On the same day, Carson said, her beloved grandmother crossed the street to see what all the commotion was about and was not allowed to cross back. It would be about a year before a chance encounter reunited the family.
Pfeiffer, 23 at the time, was now on her own with three children: 7-year-old Pech and her younger siblings, sister Polica and brother Tina. The Khmer Rouge forced them to flee to jungles, where they would spend the next four years trying to avoid execution, starvation and deadly diseases.
“Pech would get up in the morning at like 4 or 5 and go to the rice fields to collect cow manure they used for fertilizer,” Pfeiffer recalled. “Those kids who got the most manure got something to eat — a little rice. Pech tried so hard.”
Carson said for a young kid it also was a bit of an adventure. She explored the jungle and climbed trees to pick fruit.
“There’s enough edible fruit, mushrooms, plants in the jungle, but you have to know which ones are safe to eat,” she said. “The locals would tell you.”
She also learned to catch frogs, little shrimp, fish, lizards and grasshoppers, all for food. “We ate a lot of things we wouldn’t eat now,” she said. “The lizards and grasshoppers and frogs were skinny, too, but we would eat everything we could find because we were starving.”
One day, while working beside her mom in the rice fields, Carson watched her mom reach into the water and grab a poisonous water moccasin around its neck. The quick move to avoid being bitten also produced that night’s dinner.
“My mom was so brave,” Carson said. “And she had very smart, survival instincts.”
But nothing could be done to help her brother, who ate poisonous mushrooms and without medical treatment died a painful death a few days later.
“I remember my mom holding him in her lap,” Carson said. “He kept telling my mom: ‘I want to go home. I want to go home. Why are we here?’ ”
She also watched her grandmother, Vanna Ngel, die an equally horrific death from a beating from the Khmer Rouge after being caught stealing food. Her dying wish was for a spoonful of sugar to eat.
“My mom was sick, too, with malaria, all shaky and weak and walking with a stick,” Carson said. “It was pouring rain. I think the monsoon season. But she walked for a whole day to find somebody with sugar. She traded some gold jewelry she had kept hidden for the sugar.”
Ngel was given the sweet treat and died that night. It would take Pfeiffer three days to find a man who could help dig a grave and lift her body into it.
In January 1979, after an estimated 1.4 to 2 million Cambodians had died during the Khmer Rouge’s reign, Vietnamese troops that were tired of border skirmishes with the guerrilla forces invaded Cambodia. The Khmer Rouge retreated to the jungle. The country was liberated.
Pfeiffer seized on a dangerous opportunity to trade gold jewelry for a guide who would lead them to a Red Cross refugee camp in Thailand. “I begged the guide to take us. I said: ‘Please, I have two little girls,’ ” she said.
They walked for two days and one night over mountainous terrain in bare feet and in single file, careful to avoid land mines planted by the Khmer Rouge. They also had to walk in silence. If they were discovered, they would have been executed.