Football for the soul

Khmer Rouge ruled over Cambodia during the 1970s Wikicommons

“Sokha, are you ready?” whispered a voice under the confines of a moonlit sky in Veal Vong. “This is our best chance.” It was well past midnight, and though Angkar patrols at this time were infrequent, getting caught would undeniably lead to “a walk to the other side of the forest”. No one ever returned from such a stroll.

Sokha, dressed in a black uniform, made his way outside a thatched space that he had been taught to call home. “Are you sure no one is around,” he asked Sokhem, taking a peak from side to side. Sokhem looked at his brother’s frail physique, his eyes fell on how his bony fingers were gripping a half-deflated football that they had managed to keep from before the revolution.

For a moment, he remembered what he once looked like in the bustling city of Phnom Penh before the Khmer Regime. The siblings were part of one of the local teams there, and did they click well! For what Sokhem lacked in height, he more than made up for with his agility.

He was nicknamed ‘The Wriggler’, as catching him pivoting his way across the opposition half was a regular sight. Sokhem, the target man, was often the one who would finish these moves with a decisive touch.

Months of physical labour and a bout of diarrhoea, however, had taken the life out of what now was a noticeably wiry frame, but that only made him epitomise Cambodia in the late 1970s, when the Communist Party of Kampuchea (CPK), popularly known as the Khmer Rouge, dictated terms. Sport, or any form of recreation, was strictly prohibited under the new Angkar rule.

The penalty, though not openly stated, was death. Human instinct willed them, like many others in their surroundings, to fight for survival. “Even if someone does catch us on the way, we will say we needed to relieve ourselves and wandered too far looking for a good spot,” Sokhem said with a mischievous grin.

“Or we can say that you ate too much for dinner and were feeling sick,” Sokha said, quite literally tugging at his brother’s leg. They kept themselves humoured in alien circumstances that they had grown to accept. The only food that they got was rice soup, which unlike any modern day variants, was simply rice soaked in a bowl of salty water.

After excruciating days on the field, many slept on meagre rations, not to wake up the next morning. It didn’t change the quantity of food supplied, nor did it bring any mercy in terms of the workload. Death, illness and trauma were frequent visitors in Veal Vong, as across the contours of the once flourishing Cambodian society.

They both knew they would not be afforded the chance to plead their innocence. Yet, it seemed worth it. They were walking towards their freedom, which in this case would be a short game of football on a barren stretch of land a few miles away. A proper escape was not feasible. With the condition they were in, they would never get to the Thailand border. But, they needed something. Anything that would help them establish a connection with the past.

“You must not wait for death to come to you, you must die on your own terms,” their mother had told them before falling prey to dysentery two months into the Khmer Rouge. It resonated in their minds.

There was going to be no game, it was just the two of them. All they would do is just kick the ball about, maybe play some lobbed passes if they could muster the energy. For all practical purposes, this was an unthinkable act of stupidity, a mistake with no tangible benefit.

“Okay, we’re here. Let me teach you how to play some real football,” he said, gesticulating towards the ball. They improvised with the stuff they had once been taught at the club as their bodies were no longer capable.

Every dart towards the ball was met with a grunt, they no longer had the stamina that would allow them to practice hours after a match in peak humidity. Even receiving the ball was an effort, and a painful exercise, as their feet had now lost all muscle and flesh. They were living skeletons.

Yet, for the entirety of their outing, they played for the imaginary galleries, pursing their lips whenever a pass went astray or punching the air with delight when the rare moment of brilliance was fashioned. For the first time in the four months that they had been there, they felt alive. They were free.

“What are you doing here,” bellowed a hoarse voice. Sokha and Sokhem saw an armed man approach them.

They knew their time was up. No attempt was made to run, they wouldn’t have covered 50 metres in this state. As the patrol guard called out others in the vicinity, Sokha caught his brother’s eye, saw the football saddled between his arms and said his last words. “Good game.”

 

(This passage includes fictional characters, but the Khmer Rouge is a very real part of Cambodian history)

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