Survivor chronicles his family's ordeal - and courage - in Pol Pot's Cambodia

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Stay Alive, My Son, by Pin Yathay with John Man. New York: The Free Press, Macmillan. 256 pp. $19.95. Twelve years ago, the already embattled Republic of Cambodia was torn asunder by the ``liberating'' forces of Pol Pot. Pin Yathay, an engineer employed by the Ministry of Public Works, was a witness to the tragedy. He was also one of its millions of victims. His entire family and unnumbered friends were annihilated, he writes, as ``the wheel of the Khmer Rouge revolution, finding enemies everywhere, sought to crush the country, its people and its culture - individuals, families, society, knowledge, beliefs, and every positive emotion, even love itself.''

Pin Yathay's book is a heart-rending account of the disintegration of an entire social system, caused by the paranoid policies of Khmer Rouge cadres. According to the author, by the time the revolution had run its course, nearly one-third of the entire population of Cambodia had died - many from starvation and disease, many by outright assassination. Pin's figure is difficult to verify but, on the basis of his and others' eyewitness reports, it is hard to dispute.

On April 17, 1975, Pin, like many of his countrymen, looked forward to the arrival of the Khmer Rouge. They knew the American-backed regime of Gen. Lon Nol had already collapsed, and the civil war was about to end. Their optimism about the victorious communists soon gave way to an inchoate sense of foreboding with the appearance of columns of black-uniformed young Khmer Rouge soldiers in the streets of Phnom Penh.

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Within 24 hours their fears proved prescient. They were ordered to leave the city immediately. With as many belongings as they could pack into vehicles or carry on their backs, they joined the long lines of evacuees moving into the countryside. It was the beginning of an ordeal that was to grow more bizarre and terrifying with each passing day.

Their new masters kept them moving, stripped them of most of their possessions, and made them do forced labor with the most primitive of implements. In work gangs, they plowed fields, cultivated paddies, dug canals, built dams, and cleared forests from dawn until dusk on the barest of rations.

No distinctions were made according to previous station or experience. All were reduced to the lowest common denominator of social status. Every vestige of ``the imperialist past'' was denounced, often to the clear disadvantage of the new rulers.

Thus, despite the uses they might have made of experts in planning, land management, and development assistance, such as Pin, the possession of a diploma, even in a field like engineering, was viewed as saignabat, a negative sign. The rationale for all this was, according to one Khmer Rouge spokesman, ``to destroy the cradles of reactionary and mercantile capitalism. To expel the city people meant eliminating the germs of anti-Khmer resistance.'' In fact, as Pin implies, what may have been a plan to purge the country of its Westernization and turn it into a Soviet-style communist state turned into a ``gigantic extermination programme'' as the cadres ran amok. New euphemisms marked the route to destruction: ``relocation,'' ``purification,'' ``reeducation.'' The first meant uprooting people from homes they were never to see again; the second, removing all vestiges of their former identities; the third, disappearance and death. Pin's family of 18 members marched down that road. In the end, he was the only survivor.

In a book that is a litany of unrelieved horrors, there are countless examples of Orwellian double-think and Faustian compromise. The new regime, claiming to rid the country of past vices, disposed of all virtue. Claiming to foster a rebirth of human spirit, it provided only death. And, for individuals with any semblance of compassion left in their broken bodies, it forced the making of terrible choices.

Under threat of being ``relocated'' for violating a petty rule, Pin felt he had no other option but to try to escape. His wife, Any, did not want to leave him but knew they could not take along their desperately ill young son, Nawath (who was, by then, the only other survivor).

Together they decided to abandon the boy in care of a total stranger and to flee into the mountains. Disconsolate but determined, they sneaked out of the compound and headed for the Thai border some 70 miles away. Ten days later the couple was separated. Pin lost track of his wife. He never saw her, or Nawath, again.

Pin Yathay's physical ordeal ended on June 22, 1977, when he finally found his long-sought freedom in Thailand. But the burden of what he had endured was hardly eased by his escape.

Writing ``Stay Alive, My Son'' was clearly as much an exercise in personal catharsis as an attempt to tell the world about living and dying in the killing fields of Cambodia.

Peter I. Rose teaches sociology at Smith College.

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