In the Heart of Darkness

In Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge, the population in 1975 was about seven million; within three years 1.5 million Cambodians had been executed, starved to death, or died from exhaustion. “No other country has ever lost so great a proportion of its nationals in a single, politically inspired hecatomb, brought about by its own leaders.”

Denise Affonço suffered through the entire period of Khmer Rouge rule. Her husband disappeared, probably executed, her daughter starved to death together with other near relatives, and even now, decades later, her son is permanently traumatized. Her account is as vivid and detailed as it is because she prepared an earlier, shorter version after she was freed in 1979 for her testimony that year before a Hanoi-directed war crimes tribunal in Phnom Penh.

Affonço describes herself as a “pure product of colonialism.” Her father, of Portuguese and Indian descent, born in Pondicherry, a French colony, was recruited to teach in Cambodia in 1921 and numbered among his students the country’s elite, including Prince, eventually King, Norodom Sihanouk. Her mother, from Cambodia’s large Vietnamese community, was one of his students. Born in Phnom Penh in 1944, and educated at Phnom Penh’s Lycée, Denise grew up speaking French and knew next to no Khmer, Cambodia’s language. She had never been to France but “I was French and in my heart, I felt French.” When she was ten her father emigrated to France. She never saw him again.

In 1964, she met and eventually married a well-off Chinese entrepreneur and had a son and a daughter. Her husband was “an armchair communist…dogmatically anti-Western and …particularly anti-French.” Apart from their political wrangles, she describes their marriage as “a long tranquil river.” In 1975, when the Khmer Rouge marched into Phnom Penh, the capital, she was working as a secretary in the French embassy. “How could one imagine for a moment,” she writes, “that, from one day to the next, the 17 April 1975, it would be plunged into horror?”

Cambodia’s modern history must be understood in order to grasp that the Khmer Rouge, after their years as a guerrilla movement, were briefly greeted with enthusiasm when they entered Phnom Penh, although within twenty-four hours they revealed themselves to be a sinister horde who were bringing suffering and death to most Cambodians. In 1863 Cambodia had come under French rule until its independence in 1953 as the Kingdom of Cambodia, ruled by King Sihanouk. In 1965 the King broke relations with the US, and permitted North Vietnamese troops to use Cambodia as part of the Ho Chi Minh Trail into South Vietnam.

By then Cambodia had long been a victim of the cold war, and especially of the United States. The Khmer Rouge were the creation of French-educated Stalinist Cambodians like Pol Pot. They had for years contemplated a total transformation of their country by eradicating all urban influences. Nonetheless, it is unquestionable that the brutal American interference in Cambodia from the …

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