This is part of a series of articles by Westporter Robert Stokes based on his recent return to Vietnam for the first time since he covered the war from 1966 to l968 as a freelance journalist and later as a staff correspondent for Newsweek Magazine.
SIEM REAP, Cambodia — His name is Roeum Rith, He was our guide for a tour of the temples of Angkor, a 77-square-mile site of the remains of the Khmer Empire founded in 802 A.D. by Jayavarman II, that included Angkor Wat, considered one of the archeological wonders of the world.
What I learned from Mr. Rith had little to do with an ancient civilization, but everything to do with the strength of the human spirit, the will to survive in the face of one of the worst acts of genocide in history — and the values of life that actually count for something.
You see, Mr.Rith, a quiet, soft-spoken, English-speaking tour guide, is a survivor of Pol Pot’s murderous rampage that killed an estimated two million Cambodians between 1975 and 1979. The executed were buried in mass graves. In order to save ammunition, the executions were often carried out using hammers, axe handles, spades or sharpened bamboo sticks. Some victims were required to dig their own graves.
The true story of the genocide was dramatized in a 1984 film, The Killing Fields, that told the story of Dith Pran, a Cambodian journalist, and his journey to escape the death camps.
I did not cover the war in Cambodia, but like most journalists who lost friends and colleagues there, I was affected by the atrocities that occurred there. Mr. Rith’s story gave me the opportunity to describe something positive that resulted from the Vietnam War and its sideshow in Cambodia. And with it, a message of hope for all those who live in the shadow of adversity as well as a lesson for those of us who take for granted the freedom and privileges we enjoy.
Mr. Rith was 7 years old when Pol Pot came to power in April 1975, following the overthrow of the U.S.-supported government of Gen. Lon Nol. He was born in the countryside far from the capitol of Phnom Penh.
“We survived,” said Mr. Rith, “because my family were farmers and the government needed us to produce the rice needed to feed the population. We also lived because we were not from the professional or intellectual classes.”
Despite their lives being spared, Rith and his family remained under a death sentence based on how much rice they were required to produce from each harvest.
“We had to deliver three tons of rice from every harvest,” said Rith. “If not, we would be killed. There wasn’t much left for us to eat. We learned to value the nourishment of insects, frogs and rats. In those days, crickets and grasshoppers were considered delicacies. Many people died from starvation and disease caused by malnutrition. ”
From age 7 to 11, Rith worked in the rice paddies with his parents from dawn to after dark seven days a week. With boys his age from the local village, Rith pushed a large, ox-drawn cart through the wet paddies without help from oxen or water buffalo.
“We weren’t allowed to have animals to help plow the fields,” said Rith. “We did it the hard way — with our hands. Two of us in the front to pull the wagon and four in the back to push.” Rith still bears scars on both legs from cutting himself with a scythe as he harvested the rice.
During those four years of terror enforced by the Khmer Rouge, schools were outlawed. Rith’s life consisted of work, sleep and little food. His only enjoyment, he remembered, was gazing at the spectacular sunrises and sunsets over his rice paddies and dreaming of “living up there in those beautiful clouds.” The normal life of a child as we know it was non-existent for him.
“We lived from day to day, simply thankful to be alive,” he recalled.
In l979, the communist government of Vietnam invaded Cambodia and removed Pol Pot’s regime from power, but the country remained in the grip of civil war and famine for more than a decade afterward. Schools began to return in some parts of the country but not all. Life for Rith and his family remained one of hardship, long hours in the rice paddies, and little to eat.
In the l980s, the United Nations established a health and food distribution center on the Thailand border with Cambodia to help the Cambodian people survive the famine and disease that continued to ravage their land. It was on one of Rith’s mother’s trips to the UN aid station for food that young Rith’s future would change.
“I don’t remember why but I asked my mother to see if she could get me an English self-reader from the UN people,” Rith said, smiling at the memory. Rith’s mother brought back the book and Rith began to teach himself English literally by candlelight that same night.
Rith went back to school and eventually passed the entrance exam for university, majoring in English. He began to teach English at the university and took the exam to be a English-speaking tour guide, a job that he has had for nearly 10 years.
Today, at age 42, Rith balances a life of teaching English, providing guided tours of the Angkor temples, and running a fresh food shop with his wife of 20 years. His wife rises at 3 a.m. each morning to cook food for a local school and Rith carries it on a scooter to their shop at 5:30 before starting his other responsibilities.. He has three daughters, one of whom is engaged to be married, and like fathers all over the world worries about how he will afford the cost of the marriage.
Rith represents Cambodia’s emerging middle class, a family that started out with a single motor scooter as transportation for everyone (mom, dad and three kids all sandwiched together) and now boasts a scooter for each member of the family as well as a car.
“I recently bought a car,” said Rith, chuckling, “but I can’t afford the gas.”
In a larger sense, Rith represents an example of a man who regardless of how his life has improved, and how much adversity he has overcome, still carries the basic values of the seven year old boy of his youth who thanked his god each day for the gift of waking up to see another beautiful sunrise.
Robert Stokes, a Westport resident, covered the war in Vietnam for nearly two years in l967 and l968, first as a freelance journalist, and then as permanent staff for Newsweek magazine He later joined Life magazine, where he served as an associate editor and covered the Attica State Prison riot in 1971. In 1980, Dell published Stokes’ first novel, Walking Wounded, which was based on his war experiences.