Crossing Three Wildernesses: A Memoir

U Sam Oeur with Ken McCullough
Coffee House Press
Minneapolis, Minnesota
369 pages, paperback
Preface by David Chandler

Cover design by Linda Koutsky
Book design by Allan Kornblum
Cover photo of Angkor Vat from Getty Archives

Author photos by Theodore D. Hall

Available through Coffee House Press,, Alibris and AbeBooks.

About Excerpt Preface



from Chapter Twenty-Two: November 1978-January 1979 (pages 291-293)


That night, on the edge of Wat Prek Dambok, we stopped at an ashram that had been abandoned. Nearby was a dead krasamng tree. I remembered passing by that tree in 1975. It was green and flourishing, and bore fruit that all the villagers used in their soups. At the start of the Pol Pot “experience,” people had gathered around this tree as a kind of refuge. Now, four years later, it had withered and died. When I approached it, I noticed that the thorns of the tree held strands of fine hair, and that the bark was darkened in places, as if stained by a thick substance. Then I saw the skeletons of at least fifteen babies scattered around the base of the tree. Their skulls had been smashed. I was already quite ill at the time, but this sight caused my knees to buckle and I fell to the ground and howled. When I found my wife Syna, I told her what I had seen, but urged her not to go.

Although I have never met anyone who witnessed what happened there, my presumption is that the Khmer Rouge Utapats (The Unbelievers) had rounded up the babies and murdered them because they had become a burden. I further presumed that the tree had died because of the concentration of blood which had soaked the ground—all that salt was too much for the tree to survive. The Khmer Rouge were fond of saying "To annihilate grasses, uproot them daily!" This was an application of what they meant. What sin had the grass ever committed, I wondered?

We climbed to the second floor of the ashram and stretched out to sleep in pitch darkness. I could not sleep, because I heard the moaning voices of the murdered children, begging for explanation. That night, the smell of blood permeated my consciousness and I slept only fitfully.

At dawn, I went downstairs to find rice husks spread over blood a yard deep—the smell of blood was more than just in my imagination. There had been a massacre there very recently, of monstrous proportions. But there was no evidence of bodies, and there was no one to ask what had happened. As I recount these atrocities, they seem hard to believe, even though I saw them. They were like a medieval nightmare—something out of a painting by Hieronymus Bosch.

As I walked out the door of the ashram, I saw the krasamngtree outlined against the morning sunlight, and I could hear its choked voice, drowning in the blood of infants. The voice was very faint, and its meaning indistinguishable. The Utapats had killed the fruit of the tree with the fruit of our countrymen and women. Neither the tree nor those babies had had any chance of escaping their fate.

I have never been back to Wat Prek Dambok and am not sure whether I ever want to go there. I no longer have nightmares about what I saw and heard, but I don’t want to take the chance of opening up those memories. On the other hand, perhaps such a visit might bring closure. When my friend Ken McCullough went there with Syna in December 2000, they found what was most likely the stump of the krasamng tree—it had been dead those many years and had finally been cut down. According to Ken, the ashram, on the outside, looked much as I had described it. It was now inhabited by young monks, and in a photo Ken took, I could see their freshly-washed saffron robes draped on the railings. The sun shone through the cloths, giving the interior of the building a purified cast. The head monk at the local temple said he had never heard the story about the babies being killed nor the massacre, but a local farmer Ken met near the stump of the krasamng tree showed him a well which had been poisoned because the Khmer Rouge had bashed the heads of a number of people against the winch of the well, then thrown their bodies down into the water. Ultimately, some of these stories will be corroborated, but many never will. Through the vigilance of people such as Mr. Youk Chhang, Director of the Cambodian Documentation Center, these stories are still being sifted through and some semblance of the truth will emerge. As to the outcome of this research? There is a balance between forgiveness and justice, but it takes a superior being to know where that balance is. Perhaps it will be found some day.

Painting by Lisa Nankivil for "Obsidian Point" Book Cover

Photos of painting, books and other works by Kathy Greden

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