What One Boy Must Carry
Hua Kien is ethnic Chinese.
On the 17th April, 1975 he was living with his father, mother, two brothers and two sisters in Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia. He was the second youngest of the family. His father owned a plastics factory, the first plastics factory in Cambodia. He had another sister who was married living about 2 kilometres away and there was a great deal of pleasure surrounding that time because a new baby boy had been born to her. Another of Hua's sisters was away from the parents' house visiting that sister to support her after the birth of the child.
On that day Hua's world of peace within a happy loving family was to be taken from him. The soldiers of the Pol Pot regime entered the city and took charge. They told the population of the city that the Americans would bomb Phnom Penh from their B52 aircraft. They told the population that for safety the city mustbe abandoned for a short time. All the citizens of Phnom Phen were organised out of the city. The story was believable. The Americans had been bombing outside Vietnam. Everyone from Hua's part of the city was taken south‑west towards the Gulf of Siam leaving on the l9th April.
The journey of just thirty kilometres took one month as there was a reluctance to go too far with the hope of returning quickly to their home and possessions. The first place that they settled at became home for three months. A home they had to build. A town they had to build. The water there was filthy, the colour of coffee and there was little food. Sometimes a week would pass with no food. When the water finally ran out they were trucked for one day and left beside Highway Number Three. The rationing had only prolonged the agony. By now half of the original group had died. They stayed in this new place only one night.
The next day they started a journey of two days through the jungle and set up a new home. This was to be a place to survive for six months. Here they were organised by the Pol Pot people into work groups, separated by sex and separated by age, separated from their family.
At first work expectations were reasonable and they built huts and they worked in the fields. When the six months had elapsed again they were forced to move to another town 3 kilometres away where they stayed until the middle of 1977.
In 1976 the killing of people began for all sorts of reasons or for no reason at all. The method was not to use a bullet but a large stick about twice the width of a broomstick which was brought down on the back of the neck with enough force to shatter it. Hua speaks of men and women digging a trench then being stood beside it, being killed or maimed, of falling into the trench and the earth being spread over them, some still alive, some still conscious.
The Pol Pot people were very clever. This process began by telling the group that they needed to have the skilled people returned to the capital and it was necessary for everyone to give their previous occupation. When this was completed then and only then did they set about killing the educated, the intelligent and the strong young men who may have been difficult. They were taken away with promises and killed in secret on a massive scale. Hua's second eldest brother was taken from the young men's compound and sent to build a dam. Much later even though he was very young Hua was sent there also and he looked forward to finding his brother. He nurtured a watermelon carrying it and keeping it safe as a present for his brother. When he arrived at the dam he was told by the Pol Pot men that his brother had been sent back to the city but others there told the boy how his brother was taken away at night with his hands and feet tied and Hua knew. His brother was never seen again.
In the middle of 1977 they came for his brother, another brother, and the same process was repeated.
Some short time after, Thirteen year old Hua was following his father home. They had worked from the early hours in the morning through to midday and gone to the community kitchen for the small amount of rice that was meant to sustain them. Hua and his family had earlier cultivated some crops of their own only to find that the produce was confiscated. Denying food was the weapon.
When you hear of all of the things that have happened it is easy to wonder why there was not a mass revolt but understand that it was a slow process of tiring the people out, by walking them, working them and starving them until they were very weak. Then the controllers used as the weapon, not a gun, not a stick but food. You did what you were told and you received a little food. Disobey, not work hard enough and you received nothing. You starved to death. The people worked even when they were sick. It is in this context that we look again and see a thirteen year old boy trailing behind his father, going home to lie down for an hours rest. As they walked two men, two Pol Pot men, one middle-aged, one younger, came out to meet his father. Hua stopped and watched. They spoke quickly in a low tone and Hua's father did not seem to understand as he shook his head and was taken away by them. Hua was told that his father was being taken to another town to pick sweet potato so he rushed home to get some clothing for his father but his father was gone when he returned Hua knew he was never to see his father again. His father had been the last of the old people. He had survived this long because he worked hard. He had been useful. Some time after Hua found a place that was ten metres wide by ten metres long by one and a half metres deep full of rotting bodies.
In September, 1977 Hua's mother and sister were sent to another town. He is forced to remain with the youth group and works sometimes from three o'clock in the morning through to late evening as a keeper of cattle. If there was a moon at night then they would be made to work into the night. Hua works very hard. Later in December, 1977 Hua was sent to the same town as his mother and sister but he is made to live separately and he only gets a chance to see them once every two weeks. He is there for two months.
In March, 1978 Hua is sent for the second time to be part of the dam building group. He had been sent there once before but the headman had sent him back because he was too young. Now he is still too young but he is to do the work of a man. His condition is very bad. At this time the killing had stopped. The Pol Pot people could not afford to kill any more, there wouldn't be enough workers. The blackmail with food was enough. He was only there two weeks before he escaped back to his mother. He found his mother starving to death and dying of a broken heart. He had to hide in her shelter. There was only the ration for his mother which wasn't enough for one person anyway. Now it had to feed them both. But his mother couldn't or wouldn't eat. She was slowly dying. This went on for one and a half months.
On one occasion Hua, with the help of another lady carried his mother to a makeshift aid station hoping to get treatment for her. The doctor injected her with coconut juice taken from a Coca Cola bottle with a plastic sheet wrapped around its mouth. His mother was to die two weeks later. The night before she died was unusual because most of the time Hua had been with her she had been too ill to talk and had only said a few words. Hua had lived in a silent house tending his mother and trying to survive himself. That night she called his name all through the night...Hua, Hua. He was so tired, was sick himself, starving, filled with a chaotic numbness that he couldn't feel, couldn't care, couldn't react. Simple things had utterly drained him. To bring water to his mother meant that he had to go three kilometres with two small jars sometimes three times a day. In his condition it had been a major ordeal. With all his mother's calling he just lay there.
The next morning his mother became very peaceful and at eleven o'clock the complete stillness and lack of breath told him that his mother was dead. Then he, with the help of a few women, carried his mother a hundred metres and he began to dig his mother's grave. The graves about him had been shallow ones, the people were too weak to dig deeply in the hard soil and they buried their loved ones not far beneath the surface. The animals had come in the night to open up the graves. The stench of rotting remains was overwhelming. Hua, who was determined that his mother would be safe, could only dig until the grave was about a 700 cm deep. His lack of strength and the hardness of the soil made digging further impossible. Trying to be gentle, he placing his mother on the soft soil at the bottom of this shallow grave. He pushed some soil in upon her and then covered this layer above her body with branches of thorns to protect her. More soil followed and eventually a large mound was formed which, in turn, was again covered with thorns.
Hua repeats a story that his mother told to him when the family was together in Phnom Phen. It is about a man that lived a bad life who, when he died, died in misery. He asks why his good mother should die with such misery. The recounting the story of another Man who lived a good life who died with thorns placed upon Him but not by a loving son I hope will be a consolation to Hua.
The thing that hits hardest for me is that Hua is such a fine person, caring ofothers, considerate and patient. Real gifts from loving parents. These things have held him together through enormous worries and they continue to serve him as he attempts a year eleven education in a new country, new culture, new language after only one year in Australia.
Hua has not been in any school since the age of seven. He cannot write in Cambodian or Chinese and after a year in Australia he claims English is his most proficient language.
I do not know of any young South‑East Asian refugee who is not carrying some tremendous burden. Having these boys come to Australia is not enough. We need to apply our compassion, our intelligence, and other resources to heal and help. The reality is that there is so little being done.
2009 Hua has worked very hard and has a wonderful family. This is his new home !