Stay Alive, My Son

Stay Alive, My Son

Pin Yathay
with John Man
Copyright Date: 1987
Edition: 1
Published by: Cornell University Press
Pages: 272
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  • Book Info
    Stay Alive, My Son
    Book Description:

    On April 17, 1975, the Khmer Rouge entered Phnom Penh to open a new and appalling chapter in the story of the twentieth century. On that day, Pin Yathay was a qualified engineer in the Ministry of Public Works. Successful and highly educated, he had been critical of the corrupt Lon Nol regime and hoped that the Khmer Rouge would be the patriotic saviors of Cambodia.

    In Stay Alive, My Son, Pin Yathay provides an unforgettable testament of the horror that ensued and a gripping account of personal courage, sacrifice and survival. Documenting the 27 months from the arrival of the Khmer Rouge in Phnom Penh to his escape into Thailand, Pin Yathay is a powerful and haunting memoir of Cambodia's killing fields.

    With seventeen members of his family, Pin Yathay were evacuated by the Khmer Rouge from Phnom Penh, taking with them whatever they might need for the three days before they would be allowed to return to their home. Instead, they were moved on from camp to camp, their possessions confiscated or abandoned. As days became weeks and weeks became months, they became the "New People," displaced urban dwellers compelled to live and work as peasants, their days were filled with forced manual labor and their survival dependent on ever more meager communal rations. The body count mounted, first as malnutrition bred rampant disease and then as the Khmer Rouge singled out the dissidents for sudden death in the darkness.

    Eventually, Pin Yathay's family was reduced to just himself, his wife, and their one remaining son, Nawath. Wracked with pain and disease, robbed of all they had owned, living on the very edge of dying, they faced a future of escalating horror. With Nawath too ill to travel, Pin Yathay and his wife, Any, had to make the heart-breaking decision whether to leave him to the care of a Cambodian hospital in order to make a desperate break for freedom. "Stay alive, my son," he tells Nawath before embarking on a nightmarish escape to the Thai border.

    First published in 1987, the Cornell edition of Stay Alive, My Son includes an updated preface and epilogue by Pin Yathay and a new foreword by David Chandler, a world-renowned historian of Cambodia, who attests to the continuing value and urgency of Pin Yathay's message.

    eISBN: 978-0-8014-6866-7
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-viii)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. ix-x)
    (pp. xi-xviii)
    David Chandler

    Pin Yathay’s first haunting account of Cambodia’s killing fields appeared in French as L’Utopie meurtrière, or Murderous Utopia, at the end of 1979. This was more than two years after Yathay had escaped to Thailand and less than a year after the so-called Khmer Rouge or Red Khmer, who had ruled Cambodia since 1975, were driven from power by a Vietnamese invasion. Eight years later, his even more personal account, Stay Alive, My Son, was published. Both books are among the best of first-hand accounts of this horrific era.

    Many other survivors have also written memoirs. Buoyed by the success...

    (pp. xix-xxii)
    Pin Yathay
    (pp. xxiii-xxiii)
  6. [Map]
    (pp. xxiv-xxiv)
    (pp. 1-19)

    I was woken by the noises of war, the whistle and thud of shells. As I lay there, I became aware of other sounds: the murmur of idling cars, the squeak of bullock-carts, the occasional shout. I looked at my watch. Five a.m. I slipped out of bed, went to the window, and stared in amazement. The street was a mass of people and vehicles surging slowly past in the pale pre-dawn light. The whole country seemed to be crowding into town. It was April 17th, 1975, and I knew then that at last the civil war was nearly over....

    (pp. 20-35)

    Long before dawn, all of us woke together. Slowly, leaving the children asleep, we began to pack. No one said much. We were sure that we would soon be ordered out, along with everyone else. And indeed, even before it was fully light, three Khmer Rouge soldiers appeared at the door. The room fell silent.

    ‘Comrades! You have to go now!’ one of them said. His words chilled me, not so much because of the order – that merely confirmed what we had expected – nor its tone, which was not impolite. What shocked me was that once again the Patriarch had...

    (pp. 36-54)

    On April 26th, nine days after the fall of Phnom Penh, we entered the Liberated Zones – those country areas which had been under the control of the Khmer Rouge for some time. The houses, largely untouched by war, were inhabited by peasants, or the ‘Ancient People’, as the Khmer Rouge called them. We, the deportees, were the ‘New People’ – a lower and despised order.

    Not that we were aware of our new status yet. We had been stripped of practically everything that defined our status – houses, possessions, money, running water, comfortable beds – and had been living rough for a week....

    (pp. 55-68)

    As we bumped along through the forest, a terrible feeling came over me, an impression of plunging into the unknown, of losing my foothold, a repeat of the distress and the despondency I had felt on leaving Phnom Penh. Dust clogged our eyes and noses, but none of us felt inclined to complain about the discomfort. That was of secondary importance compared to our worries about an unknown fate and the deception of which we were the victims. On the faces of my family, and of all the others, I saw despair written. My father caught my eye, and stared...

    (pp. 69-80)

    Soon after midday, clouds rolled in, and it began to rain. In the early afternoon, after about twelve miles, we were dropped off on Highway Two, which crossed the province of Takeo. As we stood huddled together in the rain, the Khmer Rouge explained to us that since we were leaving their region, we would have to abandon the carts and walk the last five miles to the Watt Ang Recar pagoda to wait for the trucks which were to transfer us to Battambang.

    A miserable prospect. Dripping wet, without any protection, we unloaded the carts and watched them disappear...

    (pp. 81-109)

    As I walked back to fetch the rest of the family and our baggage, the awfulness of our position struck me. Beneath a scattering of big trees, the jungle was a mass of saplings, thick undergrowth, tall grass, and thorns. There was no heavy canopy to protect us against the rain.

    Without any clear idea of what I was doing, I began to clear the undergrowth with my tall young cousin, Sim, whom I had taken under my wing. Any spread leaves and mats on the damp earth as a base to take care of the children. Sim and I...

    (pp. 110-138)

    On the evening of our arrival in the village – Chamcar Trassak, one of a line of seven villages along the Pursat River – we were assembled for an introduction to our new community. We were to camp there that night, and the following day we would be divided among the villages. ‘You will be comfortable here,’ the Khmer Rouge officer addressing us said. ‘You will no longer need cooking utensils, because you don’t need to cook any more. Angkar will take care of you. Those who have cooking utensils should give them to Angkar. Keep only your spoons. We will no...

    (pp. 139-161)

    For the next six months, from May to October 1976, Any, Nawath and I managed to survive, emaciated and ill as we were. Any slowly came to terms with the shock of Sudath’s death. I knew in my heart of hearts that I would have to go back to work sometime, and so it turned out. Against the background of unrelieved toil and never-ending hunger, the scavenging for extra food, the few exchanges we could make for an additional can’s worth of rice, a few incidents stand out in my memory, because of some risk taken, because of another few...

    (pp. 162-176)

    For the first couple of months in Leach – November and December 1976 – we survived as we had in Veal Vong, by supplementing our rations buying rice on the black market, with the occasional addition of sugar, fruit and fish. Though our hoard of spare clothing and jewellery inherited from my family was running low, I still had dollars, and these were valued in Leach. A hundred dollars bought fifteen cans of rice (a hundred-dollar bill being once again the basic unit of currency).

    My job was clearing trees, along with a hundred other men. Our first assignment involved a scheme...

    (pp. 177-201)

    From now on, I spent as much time as possible planning our escape. Lacking practically everything, we needed all the help we could get. An organization was already in existence – the men and women who we had contacted when preparing for a possible uprising. But there were too many of them. An escape was not the same thing as an armed revolt.

    I talked over the problem with Yann. Although he was in another camp, since he was a relative there was nothing suspicious about my talking to him. Yann suggested that we include in our team a Captain Lang....

  17. 11 ALONE
    (pp. 202-217)

    I headed west, a dead soul, pushed on by my voice. I felt strangely light, freed of hope, freed of fear. I, who had once been so ambitious and so confident, had lost everything. I had been unable to save two of my children, I had abandoned a third, and now I had lost my wife. I had nothing left to lose. What was there to fear? No longer fearing destruction, I was indestructible.

    I walked mechanically for three days, sleeping at night, but not eating. The thorn-bushes, the sharp-edged grass, and the stones on my bare feet did not...

  18. Illustrations
    (pp. None)
  19. 12 FREEDOM
    (pp. 218-235)

    Strangely, I felt no fear. Instead, I smiled. I don’t know why. I couldn’t help it.

    Apparently, the soldiers thought my reaction indicated I was being used as a bait for an ambush, for the three of them abruptly backed into the undergrowth, squatting into combat position, pointing their guns at me.

    I reassured them, telling them that I was alone.

    ‘Don’t move! Stand still!’ the oldest of the three kids ordered. He approached me warily, seized my clothes, and searched them, taking my knife and water-bottle. He noticed that the water-bottle made a noise, and asked me what was...

    (pp. 236-238)

    For a while, I was not noticed by anyone. Then two young Thais on bicycles, whose attention must have been attracted by my living skeleton, hailed a taxi for me, and I was taken to the administrative post of the area, Mai Rut, two miles away. There, an American missionary, Robert Stearns, questioned me in English to establish I was not a Khmer Rouge.

    Though now accepted as a refugee, I was still technically guilty of crossing the frontier illegally without a passport. I was given a nominal prison sentence of one week and then moved to a cell in...

  21. Back Matter
    (pp. 239-240)