In a way the title of this book is misleading. There is at its core one man's experience
of the dreadful years of the Khmer Rouge, including his eyewitness accounts of brutal
executions in quiet places away from public view. But it goes beyond that period
to describe how he and his family fared after Pol Pot's ouster by the Vietnamese
The torture and killing abated, but the support for Pol Pot on the Thai border by
the Western bloc and its allies as a means to keep the Vietnamese army occupied in
the effort to defeat Soviet Communism meant that Cambodia was unable to recover until
the end of the Cold War and the Paris Peace Agreements of 1991.
The author, Sam Sotha, escaped to the U.S. during that period, but returned in 1995
to become secretary general of the Cambodian Mine Action Authority.
Sotha was newly married when the Khmer Rouge arrived in Phnom Penh on 17 April 1975.
He was a Catholic, and had worked for the American Catholic Relief Services; his
father had been a high-ranking police officer under Lon Nol, and his wife's family
had served in the American army. The two of them were evacuated to the southwest
near Kampot and the Vietnamese border. They stayed in this area, working on two huge
dam projects and later farming, surviving despite their "exploiting class"
background and U.S. connections.
Ta Mok was the local commander. One of the insights in this book is a 1976 speech
he gave warning the "new" people that they were subordinate to the other
two classes: the revolutionaries and the "reserved" class - people who
were poor but had connections to the old regime. They could never change their status.
The manuscript, along with Sotha's very competent pen-and-ink drawings of the horrors
of the Khmer Rouge, was started when Sotha, his wife and baby daughter were in a
Thai transit camp in 1980. After the Vietnamese invasion they had been forced to
stay with the Khmer Rouge for months, only getting away just as their baby was about
to be born. Living again in Sotha's old village, they saw that the new Cambodia wasn't
going to be much better than the old. The book tells how they fled across the border,
and eventually got to America in 1982. Sotha and his wife returned to Cambodia, but
their one regret has been leaving behind their two children.
The deep wounds of the Khmer Rouge days remain open, the tribunal coming late and
unlikely to provide full justice to the many victims. One problem is the injustices
of the ensuing years, which also remain unaddressed. Personal accounts like this
one are important in keeping these issues alive.
Judith Clarke lectures in journalism at Hong Kong Baptist University. A former Asiaweek
correspondent for Indochina, she now researches Asian news media, focusing on Cambodia.