Phnom Phen – Part 2 of 4 – Stories of Won

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When a Cambodian speaks of their family, they don’t usually mean the immediate family. They consider aunts, uncles and cousins to be family and stay very close, often all living under the same roof. Won’s family lived in a village that sits sixty five kilometers from the Vietnam border. In 1970 the neighboring war was raging and Vietcong were crossing into Cambodia to hide in the many border villages, including Won’s. When the US government learned of this they started bombing villages in Cambodia.

Won recalled the story as his parents had given it to him. It starts he day after he was born.. “I open my eyes, the US bombing my home” Won reported dramatically. When the bombs started falling he ran with him in her arms from the house to the banana field and hid under a tree. Minutes later a bomb, that likely traveled the same distance as we did to be with Won, dropped from a B-52 and blew up his house killing five members of his family. Won’s father yelled to his mother that the tree was not safe and to get into the bunker he had made for them. His parents ran together, carrying him into the ground, brother and sister following. The four lived through the bombing, but Won reports the other two children were hurt badly. No hospitals remained so five and seven days later, Won’s parents laid flowers on his brother and sister and let them pass on.

Fearing another attack, his parents moved the family to Angkor Wat. They had no transportation, so their father made wheels out of a tree trunk and used two cows to pull them through the fields. The trip took Won and his family three months. His mom was sick and malnourished, so not producing breast milk. She resorted to paying women they met along the way to breastfeed Won.

Won’s parents were farmers and without land they couldn’t make any money. So in 1973, amidst a communist takeover inside Cambodia and the Vietnam War still raging and, they went back to their village. They found their land unusable for it was covered in “monkey eyes”, the name for a type of land mine dropped by US planes that contains gun powder and hundreds of small metal ball bearings. Everyone was fighting for survival, so his parents paid the poorest people to clear their land by carrying the “monkey eyes” to the water. Many of the mines blew up, killing and injuring the poor people when dropped or thrown too hard.

In the years that followed, Won lost more of his family. Besides trying to keep the Vietnam War out of their country, Cambodia was also struggling to defend against the communist Khmer Rouge. Won’s eighteen-year-old brother was takenaway from his village by the army and given an AK-47. Won tells us his brother was killed in seven months. In 1977 Won’s thirteen-year-old brother was also taken into the army. With no training and arms barely strong enough to hold the massive Russian machine gun, another of Won’s brothers died. This time in seven days.

Even in 1983 the Khmer Rouge were still waring in Cambodia. His sister had a newborn child and were inside their home when a missile struck it causing a fire. With bullets whizzing through the streets, no one could risk helping them so tragically they died as well. Not until 1998 did the wars with the Khmer Rouge end completely.

In total, Won tells us he lost four brothers, four sisters, a nephew. Today he has a brother who lives with him in Phnom Phen and two sisters that live with his seventy eight year old mother on the land still littered with “monkey eyes”. Won sadly reports that his father passed some years ago at age sixty from a stomach ulcer.

Some of Won’s family escaped to the United States when the war came. He has an Aunt and Uncle who live in California and came back to visit Cambodia recently. He has also another aunt living in the states, who fearing a return of the Khmer Rouge, still won’t go back to visit.

Won has two daughters. They go to government school until 1:30, English school until 5:30 and then computer school at night. He works very hard from early morning until late everyday to give his children a life he’ll never have. He tells us “if I do not do this, my daughters work very hard all life and have nothing!” Won has never left Cambodia and told us it makes him sad. His family wants him to come to the United States, but he afford it.

Our driver struck me as a sincere and honest man. He insisted this to be true story of his family, although it was obvious he’d had practice and at times I doubted it’s legitimacy. In a country where 20% of the population was wiped out in a decade, I suppose many people will have stories that sound unbelievable. Whether or not these events actually surrounded Won and his family, they do surround many Cambodians.

If indeed truth, then Won obviously has a strong and forgiving heart. It touched me to hear him say he wishes he could visit the United States. He wanted to make sure we understood the privilege destiny has dealt us. A few times throughout the day he said this line to us…

“You so lucky born in America. If born in Cambodia, that’s f%#king problem.”

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