Friday, November 20, 2015

Tomorrow I'm Dead: A true story from Cambodia's Killing Fields

Meet Bun Yom, author of the chilling memoir Tomorrow I’m Dead. The world must never forget the horrors the Khmer Rouge inflicted on the people of Cambodia, which is why his brief, gripping personal account is so important. The communist army drove everyone out of cities and villages and sent them into the countryside. Over a million souls were murdered for showing the smallest sign of education or wealth, often for no reason at all. Colored clothing was considered a sign of wealth, so all workers wore white. No one was allowed to find food on his own:

One boy said, “I am hungry. I ate a snake.”

The Khmer Rouge asked, “Where’d you get the snake?”

The kids told them where it was. The Khmer Rouge took those two kids away from our group.

The next morning, after I had worked for a while, I asked the Khmer Rouge if I could go pee—I wanted to eat some more meat. When I ran down there, I saw the snake was gone, but the two kids’ bodies were there, with their throats cut. I ran back to work and told my crew what I had seen. After that, I kept thinking, How can I get food?

Bun Yom not only survived the four-year catastrophe (1975-1979). After reaching a Thai refugee camp, he repeatedly led “Cambodian Freedom Army” forces of up to 300 men back into Cambodia to rescue people still trapped there as recently as 1983. He was more interested in getting Khmer Rouge to surrender than he was in killing them:

We took their green uniforms, put them in a pile, and burned them in front of their faces. We gave them good food and new clothes.

…You are with the Freedom Army now. You cannot fight. No more bullets and guns. No more green uniforms.

Eventually Bun Yom came with his parents and brother to Ellensburg, Washington, sponsored by the local First United Methodist church. Since then he worked as a Kittitas County groundskeeper for 16 years, started a Thai restaurant with his wife, then borrowed money and went into business as a mechanic. Meanwhile, he had a powerful story to tell.

He first wrote it in Khmer, the Cambodian language, then arranged for it to be translated into English. In a phone interview, he said he sold 1,000 copies—his entire print run—in three hours at his restaurant. Since then he’s had book signings in several locations around the US.

Tomorrow I’m Dead deserves a wide audience, and I encourage you to buy it. You can purchase the book through Note that it's also available in Kindle and Nook versions.

Bun Yom in his own words
I was born in Pailin, Cambodia in 1960.  I attended the local schools and, because I was doing so well, I was allowed to skip several grades.  As a result, I went to college early, at age 13.  I was in the second year of college when the Khmer Rouge took over.
I lived with my mother and father, my sister and three brothers.  My father and mother ran a restaurant and grocery store.  They also found and sold rubies.  I also worked on my uncle's farm.
I was 14 years old when the Khmer Rouge came.  They immediately oredered people out of their homes and into the jungle.  Because I was young and strong, I was taken as a slave laborer.  For 2 1/2 years, I worked at various tasks--building dams, working in rice fields, etc.--with only one cup of rice soup per day.  Of course, I supplemented that meager diet with whatever I and others could find in the jungle--snakes, rats, grasshoppers, fish, shrimp. etc.--of course, uncooked.  My legs became thinner than a normal person"s arms.  But, if anyone faltered and was unable to work, they were immediately killed.  That happened to many of my acquaintances.
Eventually, I was rescued by the Cambodian Freedom Army.  I joined them, was trained and became a leader in rescuing other Cambodians from the clutches of the Khmer Rouge.  I helped lead the Freedom Army for five years, then I learned that my family was alive and in a refugee camp in Thailand. So, I left the Freedom Army and joined my father and mother and a brother in the refugee camp.  We were later transferred to a camp in the Philippines, and from there we came to the United States, sponsored by the United Methodist Church of Ellensburg, Washington.
I worked for a time on a farm near Ellensburg, as well as a food processing plant and a restaurant as a janitor.  Then, I got a job as a groundskeeper at the Kittitas County Fairgrounds.  My wife and I opened a restaurant, which I subsequently sold and invested in a garage to repair cars.  I had taught myself how to repair cars.  Then the Great Recession hit and I was not able to get enough business to pay the mortgage on the garage.  It was then I focused on writing and publishing my book.

I currently live with my wife, Aun To, and my son, Daniel.  We also have two grown daughters, Louy and Nung.  We have two grandchildren, one 4 years old, the other four months.


Bob Sanchez said...

Good morning, Bun Yom. Since you are on the West Coast, my clock is three hours ahead of yours.

I read the paperback version of Tomorrow I'm Dead, and found it compelling. As I understand, you initially wrote the story in your native language, Khmer (Cambodian), and friends helped with the translation and production. Perhaps you would like to thank them by name?

Guilie Castillo said...

What a heartwrenching story. And, indeed, deserving of a wide audience. Us coddled Westerners need to know the world doesn't function according to the pink-bubble laws we like to believe it does. It's so easy to shut off the TV, to scroll past a disturbing photograph, to click shut a news site page that tells us more than we wish to know. But we need to know. Awareness is key. Without awareness, horrors like these will keep on happening... While the world looks the other way.

Writing down a story such as this one, Bun Yom, must have been beyond difficult in so many ways. What were the biggest challenges you encountered in setting this down on paper? Were there any unexpected ones? I'm also curious about your experience as an immigrant (I'm one myself). Do you feel your perspective changed through living outside Cambodia? Do you think you would've told this story in a different way if you lived somewhere else? I guess what I'm asking is how being an immigrant shaped your perspective—of your story, certainly, but also of yourself, and of Cambodia.

Thank you in advance for your generosity in sharing your insights with us. And thank you, Bob, for this wonderful introduction to Bun Yom.

Tim Elhajj said...

What a horrific story. Thank you for sharing it Bun Yom. I wish you the best of luck with Tomorrow I'm Dead. It's an important story and deserves to do well.

Gilion Dumas said...

Good luck with your book! It deserves a wide audience.

Diane Diekman said...

Bun Yom, you are an amazing person. Best of luck in publicizing your story--and in all your future endeavors.

David Daniel said...

Your story deserves to be widely heard! Make sure you reach out to the Cambodian community in Lowell, MA.

Ruth D~ said...

Words cannot express the horror you lived through. Thank you for putting your story into words so that we can learn more of the inhumanity you dealt with.

Larry Russell said...

I shared the information on your book with others because people need to understand and appreciate that refugees do not become such by their own doing. Good luck and much success.

Gary Presley said...

I think as a spoiled middle class American -- a person who has never gone without shelter or food -- there is no way for me to understand what has happened to you and other Cambodians. I think you should be proud of what you've written. Cambodia suffered its own Holocaust, and it's imperative there be a record. I would work very hard to see that libraries and universities received copies of your memoir.

I hope you've found both welcome and opportunity here in the USA. I know there must be a part of your soul that cries for your home, but here in the USA, your descendants will be free and safe, and more than that, there contribution to the great blended culture that is America will be welcomed.

I look forward to reading your memoir.

Bob Sanchez said...

I have been chatting with Bun Yom as well as his friend Larry Lowther. They've had trouble posting a comment here, so they sent it to me, and I'm posting it. (A couple of other people have had the same problem.)

Thank you all for your kind remarks. In response to Giulie’s questions, I was not aware of my experience as an immigrant having any significant impact on my telling of my story. Of course, I did realize that I was writing primarily for an American audience, and it was necessary to explain somewhat how the two cultures differed, especially in their educational systems. But I tried to relate my experiences in the Killing Fields in as straightforward a manner as possible. I wrote the book in Cambodian and then, with the help of English-speaking friends, translated it into English. People are very much aware of the Nazi Holocaust of World War II. They need to know also that there were holocausts in other times and places, perhaps not on as large a scale as the Nazi one, but nevertheless significant. It is important that people be aware of them, try to learn from them, and make sure they do not happen again. Incidentally, I am currently writing another book about my experiences in America. Its working title is Welcome to America.

Larry Lowther
For Bun Yom

Ninjagaiden78 said...

Reading this, I was just totally taken aback at what this young man went through.
Eating snakes and insects to survive is just... no words.
Great stuff.

Great Journeys said...

Thanks for the post, but the things that the boys would have faced can't be expresses in simple words, no one can understand the real pain and trouble they would have faced at that time. I mean its simply beyond our imagination and understanding, being slaved and not able to live life according to oneself is the greatest pain one has to face.
Cambodian Language Course