By Ralph Maimon, as told to him by Moan Mao in June 2013
Moan Mao was known to most of us simply as our Cambodian caretaker when he worked those many years for SBH, but no one really knows his gripping, inspiring but also tragic life story. This is likely due to his modest nature and perhaps his language difficulties. I had an inkling of what Moan and his wife Channy went through in their earlier lives but, until recently, I never had a chance to really sit down with Moan and learn their whole story, including that about his brave fight against the Communist Khmer Rouge and his daring escape from his homeland. Even though he is no longer formally part of our SBH community, his and Channy’s stories must be told. It will totally revise our vision of this extraordinary man and his wife.
In 1944, Moan was born in Battambang, Cambodia’s second largest city in its Northwest corner, an important trade city near the border with Thailand.
Moan’s father died when he was only 2 years old, leaving his mother to raise their 7 children, 4 boys and 3 girls. She worked arduously on her rice farm for long hours in the heat, every day of the week while raising, nurturing and feeding all 7 of her children, with little or no help. Moan recalls her very fondly. She died, still in Cambodia, in 1980.
His life as a child was difficult. He was only able to attend public school for half days, as he began working on the family farm at the age 7, herding their cows out to the field and back to the barn, a very difficult job for such a young boy. Because he was so badly needed to work on the farm, he was unable to finish his public school education. Then, largely because of the family’s poverty, at age 14, Moan was sent to a Buddhist school to train as a monk. There he followed the conventions of shaving his head and eyebrows, wearing the traditional monk’s orange apron and being forbidden to talk to girls. He attended that school for 3 years, leaving because, as he says, “In my meditation, I became worried about the rest of my life.”
Cambodia, like many of its neighbors, was historically occupied by foreigners, the Vietnamese, the French and the Japanese. In 1968, a civil war broke out when the infamous Khmer Rouge (meaning Red Khmer or Red Cambodians) aided by the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese sought, by coup of the reigning Prince Sihanouk, to take the reins of Cambodia and convert it to an agrarian based communist country. They were cruel, callous, and brutal.
In 1970, Moan, then 26 years old, joined the Cambodian Air Force. He served for five full years fighting the Khmer Rouge. He was a captain and commanded a company of 100 or so fighters. Their job was to guard and protect a military airfield and to provide for its security. The Khmer Rouge was attempting to take that key airfield to gain the advantage on the ground because the aircraft leaving from there were attacking them from the air. Moan’s company was stationed at the fence surrounding the airfield. They were armed with pistols, M79 shoulder held grenade launchers and M-16 rifles supplied primarily by the US. When they would learn that Khmer Rouge forces were approaching to attack, Moan led his men out anywhere from a mile to a mile and a half from the fence line to meet them in close combat, often as little as 50 yards between them. They had 20 or more such missions. A mission could last anywhere from a couple of hours to intermittently throughout an entire night. As the company commander, Moan was expected to set an example of courage and daring and lead his men into battle and never to stay behind to direct them from behind the firing lines. He relates that his battlefield prayers not to be wounded or worse were answered. Not so lucky were 6 of his young troops, 3 killed by Khmer Rouge shelling and 3 in combat. They were successful in protecting the airfield for the duration of Moan’s service there.
After two years, he was given a new mission on a Cambodian warplane, a propeller driven Dakota (DC-3), with its only armaments being the handheld guns being fired by airmen through the plane’s open side windows.
Moan was in charge of arming the gunners and keeping their weapons loaded while they fired at the Khmer Rouge on the ground. Needless to say, the Khmer Rouge generously returned fire.
Moan said that defending against the Khmer Rouge’s brand of guerilla warfare was extremely difficult. They could attack the Cambodian military in small numbers and remain clandestinely concealed. Of course, it was all but impossible to distinguish them from the general population, so the regulars “didn’t know who they were.” These were keys to the Khmer Rouge’s eventual victory.
After 8 years of fighting, in 1975 the Khmer Rouge finally succeeded in bringing their ruthless brand of communism to Cambodia. The Khmer Rouge period (1975-1979) refers to the rule of the dictatorial, merciless and brutal Pol Pot, Nuon Chea, Ieng Sary, Son Sen, Khieu Samphan and their Khmer Rouge Communist party over Cambodia, which they ironically renamed Democratic Kampuchea. The coup aftermath cost approximately 2 million lives through the combined result of political executions, torture, starvation, and forced labor.
Due to the large number of deaths during the four-year era of the Khmer Rouge, it was commonly known as the Cambodian Holocaust or Cambodian Genocide. The Khmer Rouge regime arrested, tortured and eventually executed almost everyone suspected of connections with the former government or with foreign governments, city dwellers, professionals, intellectuals, people who were even suspected of having served in the Cambodian military (and their families). Ethnic Vietnamese, ethnic Thai, ethnic Chinese, ethnic Cham, Cambodian Christians and Buddhist monks were also among the demographic targets of persecution, forced labor and executions. The ruthless executions resulted in the phenomenon that we know by the name, the “Killing Fields,” which was penned by escapee and survivor, Dith Pan, a Cambodian journalist. The Killing Fields are actually the locations of about 20,000 mass grave sites of the almost 1.5 million who were executed.
The estimated 2 million (or more) that were exterminated were from a small country with a population of only about 8 million.
Moan describes unspeakable atrocities at the hands of the Khmer Rouge, including the witnessed murder of a young couple only to leave their baby to crawl back to nurse at his dead mother’s breast. Another incident was the execution of a young mother followed by the guerilla throwing her baby up in the air, then catching and goring the baby with his bayonet.
Moan’s family was not spared. His younger brother, then only 20 years old, was seized by the Khmer Rouge from his bride on his wedding day. Moan believes that an older brother, then 29 years old, was put in prison and was never heard from again. The last time he saw that brother was in 1969. His oldest brother was also a fighter but fought in a different Cambodian province than Moan. He survived the war but died in 1979. Moan’s mother stayed on the family farm in Cambodia and died of natural causes in 1980. Two of his sisters disappeared totally. Only one sister survives, Yuk Chhim, a childless widow who is still in Cambodia. Moan, with the assistance of our own SBH member Michael Marshall, has tried to bring her to Seattle but the legal fees and immigration costs are more than he and Channy can manage.
Initially, the Cambodians were joyful that the fighting had stopped and that they had been “liberated”. But their joy was quickly extinguished as they were confronted by the terror and fear created by the Khmer Rouge. It was clearly evidenced by this scene, described by Moan: After the Khmer Rouge occupied Battambang, he was walking across a bridge with two friends and they were approaching an armed young man who turned out to be a Khmer Rouge. As they passed, the young man, suddenly and without warning or reason, shoved his gun into the chest of one of Moan’s friends, pulled the trigger and shot him, point blank. Moan and his other friend knew enough to keep walking and not to engage the killer. They walked away safely, returning an hour later to bury their young friend. He also personally witnessed three other cold-blooded murders of innocents. He knew that he could be next.
Moan endured 15 days of this terror and then, along with everyone else who had served in the Cambodian military, was transported to the Cambodian jungle. He was among about 3,500 others who were similarly situated, with unknown fates but knowing nothing good would come of their captivity. In fact, no Cambodians of any kind were allowed to live in cities because of the agrarian philosophy of the Khmer Rouge, that is, hard work tending the land to the virtually absolute exclusion of any urban endeavors. Everyone in the cities was moved to the jungles of Cambodia, where they stayed for the next 4 years. Staying in the jungle and facing likely execution was not an option for Moan.
Moan and his closest friend knew about the mass executions and decided to try and make it to neighboring Thailand before they also would lose their lives. They were accompanied by 2 additional friends. More people wanted to join them in fleeing from inevitable execution but a larger number of refugees would expose them to a greater risk of capture. Reluctantly, they turned the others down. Moan and his 3 companions traveled for 7 days through the jungles of Cambodia without mileposts, signs or even a compass. To make sure they were still headed in the right direction and on track, every couple days they would, in stealth and with extreme caution, venture about a mile or a mile and a half from the jungle to a road leading to the Thai border. They would then return to the jungle as fast as they left it, again with extreme caution to avoid detection. At night, they slept in trees rather than on the ground for fear of being captured. They had some provisions of rice with them but every once in a while, they came upon a home After assuring themselves that no one was in the home, they would help themselves to the available produce from the garden and pump water from the well. They never entered the homes for fear of revealing their whereabouts.
The trek for refuge through the jungles of Cambodia was not without its own harrowing close calls. Unknowingly, the foursome walked straight into a Khmer Rouge camp with a large hall. Through the windows of the hall, they could see about 200 guerillas, all dressed in black. They tried to pass the camp quietly and then run for their lives but an armed guard saw them and started in pursuit. When he realized he could not outrun Moan and his friends, he returned to the camp and mounted a horse. In a moment of extreme bravery and selflessness, one of Moan’s companions offered to allow himself to be captured and delay the guard so the other three would have time to get away. But he was convinced that all four of them could escape the pursuer. The horse was not only speedy but was also used for tracking. Moan and his friends knew this, so they used a ploy they had learned in the military to elude someone in hot pursuit. They stopped running, and before they could be seen, backtracked over the very same ground and then turned deep into the jungle. The mounted guard lost them at the point where they began their backtracking but insisted that the horse proceed, which it did in total confusion. Having succeeded in eluding the guard, they hid in the jungle.
This was not to be the only life-threatening encounter with the Khmer Rouge while in flight, as later they ran straight into an armed guerrilla. This time, they were not in a position to flee so they had to employ another ruse. He confronted them, asking what they were doing. Rather than confessing, they said that they were lost but were trying to get back to their village, one that they knew to be in the opposite direction of the Thai border. The ruse worked and this time, they ended up better off than they started. The guerilla not only gave them a note so they could get food to eat, but told them that they had been headed the wrong way, pointing toward the Thai border and telling them that it was just a short distance away. He also said that it was good they were headed the other way, as the area that he pointed out to them was rife with landmines. They responded that they certainly did not want to go to Thailand where there were landmines. They thanked him, left in the direction opposite the border and, when out of sight, turned back toward the place that he had so graciously pointed out to them, now able to avoid the landmines.
Thailand was the natural sanctuary for Cambodian refugees. But the Thai and Cambodian people, despite their common heritage and cultures, were historically very bad neighbors. Moan tells that the enmity between the Thais and Cambodians was clearly shown when 600 to 700 Cambodian refugees were pushed back to the mountains and executed there by the Thai.
As soon as the foursome crossed the border, they were captured. They were interrogated as to where they were going, and Moan responded that they were headed to Bangkok which (unknown to him) was hundreds of miles away. They did not speak the same language and were barely able to communicate with their captors. Moan was successful in telling them that he had been in the Cambodian air force, but that was not of any benefit. They were taken to a river at the border and told to go back to Cambodia. Moan felt that it was preferable to be killed by the Thai than the Khmer Rouge, so they refused. But, rather than being killed, Moan was taken at gunpoint to a nearby city and put in a jail. After 4 days in the putrid jail conditions, he was transported to a refugee camp.
The conditions in the camps were very poor as well. Food was insufficient, the refugees being fed only two small bowls of food each day for sustenance. They were never allowed out of the camp. The Thai also prevented the Christian volunteers from coming into the camp to give aid to the refugees.
One day, Moan simply walked out of the camp, with no particular place to go except away.
But his quest for freedom and peace of mind was far from over. He walked and walked, finding himself by the Cambodian and Thai border once more. What he found at the border was that many Thai were supplying the Khmer Rouge. Somehow, Moan got work with the people loading the supplies on trucks. While working one day, he was confronted by a member of the Khmer Rouge and an interrogation began. Moan told him that he was Thai, but knowing that would not be accepted for long, he quickly collected his pay and fled the area. Again, he found himself walking in unfamiliar territory.
Later, Moan had a check to cash. When he went to a Thai bank to cash the check, he was told that he had to get a special stamp on the check at an immigration office before they could cash it. But when he went to the immigration office, he was arrested by the Thai police and, once more, he was jailed. He was told he was just being jailed overnight to sleep but his stay extended for 3 miserable months. He was jailed along with 20 other men in a small cell, with no windows but with a single very bright light that was on 24 hours a day. Moan never saw the sun for the duration of his entire incarceration.
Without a bed or mattress for those 90 days, he slept on the floor of the cell. Others who were incarcerated with him told him that they had been in that cell for all of four years. One can only imagine what went through Moan’s head when he heard that.
Finally, there was “relief”, of a sort. He and all the other refugees that had been jailed were loaded onto buses and transported to another refugee camp because the Thai did not want to have any Cambodians outside the refugee camps. Moan stayed in that camp for another 3 months. Finally, he won the privilege of coming to the United States, arriving in Seattle on October 21, 1976.
Moan’s wife, Channy Duong, was the daughter of a major Cambodian military commander. In a single instance, the Khmer Rouge executed her entire family. In that melee, they struck her in the head, giving her such a blow as to leave her unconscious. Lying among the dead bodies, the Khmer Rouge also believed her to be dead and left her among her fallen family.
After what she believed to be 2 days of unconsciousness, she awoke, crawled over the bodies of her family members and fled. In her flight, she ran into some country people who took her into their homes and made her a part of their paltry farming community. She worked extremely hard on a farm, with scarce food to eat and only her tattered clothing to wear. She stayed with the community until 1979, which marked the end of the Khmer Rouge regime. The Khmer Rouge had been toppled by the invasion of its neighbor and former ally, Vietnam, leaving Cambodia under Vietnamese occupation for the next decade.
From Cambodia, Channy was transported to a Thai refugee camp and was eventually sponsored by an American to come to the US, where she and Moan met and married.
Moan and Channy now live in southwest Seattle with their 5 children.
They had dreams of returning to Cambodia in their retirement. In fact, Moan returned there a few years ago and built a small villa with apartments by a river in hopes of returning someday to his native country. But that too was for naught as the government would not recognize his title to the property because he was not a “resident” of Cambodia. In the meantime, much of the free land in Cambodia has been appropriated or purchased cheaply by other Asians, mostly Chinese, Japanese and Koreans.
Those who study the Holocaust can empathize with the atrocities suffered by the Cambodian people at the hands of the Khmer Rouge. Moan and Channy are among the fortunate few who bravely eluded their brutality in their pursuit of peace and freedom. Despite the hardships they endured, Moan and Channy always hoped to return to Cambodia someday. Those hopes and dreams remain unfulfilled.
As they say, “Everyone has a story.” But how uniquely fortunate I was to hear this courageous couple’s story and to be able to share it with you.