I've gotten several question lately about why I went to Cambodia. I figured I probably ought to explain!
A few months back I was asked if I'd be willing to write a book to help raise money for an orphanage in Cambodia. The book follows the lives of two women who survived the genocide committed by the Khmer Rouge Regime under Pol Pot in Cambodia during the 1970's. Incidentally, these women went on to start an orphanage that is taking care of some of the most amazing kids I've ever met.
The women themselves are nothing short of saints or angels here on earth.
Below is a rough draft of the beginning of the book. Feel free to give it a gander and see what I've been working on!
From My Empty Stomach (Rough Draft)
In 1968, King Sihanouk of Cambodia mandated that all government officials serve as members of the army reserve to counter a growing insurgence of civil unrest. People met in the forests and in secret buildings in the cities, organizing an uprising to overthrow their King.
Over the course of the next two years the country was thrown into chaos. Infrastructure was destroyed by rioting demonstrators. They burned down government offices, broke into private businesses and looted shops, stores, and anything that crossed their paths.
They screamed their anger and defiance of King Sihanouk, demanding he leave his throne so they could re-shape their country how they saw fit. In the process they slowly destroyed the country around them.
From the destruction of their protests rose the Khmer Rouge, a group of black-clad militants bearing guns and had bandoliers of ammo slung across their bodies.
At the beginning of the rebellion Botevy was just a small girl, the oldest of six children—three girls and three boys. She was born in 1961, at Prash Ponlear, Kom Pong Ro district, in the Svay Rieng province of Cambodia, next to the border of Vietnam. Her father, by the King’s mandate, was drafted into the military and became a general in camp of Pursat. He was called to fight the Khmer Rouge and the Cambodian army gathered near her home to deal with the rising insurgency.
The sun hung low over the horizon, casting a golden glow across the endless green rice fields of the Svay Rieng province in Cambodia, and peeking through the windows of Botevy’s home. Her father sat at his desk in his military uniform, his back straight, pen in hand as it danced quickly across the page before him.
Botevy tentatively stepped forward. “What are you writing?” she asked.
Without stopping, he explained, “A letter to your cousins and their families. There’s going to be a very big fight tonight and it won’t be safe. I’m telling them what to do.”
“Men with guns like ours are coming?” They had a large cannon set up in the front yard. Her home had become an impromptu military headquarters for the area. While most buildings nearby were formed of grass thatch, sticks, and bamboo, their home was constructed of thick concrete and surrounded by concrete walls. The choice to headquarter there was logical from all points, especially given her father’s position as General.
“Men with guns,” he nodded. “But not like ours. Smaller.”
She pondered what he said for a moment before asking, “What do they need to do?”
He stopped writing and set aside his pen for a moment. He turned to face her. “Do you remember what we did?”
Botevy’s face scrunched up as she thought. “We put our things in the ground?”
“Exactly!” he said with a smile, placing a hand on her shoulder. “Just like we did, they need to hide their valuables, bury them in the ground where nobody can find them.” He gave her a bare smile and turned back to the page he was working on and continued writing.
He was a kind man, with stark features less weathered than most of his countrymen due to spending most of his time inside a classroom as a teacher as opposed to out in the elements, working the fields or doing construction. He was mostly bald and thin, and had lately seemed weighed down by the stresses of the rebellion he’d been drafted to fight against.
“Please, go find your mother for me,” he said. “I’m sending the family to stay with her uncle tonight, out in the country.”
Botevy nodded, practicing a solemn face like the one she’d seen her father wearing so much lately, and ran off to find her mother.
Several hours later, the whole family, minus her father, was gathered at her uncle’s house. The sun had since set and stars shown bright and clear across the unpolluted sky. The air was humid and hot in the rainy reason, even in the dark, and mosquitos and other bugs fairly filled the air.
The house they were in was small. Much too small for the number of people clustered in and round it, but they had little choice. Botevy wouldn’t complain. Besides, she got to be around her cousins. They talked in whispers about the forthcoming danger, what they thought might happen, often boasting about what incredible feats their fathers or brothers might accomplish.
The family camaraderie was interrupted when gun shots rang out across the rice fields, over the meandering dirt roads and through stands of bamboo and palm trees.
Botevy, along with a few of her cousins, ran from the house to see what was happening. Adults yelled at them, but the words were lost on the wind and in the din of the fighting.
Silhouetted by moonlight, a large man stood on the dirt road between several of the nearby village homes, partially obscured by the thick foliage, screaming at the top of his lungs, “Everyone, run to the pond. Hide beneath the bamboo!” He continued to scream this over and over, standing in plain sight, despite the spark and bang of guns fired nearby.
Botevy ran back to her family with her cousins and relayed what she’d heard, then quickly grabbed one of her little brothers and sisters in each hand. Her other siblings and several cousins followed her lead. They crouched low, fearing stray bullets, and whisked their way across the yard, pausing by the road, daring a glance both ways before darting across.
The stands of bamboo that lined the pond were only a few dozen feet away, swaying in a light breeze as if they were carefree and oblivious to the violence that had erupted nearby. Botevy, the siblings she’d brought along, and several cousins skittered between the thickets and rushed to hide in the small track of dirt beside the swelled banks of the pond.
The sound of gunfire had grown to deafening pops by now, and streams of iridescent light streaked above, firing in a dozen different directions. Occasionally men cried out in pain an there were thumps and grunts as bullets found their homes in human flesh.
Most of the children cried or whimpered. Botevy did her best to quiet them. She was the oldest, after all, at least of the children who’d made it to the pond. Several adults from the village huddled nearby, doing what they could as well, but it was her job to lead by example. She put on a brave face.
Somewhere in the darkness she heard her mother call out. “Avy! Avy! Where are you?”
“We’re at the pond, mom!” Botevy called back. A part of her wanted to rush to her mom, to bring her to where they sat, but she was paralyzed by fear and held back by the adults of the village.
Though the distance between the pond and the house was no more than several hundred feet, minutes passed without a sign of her mother. Fear built up inside and her terror was realized as a loud wail of pain broke the air. “Oh, oh… Help. Help me! I… I’ve been shot...” Botevy’s mother’s said. He voice undulated between shriek and desperate whisper, as if she’d lost all control. Over the broken fragments of her mother’s pleas came the high-pitched wail of her baby brother, just an infant, no doubt being carried in his mother’s arms.
Botevy began to rise, despite the bullets streaking overhead.
“Don’t move,” one of the large men of the village said, leveling a stare at Botevy. “I’ll go get them.”
Botevy reluctantly crouched back down and sat anxiously as the man rose from the protection of the bamboo.
By now there were more than ten people huddled by the pond’s edge. They all looked on intently as the man crawled toward the sound of Botevy’s mom and the crying baby.
Thinking was difficult. Beside the pained cries of her mother and baby brother, and all the worries that entailed, the children around her also cried and whimpered. All these noises combined with the sound of the gunfight to make for a deafening cacophony. In that moment, Botevy wanted to cover her ears, curl up and pretend the world didn’t exist. But she couldn’t, not yet. The children needed help and reassurance.
Just as she thought this, Botevy’s grandfather turned and hushed them. “You must be quiet,” he said softly, but firmly. “If you are not quiet we cannot help your mother, do you understand?”
Sodden eyes and tear-streaked faces nodded back to the weathered old man. Botevy used her hands to cover the mouths of the youngest, quieting them because they did not understand. Soon the group quieted to a dull whimper.
A few moments stretched out like an eternity as they waited. Eventually the man returned with Botevy’s mother and baby brother. There was blood. So much blood. It drenched the lower half of her brother’s body and stained her mother’s clothes.
“It’s okay. It’s okay,” her mother said. “We’ll be okay.”
Given the amount of blood it was hard to believe. But the nearby adults all rushed in to help. They cleaned off her mother and brother. A bullet had gone through her baby brother’s leg and lodged into her mother’s hand. Painful and bloody… but not deadly. Someone retrieved a medicinal wrap and wound it about both of the injuries.
They waited out the darkness under the shelter of the bamboo, often jumping and flinching at the sound of each shot. But after a while even that terror wore to a dull threat, and exhaustion slowly took the children. They dropped off, one by one, to sleep.