I was flipping through my dairy a few days back and came across some rather curious details I’d scribbled down so many years ago. Unfortunately I do not maintain a diary anymore but I did when I was about 8-12 years old. One of the highlights was definitely the thoughts I had written down shortly before my departure from Cambodia.
I had spent a part of my childhood in Phnom Penh and though I had been there only 2-3 years, I had some marvellous experiences in Cambodia that I cannot forget. This is the land that had seen so much – from the largest Hindu temple in the world to one of the most ruthless despots. It isn’t the quintessential tourist hub either (and thank goodness for that otherwise it would have become another noisy place).
As of 5 July 1997, I was a pupil at the International School of Phnom Penh (and I loved school). We had our summer vacations then and while my parents, sister and I were getting ready to go down to the car park and start off to school for the Saturday swimming sessions, we heard what sounded like a series of very loud bomb blasts.
The shopkeeper outside our gate ran back to her shop and in the ensuing chaos, we rushed back inside as well. Hearing gunshots in Cambodia was not uncommon when I was there. Some people, who owned guns (remember the country’s brutal history), would shoot bullets in the sky when it rained. That was a sign of celebration. There had been instances where stray bullets would fall into someone’s house (like it had happened in the case of a classmate), but there were as such no such injuries or deaths.
But this was different. These were bombs. And people seemed scared. We did not know what was happening or what all the commotion was about. But we were frightened. After the initial 6 bombs were thrown, the sound of bullets filled the air. It was a terrifying time.
Here are some excepts from the diary of my 10-year-old self:
“…Today a kind of civil war started here. There were many gunshots heard and many bombs thrown…The fighting started at 3pm. First we heard very loud sounds which sounded like the army people were near our neighbourhood…”.
We firmly locked our doors and sat inside the house, unsure of what should be done. We switched on the local channel and it was in Khmer, but later on, international news picked up the story.
As night approached, we drew the curtains and turned down the lights so that we did not draw much attention. At that age, all I could think about was that we would die if a bomb fell on the house. We ate silently and watched TV to know about what was happening.
That night, my sister and I had to sleep with our parents in their room. While we trying to sleep, we prayed that things would be alright. Some time later, as if some prayer had been answered, it rained heavily. It was a relief because the incessant sound of gunshots stopped. But that was only for a moment. In reality, the rain had no effect on the fighting and the bullets continued to be fired throughout the whole night.
When I woke up in the morning (6 July 1997), I was glad that we were still alive. All I wrote in my diary was this:
“Today was the worst day for destruction…The news reports say that there has been a fight between the two Prime Ministers, Prince Norodom Ranariddh and Hun Sen. Prince Ranariddh is in France discussing this matter…”
We were in the midst of what has been termed as the 1997 Cambodian Coup. On the second day, there was even more firing than on the previous day. The lights were turned off early and we watched TV and ate in silence.
On 7 July 1997, the third day, I wrote:
“Today there were almost no gunshots heard…News reports say that the army people have moved to Battambang. I felt very sad because there might be a lot of destruction there…”
The fighting had moved from Phnom Penh to Battambang (which I had never visited, but I knew was rather infamous for its land mines). It seemed Phnom Penh was safe. What we had heard is that a number of people had died and one Japanese man had been killed as he unknowingly entered the combat zone.
We knew that things would soon be back to normal. What we did not know however, is that we would be leaving Cambodia soon.
Just a few days after the fighting ended, my dad decided that we should momentarily return to India. We had not taken any of the evacuation planes provided by countries such as Australia and India during the coup. We left when the fighting had ended.
On 15 July, we were on our way to the Pochentong International Airport. I saw a very different view of the Cambodia I had once known. The signs of fighting were obvious everywhere. Even the airport had not been spared and parts of it had collapsed.
As we put our luggage through the security check, my dad took a photo of my sister and me waving goodbye. I do not know what was running in my 10-year-old mind at that time. Maybe I was happy to go for a short trip to see my grandmothers and cousins.
How does one even begin to explain the importance of a country? Leaving a place may not seem like much, but when you have lived somewhere and have loved it, an immediate departure is heartbreaking. It only strikes you years later that you left behind so much that was dear to you – all your friends, your memories, your house – and that you will never be the same person again. A part of you dies somewhere, but its remnants still tug at your present self.
At that time, when we stood near the security check, all these thoughts had no place in my mind. How much could it hurt to leave a country behind forever? I honestly had no idea then.
As I smiled at the camera, I can honestly say that I did not know that this was an exodus; that we weren’t ever going to come back.