This article was originally in Lot’s Wife Edition 5: Identity
A red filter had been placed over the sky. Ann did not know whether it was the setting of the sun, or a red that signified the loss of a thousand lives. From where she was lying, she could see the faint outline of the moon, as night began to fall. Somewhere in the distance, she could hear what sounded like a million falling stars.
But Ann knew that it was not the sound of falling stars she could hear, but the sound of fallen men. The sound of a million bullets being sprayed into the night air, against a red filter of blood and dusk.
Where she lay, she could feel the warmth of the earth radiate through her. Right now, the earth was her refuge. And tonight, both earth and darkness would become one to shelter her from the eyes of enemy troops. Her mission was to continue the treacherous journey to Rithisen.
She did not know what awaited her at Rithisen. But with every day that progressed, she was one step closer to safety. Despite knowing little about Rithisen, Ann had to believe that there would be safety at the end of the journey; otherwise, the trek would have been in vain. And the lives of those who lost their lives would have been in vain. Ann stopped herself from thinking about those who had gone. There was no time or strength to mourn for the dead. What strength that remained, she had to invest in moving forward.
A sharp surge of pain interrupted her thoughts. It had come from the sole of her bare right foot; the gaping wound that was not healing. Night had fallen and under the warmth of the moon’s glow, she could make out her swollen foot. As the pain lulled her into a slumber, she remembered the barbed wire fence that had torn into her flesh to create the wound…
Somebody was shaking her. “Wake up. Wake up. It’s time to go”. Ann’s eyes fluttered open and quickly adjusted to the night sky to which she had become well accustomed. As she stood up, she found herself back on the earth. Sharp searing pains shot up through her right leg. She could make out Thuy’s slender figure rushing to her side. “We need to go. Otherwise, they will leave us here for dead.” “You go without me,” Ann responded. “My leg is no good.” Thuy did not respond. Ann could see quick calculations taking place behind Thuy’s eyes. And before Ann could say anything else, Thuy had already torn a piece of material from her trousers and began wrapping it around Ann’s right foot. “We’ve made it this far together. I’m not leaving you here to die,” Thuy said adamantly. Ann did not respond. She knew that there was no arguing with Thuy’s stubbornness. In fact, Thuy’s stubbornness got them this far. Long gone were the days when the two best friends studied chemistry together in Vietnam. Back then, it was Ann who would help Thuy with their assignments. But out here in the fields and amongst the jungle, it turned out that theory could help little with survival. The only thing that was keeping them alive was sheer willpower; however, Ann did not have the strength to muster it. She felt very grateful to have her friend with her in that moment.
Ann heaved herself up with Thuy’s support. The pain was excruciating. From what she had studied, she knew that if she left the wound untreated for any longer, she too would join the dead. Thuy also knew this. However, the journey to Rithisen was slow. And the increase in fighting had meant that they had to stop more often. They could not traverse the land in broad daylight for fear of being caught by enemy troops. Now, their trek at night was becoming more and more stagnated. Their guide could not tell them how long it would take to reach the camp. Ann was fearful. She did not know whether she would survive the remainder of the journey. Thuy knew this but Thuy still held firmly onto her friend as they slowly followed what remained of their group. With an arm around Thuy’s shoulder, Ann was able to move forward. Progress, Ann thought. I wonder if this is what he had in mind when he started building ‘Year Zero.’ Progress.
Night became day. And day became night.
Death had come for her spirit before her body. That blank expression in her eyes told it all. But Thuy was not giving up on her friend. Night in and night out, Thuy would heave Ann onto her shoulder and drag her along for however long they needed to go that night. When they stopped, Thuy would gently lay Ann back onto the earth, weary of her own strength waning. Ann was now the closest thing she had to a sister. Neither of them knew where their families were in that moment. They could not forsake each other now, especially, when they were so close.
Thuy could see the sun peeking out from under the horizon. Dawn was fast approaching. But today, they weren’t stopping. Today, they could see the barbed wires in the near distance. Rithisen. Rithisen. Rithisen. Their companions caught sight of the camp and those who were able to run, they ran. The final leg.
“We’re here, my sister.” Ann stirred. She was on a wooden platform under a white globe. As a friendly face, wearing a white hat with a red cross, approached her, she closed her eyes and smiled.
‘Journey to Safety’ is based on a true story. It tells one leg of a journey that Ann Chhum took with her friend Thuy Hong during the Pol Pot War in Cambodia. At Rithisen camp, Ann received treatment for her tetanus-infected foot. Rithisen was a camp setup by one of the rebel forces. Rithisen was not a UNHCR camp. After spending over a year at Rithisen, Ann and Thuy continued their journey to Khao I Dang Refugee Camp across the Thai border. From there, she was sponsored to New Zealand. Thuy was sponsored to the UK. They were not able to maintain contact after this transition.
Year Zero is a coined term to refer to the de-industrialisation period implemented by the Khmer Rouge. It resulted in a death toll of approximately 2 million and many more unaccounted for.
The author of this story is the daughter of Ann Chhum. She hopes to record each section of her mother’s journey through the art of short story telling.