To survive in Cambodia (Kampuchea) from 1975 to 1980, one had to be "deaf and dumb." It is a phrase that crops up often in talks with survivors. "I was," they say, "deaf and dumb." Any sign, any indication of education or knowledge or connection to the former government, anything at all could bring death.
At the age of puberty, on the fragile edge of womanhood, Buth Keo was pushed from her home onto the highway and into the hell that was Cambodia (Kampuchea) under the Khmer Rouge. It was April 17, 1975, and Buth Keo was only one among the entire population of Phnom Penh, the nation's capital, who were forced to march to an uncertain future.
Nearly 2 million people died in the next five years. Buth Keo survived.
Her story, "The Stones Cry Out," is one of the most important religious books of our time. It is witness literature of the highest form. Not a self-righteous tract, not a mere recounting of horrors that catch our breath and force us to turn our head when we hear of them, her first person narrative is a paean of praise to identity, to the universality of God, to gentleness and love in the midst of unremitting terror.
Her spiritual growth under the Khmer Rouge is told calmly. Her identity emerges as the agony increases. As is traditional in religious autobiography, there is the overcoming of fear as a major steppingstone to the realization of a core identity outside of material life.
"From time to time we crossed a clearing, where we saw more corpses, heads and limbs scattered about," she writes. "After seeing these horrors I felt stronger. 'They won't get me.' " She adds: "I think that's when I stopped being afraid of ghosts."
Another time, and another horrible scene confronts her: She is alone and lost, and praying she says: "Divine Buddha, and all those whom I don't know and can't see, come help me." She then hears the voice of her hermit grandfather speaking to her, reminding her that "heaven is the same the world over and that although people gave him different names in different countries, there was only one Divine Being. You mustn't say the Buddha is the only one. Each country has its protective spirits, and heaven is for everyone."
The nightmare of autogenocide in Cambodia (Kampuchea) is incomprehensible to both East and West. If the Holocaust has yet to be explained after 45 years, then how much more difficult it is to explain death at the hands of those of the same religion, the same language, the same skin tone, the same history? How much more difficult it is to explain destruction in the name of Angka than in the name of Hitler.
Angka was to be the collective Kampuchea. It was, in fact, the collective nightmare that most westerners know from the movie "The Killing Fields." The literature of those who survived Angka is only now emerging.
There is a tone in Buth Keo's narrative that is like the one found in Hassidic tales of the Holocaust. It is the tone, inaudible to many ears, that says to the hearer: "Keep moving, have faith, there is another place, another time waiting for you."
The title of this singular and brilliantly told story is from the New Testament, the book of Luke, "If my disciples were silenced, the stones themselves would cry out." Deaf and dumb no more, Buth Keo is now Molyda Szymusiak, a young woman living in Paris with her adoptive parents.
Renamed after her ordeal, in the tradition of Jacob wrestling with the angel, Molyda Szymusiak's words are the beginning of understanding what happened in Cambodia during the years of her childhood. Her father died, her mother died, her brother and three sisters died and now, in another place and another time, she thanks her adoptive parents and her two cousins who survived with her. They are now her adoptive sisters. It is a quiet note, in keeping with the clarity and elegant simplicity of her book.
It is obvious that Molyda Szymusiak had some help in remembering and translating her memories into the moving and profound text that is witness to the best and the worst in human life. But there is no question that "The Stones Cry Out, A Cambodian Childhood 1975-80" is the essential work of one, alert, aware, reverent voice. It is a voice as significant for the Cambodians as the voice of Anne Frank was for the Jewish people of the Holocaust. It is a voice that is sacred.
Gail Sheehy is probably best known in this country as the author of "Passages." Her work is in the genre usually referred to as "pop sociology." Sheehy describes herself fearing loneliness and middle age, and when "the man in her life" urges her to join him in southeast Asia just as she has completed a cross-country book tour and is about to suffer what she calls "writers paralysis," she goes along with the idea.