Fly Away Home

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

He was gone, U Sam Oeur was gone. You could tell by his eyes, which were neither wide open nor shut tight, but which rested instead with their lids gently lowered, as softly as if he were in a trance. His eyes couldn't see what Oeur wanted to see: a time when his Cambodia did not know holocaust, before the carpet bombing from the B-52s, before the Khmer Rouge turned the rice paddies into the world's most infamous killing fields, before the Vietnamese invaded and piled new bodies upon the half-buried bones.

In the living room of his split-level home, halfway down an Eagan cul-de-sac, Oeur sits on plush upholstery but his posture is that of a straight-back chair, his hands gripped to his knees and his neck craned to the side like a man whose collar is too tight. You can see his throat vibrating.

The cadence of the poem Oeur sings has the bark and drone of a ring shout, a field holler that became popular in America during the days of slavery. The tone of his voice is thick with passion and strained endurance; it's a tone of survival. The words are in Khmer, but in Oeur's new book, Sacred Vows, the poem is translated as "The Fall of Culture," and the stanza he sings reads like this:

Teddy Maki

O home! home! the sacred ground where

we lived happily

the heritage built, bit by bit, by my father

O, the Naga fountain with its seven heads

Preserving our tradition from days gone by.

Back in the 1940s, when Oeur was growing up on a farm about halfway between Phnom Penh and Ho Chi Minh City, some Vietnamese who lived nearby told him that one day they would take Cambodia. "I said, 'Take it? Take it where?' I didn't understand," he says, wincing, tears in his eyes. "I was just a boy, herding water buffalo. I had no clothes, just nude."

Oeur's was a lonely existence. His siblings would run off and play together, telling him it was his duty to watch over the family's 18 water buffalo, a huge undertaking. Says Oeur, "I was afraid of the water buffalo browsing near the rice shoots. They would destroy the beauty of the rice and the trees." He rarely saw his father, who would "get up with the cock and the birds" to go tend the fields. As Oeur puts it, "I knew the word father, but I did not call that old man father." At night, long after Oeur had gone to bed, he would pretend he was asleep as his father climbed up into the house and started chanting about work and coming home. These rhymes are among Oeur's fondest memories of the man.

Out in the field one day, Oeur started wondering if he could "fly beyond the horizon. I said maybe I could escape to another world and so I ran and ran but the horizon just kept going and going. I got scared and came back home again."

In 1946, at the age of 10, he was one of the few local boys to attend school in nearby Thlok village, taking some of his father's bamboo and palm leaves to help construct a shelter for him and the other students. Oeur's horizons expanded again when, after slipping from the back of a water buffalo and cutting his testicle on a horn, his father sent him to a hospital in Svay Rieng, a neighboring province. Soon after, he asked his little brother to help him steal his sister's chicken so they could sell it in the city market. By third grade, he had begun scouring the rice paddies for grain to sell.

Pushing farther and farther beyond the farm, he eventually landed at the School of Arts and Trades in Phnom Penh, graduating in 1961. It was there that his intelligence caught the attention of the cold warriors from the Agency for International Development, who recruited him to attend UCLA after an intensive course in English at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. Oeur began writing poetry while in California, becoming skilled enough to earn a scholarship to the Iowa Writers' Workshop. After receiving his masters of fine arts at Iowa in 1968, he returned home to teach at a trade school in Phnom Penh.

By the time of Oeur's return, the Indochinese war had sent the region into political crisis. When Oeur began criticizing Cambodian ruler Prince Norodom Sihanouk for being a communist sympathizer, the poet was threatened with prison. After just six months of teaching, he resigned his post to manage a cannery. During his time at the factory, Oeur wrote 80 political poems for a never-to-be-published volume titled The Cursed Land.

When Lon Nol overthrew Sihanouk and established the Khmer Republic in 1970, Oeur enlisted in the republican army as a captain. Shuttling between the battlefield and the trade school (where the new government had reinstated him), Oeur joined in the fight against both the Khmer Rouge and the Viet Cong, who were camped in the north of the country. In a poem from Sacred Vows titled "April 1970: The Atrocity of War," he writes, "Peasants, the innocent/lay dead: not a word from God./Children, mothers, side by side/lay silent, no complaint."

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.

After some subterfuge and a series of close calls, he arrived in San Francisco on September 1, 1992. Since then Oeur has produced the Khmer poems, with English translations by McCullough, that make up Sacred Vows. The two have also been working on Oeur's autobiography and a Khmer translation of Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman, whose classic work is reflected in the nonpolitical, nature-oriented poems Oeur wrote both before and after Sacred Vows.

Sitting in his Eagan living room, Oeur sports a smile so soft and pacific it inadvertently reminds you of the terror he has withstood to get here. "Life for me now is peaceful, steady," he says. But hardly worry-free. His wife remains back in Phnom Penh, caring for her mother (his 28-year-old son currently lives in Texas). His own grant of asylum has not yet been finalized. And since arriving in America, he has received periodic death threats from the Long Beach area of California, a locus of Khmer Rouge party members and sympathizers.

Nevertheless, sitting together in Oeur's living room, Oeur and McCullough are enthused about the audience response to their recent nationwide tour in support of Sacred Vows, which they say is drawing sizable crowds of both first- and second-generation Cambodians as well as Americans.

"As good as the poems are, it is really quite moving to hear Sam do them aloud," McCullough says. "Go ahead Sam; do the one from the other night, the 'O home!' one."

Without a word, Oeur stares into his lap for a moment. Then he clasps his knees, lowers his eyes and starts to sing. Gone. CP

Oeur and McCullough will read from Sacred Vows at 7:30 p.m. on June 11 at Borders Book Shop in Uptown. A chamber opera based on the poems, Krasang Tree, is scheduled at Theatre de la Jeune Lune in the first two weeks of September.

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