Dr. Samnang's story

It’s hard to imagine anyone better qualified to be Director of Cambodia Family Support than Dr Samnang Eng. You’ll understand why when you read his story.

I was born in 1964 into a poor family in Takao province in the south of Cambodia. I was the eldest of 4 children born to parents who were both teachers. My father and all of my siblings were killed during Khmer Rouge times. My mother and I survived and she now lives with me and my family in Battambang Province. This is my story.

When I was 11 the Khmer Rouge took power in Cambodia. Pol Pot wanted to create an agrarian society and part of his plan was to forcibly move all Cambodians from cities into rural areas. Pol Pots’ army forced my family to move to a very remote rural area in Koh Kong, Cambodia’s south-westernmost Province.

I still remember that journey. We walked for about 10 days, crossing the many rivers on small boats. Once we got to Koh Kong my family was forced to live together with other families as a unit. Our living conditions were very restrictive and controlled by Pol Pot’s army. We had to give up all personal items. We all ate the same food, we worked the same time, we slept together and we all wore the same black clothes. We worked days and nights for up to 15 hours each and every day. Everyone had to work, even children. At all times we were watched by Khmer Rouge cadres.

The Khmer Rouge classified everyone as either ‘old’ or ‘new’. ‘Old’ were original inhabitants who supported the Khmer Rouge movement. They had special privileges and powers over the rest of us. The Khmer Rouge cadres expected them to spy on us and report to them. The ‘new’ were people like my family and we had no rights.

Children were separated from parents. Shortly after we arrived in Koh Kong I was made to live in a ‘child unit’ with other children. Boys and girls lived separately. I heard my little sister was sick and tried to visit her but I was caught and severely beaten for trying to escape. I never did see her and I heard later that she died from starvation and illness.

From dawn to dark we worked. I carried rocks and cement to build a dam. Other times I worked in the rice fields with other children. I missed my parents, especially my mother. Once in a while I was able to sneak away at night to see her.

One day I was in a field working when I saw my father herding water buffalo nearby. We did not dare to say anything so we just looked at one another. Although we dared not speak out loud, our hearts spoke a thousand words. I felt my heart break to see my father so sad, so emaciated, his face and feet swollen. I never saw my father again.

Pol Pot’s army starved him and worked him to his death. After about a year I could no longer find my mother and heard she was sent to work in a brick factory far away.

One day in March 1979 I was working in the rice fields. I was 15. A team of black clothed soldiers showed up to tell us that Vietnamese soldiers were coming. They told us to hurry and decide if we wanted to go with them or be left behind. The KR soldiers told us if we stayed they could no longer be responsible for us. I don’t think they appreciated the irony of that statement.

Some of the children did go with the retreating Khmer Rouge because they had no other family and nowhere else to go. But I wanted to find my mother. I walked and ran more than 70 kilometres across mountains and deep forests, scavenging for food as I went. I asked people I met along the way if they knew where there was a brick factory. I did find the factory but arrived just two days after she had been moved.

I was bitterly disappointed but I kept on going to find my mother. I was very lucky because by chance a few days later I did find her. She was shocked to see me. We said nothing at the moment we met. We only could cling to one another, tears of joy and sorrow mingled together. She told me that my father was killed by the black clothed army and my two youngest brothers died from starvation.

My mother and I were the only ones to survive. My mother and I decided to find my father’s relatives. We walked more than 300 kilometres to Touk Meas District in Kampot Province. Luckily my mother spoke fluent Vietnamese and we were sometimes able to get a ride with Vietnamese army vehicles.

When we arrived we met my father’s younger sister and we stayed with her for a couple months. My mother wanted me to attend school but there was no school nearby. So I went to Takao province to study and lived with my mother’s sister there. My mother moved to Koh Kong province with a teacher friend, where she was able to find work as a primary school teacher.

In 1983 I finished high school and moved to Phnom Penh and started medical school in 1985. I found accommodation with a family who sold bread and eggs in the market. They lived in a flat that was always full of eggs. I had no place to sleep, so I slept on the fourth floor roof (most buildings had flat roofs). Phnom Penh at that time did not have running water so I had to get up early each morning to fetch water for the family. I then washed their clothes, carried bread and eggs to the market and cleaned their house before I went to class.

My mother and I were only able to communicate infrequently. We seldom saw each other because travel between Koh Kong and Phnom Penh was difficult and dangerous. Groups of Khmer Rouge were still active in Koh Kong. My mother tried to send me money for my studies but she could only do so sporadically.

I decided to build a shack on the roof top where I was sleeping so that I could live independently and that is what I did. It was not easy for me to live alone while I was studying. I had to find food and also be able to buy study materials. I would rise very early, walk to the bread factory and buy bread to sell along the street and at the railway station (which is close to the medical school). I had to finish my bread selling by 7.30 am to make it to classes on time. Each weekday from 5-7pm I taught mathematics for a private school. My closest friends would sometimes give me food. I am fortunate to have these friends today. They still live and work in Phnom Penh. One works as finance manager for a Cambodian NGO (RACHA), another works as finance manager for Heifer International and the other is deputy chief of CDC, Ministry of Health.

After I graduated from the University of Health Sciences I was sent to work in Rattanak Mondul district hospital in Battambang Province. In the early 1990’s the area remained a war zone, with government forces still fighting Khmer Rouge who had strongholds along the Thai-Cambodian border. Several times we had to evacuate the hospital because of the fighting. I worked for a year in the Battambang Provincial Health Department before moving to Phnom Penh in 1995.

I became a United Nations Volunteer working with street children and their families. In 1997 I continued helping vulnerable children through a program run by Save the Children (Norway). In 2000 I became project coordinator for the Family Support Program in Battambang and have been involved with this program ever since.

Now, I am honoured to be able to serve my people, especially the very poor, as Director of Cambodia Family Support.