The author of a book written more than 20 years ago says he has not given up hope that his son might have survived the murderous Khmer Rouge regime
I pray that one day my son, Nawath, will read this book and it will result in us meeting each other.
Pin Yathay once was forced to make an almost unimaginably difficult decision. Now 65, his face still contorts with emotion when he thinks back to the day in 1977 that he decided to leave his only surviving son, Nawath, in hospital with an elderly woman while he and his wife fled the malevolence of the Khmer Rouge.
Stay Alive My Son, Pin Yathay’s book about this time, can therefore be seen as both self-reproach and vindication for a man who has been haunted by his decision ever since. It is also, most importantly, a father’s attempt to reconnect with his estranged son.
Written more than 20 years ago, Pin Yathay’s tale has already struck a chord with Cambodians – 8,300 copies have already been sold in Khmer.
It has also been translated into English and French, with a further 1,800 copies printed for the third edition.
Though the book has not, thus far, given the desperate father any clues as to the whereabouts, or fate, of his son, Pin Yathay insists this has not dented his optimism.
“I pray that one day my son, Nawath, will read this book and it will result in us meeting each other,” he said.
Pin Yathay was forced to flee the country of his birth during Pol Pot’s reign.
Under the previous Lon Nol government, Pin Yathay was an important public figure, working as the president of a new project in the Ministry of Public Works. He was also an educated man, having studied mathematics and engineering in Canada.
During the Khmer Rouge regime, the lives of educated individuals, especially public figures, were in danger. The engineer’s decision to flee almost certainly saved his life.
He explained that the option of moving what was left of his family together was never a realistic one.
“In the Khmer Rouge era, we never travelled as a family,” Pin Yathay said.
“Children travelled with children, men with men, and women with women. The only time we were allowed to travel was for work purposes or a mission. I would make fake authorisation letters so I could move around.”
Escaping to Thailand via the Thmor Keo Mountain, in the Kravanh district of Pursat, he suffered a second tragedy when his wife was lost in the densely forested area.
Nevertheless, Pin Yathay insisted, he is thankful his past forced him to flee, and said he believed that without the chance to escape and “blow the whistle” on the regime he would probably have died in Cambodia.
Starvation, overwork, disease or execution had already claimed the lives of his family by the time the engineer found his way to a refugee camp on the Cambodia-Thailand border. It was there that he wrote his first book, The Murderous Utopia, which sought to inform the outside world of the atrocities being committed in Cambodia.
He also used the relative sanctity of the refugee camp to continue his search for Nawath.
“When I was in the refugee camp at the Cambodia-Thailand border, I stuck many notes around, and posters too,” he said.
“I even asked the International Red Cross to look for my son.”
Yet it was to no avail, and Pin Yathay would soon be granted asylum in France, where he married a fellow Cambodian and had three sons.
Having recently retired, after a successful engineering career that spanned France, Africa, Indonesia, the Philippines and Bangladesh, the 65-year-old decided to return to his homeland to see some of the places he passed through during the Khmer Rouge regime.
“I’m still so full of pain; I didn’t know what to do. But after visiting those places, I did begin to feel a certain amount of release,” he said.
After being haunted by the memory of his lost son for more than three decades, Pin Yathay can find a small amount of closure.