“I was married to the Khmer Rouge.”

A rare shot of Pream allowing her sorrow to show.

In 1976, Pream Sui was 19 years old, living in Anlong Sar, Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge. Because she was one of the “old people” –uneducated rural villagers who weren’t a threat—she wasn’t killed but placed in a youth group working in the fields. One of the guards noticed her, decided he wanted her for his own, and married her.

The “wedding” took place at the end of a workday with 12 other couples composed of guards and the village girls they’d chosen. The girls had no idea whom they were marrying but dared not refuse their captors. The ceremony lasted less than 5 minutes.

After her marriage, Sui continued to work in the fields, under the gun of her husband, but like all the other “wives,” she went to his cabin at night. In short order, she had 2 children but when Vietnam invaded Cambodia to drive out Pol Pot, her husband disappeared into the resistance and moved away. He came back a few times to visit Sui and the children, but by then he had another wife and when Sui got pregnant with her third baby, he left for good.

Now a happy grandmother, Sui’s bad memories are in the past.

To be a woman in Cambodia in the countryside raising three children alone was shameful and indescribably hard. “It’s difficult to tell you how I felt because I cried every day,” Sui says with an incongruous big smile. Somehow, she managed to farm her 3 hectares of land, raise her three children, marry off two daughters (and pay for the weddings) and is now a happy grandmother living with her eldest daughter, Chen Soueb.

“Now I appreciate all my mother’s hard work and the strength it took to raise us,” Soueb says.

Caught between poverty & family.

Soueb, 30, has four children—12, 11, 10 and 7 –and a story of abandonment of her own. About 4 years ago, her husband Heng Ha began illegally immigrating to nearby Thailand, like 75% of all the men in Anlong Sar village, Banteay Meanchey province. Disastrous floods had ruined the rice crop and drowned most of the animals, and the village men were desperate for an income. Ha decided to risk illegally going over the border to earn money working construction.

It takes 1 ½ days to make the trip into Thailand from Banteay, working through an underground network to avoid capture and getting thrown into a detention center. Once in Thailand, Ha had no way to contact his family and could only send money home through a money train that skimmed off 25%. Ha made his way home just twice a year, and every trip was laden with the risk of  being thrown in jail. Soueb gave birth to her fourth child while Ha was in Thailand, and she feared that he would never come home – much like her own dad.

So when Soeub encountered Heifer’s “Community Empowerment Program” in her village – and attended the Family Focus cornerstone training with Ha– the couple figured that if they worked very hard at home, maybe they could make it together as a family.

Together at last – Ha & Soueb & their children.

For two years now, Ha has stayed home with the family and they’ve managed to make the same amount of money as when he worked in Thailand. Despite the devastating floods of last year, the 2 pigs they received from Heifer in 2011 have reproduced and provided them with income. They attended all Heifer’s animal husbandry courses and are also raising ducks and chickens, growing rice and grasses for income and feed, eating from their home garden, and most importantly, staying together.

Heifer’s impact in the whole village of Anlong Sar has been profound: increasing the number of home latrines from 10% to over 90%; boosting family income by 30%; improving food security with animals and home gardens; decreasing the incidence of malaria by 80%; and building solidarity among these women who are so warm and affectionate, they competed to hold my hand the entire time I was there (how much did I love that??)

Women from one of the four Self-Help Groups in Anlong Sar village with KK, Heifer’s country director.

Devoted teacher Eath Korm.

I saw more evidence of the strength of the community when we met Eath Korm, a disabled 21-year old who loved school but was denied entrance past middle school because his parents couldn’t manage the transportation (Korm can’t walk). However, a member of Anlong Sar’s Self-Help Group knew of Korm’s desire to teach and encouraged him to set up a tutorial service – and with the help of Heifer’s curriculum guides, literacy packets and Teaching Technology courses (the town has no books for the children to read, so they practice with the literacy handbooks), Korm is now tutoring an after-school class of 20 enthusiastic kids.

It’s a tiny village, Anlong Sar. There’s a long way to go before there is real literacy or decent education here, and the government hasn’t made much headway in meeting its responsibilities to these poor provinces. And yet … when you see darling Soueb and her family, or Korm on crutches before his eager students in the classroom, it’s hard not to see this as a leap forward in hope.

I’m feeling it. Are you?

Categories: Cambodia, Education, Heifer International, Photography, Poverty, Travel, Women | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 45 Comments

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45 thoughts on ““I was married to the Khmer Rouge.”

  1. Yes. Hope indeed.

    In almost every instance you’ve reported, it’s Heifer and like-minded other fabulous organizations that make the difference of life, death, hope, and forward. And in the case of the Cambodian government being so corrupt, as a citizen, I’d much rather take a help up from Heifer than I would blood money from the government. Any truth to that?

  2. Oh, I love that photo of Pream Sui and her daughter. What an amazing story. It seems I remember Cambodian illegals being a semi-despised group in Thailand. Glad to hear about the work Heifer is doing in Cambodia. Great post, Betty.

  3. LOVE this and love you for who you are and what you do.

  4. Grannies holding society together all over the world! Love it.

  5. BJ

    ..another incredible story… hope you have plans to someday gather them all together for a book

  6. Didi

    I’m always struck with how incredibly beautiful the faces of the children and the adults are in your stories. Young and old both present such amazing images. How can you not “feel it”.

  7. eric

    yes Betty, I am. Good job, God bless you

  8. Deb Morrow Palmer

    Thank you again. It is wonderful to feel hope for all these devastated countries.

  9. Heart breaking history. Thanks for the article

    Sent from my iPhon

  10. Another uplifting post, Betty, about wonderful people – those who provide through Heifer and those who benefit from Heifer’s help and persevere with their own hope, faith and determination. And you are included among the wonderful people, for doing what you do – sharing these stories and helping us put perspective in our lives.

  11. You are an inspiration Betty.

  12. Incredible post that I am sharing now! What an impact Heifer has made on their lives!

  13. Susannah

    Good story from a difficult place.

  14. Martha Radatz

    Yes, after your wonderful post, I am feeling it.
    But hard to grasp the horror of Pream Sui’s past!

    • Yes, it was hard to grasp the so-close past in this village … but the people were all so lovely and those women! Just so friendly and warm, despite all they have been through!

  15. I think I forgot to breathe while I read this post. Whew Betty Pream Sui’s story is almost unbelievable. At age 19 she was forced into a marriage and when her “husband” left her everyone shames and shuns her because she’s got kids but no husband. OMG. And her daughter and son in law’s story wasn’t much better. Sheesh. thank god for Heifer.
    Are those green papayas in the tree?

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    when i read this post i thought i could also create comment
    due to this brilliant post.

  17. I am so happy you liked it, Kavin — these two women were so special to me!!

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