earn a living to support our family and education, the hands that disciplined us when we misbehaved and swept away her own tears after punishing us, the generous hands that fed us when her own stomach was starving and hugged us when her own body was freezing, the hands that kept holding on to us even when she knew that we had lost faith in ourselves.
In fact, her hands are the bravest hands. They have sacrificed everything for her children and family, even her own happiness and health. To me, the word “mother” represents selflessness. My mother has sacrificed her comfort for the needs of her children and family. I believe that my mother’s hands, and the hands of other women who survived the Khmer Rouge regime, have contributed so much in reconstructing Cambodia and her society from scratch. They deserve to be praised.
I am not sure if I have been a good child for my mother. One thing I am sure of is that no matter how many times I have broken her heart and made her cry, she has always forgiven me. I would like to seek forgiveness for any disappointment I have caused my mother and to wish her and other women around the world a happy International Women’s Day!
Men Pechet was born and brought up in Phnom Penh. He is a graduate student from Chulalongkorn University, Thailand, majoring in International Development Studies.