Reviewer Steve Moore: Steve is a full-time writer and ex-scientist. Besides his many technical publications, he has written six sci-fi thrillers (one a novel for young adults), many short stories, and frequent comments on writing and the digital revolution in publishing. His interests also include physics, mathematics, genetics, robotics, forensics, and scientific ethics. Follow Here for his WEBSITE.
Even with its simplicity of language and expression of personal innocence, this is still a powerful story that is more than a memoir. It is a historical treasure because the author was a survivor of Cambodia’s Killing Fields.
The history of the twentieth century was filled with the good, bad, and ugly. Good can be found in the advances in science and technology that have made life better in general and have specifically reduced hunger and suffering worldwide. Communications and transportation advances have connected all human beings who now can potentially see we’re all in this together—Earth is one planet for all to enjoy and protect.
The bad appears in a century of fighting, its very deadliness added to by science and technology too. We’ve suffered through two major wars, Korea, Viet Nam, and other skirmishes that illustrate human beings’ seemingly infinite capacity of doing harm to other human beings. More bad and certainly the ugly can be found in the various genocides that occurred along with some of these wars. The Armenian Genocide is associated with World War One and the Ottoman Empire; the Jewish Holocaust—definitely the worst in sheer numbers and suffering--is associated with World War Two and the Nazis; and genocides in the old Yugoslavia, Rwanda, Cambodia, and elsewhere have shocked us through the years.
We invented the term “ethnic cleansing” last century; it’s often taken as synonymous with genocide. One group often tries to erase an ethnically different group. The Cambodian Genocide of the Khmer Rouge was a bit different. An ideological group tried to eliminate another of the same ethnicity. The worst genocides occur when the perpetrators of one ideology uses ethnicity or religion as an excuse, finding scapegoats in the victims. Many twentieth century genocides were like this, the Jewish Holocaust being the worst. The motivations for genocides are varied, but they are all ugly occurrences that blight human history.
The history of the Cambodian Genocide is told in this book in the words of Bun Yom, one of its survivors. In the first part of this tale, Bun relates how he was taken at fourteen by the Khmer Rouge and put to work in a slave labor camp. In the second, he tells about his experience in the Cambodian Freedom Fighters after he escapes, becoming at a young age one of their go-to soldiers in encouraging enslaved Cambodians to flee the Khmer Rouge in order to find freedom. In the third, the shortest part, he relates how he found his family, became a refugee with them, and traveled to his new home in the state of Washington.
When he’s captured, Bun must deny he has an education—those who are educated are immediately killed and dumped into pits to rot or be covered with earth—some were even dumped there alive. This was more than a physical atrocity. For Bun and his companions, it was also a religious atrocity. He writes: “It was our custom to burn our dead so their spirits could be released. A buried body could not let its spirit go; its ghost would walk in this terrible place forever.”
The Communist agenda is clear here—it’s its own religion, and the Khmer Rouge had no respect for Cambodian Buddhist traditions. In the words of the Khmer Rouge’s teenage soldiers, “We are together right now. We don’t need rich people, we don’t need doctors, and we don’t need smart people. We will take care of you.” It’s incredible how much damage this debunked ideology has unleashed on the modern world. And, like Srebrenica, Auschwitz, and other massive murder sites, the Killing Fields added to this last century’s list of genocidal atrocities.
A large part of the narrative in Part I is dedicated to Bun’s slave labor at a dam site where they were supposed to build an earth dam across a major river. The dam was often washed away, and they had to start all over again, working without change of clothes and without shoes while attempting to sustain themselves with one bowl of rice soup per day. They were reduced to skin and bones and many died. “Of three thousand people working on the dam, we only had 150 left.” Mind you, all this is done in the steamy hot Cambodian jungle. During rice planting time, Bun’s group had a respite and planted rice in the fields, using the many bugs and insects to augment their protein intake.
Part II becomes a bit repetitive. The Cambodian Freedom Fighters’ camp is on the Thai border. They make repeated sorties into Cambodia to liberate the persons in the slave labor camps or enslaved villages. The Vietnamese (South or North?) get into the act, thinking the Freedom Fighters are Khmer Rouge. Here we find the origin of the title—it’s the slogan of the group Bun leads, because they all think they’re orphans after not hearing from their families for years. A letter from his mother in Thailand finally changes Bun’s perspective.
I really can’t do justice to this slim book in a review. The adage “Truth is stranger than fiction” comes to mind. We writers of mysteries and thrillers can describe all sorts of criminal atrocities, but the history of the twentieth century has created its own, along with stories of great courage and a will to survive. It gives this author pause for thought. Hopefully this century will be better, but it isn’t starting well. Read Bun’s story. Like the stories about the other genocides, this is one you’re not likely to forget.