Young Chakara stood at the window of his unassuming home, looking out at the dust-covered roads of the capital. It was April in Cambodia, which meant dry season kept the country quite warm during this time. People liked to stay inside in the daytime in an attempt to stay cooler in the shade. But in the year 1975, people had been staying inside for a completely different reason: the bombs. As war waged in neighboring Vietnam, the United States had been dropping plane-loads of bombs onto Cambodia, an innocent bystander, in an effort to destroy all Communist aid that could be flowing into Vietnam. So everyone did their best to stay sheltered as much as possible less they become the next target for the American bombers.
But something told the 8-year-old Khmer boy that this day was different. This day was special. Something incredible, life changing, was going to happen today. Maybe, just maybe, this would be the day that the bombs would cease. Maybe the war they weren’t fighting would finally come to an end. Maybe today would be the long-awaited peace.
“Chakara! Come away from the window!” his mother called entering the room.
“Mother! There is something coming. I see trucks driving down the road. Big trucks,” Chakara described the new sight in Khmer to his anxious mother. With so much war happening, trucks arriving with no forewarning could not be a good sign. The dark green jeeps rolled down the empty streets of Phnom Penh, quickly taking control of the seemingly ghost capital. If you looked closely, you could see curtains moving and windows creeping open as the residents carefully strained to see what was happening outside their walls.
“Is it the Americans?” Chakara wondered out loud to his mother who came up behind him to see for herself.
“No,” his mother replied. “The Americans all left Cambodia a few days ago. Every single one of them. I think these are Cambodians.”
“Does that mean the bombs have stopped?” Chakara’s eyes grew big at the possibility of peace.
His mother stood watching the jeeps pull to a stop in the streets below. “I don’t know what this means. This could be a good sign. Maybe our soldiers are returning home and the war is finally over. Let’s go down and ask.”
Chakra did not wait for his mother. He hurried down the stairs, slipping on his sandals as he ran out the door. He was not the only one who was anxious to find out what was happening. At first glimpse, it simply looked like their soldiers who had been defending their lands against outside war had returned. They were wearing their uniforms and carrying guns, but it only made sense that they had just finished their duty and longed to return home to their families as quickly as they could. But then where were their families? No one seemed to recognize any of the young men. Actually, there were young men, old men, and even boys as young as 10 carrying large weapons. And they weren’t smiling. Why weren’t they smiling? The bombs were gone. The Americans were gone, which meant the war was over. Peace time had come at last. Everyone should be so happy, especially the soldiers. But they didn’t look happy. They looked...mean. It wasn’t just that they weren’t smiling; they were scowling. Something was not right.
People had been making their way out of the buildings to get a closer look at the mysterious soldiers. They began to call to them in Khmer, asking what was going on, but the soldiers ignored the questions and would not make eye contact. One of the soldiers closest to Chakara turned toward him and met his eyes. He looked to be only around 12 years old. Chakara’s eyes were filled with questions and a holding sparks that things might be turning around for the Cambodian people. But the young soldier’s eyes, they were filled with darkness, even malintent. Chakara decided to take a chance and approached the soldier boy.
“Excuse me? What is going on? What is happening? Is the war over?” he cautiously inquired. The soldier pretended not to hear. “Excuse me?” Chakara gently touched his shoulder to regain his attention. “Get back!” The soldier used his massive gun to push Chakara away and to the ground. “You will not speak unless told to do so!”
Chakara lay on his back speechless. The soldier turned away without a second glance. What was happening? This soldier, this boy, was acting like Chakara was the enemy. And this was only the beginning.
“Attention!” A big soldier stood on top of one of the jeeps surrounded by other soldiers with guns raised. “Attention! You are now under the command of the Khmer Rouge. You must do as we say. The Americans have left but they will be back and they will bomb the city. You must come with us now. You will all leave the city for three days. After three days, you may return if we say it is safe. You must trust us. Trust Angkor. He knows what is best for you. Now, come. You must leave immediately.”
The people clamored amongst themselves, unsure of what was happening. They had assumed the war was over and the bombings had stopped. But there was more coming? Would it ever be over? They wanted to ask questions but the soldiers began to force people to move forward with the end of their guns. They were being given no time to gather their things or even their families. A few tried to run back inside to scoop up a jacket or a piece of bread while others pushed through the crowd calling for their child or parent.
As quickly as they could, the soldiers herded the people out of the capital, putting a few on the jeeps and the rest were to walk. No one knew where they were going, only that they were to follow the orders of the soldiers, ask no questions, and they would be returning home in three days. Chakara looked around, trying to see if he could spot his friends. He saw no one he recognized. He held his mother’s hand tightly as they were ushered out of the city and into the fields. But it was okay, he thought. He would be back home in three days and the war would be over. These soldiers, the Khmer Rouge, would protect them.
Little did Chakara know that this was the day the earth would turn black in Cambodia. This was only the beginning of destruction.