This was the landscape of Lohn Van's life for 44 years: Huts on stilts with cattle, pigs and chickens rooting underneath. Rude porches peopled by peasants sipping tea. A brown, sluggish river. Dusty, rutted roads that turned to mud in the monsoon. And rice paddies that had sustained him and his ancestors for uncounted generations.
The edge of his world was the rich green of the jungle. Nothing more. Nothing less.
For Lonh, an iliterate Cambodian rice farmer, the world beyond had never existed until one hot September day in 1975 when, as he was being led to a distant rice field by cocky Khmer Rouge soldiers, he saw the bodies.
They were piled high in jumbled, twisted heaps, like garbage. Some were little more than skulls and bones. Others were swollen with putrefaction. On a few, the features were still recognizable. One of them he saw was a friend and fellow farmer.
Sitting in his one-bedroom Arlington apartment, Honh drops his soft dark eyes as he remembers. He leans forward to rub his calves. His broad peasant feet are bare on the worn carpet. Nearby, his 8-month-old granddaughter, born in Americas, coos and gurgles, peering around the sagging couches that serve as beds for some of the six family members who live with him.
"So many people die," he says slowly to the translator. "So many people die. I cannot tell you how many." He looks up, his eyes searching his listeners' face for some sign that they understand something he cannot.
In the apartment below, someone is playing soul music loud, and Lonh begins to finger the large paper-covered book called "Teach Me to Read -- For Boys and Girls Up to 8."
He must learn to read, he says, he must learn English. Otherwise, he does not know how he will ever be able to support his wife and teen-age daughter in his new country.
He then smiles broadly. "Everything is happiness," he says. "We are happy to be in America."
Lonh, 49, is one of an estimated 1,500 to 2,000 Cambodian refugees in the Washington area. Many fled because of the ferocity of the Khmer Rouge, the Cambodian communists, who killed outright hundreds of thousands if not more in their efforts to restructure Cambodian society.
But as more and more farmers, such as Lohn, left or were killed or diverted to forced labor in other areas, the country's food production base was nearly destroyed. By the late 1970s, starvation had reached huge proportions. Since the Khmer Rouge took power in 1975, an estimated 1.5 million or more have died simply because of malnutrition, or because they were so overworked and underfed they died of disease. Lonh's mother starved to death.
Today, refugee camps in Thailand are overflowing with as many as 150,000 displaced Cambodians, relief officials say. Another 150,000 live in shantytowns across the border in Cambodia, subsisting on handouts from the relief efforts of Thailand or grubbing for food in the jungles.
Of those who have made it to the United States or Canada, few speak much English. Many are illeterate even in their own native Khmer language. For them, the task of integrating into the population of their new homeland is monumental.
While Lonh's case is dramatic, it differes little from the plight of many of his fellow Cambodian refugees here. For him and others, the journey from their ancestral villages in Cambodia to Thailand was a leap through centuries, from a rural ancient agrarian society to one filled with technological timesavers they could not even dream of.
Never had Lonh ventured more than 20 to 30 kilometers from his village of Svay Chek in northwestern Cambodia, and he had traveled that distance perhaps only a dozen times in his life. Though he was born in a Cambodian ruled by the French, he remembers seeing Frenchmen only once in his life, when he was 13. They had tossed coins to the village children while attending a village festival.
The French withdrew from Cambodia in the face of the Japanese invasion during World War II. But Lonh never saw Japanese soldiers. Indeed, he never knew there had been a world war. He could not even imagine an event of such global dimensions.
Lonh had never heard of Dien Bien Phu, the small North Vietnamese village where the Vietnamese communists defeated the French in 1954, forcing their final withdrawal and opening the way for the surge of Indochinese nationalism that was eventually to have such a devastating impact on his own village 21 years later.
He did not know until the 1960s that Prince Sihanouk was the ruler of Cambodia. And he did not know that Sihanouk had been ousted in 1970 until 1972. He had not heard of the Cambodian invasion by American and South Vietnamese forces in 1970 that further drew his native land into combat and turmoil.
For lonh, the Vietnam war of the 1960s and 1970s had been only distant rumor. Villagers speculated on the "Jesus people" who were fighting somewhere. Only when he entered the refugee camp did he learn that the "Jesus people" in fact called themselves Americans. And it was only there that he met his first American.
Lonh lived in a time capsule, as did many of his fellow refugeeds. Yet, the discovery of the world beyond Svay Chek was not nearly as staggering as the cultural shock that was to come when he finally immigrated to the United States in 1979.
In the refugee camps, it was rumored that everything in America was automatic. Automatic bedrooms. Automatic kitchens. Automatic doors. When his family arrived in Washington and stayed briefly in a hotel before they were placed in an apartment, his son-in-law Binnat and his daughter Sotha Van came face to face with one of these miracles in the form of an elevator.
Binnat marched gamely inside the elevator with his wife trailing. But before she could enter, the door closed. Frantically, Binnat tried to open it but he did not know how, and it whisked him up several floors before it finally stopped. On the ground floor, Sotha burst into tears, terrified at the disappearance of her husband. She dashed around the lobby babbling in Khmer until finally an American deduced that she had lost her husband and helped reunite them.
Lonh was overwhelmed by the vastness, the hugeness of everything in his new country. He still is frightened of wandering in large office buildings for fear of becoming lost. Only once has he traveled downtown to Washington to see the sights. On that one occasion, for him, an epic journey by bus, he carefully planned the trip to the National Air and Space Museum -- the "Apollo house," he called it. Once there, Lonh visited only one room because he thought he would otherwise lose his way.
The philosophy of the resettlement group responsible for Lonh and his family is that refugees must go to work immediately, even if they speak no English. So when he arrived here, Lonh worked for a carpenter for eight days. Every morning, he watched as his fellow workers punched in on the time clock. Lonh would imitate, picking out a card and jamming it into the machine. When the end of the week came he got his paycheck: $12 and a few cents. He had been punching in the coards of his fellow employes, unaware that he had one of his own.
Now, a year later, Lonh pushes hismelf to learn English, convinced that he must do that before he can successfully hold a job. He receives $439 a month in welfare payments and food stamps to support himself and six members of his family. Their rent is $240 a month.
Though he has been studying for six months, he can say only "thank you" and several other words or phrases. He spends hours at a long table in his apartment tracing out letters that spell "This is a cat.This is a boat." But he is isolated from Americans now that he no longer works. There is no opportunity to practice, and his progress is stalled. Yet, he is eager to learn, and he almost quivered with excitement at the opportunity to practice and learn more from a visiting reporter who spent half an hour teaching Lonh rudimentary English, such as the plural forms of words.
Despite the isolation and his own fears (he is terrified that the welfare will be cut off and his family will starave), Lonh believes in the American dream.
"I will find a job and we will be very happy," he says. His 14-year-old daughter, Som Van, is determined to make it, too, he said. Though she has been attending an Arlington high school for six months after missing school for years, and though her own English is barely more adequate than his, she tells her father that she will finish school and help to support them. As a family unit, he says, they will survive.Somehow.
When the Khmer Rouge came to Svay Chek in May 1975, they first had to subdue a small military garrison. Once the troops surrendered, they were required to register with local communist authorities. Then, over the next few weeks, they were called away in small groups for "higher education."
None ever returned.
Then the Kymer Rouge began calling away anyone who had ever served in the old government's army, whether for a day or wekk and after that the wealthier villagers. Finally, ordinary farmers such as Lonh were being ordered to higher education classes. And then, in September, Lonh saw the bodies.
Such was the self-containment of Svay Chek that, though the bodies were barely one mile from the village, no one had had any reason to venture that far in months. But in Lonh's mind, the heaps of dead bodies admitted no other explanation but that all those who had been called to "higher education" had been beaten to death by men wielding hoe handles.
For the first time in all the years of his life, he began to consider leaving the village of his birth. Thailand was only a two-day walk to the west, yet it was vaguely unsettling, foreign. He remembered that his father had died mysteriously on a journey to Thailand, and everything he had ever known or needed was within three kilometers of Svay Chek.
To leave the village would mean parting not only with friends and relatives, but with a way of life. He assumed he would be a farmer, but he had no assurances. Here, he knew a sense of rhythm with the seasonal plantings and harvestings. Here, he shared a communal frame of mind that saw everything ebb and flow in harmony.
He remembered when he had built his own house about 20 years before. For a year in between chores in the fields, he had gathered wood from the jungle, cutting down tall, straight trees for the pilings to support the frame. jThen, in the day deemed most auspicious by the village astrologer, he asked all his friends to come.
It must have been a scene similar to an American barn raising. While family members passed around bowls of specially prepared food and local liquors, the men worked feverishly to complete the task by the end of the day. Tradition required that Lonh move in before sunset.
When they finished, Lonh had a sturdy home with a thached roof. There was a porch where cooking was done and where guests could squat and visit. Inside were three rooms for family quarters.
As Lonh sits in his Arlington apartment, his thick dark hair framing a sturdy face and skin the color of mahogany, his eyes seem to lose focus. He can still see the house, the banana and mango trees and sugar cane he planted alongside; the tall coconut tree in front, and the pond he dug behind. With pride he tells how he owned 14 bulls, six of them used for plowing the rice paddies, and five cows. He had five pigs, 30 chickens, 13 ducks, six geese, and a pack of 15 dogs that not only kept the farm animals in line, but also served as a deterrent to intruders.
His three daughters were born in this house. Lonh had been beorn in the hut next door.
Lonh owned 40 rice paddies in the surrounding fields, each one measuring about 40 meters square and producing about 400 large bamboo baskets of rice a year. Half he would keep and half he would sell, netting about $150 a year. He also sold eggs, and by 1972 he had saved enough to buy a small transister radio, his only luxury. He listened to music, nothing else.
There were more than 500 people in his village and, like lonh, few had ever attended school. The community boasted a grand total of four bicycles, plus one rickshaw for hire. There were no cars, trucks or buses.
Within a month after the fall of the Lon Nol government in Phom Penh in May 1975, things began to change dramatically, Lonh recalls.
The victorious Khmer Rouge confiscated the wealth and possessions of those middle-and upper-income villagers and gave them to the poorer ones. Lonh lost everything, including his dogs, who so vexed the Khmer Rouge soldiers with their snarling and snapping that they killed all and ate them.
Everyone was ordered into the fields to work. From 5 a.m. to 6 p.m. they labored under the eyes fo watchful guards. All the rice that was harvested was carted away by the Khmer Rouge. The only fruits of their labors that Lonh and his fellow villagers received was a daily bowl of rice gruel, a thin watery soup made from boiled rice, rationed out by the Khmer Rouge.
It was around this time that people began disappearing for "higher education," and as more and more villagers vanished, the community became more and more paralyzed by fear.
The sight of the heaps of bodies had already prompted Lonh to consider leaving the village. But it was the last stand of his uncle that left him no choice.
Uncle Koeum had somehow angered the Khmer Rouge and, after some discussion, they decided to order him off to higher education as well. They waited, as was habit, for darkness to fall and then knocked on Koeum's door.
Koeum, however, refused to let them in. Instead, he took a long knife and stood behind the door while his family huddled in fear behind him. Then they waited as Khmer Rouge soldiers kicked in the door.
Koeum stabbed the first one to death as he crossed the doorway. The second soldier to enter was stabbed to death, too. But when he fell, the knife was jerked from Koeum's hand, and he was helpless as the others raced inside.
The entire Koeum family was taken away -- Koeum, his wife, daughter, son, daughter-in-law, son-in-law, and his grandson -- and none was ever seen again.
Lonh was told the next day that all of Koeum's relatives were now marked for exeuction. That night, he told his wife of the bodies and of the threat to their lives. Quietly they stole down their stairs and across the rice paddies and into the jungle. His brother, Van Koy, did not leave. Later, in the refugee camp, Lonh learned that Van had been killed the next day, and that for several weeks, thereafter, Khmer Rouge soldiers secretly watched Lonh's house, waiting for him to return.
Once in Thailand, Lonh found work with a Thai who was of Cambodian ancestry. He stayed for two years, sharing the harvest in much the same way a sharecropper would. There, his eldest daughter, Seam Van, now 22, fell in love with another Cambodian refugee living in the household, and a simple marriage was arranged.
But the idyll did not last. By 1977, the Thais were becoming alarmed at the increasing number of Cambodian refugees crossing the border. In that year, he says, they forced all non-Thais to shift to refugee camps. So Lonh moved his wife, two unmarried daughters, and Seam and her husband to the refugee camp called Lumpuk.
Families lived there in long wooden buildings with corrugated steel roofs, perhaps 20 families to each building. Partitions divided the space to give each family a room about 4 meters long and 2 meters wide. Seam and her husband were given their own quarters adjacent to Lonh's.
To supplement the three kilos of rice given his family each week by the relief organizations, Lonh cut wood for Thai farmers. Sometimes he would earn as much as $4 a day. On other occasions, the Thai farmers would simply refuse to pay him at the end of the day.
"Some were good, some were bad," he says with a smile.
After about year, Binnat Van, a fellow refugee, spotted Sotha, Lonh's daughter who is now 20, in the camp. Though he had never spoken with or met her, Binnat fell in love immediately.
Binnat approached the refugee camp chief with a formal proposal of marriage.
The camp chief spoke with Lonh, who favored the match. Sotha did not want want to marry. But in the tradition of Cambodian family life, she acceded to her father's wishes, and a marriage was arranged.
Lonh asked for a month to save enough money for a dowry and to buy the food and local liquors that would be needed for the ceremony.
Then, on the agreed upon day, the two-day ceremony began. Friends gathered to eat and sip wine. In one ritual, the hair of the young couple was cut as a symbol of their hope to be forever beautiful to each other.
Finally, on the second day, they were formally joined, and Lonh handed over his daughter's dowery of $40 to his new son-in-law. The new couple moved in with Lonh, his wife and daughter.
By 1979, Lonh's application for permission to come to the United States had been granted and in March, they arrived in Washington.
Today, Lonh lives in an apartment complex where many of the families are also Indochinese refugees. Outside, children play, gawking at the huge dumpster garbage truck that, like some ancient monster, clangs and clatters as it clutches bins full of garbage in its metal arms.
Inside, Binnat and Bun Thoeurn, Lonh's two sons-in-law, study English. When other Cambodians visit, conversations frequently turns to the new language, and Binnat, the most proficient of the family, goes over lists of new words and letters, explaining the meanings and offering his best guess of their pronunciation.
In the evenings, Lonh watches a second-hand television set. He says he can understand most of the commercials. He likes James Bond. In the living room the young children play at war. "You die now," says one, the other tumbles to the floor in mock death.
For Lonh, the only worthwhile goal now is to become productive, to regain control over a life spent spinning out of control by events in his homeland.
"I am a farmer," he says shyly. "I would like to farm. But I will learn to do other things. And then everything will be happiness."