Introduction to this Stone Soup Writing Activity

Map of Cambodia, Loas, and Thailand.

Map showing Cambodia in relation to its neighbors Vietnam, Laos, and Thailand.

Yuthikar Sokban’s story is about war. It starts in 1975, the year Yuthilkar was born and the year a group of people, the Khmer Rouge, led by a man named Pol Pot, came to power in Yuthikar’s country, Cambodia. The Khmer Rouge under the leadership of Pol Pot was one of the more murderous governments of the twentieth-century. Between 1975 and 1979 millions of Cambodians were forcibly displaced from their homes, including the family of Yuthilcar Sokban, the author of this story. Many people were tortured and between 1 and 3 million people (nobody knows the exact number) were murdered. Cambodia only had a population of 8 million. The murderous Pol Pot regime ended in 1978 when Vietnam invaded the country and put an end to the horror that had been visited on the country by the Khmer Rouge.

This story was originally published in Stone Soup in 1985. Pol Pot had only been out of power a few years. Readers of Stone Soup at the time could ask their parents about Cambodia as memories were fresh and Cambodia was still in the news. Refugees, like Yuthikar and his family were still arriving in the United States. But as all this happened what is now a long time ago, in addition to asking your parents to tell you about what they may remember of the historic events that underpin this story, you may have to do some of your own research.

Yuthilcar’s story is largely about how his family was repeatedly moved from one place to another under Pol Pot, and about their final escape from Cambodia in 1979, after the Vietnamese overthrew the Pol Pot regime, and their subsequent move to the United States in 1981. This is not a story that is rich in detail about place or about character. It is a story that chronicles repeated displacements — including the several moves after arriving in America. As Yathilcar arrived in the United States in 1981 and this story was published in Stone Soup in 1985.

The actual physical and mental pain of the hardships suffered is implied but never explicitly described. In this story, for years, the family is hungry, tired, and scared. Though it isn’t mentioned, we have to assume that they experienced and saw frightening things, including other people who are sick and dying or dead. But all of that is outside the scope of the story.

This is a story by a survivor. It is a story about surviving from day to day. It is a story about finding life and a future by putting the bad things outside of oneself and just focusing on getting through the day, the week, the month, and finally the years to get to a better place in a better time.

Yathilcar does write about his family’s suffering, but offers few details. For example, early on in the story he writes, “Our family life was harder than the first place because we ate only corn.” What he doesn’t say is that corn is not a complete food. If you only eat corn you will eventually get sick and it is even possible to die from a corn-only diet. As a reader, you need to imagine that Yathilcar’s family, and the others living with them, had too little eat and were also all weak from not eating a balanced diet. But, even hungry and weak, they still had to work because the army was telling them where to go and what to do. One way to think of it is that they were enslaved.

As you read the story, try to imagine the context and what is not being said or described.

For example, throughout the portion of the story that talks about their movements within Cambodia there is a “they” that is never described but is clearly all-powerful. For example, after a mosquito infested night with little food in their bellies Yathilcar writes, “In the morning, they told us to leave the place for a village about three days’ walk away.” This is not a friendly “they.” Bottled water and food are not provided. Nor are proper clothes and shoes or a place to sleep. Being tired or sick made no difference. An entire family, including very young children, is sent on forced moves in a tropical climate. The “they” are soldiers of the Khmer Rouge. You can imagine them armed and brutal.

For Yuthilcar’s family, peace comes to them when, with good luck, the arrive in a refugee camp on the border of Cambodia and Thailand, and then are able to move into a United Nations refugee camp inside of Thailand, and then are finally allowed to come to the United States. During the period this story was written the United States was taking in tens of thousands of refugees from Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos–countries that had been upended by years of war in which the United States was a participant. As I write this today (in 2016), there are again millions of families on the move escaping war–but this time the families are from Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan. Few of these refugees are allowed to come to the United States.

Project: Make a Screen Play

There is a way that you can think of this story as an outline for a screen play. It offers a plot outline, some characters, and general settings. The opening scene takes place when the author, Yuthilcar, is three-years-old. The Khmer Rouge army captures Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia, and then forcibly empties it of all the people living there. In this opening scene Yuthilcar’s family is forced to walk for 15 days in the tropical April heat carrying little more than the clothing on their backs. Imagine the chaos! The fear! The crying! The shouting! The soldiers, the families, the old people, the toddlers like Yuthilcar. What does his mother say to her family? What do the soldiers say to them? What do the adults say to each other?

There are many scenes that you can choose from. If you know someone from Southeast Asia–like from Thailand, Vietnam, or Cambodia–then you should talk to them to get a sense of the landscape and the weather. If you know someone from Cambodia, then you may also learn something more about the time that the story describes.

My Story

By Yuthilcar Sokban, 12, Glen Forest Elementary School, Falls Church, Virginia
Illustrated by the author
From the November/December 1985 Issue of Stone Soup

I was born on October 31, 1972 in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. I was very young when my country was in trouble in 1975.

In 1975, the Khmer Rouge (the Communist leaders) came into town. They sent us and the other people out of town to other places to work on the rice fields. My family had to walk fifteen days to the new place. We took only things with us like clothes and so on. I didn’t carry anything because I was little. I walked like everybody else in the hot sun in April.

The new place where I lived was a flooded region. The natives of that place lived by fishing rather than by farming. We started having our rations because in this new regime people had to eat very little and work very hard.

Young children stayed home. They didn’t go to work. But the adults had to go to look for some fish.

I lived in that place for five months. Then they sent us to another place. We found that we had to work more than we did in the first place.

The people there worked on the corn. Our family life was harder than the first place because we ate only corn. Three months later they moved us to another place. We had to travel by ship to another unknown destination. Our family and my three uncles’ families had to wait for about two weeks to travel.

My Story Riding a boat

On the ship day my family and my uncle’s family were left behind while the two others had to go on. A week later we had to travel for four days. We arrived at a province and we had to stay for a few days before we rode the train to another place.

On the day we travelled the train was crowded with people and their belongings. The train went northwest and discharged us to stay overnight at a railroad station. The place was so dark and deserted. We had to eat the rest of our lunch for dinner. The night was so cold and had a lot of mosquitoes. The night was terrible for us. In the morning, they told us to leave the place for a village about three days’ walk away.

My Story Riding a bus

Everybody had to carry his or her own belongings. For my family we had a big problem. I had two sisters. My big sister was very sick. A cousin of mine helped us by carrying her on his shoulders. The journey seemed very long for us because we had a lot of stops along the way. We reached a deserted village. Other people had to go farther than we did. That night we slept in a roofless house. The next day they gave us a portion of land to build our house on. My father went to gather some lumber from a temple far away from our place. It took him many days to get enough boards for the house. We used thatches for the roof. Half a month later our small house was finished. My granduncle’s house was next to mine. We started working on the farms. We traded some clothes with the natives for some food.

My Story Adults and children working

Our condition was getting poorer and poorer. The food ration was scarce. The new people had to work on the road and the ditches to get some food. My sister was getting sicker and sicker. We had no way to cure her illness. She died seven months later. My mom was sick too. She was having chills and fever because we had no food. My father went to work and came back late at night. Three months later my mom was better and she could go to work with my dad on the ditches. We all moved to the work place. My sister and I went to work too.

At first, we had enough food, but a month later the food was scarcer and scarcer and the work was still hard. The second month, fortunately, my dad heard of a plan to go away with some friends. The departure day was set. We all knew about it. We pretended that we knew nothing. Some neighbors of ours seemed to leave us alone. That night was so dark. At eight P.M. sixteen of us from four families were ready to leave. We sneaked out of the place and walked very fast with fear in our hearts. I walked with my dad’s friend. He held my hand because my parents had to carry their belongings. My sister walked with my mom. The journey seemed safe for us. We always walked at night.

My Story A sick sister

At two A.M. a danger came. Four men armed with long knives walked toward us. We lay down flat on the grass. We were so afraid that we would get caught. We watched them coming in our direction. No one spoke because each of us acted like a dead person. We knew we had no way of fighting with them. As they came nearer, luckily they turned away a little bit and walked away from us. We waited until they were gone far away from us. We continued on our escape and at five-thirty we came to a bushy swamp. We walked into it and stayed for the day. We expected to go on our walk when the night came. Some people slept and some others cooked something for breakfast. We had no food. My dad got some fish from the swamp. We made some soup with some leaves we could pick up from the trees around us.

My Story houses

At eight A.M. a man came and we were afraid again. He told us to go to a village quite near the swamp. He said that the village was safe for us. We were a little bit happy. We worked with other people on the farm. I lived away from my parents. My sister did too. We children worked by gathering leaves for fertilizer.

During the rainy season children also worked in the fields gathering weeds and carrying rice plants from one place to another. Adults worked on different jobs in the rice fields like plowing the fields, pulling the rice plants, planting them, taking care of the rice fields, and harvesting the crops. Children also helped adults to carry bunches of ripe rice plants to the beating place. They worked from dawn until almost midnight seven days a week.

My Story working in the fields

During the dry season, I also worked on the ditch like other children and adults. I carried soil in a basket to fill up the ditch. In this region, I think the food ration was better than in the others. My life from one day to another depended on the work done. Adults’ lives were more dangerous than children’s because the Communists killed those who didn’t work well and who had a good education.

Almost at the end of 1978, the Vietnamese troops came into my country. The Communist people moved us to many places to escape from the Vietnamese. The Khmer Rouge regime was over now. People were free to go anywhere they liked. My family came back to live with one of my grandmothers. We had more liberty but we still had to work in the rice fields to survive. We also had to work in the garden to plant red potatoes and other vegetables to use for food. My mom had to ride on a bicycle to a town to trade some vegetables for some rice. Our living was still poor because the harvest was still bad that year. For rich people, their living was much better because they could go to the border to trade their gold for food.

My Story throwing at the ditch

In the early part of 1979, people everywhere in the country could go anywhere they liked. A large number of people went to the Thai and Cambodian borders to live in a camp with the hope of getting out of the country. My family also went to the border. In the camps we had a lot of fighting. A lot of people were killed there. Poor people also travelled a very long way from their village to the camps to get some rice from the U.N. (United Nations) aids.

At the end of 1979, we got into the Khao Idang camps in the Thai territory. My family lived with other members of my cousins’ families in a big and long hut. We formed a group of thirty-five people. Most adults in our big family went to work for the sections of U.N.H.C.R. My pa worked for U.N.H.C.R. as chief of food distribution for the camps. Some other people in the family worked as nurses for the O.P.D. (Out Patients Department). Every volunteer got a can of fish at the end of the day. The food ration in the camps was much better than in the country.

My Story riding a bike

As for me I stayed home and studied some English from my dad. I could read, write and speak a little bit of English. Most people in the camps didn’t go to work because a small number of volunteers were enough for the work. Life in the camps was sometimes good and sometimes very bad. Some people were killed by Thai soldiers. This 29 happened very often too. No one seemed to solve the problem.

My family lived in that camp for ten months. We then moved to a transit center for four months before coming to the U.S.A. A large number of people were not lucky. They spent a few more years in the camps.

We came here in January of 1981. We lived with a cousin of my father. My sister and I went to school about three months later. The school we went to was called Baileys School. We lived there for three months. Then we moved to a house. We went to Sleepy Hollow School. It was a good school and it was close to my house too. Six months later we had to move again to an apartment on Patrick Henry Drive. This place was close to shopping centers. Glen Forest was the third school I went to. I have been in this school for three and a half years. It is a good school. My teachers have been very good. I like them very much. My friends have been good to me too.

Our dreams to look for freedom have come true. We needed freedom. Now we have it. I hope freedom is always beautiful in this country.

About the Author

In 1973, I was twenty years old, teaching children's art classes at my college, the University of California, Santa Cruz, and came up with the idea that the best way to encourage children to write was to introduce them to the best writing by their peers. Stone Soup grew out of that idea, and I have continued to publish Stone Soup for all these years.
I am also a culinary historian. I write about traditional foodways. My book, "The Magic of Fire," is about hearth cooking. My book, "Bread, a global history," speaks for itself. I am currently writing a bread history for a University Press. I publish articles on gardening and traditional foodways at Mother Earth News. I also publish on wild mushrooms and other food-related subjects.

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