Mol Rith and Rattan Mao’s Story

Nine Lives: Amazing Stories of Survival

In 1975 the Communist Party of Kampuchea terrified Cambodians, and Fort Worth refugee Mol Rith remembers. She was 28 years old when living under Pol Pot’s regime, known as the Cambodian Holocaust and remembered as one of the bloodiest eras in history. Approximately 2 million lives were lost to landmines, political persecutions or starvation and illness in the working camps.

Mol and her late husband, Chhay Mao, barely survived, but her four oldest children died of illness and hunger in the working camps where she lived in unimaginable fear. She said there were no doctors in those tight living quarters, so if one of her babies got sick, she couldn’t provide any medicine to keep them alive.

Try not to ask her to remember everything because she can’t. A severe case of post-traumatic stress disorder blocks most memories of starvation, tripping over bodies in the fields at night while dodging bullets from the Khmer Rouge. She endured all of this while carrying her youngest child at the time, Rattana Mao.

Mol said they spent all day working on the farms with no pay. The community would come home and cook a large pot of a porridge-like substance that consisted of rice, fish and water. They each received a tiny cup and always went to bed hungry. They only got to eat twice a day.

One morning soldiers took her and her neighbor’s husbands away. Her neighbor’s husband never returned — he was executed. When the soldiers arrived several days later and left with her husband, she mourned his death. To say Mol was relieved when her husband came home hours later, alive, is an understatement. Pol Pot used this kind of fear to control Cambodians like the Maos.

Her husband decided it was better to escape than to die in the working camps. Pregnant, she held on tightly to her 1-year-old baby, Rattana, and ran at night since there was nowhere to hide in the open fields during the day. It took them two long days of running in the oppressive heat and starving to arrive at the U.N. refugee camp in Thailand. Pol Pot had planted landmines all over the fields to kill those who tried to escape. Mol remembers seeing the bodies of those less fortunate than her family.

Her daughters, Tina and Rattana, sobbed as they heard their mother tell her story for the first time in her home last month. They never knew their father went missing for hours as their mother sat in fear shaking. Things started to make sense, like when Rattana was in college, her parents went back to Cambodia for the first time since they fled in 1979. Mol inevitably had to relive parts of her past, which caused her to fall into despair all over again.

When she returned to her home in Fort Worth, she didn’t remember her daughter, Tina. She asked her what she was doing in her house. The doctor prescribed an MRI but couldn’t find anything wrong. Finally, they ruled it was a severe case of PTSD. Her mind was shutting down to protect herself. She started taking medicine and is back to her old self now and off the medicine.

Although Rattana and Mol lived in poverty in Fort Worth, they were happy to be free and safe. They have had access to medical care, food, shelter and each other. That is all that matters. But the first Fourth of July Mol heard fireworks going off, she thought they were bombs and landmines. She grabbed all of her children and hid in a room in their house for hours, shaking. It was a long time before she learned they were simply fireworks, celebrating the freedom she now enjoys.

All of Mol’s children are now grown. She is deeply saddened her husband lost his battle with cancer three years ago but enjoys the intimate time with her family. She watches all of her grandchildren daily, and Rattana has also become a successful member and leader of the Fort Worth community, giving back to the city that took her family in when she was a child.

“Now I have everything. I have God now, and he has me,” Mol said.

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