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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.”1

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 early Fifties was a major factor in the eventual victory of the Khmer Rouge. Washington supported an anti-Sihanouk right-wing rebel, ex–Prime Minister Son Ngoc Thanh. As Philip Short notes in his excellent book on Pol Pot, the US claimed that the Khmer Rouge were led by North Vietnamese troops when they captured Phnom Penh. “But like much else the Americans said at that time, this was false.” Driven by its conviction that communism and its supporters must be stopped throughout Asia, a Manichaean vision of dominoes toppling, the US, Short writes,

dropped more than 500,000 tons of bombs on Cambodian resistance bases and…spent hundreds of millions of dollars propping up the corrupt and incompetent anti-communist regime of Marshal Lon Nol, who had seized power in 1970 from…Prince Sihanouk.2

Short observes that “the US dream of an anti-Communist alliance stretching ‘from the 17th parallel to the border of Burma’ was definitively shattered largely by its own maladress.”

Largely because of the many Cambodians taking refuge from American bombing, Phnom Penh’s population swelled from 600,000 to well over two million. That so many of the people in the city were resentful refugees is crucial to understanding what followed. Despising Lon Nol—whom they saw as corrupt and illegitimate, a foreign-backed opponent of Sihanouk—many, but by no means all, of Phnom Penh’s citizens longed for a Khmer Rouge victory and in 1975 they enthusiastically welcomed the new occupation. Some of the soldiers, pre-modern country boys, had never seen a toilet and barely knew about money. What the capital’s inhabitants did not know, but found out almost at once, Affonço writes, was

that their country [was] going to be transformed into a gigantic agricultural co-operative dominated by the peasantry, under the aegis of a bloodthirsty madman, a Maoist extremist exponent of the agricultural revolution and with the open support of the communist Chinese!

Affonço writes that the French embassy urged her to leave for France. Short of money, she refused to abandon her husband and his family. Her husband, who was “redder than the Reds themselves,”

repeats tirelessly to anyone who wants to listen that communists are not savages, that they have laws, and that we can trust them…. When I think of the fate that awaits him, I still mourn his pigheadedness and his infatuation with such beliefs.

Soon, she sees her “daft” husband running out to offer beer to the soldiers. By the next day they tell the citizens that “Angkar”—a mysterious phrase which turns out to mean the Organization or the Party—orders them to leave the city, to be safe from American air raids. They should lock their doors, hand over their keys, and not worry—they would be back soon. The citizens of Phnom Penh obey in every detail. Affonço’s family, eight in all, pile into their Chevrolet. Affonço is horrified by the stream of people carrying their belongings or pulling loaded carts. A few have cars; when these run out of gas they are pulled or pushed by their owners. The hospitals have been emptied of their patients, needles still in their arms; the insane stumble on, some of them laughing and mumbling to themselves.

My communist-junkie [husband] tries to calm me down; he tells me there’s nothing to be afraid of…. This blind trust, this blissful optimism in this faithless, lawless regime still staggers me today.

The Khmer Rouge assurances continue for days:

Don’t hold onto your material possessions, you’ll have no need of them…. Angkar’s watching over you and will provide you with everything!” I feel I’ve been stabbed in the heart each time that they confiscate something personal or a memento; but as we are progressively forced into hell, stripped of everything, all that counts is food and survival.

Angkar issues ten commandments. Among them are:

Everyone will be reformed by work…. Obey Angkar whatever the circumstances. It is forbidden to show feelings; joy or sadness…. Never complain about anything.

The city people are ordered to dye their clothes black. To do this they must find trees bearing fruit that can be used for a dye; the fruit must be crushed in a mortar and the clothes finally dyed in containers—which must also be found. Whatever is needed from local people must be bargained for. “From now on, rice, salt, sugar and medicine become the most valuable currency. I learn this bit by bit as I get dragged down into hell.”

Everyone is forced to work. The urban, middle-class women are led, barefoot, into sunbaked fields to hoe grain:

The first day it is martyrdom each time I put one foot in front of the other in the furrows. The heartless villagers mock me viciously. “Look how these townies walk!” They imitate me…. Tears flood into my eyes…but no, you cannot cry under any circumstances that’s been spelled out—even if you lose a loved one.

All children over the age of eight are put to work:

The Khmer Rouge think the children are like blank sheets of paper [a paraphrase of one of Mao’s notions] on which they can print whatever they want. In very little time, Angkar will remould our children’s spirits and pass on its ideology. These monsters will use the children to spy on the adults, their parents, who are regarded as rotten, corrupt and beyond redemption.

The ghastly prospect is made plain when representatives from Angkar, the first ones Affonço has seen, arrive. They tell their captives:

In principle we should shoot you, but there are so many of you, the ammunition is too expensive…. So Angkar is going to make a selection to eliminate the bad elements by work and hardship…. There’ll be no more schools, no more books; your university will be the forest and the paddy fields; you’ll earn your diplomas with your tears and the sweat of your brow.

Affonço’s husband still insists that “Angkar’s right. This way we can create a strong and pure nation.” He whispers to his wife that they must to sou, the Khmer equivalent of the Maoist word douzheng, “struggle,” a key concept in such violent reform.

Now come the years of struggling to survive. Affonço’s gullible husband is arrested and like many of the other husbands vanishes. She never learns what happened to him. Her daughter starves to death. Her son is taken off to a work brigade. Affonço learns to eat dead animals, toads, rats, grasshoppers, scorpions, and cockroaches. She draws the line at worms. “This is how Angkar wants to see all of us die, one after another; of exhaustion, hunger, and sickness. It is a gentle death sentence, which costs nothing.”

Affonço, age thirty-one, becomes an “old woman. I’m completely dried up.” Her periods disappear until a year after she is freed in 1979. Her sister-in-law starves to death, and when Affonço tells this to her nieces and nephews,

They hardly react to the sad news. It’s as if after all the daily brainwashing where they hear that they are the children of Angkar and have no further need of their parents, they are no longer touched by their loss.

Her eleven-year-old son, on his occasional visits, tells his mother “that he’s doing man’s work; he ploughs, sows, plants, harvests, digs canals, builds dykes.” For some children it is too much. They kill themselves. “Son, daughter, daddy, mummy, these are now meaningless terms. All values are reduced to nothing.”

Nobody is frightened of death or corpses anymore.” In such circumstances how do survivors survive? Affonço lives on what she can cultivate in a tiny garden, together with her diet of toads, snakes, and insects. She sucks salt and drinks polluted water. She tells herself, “Denise, don’t die, stay alive…. You must do this for your children and for the loved ones you’ve lost.” She asks herself whether anyone knows what she is going through, “save those allies who are our executioner’s willing accomplices.” She wonders if France is “doing anything to rescue her nationals trapped in this torture? Does she know where I am? Are there other French citizens in this hell?”

Her existence is especially excruciating, because as the Khmer Rouge face defeat by the Vietnamese invaders, beginning in 1977, their sadism increases. Some executioners eat their victims. “These gruesome individuals have bloodshot eyes from eating human livers, which they cut out of every condemned victim and eat grilled, with rice wine.” A starving girl drinks stolen juice from a sugar palm. She is spread-eagled, smeared with the sweet syrup, and surrounded by giant red ants. Blinded, she soon dies.

In January 1979, the Vietnamese are triumphant and Affonço’s captors vanish. She flees with her son. Weighing only thirty kilos, she has become grotesquely swollen. She has heard that the Vietnamese are murderous cannibals but when she meets them they are kind to her. A doctor slowly cures her. He suggests that she write down an account of her four-year ordeal, to be used at the eventual trial of Pol Pot. She keeps a carbon copy, which twenty-five years later forms the basis for her painful book. Taken around Cambodia to see what happened to others, she finds at one place the ground-up bones and ashes of victims, to be used as fertilizer. Touring this “Calvary” reduces her to anorexia.

At the tribunal in Phnom Penh in 1979 she testifies about her experience and hears the testimonies of others. The judges find Pol Pot guilty in absentia and sentence him to death. (Captured eighteen years later, in 1997, he is treated with awe and deference, and dies, peacefully, in bed.) All Affonço wants by the end of 1979 is to “leave, fast, escape from this hell, save myself, flee, take off.” Given permission to enter France in late 1979, she gets a job with a French government office and then the European Union.

How the Khmer Rouge came about is not a puzzle; their long history has been well explored. It started in Paris in the early 1950s with a secret organization, made of up tiny cells called the Cercle Marxiste. Pol Pot and other men who would go on to lead the Khmer Rouge were members. They “embraced Marxism not for theoretical insights, but to learn how to get rid of the French and to transform feudal society which colonialism had left intact.” Pol Pot, called Saloth Sâr in those days (he had many aliases), became convinced that intellectuals must unite with peasants, that the revolution must be uncompromising, and that the basis of communism is egalitarianism. These convictions, writes Philip Short, “would stay with Saloth Sâr for the rest of his life.”

Such notions litter the history of many revolutionary movements. But Denise Affonço understandably remains baffled by what happened under Khmer Rouge rule:

How is such lunacy conceivable? …And the whole time, the international community didn’t so much as lift a finger to stop the massacre!… How did the Khmer Rouge…manage to make the whole world believe that all was well in the country and that its inhabitants were happily living in paradise?

Part of the answer is that in those years, Pol Pot and his comrades were courteously received in Beijing and were given arms by China, which welcomed their hostility to the Hanoi government. Some leftist opponents of the Vietnam War, ignorant about the Khmer Rouge, were unwilling to confront their atrocities. But Affonço is wrong to think that the entire world believed that all was well under the Khmer Rouge. Reliable reports of the savagery of the regime were published widely in the West, whether in Reader’s Digest or in books such as François Ponchaud’s Cambodge année zéro and Murder of a Gentle Land by John Barron and Anthony Paul, reviewed in these pages by William Shawcross, who also wrote an early indictment of the Khmer Rouge.3

During her ordeal Affonço received almost no kindness or even mercy from anyone; the liver-eaters were only an extreme form of something common during those years. What is difficult to understand is how the Khmer Rouge immediately succeeded in persuading so many Cambodians to cooperate with them. I visited Cambodia twice in the mid-1960s, before the Khmer Rouge victory in 1975, and noticed nothing about Cambodians that prepared me for reports of what happened during and after 1975. Near the end of his excellent book, Philip Short recalls the Cercle Marxiste’s admiration for Robespierre, Stalin, and Lenin. But he can’t fully explain how they became determined to go further than any of these leaders in the merciless eradication of people they saw as class enemies.

The results were so horrendous, they are still bewildering. Like the educated Chinese who returned to China after 1949 to “join the revolution,” returning Cambodians were in for a terrible shock: “What I saw,” said one returnee,

was beyond imagining. The people [who met us] at the airport were not like human beings. You might have thought they were objects, automatons from another planet. They belonged to a race that was indefinable, neuter, phantoms enveloped in darkness from somewhere very far away. Physically they looked like me, like the rest of us. Their appearance was Asian, Cambodian. But it was only their appearance. In every other way, there was nothing in common between us.

One day, perhaps, we will get clarifying accounts from members of the Khmer Rouge of how they came to think and act as they did. By now, many of them have prospered under the corrupt regime that rules Cambodia today. We still have much to learn about how and why they created hell on earth.

  1. 1

    Philip Short, Pol Pot: Anatomy of a Nightmare (Henry Holt, 2004), p. 10. This is the most up-to-date, comprehensive history of the Khmer Rouge. Craig Etcheson, in After the Killing Fields: Lessons from the Cambodian Genocide (Praeger, 2005), examines the documentation on the numbers who died, and concludes that it was 2.2 million. Other reliable accounts of the Khmer Rouge may be found in books by Jon Swain and David Chandler, longtime specialists on Cambodia, who contribute laudatory introductions to Denise Affonço’s memoir, and particularly in the many publications of Ben Kiernan. In Genocide and Democracy in Cambodia (Yale University Southeast Asia Studies, 1993), a book Kiernan edited, Judith Banister provides an informative chapter on the killings.

  2. 2

    For an account of the secret bombing, which Nixon denied for as long as possible, see William Shawcross, Sideshow: Kissinger, Nixon, and the Destruction of Cambodia (Cooper Square, 2002).

  3. 3

    See William Shawcross, “Cambodia Under Its New Rulers,” The New York Review, March 4, 1976, and “The Third Indochina War,” The New York Review, April 6, 1978.

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