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Ly Yousep and Ly Smael, Fishermen

When I was young, I lived with my older sister in Phnom Penh, and sold cakes in my spare time. One man often bought my cakes; sometimes, he bought all of them at once. One day he asked some elderly people to come and ask for my hand in marriage. It took eight months for me to agree to his proposal. I was only 13 years old and did not even know how to tie my hair into a bun. After we got engaged, he tried to push me to marry him as soon as possible. But I told him I would not get married until I learned how to cook.

When we were engaged, he worked as a goldsmith while I wove silk at my home. His family had an above-average income because they were merchants. After we were married, we lived at my sister’s house for a year. I stopped selling cakes and began mending fishing nets instead. Although we barely saved any money, we had enough food to eat each day.

My sons Yousep and Smael lived in Phnom Penh in the early 1970s; both of them were fishermen. Smael had beautiful curly hair that he did not have to comb at all. He was more handsome than his older brother Yousep. Yousep was afraid of having curly hair, so he used to comb it down many times each day.

Both of my sons were educated men and brilliant students, especially Smael. They could read and write Khmer, Cham [the language of Cambodia’s Muslim community], Arabic, and Malaysian. Smael also studied magic with a teacher in Phnom Penh; he learned how to disguise himself and how to change the trajectory of a bullet.

Of my two sons, Smael was never scared of anything, not even ghosts or bullets, while Yousep was afraid of everything. I remembered clearly the day when Smael took my clothes and put them on. He said “I want to try on your clothes because I am afraid that I might be separated from you, mother.” I felt sad at his words; it seem like at sign that one day my sons and I would be separated.

We moved back to Khleang Sbek Village in Kandal Province during the Lon Nol regime. By 1973, the fighting grew worse there, so we hired a car and went to Chraing Chamreh. All of the villagers left, not just my family. But after a while, my husband felt bad about losing his house, so he took three of our children –Yousep and Smael, and my daughter Mari – back to Khleang Sbek so they could fish; he said there was nothing for him to do in Chraing Chamreh.

Later I went to Khleang Sbek so I could ask my husband and children to come back. However, he said he and our sons would not return, but that I could take Mari back with me. We left and reached Chraing Chamreh in the evening. The following morning all the roads were cut off and I never saw my husband or sons again.

Mari and I then went to Phnom Penh and stayed with my younger brother who was a colonel in the army. He told us to pack our belongings and leave the city because the situation in Phnom Penh was getting worse. Before leaving, I wanted to return to Khleang Sbek and find my husband and sons, but the Khmer Rouge soldiers would not allow it. So my younger brother, daughter and I left Phnom Penh for Takeo Province.

In Takeo, we lived in many villages in Bati District. Wherever we went, they no longer allowed us to live with the Muslim community, and we were the only Chams in the village. We had many difficulties with eating, as our religion did not allow us to eat pork. Some people with bad intentions tried to make us eat pig meat.

In Bati District, the Angkar forced me to carry earth. Soon my eyes swelled up and my skin became yellow. My daughter could hardly recognize me. The Angkar then ordered Mari to join a children’s mobile unit. Seeing I was sick, my daughter dared to tell the unit chief that he should not force me to go to work any longer, pointing out that I was an old lady. We were lucky because the Angkar let us fix fishing nets instead. We also got to eat a lot because the fishermen often stole fish and gave them to us.

In 1978, we decided to run away because we could not stand starving any longer. But the cadres caught us and ordered us to live in another village, where they assigned Mari to dry beans. She could not stand this work and kept fainting. Seeing her like that, the unit chief sent Mari to prison for a short while and then released her. But then our old village chief wrote a letter asking that we be sent back. I refused to go and told the cadres that they should kill me right then rather than send me back. He replied that the Angkar just wanted me to go back to fix fishing nets because we were the only Chams in that village.

When the villagers who were evacuated at the same time as my sons returned home, they told me they had seen two young men whose skins were like Vietnamese along with a beautiful woman; they were trying to find their mother. One of the villagers said he saw all three of them being taken away by the Angkar to be killed. The villagers also described their appearances. They said one man had curly hair and the other one had straight hair. On hearing this, I was heartbroken; I knew it was my sons.

Even though the base people told me that Smael and Yousep were killed by the Angkar, I still have a feeling that Smael is probably alive. But, Yousep probably died because his face in the photo has become very pale. I went to see a fortune teller who told me that both of my sons are still alive; one of them had lost a leg, but both would come home in the month of Chet. I have waited through many months of Chet for them by now.