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Tales of a Hay Hauler: Out of Cambodia

Brad Nelson Published on 29 August 2014

“We were careful to step in the footprints of those walking ahead of us,” explained Visal, “so any soldiers finding our trail would think it was only one person walking through the jungle instead of 38 of us. One person was not worth their time.”

Knowing some of her history, I arranged to show Visal some of the spectacular scenery of central Washington and was able to take two of my granddaughters with me. I wanted them to hear her story first-hand.

For many of the years I spent as manager of a hay export facility in central Washington state, Visal was the person on the other side of the state who dealt with the steamship lines. In the battle to get the correct hay to the correct port in Japan in a time frame the end-user needed it, I often felt like the battle was Visal and me against the world.

Visal was 7 years old when she and her family walked through the jungles of Cambodia with her surviving family members and others for the almost-200 miles it took to escape. This was in the early 1980s, and Visal and the others were fleeing from a murderous and oppressive government.

Visal was recently in central Washington state accompanying a group inspecting hay for export to Japan. As we entered a large hay shed and proceeded to walk through it, she asked if there were any snakes in the shed. “Not likely,” I responded. As she shared her history with us later, that question made sense.

Here in central Washington, I will see a reclusive snake every couple of years unless I go looking for one. I’m sure the jungles of Cambodia are home to snakes capable of eating a 7-year-old child.

Visal shared with us the conditions that caused her family to decide to flee their homeland.

“In a socialist-communist state, everything belongs to the government,” she explained. “Even the children.” She said that at age 3 or 4, children were being taken from their families and placed in commune groups with other children of similar age.

They were given work to do that the government thought appropriate for their age, and if anyone did not do the work assigned, they were shot.

She told of playing with friends before she was separated from her family and having soldiers enter the playground and drag off some of her playmates. These were children of teachers and bankers and businessmen.

She watched her friends being dragged off, and when they were out of sight, she heard gunshots. Her mother later told her that her friends had been killed.

“Can you imagine finding the trail in the dirt where someone had been dragged to death?” she asked. Visal’s mother tried to shield her from the cruel realities of those times – but could not.

I asked if her whole family made it out. She said that her group of 38 all made it out of Cambodia, but that before they left, some of her brothers had died fighting the regime that took over her country. They spent a year in Thailand and two years later were able to enter this country.

“I was 10 years old on my first day of school in this country,” Visal explained. “And I was so terrified that I spent the whole first day hiding under my desk. I spoke not a word of English then, and I wasn’t sure that I had not been thrown into another commune.”

When the reality of freedom and opportunity were understood, Visal took advantage of it. She educated herself. “I had been out of college and working for some time before I treated myself to brand-new clothing,” she went on. “My family had been so poor that I had been accustomed to wearing worn, even ripped clothing.”

It’s been a quarter-century since Visal’s trek to freedom. I am amazed that she seems so well-adjusted after witnessing such things as a child.

After sharing her history with my granddaughters, she went on to challenge them to make something of themselves.

“Go to college,” she insisted. “If you don’t understand something a teacher is trying to teach, go to the teacher and tell them you are having trouble understanding. And don’t go away until that teacher explains it so you do understand it.”

Visal continued, “You have freedom and opportunity in this country, things my family never had in Cambodia. You can live in a house that is yours. You can drive a car that is yours. When you have children, they will be yours; they will not be the property of the government. Use this freedom, and make something of yourselves.”

Thank you, Visal!

The greatest fear I have for the future is that we, the citizens of the greatest country in the history of mankind, will sit and complacently do nothing as our freedoms are taken from us one by one. It’s sad to see a person who has always had “enough” grow up with no incentive to excel.  FG