When The War Was Over: Cambodia And The Khmer Rouge Revolution, Revised Edition / Edition 1

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Overview


Award-winning journalist Elizabeth Becker started covering Cambodia in 1973 for The Washington Post, when the country was perceived as little more than a footnote to the Vietnam War. Then, with the rise of the Khmer Rouge in 1975 came the closing of the border and a systematic reorganization of Cambodian society. Everyone was sent from the towns and cities to the countryside, where they were forced to labor endlessly in the fields. The intelligentsia were brutally exterminated, and torture, terror, and death became routine. Ultimately, almost two million people—nearly a quarter of the population—were killed in what was one of this century's worst crimes against humanity.When the War Was Over is Elizabeth Becker's masterful account of the Cambodian nightmare. Encompassing the era of French colonialism and the revival of Cambodian nationalism; 1950s Paris, where Khmer Rouge leader Pol Pot received his political education; the killing fields of Cambodia; government chambers in Washington, Paris, Moscow, Beijing, Hanoi, and Phnom Penh; and the death of Pol Pot in 1998; this is a book of epic vision and staggering power. Merging original historical research with the many voices of those who lived through the times and exclusive interviews with every Cambodian leader of the past quarter century, When the War Was Over illuminates the darkness of Cambodia with the intensity of a bolt of lightning.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781891620003
  • Publisher: PublicAffairs
  • Publication date: 11/10/1998
  • Edition description: REVISED
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 632
  • Sales rank: 825,540
  • Product dimensions: 1.41 (w) x 5.50 (h) x 8.50 (d)

Meet the Author


Elizabeth Becker, previously a correspondent for The Washington Post, is currently a reporter covering the Pentagon for The New York Times.
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Read an Excerpt

Chapter One


Distant Followers


The villages are burnt, the cities void;
The morning light has left the river view;
The distant followers have been dismayed;
And I'm afraid, reading this passage now
That everything I knew has been destroyed
By those whom I admired but never knew;
The laughing soldiers fought to their defeat
And I'm afraid most of my friends are dead.
James Fenton, from "In a Notebook," 1976


It is one thing to suffer to live, another thing to suffer only to die. I decided to give it two years. If nothing had changed I would commit suicide.

Mey Komphot, July 1975, in Cambodia


The Second Indochina War (1960-1975) was the Vietnam War. That was how it was known, that was the country being fought over. Laos and later Cambodia were countries brought into the fighting by both sides. There was never any question that the Vietnamese communists were the giants among their Indochinese allies, that the Vietnamese were the most equal among equals.

    After 1975 the focus of attention shifted swiftly and dramatically from Vietnam to Cambodia. The Vietnam War gave way in peace to the Cambodian Debacle. Cambodia became synonymous with misery, death, destruction, and despair. And with mystery. It seemed unfathomable and unknowable why the Cambodian communists under the leadership of Pol Pot could undertake a bloody experiment in social restructuring that would lead to the deaths of as many as two million of their people immediately after a war that had devastated the country. The victims of this revolution understood least of all.


* * *


    Mey Komphot was thirty-seven years old when the war in his country ended. The fighting began in 1970 and ended in the spring of 1975--it lasted only five years. It had not been a quagmire or a war of attrition such as the French and Americans considered their long, disastrous battle to deny the Vietnamese communists the independence they believed they had won in 1945. Cambodia's descent into misery had been precipitate and brutal, catching all Cambodians by surprise, especially men like Komphot.

    He had watched his country's collapse from an extremely privileged position, as an executive in one of Phnom Penh's largest private banks. Sophisticated and intelligent, a bachelor with entree into the capital's elite circles, Komphot epitomized all that the Khmer Republic and its American sponsors claimed to be fighting to protect. But Komphot had grown so weary of war and so disgusted with the leadership in Phnom Penh that he wanted nothing more than that the war should end and the Khmer Rouge win as he knew they would.

    Komphot knew very little about the Khmer Rouge, or Red Khmer. The Cambodian communists had not mounted sophisticated, successful political propaganda campaigns such as those of the Vietnamese communists. By, design they had obscured their history and their ultimate aims while they fought the war.

    Yet Komphot felt compelled to judge these communists and decide if he wanted the Khmer Rouge to win the war. His answer, finally, was a qualified yes. The Khmer Rouge could not be as awful as the leaders in Phnom Penh. In such a fashion, Komphot became a distant follower.

    He reached this conclusion because he had faith in the few acknowledged Khmer Rouge leaders and because, he believed, most Cambodians shared a particular set of values. The leaders promoted by the Khmer Rouge during the war were men and women Komphot and his generation had long admired. In the early sixties they had made their mark in Phnom Penh as skilled intellectuals, writers, journalists, and politicians who resisted corruption--the disease that had kept Cambodian politics at medieval-court standards.

    Komphot had known only one Khmer Rouge figure personally, and that was Khieu Ponnary. She was one of the country's first independent-minded women and a widely respected professor. She had taught Komphot during his first year at lycée, or high school, and he remembered her intelligence and vivid sense of Khmer nationalism. She had never betrayed her communist sympathies in the classroom, nor those of her husband, who became infamous under the nom de guerre Pol Pot.

    Khieu Ponnary and the other Khmer Rouge leaders were presumed communists, but in Phnom Penh most of the intelligentsia assumed the Khmer Rouge were more nationalist than communist, hence less dangerous. However, it had been more than a decade since Komphot and the rest of Phnom Penh had seen the Khmer Rouge leaders. They began disappearing from the capital during a witch hunt begun in 1963 by Prince Norodom Sihanouk. By 1967 all the prominent figures had abandoned the city for the jungle and a war of resistance. They left behind romantic reputations that haunted the Phnom Penh of Komphot's generation and colored expectations of what would happen once the war ended.

    Komphot had created an unshakable fantasy about the Khmer Rouge and their plans after the war. He ignored wartime propaganda that cast them as ogres and held the view common in his circles that these nationalist Cambodians represented something resembling the Yugoslav variant of communism. If they won and established a communist government, Komphot reasoned, they would welcome the talents and support of professionals like Komphot. He knew little about communism or about the Khmer Rouge.

    The Khmer Rouge promoted such illusions by exercising their power behind a united front army and government based in Beijing since 1970 and theoretically headed by the non-communist Prince Norodom Sihanouk.

    What appeared as a weakness--the communists' inability to proclaim straightforwardly who they were because Sihanouk was their movement's figurehead--proved a master strategy. The Khmer Rouge did not appear to be a radical alternative to what had come before, merely a new variation on familiar Cambodian politicians. Thus, the Cambodian people followed the initial instructions of the Khmer Rouge when the war ended, obeyed their drastic orders in 1975, and marched into a life more miserable than any could imagine.

    There had been clues, but they were easily overlooked. Komphot had heard stories of Khmer Rouge atrocities, but he had seen atrocities committed by the Phnom Penh government troops as well. Soldiers of the Khmer Republic's army (FANK in acronym) were known to behead the Khmer Rouge soldiers they captured, to slice open their bodies and eat their still-warm livers or disfigure them in revenge. Some commanders tried to prevent this practice, sanctioned by Cambodian custom. But atrocities were common enough for foreign photographers and reporters regularly to record the evidence, though after 1973, American publications refused to print more atrocity photographs. Both sides were harsh to civilians and soldiers alike. Cruelty seemed a tactic of both armies, and Komphot assumed it would be abandoned after victory.

    Fundamentally Komphot believed there would have been no war in Cambodia without the war in Vietnam. If the Vietnam War ended, so would Cambodia's and there would be peace. Komphot had to have faith in the Khmer Rouge because he had little else to believe in. All the other leaders of modern Cambodia had proved to be failures. Underlying that disappointment was his conviction, again common, that his relatively bountiful country had been betrayed by poor leadership. Allow the people and the country to develop without such figures and Cambodia would become one of the blessed nations of the world. Ironically, he and the Khmer Rouge shared that opinion but had drastically different concepts of the "people" and good leadership.


* * *


    As urbane and clear-sighted as he appeared, Komphot was as blinded as the rest of his fellow educated Cambodians. They had been raised to be naive about war, revolution, and the modern realities of Asia. They had grown up under the coddling, dictatorial role of Prince Norodom Sihanouk. Sihanouk came to the throne in 1941 and ruled as king or chief of state until 1970. He spun a cocoon of soothing myths and updated legends to protect his people and country from the Indochina War and whatever evils might lurk outside the "paradise" of Cambodia. Sihanouk had inherited a country filled with a sense of doom, a people who were taught by colonialists that their race was threatened by ambitious neighbors, and whose culture had reached a zenith centuries earlier. Because of this version of history and resulting inclinations, Cambodians allowed Sihanouk to provide them "shelter," to treat them like children hidden away in a tropical garden.

    The claim to paradise was not entirely implausible. The small population of Cambodia lived in a country blessed by beauty and possibilities of bounty. Cambodia sits in the lap of peninsular Southeast Asia, and the wide Mekong River flows down its center. There is precision to the country's geography: The small Cardamom mountain chain rises in the west, sapphires and rubies buried in its hills; the navigable blue waters of the Gulf of Siam form the southern boundary; the Tonle Sap or Great Lake fills the northwest and feeds the Tonle Sap River flowing into the Mekong; the low, flat heartland is covered with irrigated rice fields and all varieties of tropical fruit, vegetables, and trees growing in rich delta soil; foothills of the mountains and large rubber plantations form the northeastern corner; and almost in the middle of the country, where the rivers cross and form an X, sits the capital, Phnom Penh.

    Fish from the lake and rivers were plentiful. Cambodia regularly supplied its population more rice per person than any other country in Southeast Asia, even when crops were poor. The landscape remained largely as in medieval times, awash with emerald rice paddies, shaded and dotted by bamboo stands and knots of palm trees. Farmers lived in huts or traditional wooden houses built on stilts for protection from monsoon floods. The pointed spires of pagodas dominated villages and the peasants' lives.

    The country even had its own annual miracle. The Tonle Sap River changes its course every August, flowing upstream half the year, downstream the other half--the effect of changes in the water table caused by the heavy monsoon rains and of the respective altitudes of the Mekong and the Tonle Sap.

    The Cambodians celebrated this event with a water festival; they had religious holidays to mark most seasonal changes. Their society was old enough to have entwined religion and culture with the country's geography and environment, and their festivals and arts and the details of their daily life are distinctive. Cambodian society was perhaps too rarefied; the French compared the Cambodians in their attachment to their country to delicate wines--they could not travel outside their provenance.

    Cambodia, however, did not escape the dark side of the tropics. Disease remained rampant if not carefully monitored; most often it was not. The weather is extreme; long, seemingly endless hot seasons are followed by heavy monsoon rains. The jungle and its beasts always threaten to take back the cultivated terrain. Drought and alternating floods can play havoc with crops.

    Portraying himself as the embodiment of Cambodia's supposedly long-held belief that the monarch is a deva-raj or god-king, a semidivine ruler with absolute secular power and the benediction of the gods, Sihanouk treated Cambodia as his own paradise. He took it upon himself to design a state to "protect" Cambodia, to keep out unwanted foreign or modern influences that might disrupt the largely rural, Buddhist life in his kingdom. Sihanouk saw independence from France largely as a necessary step to prevent the First Indochina War (1946-1954) from spilling into Cambodia and destroying it forever. Independence, in his view, was not the prelude for bringing Cambodia into the twentieth century. It was insurance that Cambodia could remain an Asian beauty, unspoiled by too much modernity, which could also upset his own power.

    Sihanouk resembled an Asian replica of an old European monarch rather than the leader of a third world country aspiring to a place in the modern world. He cherished the pastoral life and the arts while disdaining commerce, industry, and financial enterprise. While Thailand, Malaysia, later Singapore, and even war-torn Vietnam north and south struggled to build modern financial and industrial bases, Cambodia under Sihanouk gradually built industrial projects. The prince preferred to concentrate primarily on education and building an infrastructure of roads, railways, and a seaport, an approach inherited, perhaps unconsciously, from the French colonizers of Cambodia.

    The prince believed that "agricultural pursuits ran highest in productivity, while commercial and other service activities are looked upon as more or less parasitic." Sihanouk disdained neighboring Thailand, where peasants were abandoning their fields to work in new factories and live in city slums, and he discouraged large industrial schemes and foreign commercial ventures that might have attracted Cambodia's villagers to Phnom Penh. To this extent his plan worked--there was little large-scale urban migration during his rule. Phnom Penh remained the only sizable city, with about 10 percent of the population. But as early as the sixties the elite panicked. The parents of Komphot and his friends feared that Cambodia was falling behind both economically and politically.

    Over three-fourths of the country's population lived in villages. For them the benefits of independence were realized in educational and social improvements that Sihanouk believed would not significantly alter the traditional Buddhist character of village life. To that end the prince put aside one-third of the national budget, an extraordinary proportion. Most developing nations spend from 5 to 10 percent on education. In 1970, the year he was ousted, Sihanouk devoted fully 25 percent.

    Cambodia's farm children did become educated. When the country won independence in 1955, only one-third of the children were enrolled in primary schools. By 1970, more than three-fourths were students. The enrollment in high schools rose as dramatically over the same period--from 5,000 to 118,000. The number of teachers increased from 7,000 to 28,000. But what these youths learned was another story. Often their courses had little to do with their future roles as farmers employed in wet rice cultivation. In the most remote rural schoolhouses, teachers used a curriculum patterned on French education in which world history was more European than Asian, and art and culture more French than Khmer. Vocational schools were few. In 1968, there were 7,000 university students enrolled in the country. Only 130 of them were majoring in agriculture. A Frenchman who taught history in a Cambodian lycée in 1969 explained: "I soon discovered the bewilderment produced by the history courses on these youngsters' minds.... World history for them was an obscure struggle, with all great historical contenders fighting each other, from Caesar to Napoleon and Bismarck, in a vast rice field...."

    This type of educational system, geared to a foreign culture, had the effect of creating class divisions based on the idea that there was an elite cadre of neak ches-doeng, "those with know-how and knowledge," who had all the answers for society's ills and were trained to lead if not to work. Such an idea grew naturally from another of Sihanouk's deeply rooted if not stated presumptions that the peasants could "just pick the fruit off the trees" and live comfortably, an idea that ignores the excruciating hard work of wet rice cultivation in the tropics. They were happy peasants, in Sihanouk's vision, and the prince insisted that Cambodians and foreigners alike accept this truth.

    Komphot was to be one of those with know-how and knowledge. Such children went to the best lycées and later to universities overseas so that they might become the professors and teachers Sihanouk wanted for his "children," the subjects of Cambodia. Other developing countries pushed their most talented and ambitious students to master the practical sciences, to become technocrats or businessmen, to become skilled enough to replace foreign (in Cambodia, French) experts. In Sihanouk's Cambodia, they became teachers of higher education. And they received the largest salaries of all government employees--$200 a month--while the top civil servants received only $120 a month. They staffed the new schools and universities, government and newspaper offices. And they created a boulevard society of professors, writers, and intellectuals; an artistic community of dancers, musicians, and painters.

    They lived in a city whose beauty was zealously protected, one that reflected Sihanouk's plans for his elite. Phnom Penh would not grow with concrete high-rise buildings standing chock-a-block along the city's boulevards or factories belching smoke and polluting the Mekong and Bassac Rivers. Sihanouk commissioned government buildings designed to resemble French provincial architecture. (The French colonial rulers had done the opposite; they had built the city's grand palace, museum, and royal grounds in the style of Khmer architecture.) It would remain a romantic riverport city.

    In the midst of Sihanouk's Cambodian Phnom Penh were other societies performing other duties for the capital. Commerce was handled by the city's ethnic Chinese, relatively new emigres who arrived poor toward the end of the nineteenth century but eager to become prosperous by performing exactly those activities Sihanouk considered beneath his elite. The Chinese held a near monopoly on business, trade, and informal banking. Those Khmer intellectuals interested in the country's economy were encouraged to become civil servants advising the government, and later to staff the government banks. This royal outlook was buttressed by traditional French attitudes, and the end result was a city cemented along racial divisions: The Chinese were the moneylenders and businessmen; the Vietnamese who had arrived with the French colonialists were middlemen or followed the service trades; the Cambodians were the farmers, civil servants, and intellectuals; the French who stayed on were the foreign experts, chief import-exporters, and plantation owners. In Sihanouk's day one did not need to know Khmer to travel about the city; French, Vietnamese, or Chinese would suffice.

    The middle-class Khmers of Phnom Penh grew up pampered in this environment, isolated from much of the life of the city--and, consequently, the world. Komphot and his contemporaries grew up as privileged children of Sihanouk, not independent citizens capable of succeeding or failing on their own. Routine corruption ensured that the favored lived well; and Sihanouk's inclinations were imperial. He preferred to grant privilege and position out of noblesse oblige and not any modern notion of shared power or a rational reward system. Courtiers were favored, troublemakers punished. It was a small society, and Sihanouk, through his police and his instincts, knew one from the other.

    Sihanouk created a contradictory, if not irrational, political society for people like Komphot. The prince claimed Cambodia was a democracy, but he ruled it as a medieval monarch, not as a politician; peasants voted for his party because he was a god-king and a charismatic medieval ruler. Sihanouk's socialism was an updated version of a royal welfare system. The prince used a pseudo-Marxist vocabulary to condemn "capitalism" when he was really condemning modernity, to promote "socialism" when he meant noblesse oblige, and in foreign affairs he spoke as an anti-American ruler promoting stronger ties with his communist neighbor states rather than "capitalist" Thailand when at the same time he boasted that he was the most effective anticommunist in the world.

    The figure of Sihanouk dominated the country and loomed large over Komphot and his fellow lycée students as they came of age and began plotting their futures. But in 1960 the communists of South Vietnam inaugurated open warfare against the government in Saigon, fighting back against that regime's anticommunist campaign. The Second Indochina War began. In neighboring Cambodia that war quickly overshadowed even Sihanouk in importance. Komphot understood that the war in Vietnam would determine the course of Cambodia's history.


* * *


    Cambodia was not stuck off in a forgotten corner of Asia but was dead center in the white-hot fire of the Second Indochina War. South Vietnam and Laos on the eastern and northern boundaries were battlegrounds, Thailand to the west became the American rear guard, home to the jet fighter planes and idling spot for American soldiers on rest and recreation leaves. Sihanouk's pastoral Cambodia was the unlikely neutral spot in the middle.

    At first the war seemed to unite Cambodians. Komphot saw little difference between Sihanouk and his most radical teachers on the subject of the Vietnam War. They all opposed American intervention in Vietnam. They all supported a neutralist policy for Cambodia. During the first years of the war all whom Komphot admired supported Sihanouk's foreign policy, even if they continued to object to his stifling control over their lives back home.

    By the time war broke out, Sihanouk was known worldwide for his strong belief in neutralism. In 1955 he attended the Bandung Conference, which argued that developing nations should resist ties to either superpower and chart their own courses. The communist world generally applauded Bandung; the United States did not. The next year, in 1956, the United States tested Sihanouk's neutralism and asked Cambodia to join the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization, a defense pact of American client states. Sihanouk refused. As punishment, the Saigon regime proclaimed an economic blockage against Cambodia and curtailed shipping up the Mekong River to Phnom Penh, then Cambodia's only port. The episode served to illustrate why Sihanouk was so opposed to military pacts.

    The open conflict in Vietnam, however, brought new pressure on Sihanouk to at least modify his neutralism. Both sides wanted Cambodia's valuable logistics lines and use of the country for their base areas. It was the United States that earliest and most firmly pushed Sihanouk, telling him that neutrality was tantamount to supporting the communists. At first Sihanouk listened to the Americans and said he needed American muscle to produce solid security guarantees between Cambodia and its noncommunist neighbors, Thailand and South Vietnam. But the United States refused. And Sihanouk was convinced that the United States had been behind a plot to overthrow him the year before in 1959. (He was correct.) Sihanouk's neutralism was tempered thereafter by a strong and well-earned personal distrust of the Americans.

    The turning point came in 1963 for Vietnam, for Cambodia, for Sihanouk, for Komphot, and for the right and left in Cambodia.

    It was Komphot's last year in lycée. He and his friends should have been engrossed in deciding where they would attend university, what their courses of study would be. But the war would not allow them to remain innocents. Nor would Sihanouk, who began to fear for himself as well as for Cambodia. First the neutralist foreign minister of Laos, Quinim Pholsena, was gunned down at his home by rightists who destroyed the united front coalition formed that year to stem the tide of war in Laos. Pholsena was a like-minded friend of Sihanouk. If he could be killed and the war expanded in Laos, what would happen in Cambodia?

    A month later, in May 1963, a nonviolent Buddhist demonstration in Hue, South Vietnam, was broken up by local military, who opened fire with machine guns and killed nine people, seven of them children. South Vietnam exploded. A seventy-three-year-old Buddhist monk burned himself to death in Saigon in protest. Three more Buddhist monks and a nun committed suicide in August protesting the repressive policies of the regime of Ngo Dinh Diem. Nothing touched Buddhist Cambodia like these horrors. Sihanouk publicly said that Diem, a Roman Catholic with little sympathy for Buddhism, could last no more than a few months.

    Phnom Penh was riveted to the war. Sihanouk was incensed and announced that the United States and Diem were ruined. He also broke political relations with South Vietnam. "The fate of Vietnam appears to me to be sealed," he wrote, predicting a communist victory. "That of my country will certainly be so in a little while. But at least we have the meager consolation of having often warned the Western world."

    On November 1, 1963, Diem and his brother Ngo Dinh Nhu were assassinated in a coup d'etat approved and facilitated by the United States. Sihanouk was among the first world figures to see the American hand in the coup and condemn it as a criminal, cold-blooded betrayal of an ally. He immediately rejected all American aid to Cambodia. Sihanouk wanted to keep the United States out of Cambodian affairs altogether and reduce the possibility that Americans would plot his overthrow or death.

    At home, Sihanouk's response to the Vietnam War was not so straightforward. In 1963 he instituted drastic changes that fed deep anger and dissent in both the left and the right, and that ultimately brought about his own downfall.

    Despite his sympathy for the communists abroad, Sihanouk was wary of leftists in Cambodia. In 1963, with the war exploding in neighboring Vietnam, he moved openly and dramatically against the left. The troubles at home began with student strikes in a northwestern province that spread to Phnom Penh. The initial protests involved accusations of local police brutality. They developed into an attack on all authority and particularly Prince Sihanouk.

    Sihanouk blamed the left for the problems and forced the leading leftists to flee Phnom Penh. Among them were the top central committee members of the Khmer Rouge, who had reconstituted the country's communist movement in 1960, shortly after communists in neighboring South Vietnam had officially launched their armed insurgency against Diem in 1959. Most of these Khmer Rouge fled to a Vietnamese communist base along the border, to the jungle maquis, hoping to lead their own insurgency against Sihanouk one day. A few others fled to France. Their exodus sent a chill through the student and intellectual community of the city. Komphot remembers confusion about the war and the treatment of leftists in Phnom Penh. Sihanouk called himself a socialist, yet he punished the people who called themselves socialists and said they were dedicated to modernizing and rationalizing Cambodia's society and economy.

    Sihanouk's attack on the left was direct. His move against the right was not meant as such. It was an attempt to straighten out the Cambodian economy after Sihanouk dropped American aid. Cambodia's army was supported by that aid, and so was Cambodia's balance of payments. Without that money, Cambodia's army deteriorated as the armies of neighboring countries were growing. Sihanouk's military commanders despaired of defending Cambodia should either Vietnam or Thailand attack. The military became the center of what grew to be a right-wing rebellion against Sihanouk and produced the 1970 coup d'etat.

    Furthermore, Sihanouk launched a program to further nationalize the economy and solve the problems created by the loss of U.S. aid. The prince nationalized some businesses, the banks, and the import-export trade. He set fixed prices to chase away foreign competition and restrict foreign investment. As Thailand boomed with business and U.S. war-related aid, Cambodia was growing at less than 5 percent each year. To the country's small-business community, the elite and the middle class of Phnom Penh, this was considered a travesty. They, too, were key players in the 1970 coup.

    Nothing seemed to make sense. Komphot and his friends were at a loss to understand the turmoil. Their parents, their student leaders, the politicians, and Sihanouk himself were saying contradictory things about the war and Cambodia's future. The country was dividing, at least in Phnom Penh. Komphot saw his own future threatened, not only by the Vietnam War but by the limited choices presented to him in Sihanouk's Cambodia.

    At this juncture, in 1963, Komphot left for studies abroad. He felt he was escaping the narrow, increasingly tense life of Phnom Penh. And he decided to go far away, not to France, like most of his fellows, but to Canada, where he studied first at Laval University, then McGill University. He kept up correspondence with his family and friends in Cambodia. He was in Canada when the United States sent its forces into battle in Vietnam in 1965, and he was frightened. From his vantage point he understood the power of the United States better than he might have in France, and he understood the fervor of the Americans' anticommunist crusade. But instead of plunging into debates about the war, Komphot discovered he was losing his appetite for politics. He thought this the result of the "Anglo-Saxon" temperament he believed he acquired in Canada.

    In Canada, Komphot discovered he most wanted to study economics. He studied the theory of socialism and capitalism, and appreciated the primitive level of debate in his own country. He turned to the practical side and studied finance and business. He finished his schooling and returned to Cambodia in 1968. He left Canada as the American anti-war protest movement surged and the number of American deaths in Vietnam mounted. He left North America convinced he could best help his country by concentrating on building up the economy, not by joining the endless political debates.

    But on his arrival home, Komphot learned his new ideas were of little use in Sihanouk's Cambodia. By 1968, Sihanouk's nationalization program had been in effect for five years and had disappointed everyone. Sihanouk was taking businesses from businessmen and turning them over to underpaid and unqualified bureaucrats. Sihanouk tried to create a government-controlled welfare state without the money or the political support required. By 1967 the prince had purged all the leading leftists. He had turned to the rightists to administer his socialist agenda. No one wanted to listen to Komphot and his ideas for creating new joint private and state ventures. The Vietnam War and the exploding political situation in Cambodia were the only topics under consideration.

    Komphot entered the world of banking, in Phnom Penh the world of nationalized banks. Inexorably, Komphot was drawn back to political discussions, and for the next two years his life was that of the majority of the elite in Phnom Penh. He heard and passed on rumors that spoke of war. Sihanouk now openly screamed against the Khmer Rouge. Before he had dismissed the leftists. By 1968 he was warning that the Khmer Rouge wanted to drag Cambodia into the Vietnam War. He said the leftists were taking orders from the Vietnamese communists.

    Komphot and his friends did not believe Sihanouk's charges against the leftists. Some of his friends actually fled the capital to join the Khmer Rouge. Others stayed behind and waited, fearing any fighting would draw the United States or Vietnam, or both, into Cambodia. Komphot was among this group, a majority. Despite his pent-up anger against Sihanouk, Komphot still approved of the prince's promise to remain aloof from the Vietnam War.

    New rumors circulated around the city. By 1970 the elite were being told that Sihanouk had sided with the Vietnamese communists and had allowed the communists sanctuary rights inside Cambodia. In the countryside, the Khmer Rouge grew more bold in their attempts to mount a peasant rebellion against Phnom Penh. The city was braced for a showdown.

    On March 18, 1970, the rightists mounted a coup against Sihanouk. To Komphot and his friends it seemed a blessing. They likened the coup to the founding of the French Republic. The coup leaders promised to instate a Khmer Republic that would be modern, democratic, and truly neutral. The city was buoyant with enthusiasm. There were promises to end the corrupt, freewheeling politics of Sihanouk with efficient, clean, modern government. It seemed too good to be true--a republic without a revolution, without being drawn into the Vietnam War.

    The illusions of a republic did not last the year. The coup seemed headed by two figures--Prince Sirik Matak and General Lon Nol. Matak was the scion of the Sisowath branch of the Cambodian royal family, which had been passed over in 1941 by the French who then awarded the crown to Sihanouk. Matak was Sihanouk's rival and his opposite. He was a friend of business and a friend of the United States. He was so tied to the United States that many Cambodians assumed he must have received its approval for the coup and its promises of support. Matak represented modernity, elegance, and ties to American aid that Sihanouk had rejected. He was also the man who most appealed to men like Komphot. Phnom Penh's professional classes saw Matak as their country's savior.

    Lon Nol was a more distant figure. He had been Sihanouk's police chief and military leader for years; he was considered a perfect number two for Matak. He brought the military against Sihanouk. He seemed a flexible man, capable previously of leading delegations to Beijing for Sihanouk to develop close ties with the Chinese communists and now eager to work for Matak.

    Komphot and his friends proved to be quite gullible. The coup brought war, not peace, to Cambodia. Matak was not in charge; Lon Nol became the head man, a dictator.

    Within days the new Khmer Republic was embroiled in border disputes ignited by the Vietnamese communists. The inadequate Cambodian army was pressed into service. In May the United States invaded Cambodia, presumably as an ally but without informing Cambodia beforehand, to chase down the Vietnamese communists. Peasants demonstrated in various provinces asking for the return of Sihanouk. Sihanouk, in Beijing, agreed to become head of a front to fight the new Khmer Republic. The front was a cover for the Khmer Rouge.

    It took some months for Komphot to grasp his own innocence. He accepted a short assignment to travel abroad and promote the new republic and squash rumors that the coup had been led by military leaders who were in the pocket of the Americans and itched to pull Cambodia into the Vietnam War. He was chosen because he was one of the few Khmers who spoke English.

    When he returned a few months later, Komphot felt a fool. Lon Nol had already usurped most of the power. He had changed the climate of the capital, as promised--but it was now more corrupt than under Sihanouk and the business of the day was not modernization but war. Lon Nol was demanding military aid from the United States and, in exchange, putting the fate of Cambodia in the hands of the Americans and their "Vietnamization" policy.

    Komphot began to wonder if the rumors were true, if the United States had engineered the coup, if Matak had been paid off, or Lon Nol, or both. All of his friends had opinions, but no one had answers. Feeling betrayed, Komphot thereafter refused to have any further official ties to the Khmer Republic. He concentrated on his banking career and advanced at the Banque Khmer Pour le Commerce.

    Beyond Komphot's cocoon, the city changed. The boulevards of Phnom Penh were strung with barbed wire. Cambodian officers dressed in olive-drab uniforms predominated in the cafes, sped through the city in jeeps kicking up dust, and acted like minor warlords. Some of the junior officers were Komphot's friends. They took up careers in the lucrative, expanding military field and the new government. He remained in touch with them all. Throughout the war Komphot was as likely to be seen drinking in the Hotel le Phnom bar with a group of colonels as lunching with staff members of the foreign ministry at the Cafe de Paris.

    Attractive, outgoing, always well-dressed and well informed, Komphot was a welcome addition at such gatherings. He was well placed among circles of influence, both foreign and Khmer, and interested enough in the fate of his country to exchange gossip in hopes of finding answers. He was different in one respect. He rarely expressed an opinion. He trusted few people. He preferred to observe, not to participate.

    At first the war did not interfere with Komphot's life. Until the turning point in 1973, Cambodia's war presented a puzzling, quaint, and vaguely sinister face. On the surface, Cambodians smiled and were full of pleasantries. What they considered political discussions were largely exchanges of gossip. None of Komphot's friends seemed to grasp the significance or scope of the war--how Cambodia fit into the Vietnam War or into American designs, or who were the actual opponents. The people in the countryside, as far as Komphot could determine, were also untouched by the war. Foreigners pointed to this lack of sophistication, or indifference, as proof that nothing serious or dangerous was afoot, as in neighboring Vietnam.

    Komphot listened to foreigners, American and French, describe Phnom Penh and the war as if it were theater of the absurd. Senior American military officials called Cambodian soldiers their "little tigers" even as they lost battle after battle. The opposing Cambodian armies carried "humorous" acronyms--FANK and FUNK. Lon Nol's soldiers were seen as quaint, entering combat sucking Buddha amulets, some slightly stoned after smoking pipes of local marijuana. The commander-in-chief of Lon Nol's army, a diminutive general of mixed Khmer and Filipino ancestry named Sosthenes Fernandez, pampered his vanity by having a set of miniature furniture and platforms constructed for his office so as to appear taller and larger. The greatest joke, for the foreigners, was the name of the military spokesman--Am Rong. The foreigners were seduced by the never-never-land appearance of Cambodia.

    Komphot was losing a sense of his own country. He knew the foreigners misunderstood Cambodia, but he was incapable of describing what was at stake in the war, what Cambodians were fighting about. When he looked at his friends he found them as confounded. Lon Nol was behaving like a superstitious dictator. He followed his favorite monk's orders to sprinkle the city's perimeter with "holy sand" to ward off the enemy. And he acted like a dangerous racist who believed in the superiority of the Khmer race and the inferiority of the Vietnamese. Komphot could not respect, much less obey, such a man--nor could many of his friends.

    As early as 1971 the privileged classes of Phnom Penh began to quit their country. Cambodia's doctors, intellectuals, and other professionals left for the safety of France. Others already in France simply stayed there. Komphot never considered leaving. "It is my country, I will see the war to the end," he told his friends.

    Lon Nol suspended individual rights of expression, as had Sihanouk. Komphot had expected as much. However, he did not imagine that corruption could become so prevalent. The army became the richest sector of society during the war, the one with direct access to millions of American aid dollars, and the most criminal. The generals were openly dissolute. They drank cognac and sodas before noon, built cement mansions, imported limousines, and opened Swiss bank accounts with money robbed from the United States and their own troops.

    As a banker and a man in whom many confided, Komphot was all too aware of the scandals. Some were eventually unearthed and reported in the international press, but to little avail. The military scares were numerous. Officers concocted lists of "phantom" soldiers to collect the pay of nonexistent fighters, they sold their soldiers' equipment on the black market, they sold American-supplied ammunition to the Khmer Rouge, they pocketed the money for their army's food and let the soldiers subsist on rice gruel.

    Komphot's own livelihood depended, ultimately, on American largesse. Every day he saw how the Khmer Republic was becoming ever more dependent on U.S. aid. Komphot's bank, like all others, earned its profits and overhead through an American subsidy program that paid the hard currency for Cambodia's imports. When Komphot joined other bankers and financiers to protest Lon Nol's inflationary policies, they saw how ineffectual they were. When Lon Nol needed money to cover up the amounts pilfered from U.S. aid, he simply doubled the amount of Khmer currency in circulation--without warning. The banks protested, but Lon Nol ignored them and so did the Americans.

    The banks retaliated by trying to prohibit the luxury items imported by Lon Nol and his cronies. Lon Nol's military officers responded by opening their own bank, backed by "footloose army funds." They imported their cars and air conditioners with notes from their own bank. This madness not only riddled Komphot's professional life, it permeated the city and the country still controlled by Lon Nol.

    The deterioration began slowly. The war did not begin to strangle the lives of everyone--farmer and city dweller alike--until 1973, when the United States launched its massive bombing campaign and the Khmer Rouge simultaneously began their two-year-long push toward total victory.

    During the seven months of constant American bombardment, over half a million Cambodians flooded into Phnom Penh, doubling its population. They said they came to seek safety from both armies and the bombing that shadowed all the battles. "When the soldiers come now, the planes also come and the fields and houses catch fire," they said.

    All told, the United States dropped 257,465 tons of explosives on the Khmer countryside in 1973, half again as many as were dropped on Japan during the Second World War. The effect was immediate and devastating. It was no longer safe to till rice fields or fish in rivers. Roads were unsafe for travel. Those simple facts translated into hardships for nearly everyone. The amount of acreage cultivated for rice dropped from six million at the beginning of the war to little more than one million at the end of the bombing campaign. Food was scarce. Luxuries for the city were dwindling. It was too dangerous to import goods by road or river and too expensive to bring them in by air.

    Komphot watched as his city became a mongrel version of itself. For the first time in modern history there were beggars on the street. The shade trees lining boulevards around Komphot's bank were stripped of bark for firewood. Refugee shanties were popping up everywhere. He and his friends were sheltering distant relatives.

    Food was a far greater problem than shelter. Malnutrition began spreading through refugee camps. There was a full-scale food crisis. Lon Nol's government adopted policies that admitted defeat. His officials said their war strategy had changed; they would control the population, not the land. And the United States would provide the aid to feed the people. Lon Nol's army, made up of increasingly corrupt or incompetent officers and poorly fed soldiers, lost battle after battle, and the ability of the Americans to supply the capital was endangered. The Khmer Rouge were winning control of the Mekong River. By 1974 they had blocked off all land routes. Ultimately, air shipments were the only answer to bring in rice as well as arms. Phnom Penh became an isolated, artificial island sustained by a fragile lifeline stretching tens of thousands of miles to an American government shaken by its own corruption revealed through the Watergate scandal.

    Rice became an obsession in the capital. The war effort was secondary. Finding rice and the money to buy it was the chief preoccupation not only of civilians but of soldiers as well. The corruption and callous disregard that marked the Lon Nol regime's abuse of military aid was matched by its handling of food aid.

    The United States left the distribution of rice to the Lon Nol government, which in turn handed it over to the notoriously greedy rice merchants. These private merchants sold less than half the stocks at a low subsidized price and kept aside the bulk of the rice for their own sales at exorbitant prices. Food became scarce, inflation became fantastic. The local currency changed from 280 to $1 on official charts to 1,600 to $1 one year later, at the end of 1974. The middle classes could no longer afford the necessities, much less the growing army of poor in the city.

    Yet that middle class and the privileged like Komphot acquiesced to Lon Nol's rule. They complained bitterly, but saw no recourse other than an end to war. They felt cowed by America's complete support for Lon Nol, and the dictates of war gave them little room for maneuver. In March of 1973, Lon Nol had suspended the few remaining civil liberties: the constitutionally guaranteed freedoms of speech, thought, assembly, and the press. He also revoked the rights to privacy of residence and correspondence in order to facilitate house arrests without warrants, censorship of mail, and control of all travel into and out of the country. Permission to leave the country required thousands of dollars in bribes.


* * *


    By 1975, Komphot could not point to a single aspect of Phnom Penh with any remaining integrity. He was not alarmed when the Khmer Rouge launched their final offensive on New Year's Day that year and began inflicting a series of defeats on the army protecting him and all that he knew as Cambodia. He mistakenly thought there could be nothing worse than the Khmer Republic. Unlike his counterparts in South Vietnam who saw imminent defeat as a sign they had to abandon their country, Komphot made no plans to leave Cambodia. Nor did most of his friends. Komphot and his compatriots wanted to believe in the best. The Khmer Rouge were nationalists. Sihanouk was their token leader. Life could not help but improve.

    On April 1, 1975, Komphot, along with the rest of Phnom Penh, realized the war was over. That day the Khmer Rouge captured Neak Luong, a riverport that had become the bellwether of Lon Nol's fortunes during the war. It was the southern citadel protecting Phnom Penh and the Mekong River. Neak Luong had been the scene of one of the war's most horrible tragedies--the accidental bombing in 1973 of the base by an American B-52 bomber, killing 137 people and wounding another 268. Thereafter the name of Neak Luong summed up the sense of shame and bitterness of this war and the Americans' disgraceful treatment of their ally. There was a historical symmetry to the Khmer Rouge's choice of Neak Luong as the route for their final challenge, for their path of victory.

    The fall of Neak Luong convinced the foreign community it was time to leave. Immediately the remaining embassies packed up. The Americans sent off their support personnel as quickly as they could. Some of the wealthier Cambodians, particularly those with connections overseas, left at the same time. Then on April 12 the rest of the American embassy left. It was the final evacuation, but was unlike that in South Vietnam; there was no mad rush by Cambodians to leave with the Americans, no dramatic invasion of the embassy to compete for space aboard American helicopters. Only a few foreigners stayed behind: journalists, businessmen, clerics, French and Russian diplomats. The Cambodians were left to play out the drama.

    Four days after the American evacuation, on April 16, the Khmer Rouge captured the city's airport Komphot went to work that day at the usual hour, but he brought along an overnight bag, just in case. He did end up spending the night at the bank, sleeping on a cot near the bank vault. The first thing he saw when he opened his eyes the next morning was a colleague unfolding a bedsheet in the foyer. "What are you doing?" Komphot asked him, half-asleep. His friend answered, "I'm flying the white flag of surrender."

    At first Komphot felt nothing, a blessed nothingness. He did not feel like celebrating or jumping for joy. He felt neutral. He walked out into the morning air and stood on the stairs of the bank. It was already hot. Komphot looked in all four directions. His bank sat at one of the city's main intersections, where the airport road crosses Monivong Avenue, the city's main north-south street. He noticed little new beyond the sight of a few makeshift white flags adorning other buildings.

    He went back inside to his desk. Standing there was a young soldier in black pajamas with a weatherbeaten face. He asked Komphot if he could direct him to the minister in charge. "I told him he was confused. There were no ministers. This was not a government building. It was a bank. He left immediately."

    This young Khmer Rouge, the first Komphot had ever met, seemed a simple, disoriented young man and little else. Komphot sat down and finished some paperwork undisturbed by the meeting. Around 10:00 that morning the country's Buddhist patriarch went on national radio calling for order: "The war is over, we are among brothers," he said. "Stay quietly in your homes."

    Shortly thereafter a top general of the defeated Khmer Republic army forces also spoke on the radio. He ordered all fighting to cease because "negotiations are in progress."

    About noon, Komphot got up from his desk to keep a lunch engagement with his cousin In Nhel, who worked across the street at the national railway company as the director. By then Monivong Avenue had begun to resemble a parade route, at least in Komphot's eyes. Khmer Rouge soldiers were walking up the avenue in small units. He waited for one group of the black-pajamaed soldiers to pass before crossing the road to meet his cousin at the railway company's canteen. They spoke of the war's end and wondered what role Sihanouk would play in the new government. Two hours later Komphot returned to the bank. Waiting for him was an important emissary from the Khmer Rouge.

    "He was clearly an intellectual," said Komphot. "He wanted to see the bank president, who had gone home. Then he told me he wanted to confiscate all the bank notes and valuables, gold and so on. I had to explain private banks did not keep gold, only notes. Then he said the Americans were planning to bomb Phnom Penh and he had orders to take away everything of value."

    This threat of an American attack did not bother Komphot. He didn't believe it and told the cadre he needn't worry. He knew the Americans, and they wouldn't do such a thing now that they had lost. "I talked to the cadre, calling him brother, making him familiar with me, like a friend. I'm always outgoing and I felt comfortable with him. I even joked that our vault was so strong not even bombs from a B-52 could destroy it. But the cadre asked me to find the president."

    Komphot got on the telephone and reached the president at his home. The president agreed to come back to the bank at once. But two other officials were needed to unlock the safe: the comptroller general and the cashier general. Komphot agreed to drive to their homes and bring them back to the bank. Along the way he saw what he considered predictable scenes. The Khmer Rouge were collecting all the weapons of the citizens; by war's end civilians had begun carrying pistols for protection. He saw piles of weapons in the street, but he failed to notice what was missing--any sense of celebration. He was wrapped up in his mission. When all were assembled at the bank, the three top officers opened the safe. Komphot had to supervise the counting of the notes, about $1 million in Khmer money. He made out a receipt, it was duly signed, and the keys to the safe were given up to the Khmer Rouge. It was now evening, nearly 7:00, and the cadre asked Komphot to put the money back in the safe.

    Even though he had spent the better part of the afternoon counting notes in the quiet chambers of the bank, Komphot could feel the mood of the city change. He heard intermittent gunfire, repeated automatic rifle bursts from all directions. A clerk had whispered to him that the Khmer Rouge were ordering people to leave the city. But the radio had not broadcast an evacuation order. Komphot was confused, and now that his work was completed he felt nervous for the first time.

    The Khmer Rouge cadre asked him and the other bank officers to stay and help sort out other papers. "I smiled and said, `No, thank you, I'd rather not stay.' They offered, then, to drive me home in one of their cars to make sure I passed through their roadblocks safely, but I declined. I said goodbye to the president, the comptroller general, and the cashier general. I didn't want to go home. I thought I would go straight to the Hotel le Phnom. I needed a drink."

    Komphot walked out into the hot night, and his head began to swim. Laid before him was a ravaged city, an anxious, empty city. It took Komphot some time to gain control of his emotions. There were no people! He stared at the litter on the streets, at the evidence of all he had not witnessed. There were no people!

    Shortly after Komphot had returned from lunch to the shelter of the bank, the most heartbreaking scenes of the war had filled the city streets. The Khmer Rouge had begun evacuating Phnom Penh, and among the first people pulled out were the patients at the city's hospitals. The wounded and disabled walked or crawled; some were pushed in their beds, a relative holding an intravenous bag, pretending that might keep a loved one alive. A sobbing father carried his young daughter in a sling he fashioned from a bedsheet and tied around his neck. About 20,000 patients were thrown out that afternoon.

    After clearing out the hospitals, the small units of Khmer Rouge soldiers Komphot had seen entering the city had fanned out to the different neighborhoods of Phnom Penh. Some stood on the corners directing traffic while others went door to door telling everyone to evacuate immediately. "The Americans will bomb Phnom Penh. Leave the city at once," they said politely. "You'll return quickly. There is no need to take your belongings."

    Those who protested were persuaded to submit by warning shots fired into the air. Those who fought back were killed. Komphot had heard the sound of gunfire from some of those small battles. Now all he saw was the relics. Fires were burning on the horizon. Like everyone else in the city, Komphot had slept little during the last two weeks while the city was shelled during the final attack. Now his fatigue suddenly vanished as he tried to accept what he saw before his eyes--Phnom Penh without people. It was as if he had left the theater for a short intermission and returned to discover he had missed the climax. But this was his real life, his country.

    He walked straight up Monivong Avenue to the hotel, his steps ringing loudly and his mind running wildly. He would find answers at the hotel, he told himself. It had been designated earlier in the week as an international area, the neutral zone for foreigners. They could tell him what had happened. By the time he reached the hotel's broad gravel driveway he was sprinting. He was so preoccupied he practically ran into an old acquaintance, an engineer at the city's post and telegraph office. The engineer had been educated in the United States and also had been one of the bright young men in the city, a friend on the edge of Komphot's rapidly disappearing world.

    Komphot stopped in midstride. "I couldn't believe the look on his face. He seemed haunted. He told me the foreigners were gone, they'd been moved to the French embassy. Then he told me he had just given his child to the foreigners for safekeeping, given up his only child to strangers. I couldn't believe it, but he refused to answer any more questions. He said he didn't want to talk to me, that he didn't know who to trust. Then he disappeared."

    The foreigners had been the last people the Khmer Rouge confronted. After beginning the evacuation of the Cambodians, sending them off in all directions out of the capital, the Khmer Rouge had broadcast an order by loudspeaker to everyone in the hotel telling them to leave; the hotel was not a protected zone. The foreigners went to the French embassy. The more sophisticated Cambodians, like the engineer Komphot had just met, knew the French embassy could not protect natives.

    If he had allowed himself, Komphot might have screamed in dismay. One part of him was saying, "This is the last day I'll walk down these streets of my home." Then he checked himself. "This can't be true. I must give them the benefit of the doubt. We'll all come back." He retraced his steps in search of his cousin, In Nhel, the head of the railway. He couldn't face this nightmare alone. By chance he found his cousin one block later, and the two drove off in Nhel's car to the outskirts of the city, to a neighborhood known as Tuol Kok, where Nhel owned a small hut secluded from the road.

    There they hid with Nhel's family and quietly talked. They wanted to forget the Khmer Rouge. "I wouldn't let myself go crazy," Komphot said. "I had to hope. I couldn't imagine giving away a child after one day of the Khmer Rouge. I didn't want to overestimate what the Khmer Rouge were doing. I wanted to be rational."

    After three days their hiding place was discovered in a systematic sweep of the city by the Khmer Rouge. A soldier came up to their door and said politely, "Brother, comrade, please move out. You have to go at least three miles out of the city. The imperialists are going to bomb the city. When it is time you can return."

    Now Komphot wanted to believe the bombing story. He and his cousin left with the family but without their valuables and did as they were told. They left the city in the direction of the northern Route Five. The Khmer Rouge had told them to return to their home villages, the village of their parents or grandparents. Since Phnom Penh was Komphot's "home village," he decided to follow his cousin Nhel to his home village, a small town in Kompong Chain province. In a few hours they caught up with the multitudes, the people who had been banished while Komphot was counting bank notes.

    They were on the outskirts of the city, a thick sea of people jammed on the narrow highway being marched to the countryside by the soldiers in black pajamas. Komphot was reminded of a crowd caught in a sports stadium with no exit for escape. It also seemed to him as if a giant had poured everyone out of the city and they were pretending not to notice. The rich still had money and were buying food from roadside merchants asking absurd sums: $100 in Cambodian currency for a pound of rice, $50 for a fish caught in a canal. The poor had nothing and went without. The sick lay dying on the roadway. No one stopped to help a stranger. No one thought of confronting the Khmer Rouge and ending this pathetic march. That would require confronting a lifetime of illusions, so they trudged on. Every day at 4:00 P.M. they were told to sleep, spilling on top of each other. Before dawn they were waked and told to march on. They stuck in cliques with people of their own class or background. Komphot and his cousin and his family walked with other educated Khmer from Phnom Penh; shopkeepers walked with shopkeepers, beggars with beggars. Like this Komphot marched for ten days until the crowd of thousands reached a crossing at the Tonle Sap River and Komphot and his cousin traveled east, toward the home village.

    They stopped at Prek Kdam, on the other side of the river , a small village now crammed with some 30,000 people also waiting to move on to their home villages. Here there was food and Khmer Rouge officials were waiting to screen the people. In Nhel was called before one. Komphot had been told by people in the crowd that the Khmer Rouge determined whom they wanted by asking certain people to write their "biographies," a description of their lives, particularly what they had done during the Lon Nol regime. "The Khmer Rouge asked my cousin to write his biography, and I asked if I could, too. We had heard people were being taken off to `study'--we thought this meant to a school for brainwashing. We wanted to go together so we would have each other's company and be released together."

    Another distant cousin, a man who had been a customs officer at the capital's airport and who had joined them on the highway, said he wanted to go with Komphot and Nhel, and the three presented themselves to the Khmer Rouge. "We volunteered everything about ourselves and said we wanted to go together. They took Nhel and the customs officer, but they said they didn't want my biography. The cadre said to me: `When we want your biography you will be asked for it.' I was left standing alone."

    Watching his friends walk away, under the armed escort of the Khmer Rouge, Komphot was struck with a jolt of complete fear. Nhel was gone and Komphot had no idea when he would return. Since April 17, Nhel had been his constant companion; their conversation had been a shield protecting Komphot from the awful scenes surrounding him. They had walked for twelve days from Phnom Penh to Prek Kdam less mindful of the poor and hungry, the dying and the missing, than their own intense political conversations about what the evacuation meant, what role Sihanouk would play in the new regime, when they would return to Phnom Penh, and what they could do for the revolution. They had maintained the fiction of their boulevard life as long as possible. Now there was silence. Komphot was alone and filled with dread.

    He walked back to the remaining group of relatives--Nhel's wife and children and a few cousins. Suddenly he lost hope. The family group, reduced to six people, was ordered into an already packed truck and driven about ten miles, then dumped into a deserted paddy field. It was raining. There was no food and they spent the night huddled together. The next day they were moved to a nearby village, where they were given the space under a hut on stilts normally reserved for animals. "We lived like pigs, taking whatever was available, the scraps of food offered us. I realized we were under custody of the revolution, not a part of it."

    Slowly they were moved across the province, from one miserable stopover to another, until they reached their native village near Speu Chamcar Leu, an area of rich rice fields adjoining Cambodia's rubber plantations. It was now May 16, almost one month since the Khmer Rouge victory. There would be no return to Phnom Penh, no return to life as Komphot had known it. The family was not allowed to go back to their home but sent to live in a large "cooperative" of some 1,500 families living in village clusters under the control of a triumvirate of Khmer Rouge cadre. In his cluster Komphot was assigned to a production unit with twelve other adults and given his family's first monthly ration of food: thirty pounds of rice for every full-time worker, fifteen pounds for those who worked part-time, nothing for the children, who were expected to share the adults' rice. That was it--no fish, vegetables, oil, or meat. Finally Komphot was utterly frightened.

    "I realized we were expendable. All the analyses we had done during the war, all of our ideas about what Cambodia would be like, were so wrong I had no room in my imagination for what was happening. I finally understood what it meant to be called to `study'--those people were murdered. Those of us who were spared were to become work animals. We were barely surviving."

    Now everyone was asked to write or dictate his "biography." Through May and June, Komphot was totally occupied learning to farm the rice paddies and scrounge the forests for edibles. Bananas were mixed with everything. He and Nhel's family collected snails, banana leaves for "acid soup," wild vegetables. The family had no cooking pots at first, only farm tools. They had the one set of clothing they had worn the day they left Phnom Penh. The hardship, the Khmer Rouge told them, was necessary "to make a revolution--to become self-sufficient."

    By July, however, people began disappearing--at night. One by one they were being picked off: former soldiers or the families of former soldiers, former bureaucrats, former members of the Lon Nol regime, former intellectuals. Komphot was spared. "I wrote my full biography for them, because the cooperative was crawling with other intellectuals who knew me from Phnom Penh. But the cadre didn't know much about banking. They thought teachers were intellectuals but not bankers. They thought a bank nothing more than a place where money was kept, and I presume they thought of me as a clerk--smart but not intelligent."

    Nights were quiet in the cooperative. Only the Khmer Rouge cadre dared move. In July there were sounds again of strange footsteps and the muffled cries of someone being dragged away. A "body was fading away," the people would say. "Be careful or your body may disappear." Komphot remembers one night when the sounds were so close to his hut "I thought they were coming to get us. I thought to myself: It is one thing to suffer to live, another thing to suffer only to die. I decided to give it two years. If nothing had changed I would commit suicide."

    Another distant cousin, a man who had been a customs officer at the capital's airport and who had joined them on the highway, said he wanted to go with Komphot and Nhel, and the three presented themselves to the Khmer Rouge. "We volunteered everything about ourselves and said we wanted to go together. They took Nhel and the customs officer, but they said they didn't want my biography. The cadre said to me: `When we want your biography you will be asked for it.' I was left standing alone."

    Watching his friends walk away, under the armed escort of the Khmer Rouge, Komphot was struck with a jolt of complete fear. Nhel was gone and Komphot had no idea when he would return. Since April x 7, Nhel had been his constant companion; their conversation had been a shield protecting Komphot from the awful scenes surrounding him. They had walked for twelve days from Phnom Penh to Prek Kdam less mindful of the poor and hungry, the dying and the missing, than their own intense political conversations about what the evacuation meant, what role Sihanouk would play in the new regime, when they would return to Phnom Penh, and what they could do for the revolution. They had maintained the fiction of their boulevard life as long as possible. Now there was silence. Komphot was alone and filled with dread.

    He walked back to the remaining group of relatives--Nhel's wife and children and a few cousins. Suddenly he lost hope. The family group, reduced to six people, was ordered into an already packed truck and driven about ten miles, then dumped into a deserted paddy field. It was raining. There was no food and they spent the night huddled together. The next day they were moved to a nearby village, where they were given the space under a hut on stilts normally reserved for animals. "We lived like pigs, taking whatever was available, the scraps of food offered us. I realized we were under custody of the revolution, not a part of it."

    Slowly they were moved across the province, from one miserable stopover to another, until they reached their native village near Speu Chamcar Leu, an area of rich rice fields adjoining Cambodia's rubber plantations. It was now May 16, almost one month since the Khmer Rouge victory. There would be no return to Phnom Penh, no return to life as Komphot had known it. The family was not allowed to go back to their home but sent to live in a large "cooperative" of some 1,500 families living in village dusters under the control of a triumvirate of Khmer Rouge cadre. In his cluster Komphot was assigned to a production unit with twelve other adults and given his family's first monthly ration of food: thirty pounds of rice for every full-time worker, fifteen pounds for those who worked part-time, nothing for the children, who were expected to share the adults' rice. That was it--no fish, vegetables, oil, or meat. Finally Komphot was utterly frightened.

    "I realized we were expendable. All the analyses we had done during the war, all of our ideas about what Cambodia would be like, were so wrong I had no room in my imagination for what was happening. I finally understood what it meant to be called to `study'--those people were murdered. Those of us who were spared were to become work animals. We were barely surviving."

    Now everyone was asked to write or dictate his "biography." Through May and June, Komphot was totally occupied learning to farm the rice paddies and scrounge the forests for edibles. Bananas were mixed with everything. He and Nhel's family collected snails, banana leaves for "acid soup," wild vegetables. The family had no cooking pots at first, only farm tools. They had the one set of clothing they had worn the day they left Phnom Perth. The hardship, the Khmer Rouge told them, was necessary "to make a revolution--to become self-sufficient."

    By July, however, people began disappearing--at night. One by one they were being picked off: former soldiers or the families of former soldiers, former bureaucrats, former members of the Lon Nol regime, former intellectuals. Komphot was spared. "I wrote my full biography for them, because the cooperative was crawling with other intellectuals who knew me from Phnom Penh. But the cadre didn't know much about banking. They thought teachers were intellectuals but not bankers. They thought a bank nothing more than a place where money was kept, and I presume they thought of me as a clerk--smart but not intelligent."

    Nights were quiet in the cooperative. Only the Khmer Rouge cadre dared move. In July there were sounds again of strange footsteps and the muffled cries of someone being dragged away. A "body was fading away," the people would say. "Be careful or your body may disappear." Komphot remembers one night when the sounds were so close to his hut "I thought they were coming to get us. I thought to myself: It is one thing to suffer to live, another thing to suffer only to die. I decided to give it two years. If nothing had changed I would commit suicide."

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Table of Contents

Preface
1 Distant Followers 1
2 The Birth of Modern Cambodia 26
3 The Path of Betrayal 66
4 The White Crocodile 114
5 The Ultimate Revolution 161
6 Cambodia's Reign of Terror 205
7 "Most Respected and Beloved Party" 261
8 The Tiger and the Crocodile 290
9 Habits of War 327
10 The Silence Ends 364
11 Return to Phnom Penh 399
12 The War for Cambodia 432
13 The Prodigal Peace 437
Epilogue 508
Notes 521
Special Note on Tuol Sleng Sources 539
Select Bibliography 545
A Brief Chronology 555
Index 567
Acknowledgements 605
About the Author 607
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Sort by: Showing 1 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted August 6, 2012

    I dound this book is really good when it comes to history of Cam

    I dound this book is really good when it comes to history of Cambodia. Elibeth Becker has brought us a reality of a place where millions of people have suffered from horror made by other human beings.
    I can't find enough say to describe this book.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
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