Book review: Stories of Cambodian refugees both chilling, inspirational

By Patrick Cassell

For the Deseret News

Published: Sunday, Nov. 20 2011 5:00 a.m. MST

Cedar Fort Publishing

"OUT OF THE KILLING FIELDS AND INTO THE LIGHT: Interviews with Mormon Converts from Cambodia," by Penne D. Conrad, $9.99, 128 pages (nf)

When the Khmer Rouge took over the government of Cambodia in 1975, drastic changes occured. Many were forced to the leave their happy lives in the city and walk into the countryside, where you are compelled to work in rice fields all day.

Estimates of the number of deaths caused by the Khmer Rouge vary. Yale University's Cambodian Genocide Program website states, "The Cambodian genocide of 1975-1979, in which approximately 1.7 million people lost their lives (21 percent of the country's population), was one of the worst human tragedies of the last century."

Before she died in 2010, Penne Conrad interviewed some of the refugees who made it out of those work camps and rice fields. The camps' rice fields came to be called the killing fields because workers who did not fall in line with the Khmer Rouge's program were often taken away from the camps into the fields to be executed away from witnesses. The 12 witnesses and survivors in Conrad's book were able to make it to the United States and eventually joined The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

The interviews vary in length, but even the shorter ones are compelling. Some of the stories are graphic, which is even more disturbing because they are true. The interviews end with testimonies which bring the grim realities of these people's histories into focus. They were not so hardened by their pasts that they were not able to feel things spititually.

One interesting pair of interviews tells the story of a couple that got married after they met each other in the United States. It is told first though the point of view of the husband, Bora Sao, then through that of his wife, Kimsieng. It is interesting to see how they both lived through the Khmer Rouge camps and made it out, never knowing each other until they met in Long Beach, Calif.

These interviews are a startling reminder of the brutality that is possible for people to inflict on each other. It also reminds us of the healing power of faith. Readers will get an education in Cambodian history and witness the steadiness of a dozen people who did not lose faith.

Patrick Cassell is a freelance journalist living in Utah.

Twitter: patrickcassell

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