Fly Away Home

Having survived Cambodia's killing fields, poet U Sam Oeur writes as a witness to the "Kingdom of Hell"

A force in the new government, Oeur began serving in the National Assembly in 1972 and was part of the Cambodian delegation to the United Nations two years later. But on April 13, 1975, a new phase was to begin--a time that he refers to in his book as "The Kingdom of Hell."

Oeur had just returned from the United States and was holding a large celebration for the Buddhist New Year at his home in Phnom Penh. Unbeknownst to him, among the many guests were members of the Khmer Rouge, who had surrounded the capital and were laying waste to the city, house by house. "I was so stupid," he says with disgust. "We had just negotiated a coalition government with Sihanouk, so why should we fight?"

Soon soldiers invaded the house from every direction, with heavy artillery in tow. They killed the tenant in Oeur's guest house. Oeur began hearing soldiers calling the names of his neighbors to come out into the street. He could hear the gunshots and smell the fires. Yet his own name was never called. In a riveting poem in Sacred Vows, he describes hoisting his 4-year-old son and his wife, pregnant with twins, on to the roof. Swaddled in mats, they assumed they would be burned alive. But after a fitful night of sleep they awoke, the house intact.

"[The Khmer Rouge] liked me because I had bought a lot of thin noodles and pork, much food and drink for the party. They liked me because I was kind to them, but I didn't know who they were," Oeur says. When he tried to disguise himself by putting a bundle of diapers on his head as he left the house, the soldiers recognized him anyway, laughed, and told him to head east to the fields where prisoners were cultivating rice. Oeur and his family walked through a town littered with the corpses of his friends.

Not wanting to incriminate himself as an educated man, Oeur burned his poems, his master's thesis, and eventually his Buddhist scriptures before entering a forced labor camp in Prey Vang province. The elders in the camp who knew Oeur implored him to be quiet and not reveal himself to anyone. He survived by pretending to be illiterate.

In October 1975, he wife gave birth to twin girls. The Khmer Rouge midwives promptly choked them to death and wrapped them in black plastic. In the poem "The Loss of My Twins," Oeur writes, "Cringing as if I'd entered Hell/I took the babies in my arms/and carried them to the banks of the Mekong River./Staring at the moon, I howled."

Little more than a year later, he was transferred to Sre Pring, described by Oeur as "the hardest camp." He was given the job of making fertilizer by mixing dirt with human feces. It was a choice assignment, carrying with it the privilege of a cup of rice each morning. Although Oeur says he never once saw the communists kill a person directly, he did witness "maybe 200 people who starved to death. They just let them die in the rain and the muck. I suffered inside my heart, but what could I do for 200 starving people?"

When the Vietnamese invaded in 1978, the transfers became more frequent. One stop was at the Hundred Rice Field Camp, where Oeur was forced to harvest 40 bundles of rice each day, this time with little nourishment of his own. Just before he and his family were able to escape the Khmer Rouge (who were increasingly preoccupied by the fighting with the Vietnamese), Oeur was headed for Phnom Chi, known as "The Fertilizing Mountain" because it was said that people were beheaded and their bodies turned to fertilizer that was then sent to China.

Oeur's imprisonment ended with the Vietnamese takeover. He returned to Phnom Penh with his wife, son, and mother-in-law, working in a bicycle factory and then eventually for the Ministry of Industry, where he was forced to resign his post in 1991 after a pro-democracy poem was found on his desk. After this incident, he stayed at home pretending to get drunk on rice wine so as to avoid harassment. He dreamt of fleeing the country with his family and returning to America.

Once he went to a government office run by an acquaintance and gave a person behind the desk money to go out and get a sandwich. While the official was gone, Oeur stamped himself a visa. "If I had been caught I would have gone to prison and died. But the spirit overshadowed me and helped me," Oeur says. "No one believes this but it is true. My daughters, my spirit, they came to me and said, 'You can't stay in this country, they will kill you.' They said if I tried to get out they would go to heaven and get the king of angels with the blue face, the spirit of the Mekong River, to help me out and release me from every trap."

Back in America, a more concrete guardian angel was working feverishly for Oeur's release. Ken McCullough, a poet who had gone to graduate school with Oeur, was working at the University of Iowa in 1984 when a letter from the Cambodian arrived requesting a copy of his burned thesis. After nearly eight years of lobbying and fundraising, McCullough finally secured enough grants--most prominently, one from the Lillian Hellman-Dashiell Hammett Fund for Free Expression--to sponsor Oeur's immigration to the United States.

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