In a tawdry, red brick apartment building in suburban Maryland, the 26-year-old wife and baby of Bantum Chim live amid a few pieces of hand-me-down furniture and surrounded by cockroaches.
Less than two miles away, in a look-alike apartment building where the hallways are smeared with grime, live the 32-year old wife and three children of Bantum Chim.
The two women are the wives of the same man, a man who loves both deeply and -- in the midst of great bitterness -- is loved by both in return.
How Chim came to have two wives and two families is the story of a man and two women swept up in the tragedy of Cambodia.
For them, like many of the other "lucky" Cambodians who escaped their war-ravaged country and are struggling to make new lives in the Washington area, the agony spawned by the Indochinese war seems to have no foreseeable end.
When Bantum Chim, 40, a former Cambodian air force major, fled the collapse of his country in April 1975, he was convinced that his wife of 11 years and their three children were dead.
He emigrated to the United States, found a job in a Northwest Washington bakery and began to learn English. Yet his life was empty. After almost two years passed without word from his family, he decided, "I cannot live alone anymore." He fell in love and remarried.
Chim's second wife was two months pregnant when he came home one day, the flour dust still in his dark hair, to find a dog-eared letter from Vietnam.
In an agony of joy and sorrow, he opened it and discovered it was from his first wife. She and the children were alive in Vietnam after walking for 10 months to escape Cambodia. She hoped to join him soon, the letter said, and they would make a new life together.
Today, 16 months after a reunion at National Airport, Chim's life is a shambles.
His first wife bitterly speaks of his betrayal in not waiting for her and recounts how her determination to reunite her family kept her going as she led her children through an 800-mile ordeal of near starvation and terror.
Now, she says, it would have been better if she and the children had died.
And Chim's second wife, with whom he lives, says she tried to commit suicide after she learned her husband's first wife was alive.
Now, she lives in fear that because her marriage to Chim may no longer be valid with the return of the first wife, he may leave her.
As for Chim, tears start in his small dark eyes when he talks about his dilemma.
"I cry," he says. "I cry alone, I cry to think my children alive and have better future here. I cry to feel the pain."
Chim was assigned to a provincial military airfield when the Khmer Rouge communist forces launched their final successful assault on the encircled capital city of Phnom Penh in 1975.
When Chim realized the end had come on April 16 of that year, he begged for a plane to fly to Phom Penh to resuce his family. But by the time he was given one and flew over the city, it was too late. The airport was under heavy attack and it was impossible to land.
Chim ended up flying to Thailand with several hundred other officers. There they listened with growing dismay to reports of atrocities committed against former government and military officials and their families.
By the time Chim emigrated to the United States, those who had left family behind in Cambodia were convinced that they would never see them again. f
"I know they all dead," Chim said recently of his fears them. "I know I never see them again."
In the fall of 1976, he found a job in the New York Bakery on on tree-lined Blair Road in Washington's Takoma Park. The Raabs, a Jewish family who had owned the bakery since settling here in the 1940s, had fled Austria in 1938 to avoid the Nazis and were particularly sympathetic to Chim's plight. They let him live in a small room in the bakery.
Chim's last hope that his family was alive was dashed when a report that they had turned up at a California refugee camp proved false. Shortly thereafter, he learned that his mother died when she and 2 million other Phnom Penh residents were forced to evacuate the city without food or clothing.
"I think how I come home and play with my children (in Phnom Penh)," Chim said. "I know I cannot live alone anymore."
At a Cambodian wedding of a nephew here, Chim met 23-year-old Samay Mom, also a refugee, who had long dark hair, lively eyes and a quick, shy smile. He fell in love.
Samay had worked for an American involved in an intelligence operation in Cambodia. She married the American in a traditional Cambodian wedding and they lived as husband and wife.
But when the end came and he threw her on a plane to save her from the advancing Khmer Rouge, she learned that he was already married to an American woman and had four children. He made Samay, who could speak no English, live with his American wife, who could speak no Khmer. Off and on for months, first in Thailand and later in the Washington area, she lived in humiliation and shame.
"I did not want to live there," said Samay. "I could not speak English. We eat at the same table, but my bossman talk to me in Khmer and to his wife in English. Their children hate me."
So, without friends or the ability to speak English, she walked out of the house one day -- with $300 given her by her "husband" -- and made a start on her own. She enrolled in Montgomery County Junior College to learn English, and began working for an American woman to whom she came to feel so close that Samay now calls the woman her godmother.
"We did not speak much together," recalled Samay of her first meeting with Chim. Nonetheless, a month-and-a-half later, Chim shyly called the godmother to ask for Samay's hand, In December 1976, the two were married.
"We not have many things," Chim said. "Once we look out window and see old bed that somebody throwing away on the street.We go out and get it and put it in our bedroom."
In March 1977, Chim received word that his family was alive.
"I cannot believe it," said Chim, his eyes welling with tears as he recounted his feelings. "I go to church everyday and pray to God to bring my family from holocaust and they never come. And then they come. I half very happy and half knowing trouble coming to me."
Chim withheld the news from his second wife while his torment grew over what he should do. Finally, he told her but decided he would not tell his first wife about his remarriage.
"I not tell my first wife I married. I lied. I afraid she not come," Chim said. "I make mistakes myself, but I want my children to have good opportunities and not make same mistake. So I tell her to come and live, here."
Chim secretly opened a savings account, where he stashed away whatever he could from his small paycheck to help his first family. Samay quickly discovered it, but said nothing. At the same time she secretly read the letters Chim was receiving almost weekly from his first wife.
"When I read her letters. I can't stand it," she said. She ended up burning them in a fit of depression, aggravating the already strained relationship with her frantic husband.
From the moment the Khmer Rouge captured Phnom Penh on the morning of April 17, 1975, Chim's first wife, Vaing Sau, thought of onlyone one thing: reuniting with her husband.
Within hours after the takeover, the communists were forcing the inhabitants to leave the city with only the clothes on their backs.
One of the greatest exoduses in the history of mankind was taking place. Millions of people jammed the highways. Summary executions of those with ties to the fallen government took place along the roadside. Families were separated in the crush. Children sat by the roadside crying for mothers and fathers they would never see again. Old men and women and the pregnant swiftly died under the rigors of the forced march.
Vaing lost count of the days. At one village called Skoun, she said, she stopped by the roadside with her children, then aged 2,4 and 10, to wait for family members who never appeared. There the Khmer Rouge had set up loud speakers and were announcing to all who passed that former civil servants, policemen and members of the military were to step aside so they could be returned to the capital and help organize a new government.
Thousands gladly turned themselves in, smiling and laughing at their good fortune. Vaing said she and her three children watched as the hands of those who accepted the offer were tied behind their backs and their heads beaten in by men wielding hoe handles.
"The blood run into the river and it turn purple," said 14-year-old Somnang as he watched a television game show in his mother's cramped apartment. "They beat them again and again. All were killed."
Food was always a problem. "I have [gold] necklace, my children have [gold] necklace" Vaing said. "We give piece of gold for rice. We eat tiny crab. We eat rice and -- what you call?" she asked, pointing out the window at the lawn. "Grass? We boil rice and grass."
"I alone," she said. "Other family have husband. They go fish. But I no can fish, watch baby, everything."
"I pray every day that my children die but they didn't die," Vaing said. "My baby very sick." She pulled down the pants of the youngest child to show dozens of scars from sores that have not healed. Then she opened a family album that contained several photos taken in Vietnam later that showed the child with massive scabs on its forehead.
Constantly in fear that her husband's military status would be discovered, she moved her family from place to place.
"I cross rivers holding baby in arms and Veasna [the four-year-old] like this," she said, grabbing the child's hair and pulling hard enough to lift it off the floor. "Water here," and she held her hand below her chin.
At the end of January 1976 she finally arrived in Saigon -- Ho Chi Minh City -- where she earned a living by selling potatoes while her son sold cigarettes on street corners.
It took almost 15 months before she was able to get a letter to her husband through the Red Cross, telling Chin all were alive. It wasn't until April 1978 that she and her children were able to leave Vietnam and fly to a refugee camp in Berlin, where they waited for permission to come to the United States.
The day they were to leave Germany for Washington, Vaing got her first inkling that trouble was ahead.
She received a letter from a friend of her husband's who had written without Chim's knowledge. The friend told her she should reconsider coming to the United States because Chim had remarried. Stunned, she talked with a U.S. consulate official who reassured her. Why would her husband want her to come if he had remarried, he asked.
"He know I stay in Germany if I know," she said. "I like Germany. But I come."
So on Aug. 10, 1978, Vaing and the children flew into Washington and, in an emotional scene at National Airport, were reunited for the first time in 3 1/2 years.
Chim had planned to break the news of his second marriage over dinner at a Chinese restaurant. But when Vaing saw a baby's car seat in Chim's car, she knew the truth. "I pass out five times, I so angry," she said.
The only apartment Chim had been able to find was but a block away from the apartment he shared with his second wife and year-old son, Cosal John Chim.
Chim planned to spend one night with his first family, Samay said, but that quickly lengthened into three weeks as the battle lines between the two women were drawn.
Samay considered suicide -- as she says she does from time to time even today -- and once swallowed pills, though not enough to harm her. She began carrying a knife around with which to cut her wrists.
But she decided that, if she died her son would end up living with Chim's first wife because Chim would be free to return to her. "I don't think she take care of my own son because he is not her own," she said.
The tensions, meanwhile, were taking their toll of Chim's relationship with his first wife. By the end of the third week he was sleeping on the couch in the living room. After one particularly bitter quarrel. Chim said, he left.
"I tell her, 'You don't understand. I go,'" Chim said. "I almost crazy. I get the wine until I get drunk and not remember."
Chim lived with a friend for months, but gradually he began seeing his second wife again. "My heart is stupid," Samay said. "I start seeing him more and more."
His embittered first wife had heard that the couple was once again living together -- a charge that Samay, who was on welfare at the time, denies. Vaing said she notified the welfare department, which cut off Samay's welfare checks and threatened to take Chim to court.
The cutoff had the effect of bringing the two back together again, Samay said, and they moved into their current apartment in Maryland near the Northwest bakery, two miles from his first wife.
Today, Samay tries to look at her troubled marriage philosophically. "I know it no his fault," she said. "This situation come to him. I don't want to lose my husband again."
Vaing remains angry. "I come here to look for him," she said, her dark eyes flashing and filling with tears she fights to hold back. "I do what no women can do, with baby and children, walk and walk and we eat nothing. Many people die in my country. . . and I come here to look for husband. And he married!"
Chim only drops his eyes and runs his hand through his hair when asked about what he will do. "I love my family," he said. "Sometime I feel everything dead. But what can I do?"