A Cambodian looks back upon his slavery in the killing fields of Cambodia, his escape and fight against the Khmer Rouge, and his immigration to the U.S.
In this memoir, first-time author Yom gives an eyewitness account of the atrocities committed by the Khmer Rouge against fellow Cambodians. In 1975, at the age of 14, Yom was separated from his family after the Khmer Rouge assumed power and forced him to help build dams, plant rice, and help bury fellow prisoners whom the Khmer Rouge had killed. To supplement his starvation rations of rice gruel, Yom ate anything he could find: frogs, mice, rats, grasshoppers, and snakes. In 1978, he escaped and joined the Cambodian Freedom Army. Outnumbered and outgunned, the army nevertheless rescued Cambodians from the killing fields and engaged in guerrilla warfare with the Khmer Rouge. Yom, who claims to have helped save 10,000 lives, rose to lead a crew of 300 soldiers but deserted when he learned his family was in a refugee camp in Thailand. Rejoining his family, he eventually immigrated to Ellensburg, Washington, to join other family members. This book gives a grisly firsthand account of the appalling brutality that took place in Cambodia. It’s a grotesque catalog of the horrors of the killing fields—workers were murdered when they broke tools or were too weak to work; the living were tossed in mass graves with the dead; crudely built dams collapsed and killed thousands; corpses came apart in workers’ hands as they cleared rice paddies. Yom balances his despairing tale of human evil and misery with the more admirable human qualities of grit and courage, shown by resisters. Despite its horrific subject, the book’s an easy read: well-written, clear, and concise—too concise, in some ways, in that Yom could have given deeper descriptions of the prisoners, soldiers, and family members he lived with. Few personalities emerge in more than sketchy detail. Some geopolitical context would have been helpful too—for instance, Yom recounts firefights with Vietnamese soldiers without sufficiently explaining what Vietnam was doing in Cambodia.
A valuable and inspiring, but sometimes scant, personal record of survival.