Hell on Earth

Stephen Haggard

  • Cambodian Witness: The Autobiography of Someth May edited by James Fenton
    Faber, 287 pp, £9.95, November 1986, ISBN 0 571 14609 0
  • The stones cry out: A Cambodian Childhood by Molyda Szymusiak, translated by Linda Coverdale
    Cape, 245 pp, £11.95, January 1987, ISBN 0 224 02410 8

The bloodiness of the events of the Seventies in Cambodia, and the desperate nature of the refugee exodus, have been of such monstrous proportions as to hinder the emergence of detailed accounts about what really happened. Someth May and Molyda Szymusiak (this is her adopted name) are two Cambodians who lived through the Khmer Rouge years and eventually gained refuge in the West. Someth May’s close collaboration with James Fenton on his book was the subject of a recent BBC documentary: credit for the vivid and readable style of Cambodian Witness must go to Fenton, whose name appears on the book as its editor. Molyda Szymusiak wrote her book in Paris with the help of her adoptive Polish parents: it was published in France in 1984 to an enthusiastic reception. The American translation which now appears is a slightly shortened version which unfortunately lacks the author’s original drawings but includes some seriously misleading historical notes.

Someth May’s book, Cambodian Witness, begins with recollections of his family, which was deeply attached to traditional Khmer life, and of his early childhood in Phnom Penh during the Sihanouk era. Prince Norodom Sihanouk, who gained Cambodia’s independence from France in 1954, failed to steer the country between its old enemies, Thailand and Vietnam; and when the regional conflict spread into Cambodia, the relatively stable land of peasant farmers and Buddhist monks began to disintegrate. Someth May grew up in a fragile society held together by a framework of religious belief. Deferential attention towards monks, priests and relatives dominates family events such as the marriage of a sister and the death of his brother. While they endured, the traditional Cambodian customs promoted respect and understanding. A prospective bridegroom, for example, would be required to live with his future in-laws for more than a year, offering his services to them in order to establish his worthiness. If the bride’s parents were dissatisfied with him, he would have gained nothing for his pains.

In less than ten years this gentle life imploded upon itself, but Someth May wisely refrains from historical analysis of how this happened. For middle-class urban people such as his own family, the regime of the Khmer Rouge was an unprecedented and unimaginable thing. He overhears his parents’ hushed conversations and watches the disorder of the city increase until Sihanouk is forced to stand down in 1970, and Lon Nol, his former prime minister, takes over with American backing. Someth becomes involved in political demonstrations against this regime too. But he never shows us the awfulness of the future clearly enough for us to see it coming. Instead he glances at it obliquely through images of violence. For example, during a visit to their country estate, Someth’s brother-in-law removes a blood-filled leech from his leg and throws it into the fire. ‘The leech hit the burning logs, and a few seconds later exploded, like a bottle of wine dropped from a shopping bag.’

The Khmer Rouge, who took control in April 1975, aimed to re-educate the people into their new status as peasant workers through manual labour. In the second part of the book, Someth and his diminishing family join units which are transferred from one futile task to another. The principal work is the production of three crops of rice a year, and the building of misconceived irrigation schemes supposed to provide the continual supply of water which this new triple-cropping system requires. By claiming to be a widower, Someth is transferred to the much coveted easier task of fishing. Rations – often less than a bowl of rice – were issued each day to those who worked. Each unit had its complement of ‘Mekongs’ – organisers who ruled by terror, ate well, carried radios and watches (forbidden to everyone else), and spied out the ‘enemies’ among the starving workers. The Khmer Rouge regime has often been misrepresented in the media as a universal massacre from which no one gained anything. But peasants were able to improve their living standards by becoming Mekongs. They did this at the expense of people such as Someth’s father, who, early on, is discovered to have been an educated man and therefore an enemy. His punishment is a horrible death.

And yet the Khmer Rouge are not all monsters. There is Comrade Ran, who offers great support to Someth’s family. There is the mysterious revolutionary Kong, who speaks his mind openly to the author. Someth May does justice to the variety of people, both friend and foe, caught up in the events: there are few caricatures or cut-outs in this book. He does not proclaim his own virtues: lying and theft were his source of food, and public hypocrisy was his security from detection, none of which he attempts to conceal. The author strikes one as a shy but resourceful personality, a man with a warm spirit. This open quality, maintained throughout his horrific experiences, transforms events which a reader would rather disbelieve into a compelling account.

Someth May does not, in fact, have anyone to blame, or any axes to grind. He hates the Khmer Rouge for what they did to him and his family: but he seems to feel no resentment for the fact that they were the way they were. An image from an ancient Cambodian myth which recurs throughout the book locates the original crime much further back: the Black Lady. This woman apparently used her power of foresight to predict plots against the throne so that those whom she accused, even the King’s own relatives, could be executed the next day. The Black Lady makes several appearances in Cambodian Witness. Someth’s family shelters in the temple of the Black Lady during the exodus from Phnom Penh; Comrade Khoy, a side-kick who informs on the workers, ‘was rather like the Black Lady in the legend’; and the first phase of the book, the descent into chaos, is called ‘Back to the Temple of the Black Lady’. This all implies that the credulous attitude of the Khmer Rouge towards informants, and their bloody purges of the work-force, are connected with a larger phenomenon of self-destructive vengeance.

Someth May’s use of images such as the Black Lady or the exploding leech is typical of his approach to the problem of how to account for the catastrophe. Sequences of cause and effect, or assignments of blame, are apt to trivialise the disaster. By alluding to a mythical dimension, Someth May can suggest a meaning behind the events and thus expose what propels human suffering. But this sort of treatment also has drawbacks, as this fine passage taken from near the end of the book shows:

The first lessons of my education were all about punishment. We learnt that if a boy did wrong in this world he would be punished in the next. But this was not the next world. This was this world. The food in hell was maggots instead of rice. But we’d already eaten maggots. Demons were supposed to saw the stomachs of those who tampered with a boundary stone. But we knew all about that. We knew all about the tree of iron spikes, the red-hot platform, the pan of boiling oil. People were turned into crows in the next world. But we had seen people turn into crows in this world. There was no next world. There was nothing left to happen in it.

He uses a weighty idea to pin down the essence of what he went through: it is a chthonic nemesis indiscriminately loosed upon the real world. Yet the rest of the book leads me to conclude that the truth is not only more complex but, in a sense which recalls Lord of the Flies, infinitely more depressing. The Khmer Rouge were not demons but human beings like any others, as the author’s characterisations indicate. The quality of Someth May’s descriptive writing makes any interpretative passage seem inadequate beside the events described. Or perhaps these events cannot be accounted for.

Molyda Szymusiak’s book does not attempt to account for anything. For her, no interpretation or generalisation can possibly be adequate to what she witnessed and suffered. She offers no historical, conceptual or symbolic framework: only her story. It is devastating.

Molyda was only 12 – much younger than Someth May – when the Khmer Rouge evacuated the entire population of Phnom Penh to make them work on the land. She begins her story with her extended family’s long search for a commune where they could register and live. Eventually her father is allowed to build a hut outside a village. They adapt themselves to the lives of the peasants, planting and harvesting rice, and they learn to call each other by new names, changing their speech to conceal their upper-class origins. When her uncle returns from a ‘re-education centre’ (unlike 57 out of the 60 who went there with him), he advises his wife that the children ‘must be deaf and dumb if they want to survive’. Later, Molyda herself works near a re-education centre.

They are relocated to Moung Russei, a region of hardship and repression, where the family are often separated from each other and allocated to different work areas for long periods of time. Yet the instinct to maintain contact never leaves them: they return to watch their brothers, sisters and parents weaken one by one and die. When Molyda’s family has been reduced from 20 to herself and three younger cousins, this intuition tells them not to let their youngest member, a starved girl of five, be taken into the house of a kind Mekong, where she can be fed and cared for. Their intuition proves correct: the household and all its children are cruelly put to death shortly afterwards when a new faction of the Khmer Rouge comes to power and eliminates the previous leaders.

Molyda draws increasingly upon this sort of dogged and fearful inner resistance in order to survive as circumstances worsen. She has some resources which nothing extinguishes – at one point she even awakens from a coma after a cholera attack to find herself in the crematorium with the flames underneath her. These resources are partly religious, too, involving the detachment of the person from the experiences suffered. Thus even among the Khmer Rouge there are those whom she learns to trust, as well as the many she despises. She is able to preserve her sensitivity towards those with whom she works and lives, even in the severest hardship. When, at the end of the book, she and her three cousins are struggling to survive in the chaos following the Vietnamese invasion, she meets again the kind Pou Man, with whom they had lived after the death of her parents. She asks him what he is doing now:

‘I play basketball with the soldiers, they give me a little food.’ Sadly he added, ‘If only I could help you! But I haven’t anything.’ Now that he was without resources and unable to set himself up in any kind of business, this man, who had been our foster-father, was too ashamed to let himself be supported by children. He went away, his head hanging. We never saw him again.

That is the quality of The stones cry out: in the midst of a ruined civilisation, the tragedy of one person can come to life.

The stones cry out is especially painful because Molyda Szymusiak, unlike Someth May, doesn’t employ anything as abstract as an explanation. The simplicity of the writing merely requires of the reader the belief that this did happen. When Molyda is too weak to plant rice and is made to work in the kitchen-garden of the re-education centre, she is taken inside the building to collect the clothes of the dead, and there she sees former Khmer Rouge officials, now displaced by a new faction, undergoing ‘re-education’:

I felt someone staring at me and I looked up. A woman was on her knees, her arms tied behind her back, while in front of her a baby held out his hands to her breast. He wasn’t strong enough to sit up, and she couldn’t bend over far enough to let him suckle. I felt that she was imploring me to help her, but my feet were nailed to the ground. Not far from her were other women sitting against the wall or stretched out, their bellies swollen as if they were about to give birth. I couldn’t do anything for these women, many of whom had been very cruel to us. Now they were crushed.

  In a corner of the courtyard a man was being beaten to death. His screams flew up to the sky, shattered, and rained down on me like hail battering my skull. Farther away, a column of people was beginning to move toward the grove concealing the gaping mass grave. Children followed, weeping; there was no need to tie them up, they went along with their mother or father, sharing their fate. Crows were wheeling overhead.

There is no refuge from this sort of writing. Although the book has a mildly optimistic ending – an eventual adoption in France – reading it is a deeply distressing experience.

The stones cry out is a book of extraordinary power which resists the tools of analysis. It is the thing itself. The narrative can only outline again and again the palpable framework of her experiences – rice (planted, eaten or lacked), the family, the body and its illnesses – until these become the only structures in which the mind (and the book) can find units of signification. Pitted against these are their opposites: words (the propaganda of the daily ‘education sessions’), the commune which displaces the family, and the dismembered body – a frequent sight.

These two astonishing memoirs cannot easily be separated from their context in the events of 1975-1979. Perceptions of that context are prone to change. Cambodia is now the Peoples’ Republic of Kampuchea, ruled from Vietnam through Heng Samrin’s puppet government. The Khmer Rouge, now overthrown but still in opposition, has been trying to improve its image in order to achieve foreign recognition as the country’s legitimate government. Pol Pot has nominally retired as the supreme commander. Reports of atrocities alleged to have taken place during 1975-1979 have been played down with assertions that the refugees were all middle-class people who could only be expected to lose out in the revolution and be bitter. Their Vietnamese opponents, on the other hand, have consolidated their position in Cambodia by building a museum of the Khmer Rouge Holocaust in the style of the Auschwitz Museum, and by piling up huge arrays of skulls exhumed from the mass graves, so that all may be reminded that Pol Pot was worse than Vietnamese rule. The evidence about the Khmer Rouge years can be distorted in support of any point of view. Now that America supports the opposition coalition, CIA estimates of the 1975-9 death toll have dropped from hundreds of thousands to a meagre fifty to a hundred thousand. That process of distortion has been under way for some time.

Views of events in Cambodia have suffered distortions in both East and West which affect the context in which we read these two books. Cambodia has always been presented in the Western media in fairly unequivocal terms: The Killing Fields, the name of Pol Pot yoked with that of Hitler, and enormous death figures. The American mainstream press (such as the TV Guide – circulation 19 million – and Reader’s Digest) has carried voyeuristic details of starvation and cruelty. The message was political and simple: behold, the evils of Communism. The serious distortions and inaccuracies perpetrated in order to convey this message have since been pointed out by Noam Chomsky. His criticisms of the use of falsified photographs, shock-horror stories and impressionistic ‘statistics’ have proved powerful. Historians of the Cambodian crisis must now study the provenance and consistency of information on the subject – as Michael Vickery does in Cambodia 1975-1982.

The approach that asks ‘What do we feel about this regime and its massacres?’ has been problematic. The informational and the emotional response to events in Cambodia can both claim to be appropriate, but the issue has lost its centre of balance. The ideological element in the presentation of the catastrophe has so far expropriated the experiences of the individual. By offering a close involvement with two remarkable unembittered people who suffered these events, Cambodian Witness and The stones cry out can restore some balance to our perceptions. But the politics of statistics will inevitably return to tilt the issue.