Wandering slowly along a well worn path which I noticed was dotted with what looked like thin bits of white shell shining in the early afternoon sun, my young guide pointed out the fenced off areas which housed dug out graves and wooden benches of skulls and bones of arms and legs that were unidentifiable, due to there being so many, the costs, and destruction and torcher As we continued I suddenly knelt and ran a finger over a large white object next to a piece of dirty cloth buried in the path. My guide leaned forward and informed me that it was probably part of a human bone. Seeing the shocked look on my face she helped me straighten up, and I glanced around at the other tourists along the path of unearthed mass graves, where identifying such remains was impossible and so left unearthed. I was standing in the middle of what is known as “The Killing Fields”.
The year was 2009 and I was in Cambodia on holiday for a friends wedding. Such gruesome reminders of the Khmer Rouge power of 1975 – 1979 are found all over Cambodia. Not to mention even today young children with partial limbs damaged or blown off by unintentionally coming in contact with live land mines that are still hidden in the countryside. When I was leaving Cambodia after that visit, I picked up what is believed to be one of the most powerful memoirs of persecution ever written.
To the end of hell …. One woman’s struggle to survive Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge
By Denise Affongo
I read this book in the long flight back home to a world of clean, green, freedom I have always known and learned through my tears, of Denise’s endurance of hard labour, famine, sickness, her harrowing tale of survival against terrifying odds and the choice she made which eventually cost the life of her young daughter. As a daughter of a French father and Vietnamese Mother she had the choice to leave Cambodia with her two children and leave her husband behind (being of Cambodian origin) or she could stay and suffer whatever came. Not wanting to leave her husband and believing they would be safer if they stayed together as a family, they were eventually deported into the countryside, where her husband was taken away and never seen again. Along with her sister-in-law and her children Denise travels on foot with hundreds of other Cambodians, forced from their homes in Phnom Penh, living in harrowing camps, working from sunrise to sunset in the rice fields, watching naked corpses floating down streams tied to tree stumps, witnessing beatings and torture. Children forced to work long hours digging graves, and looking on as friends and loved ones are brutally killed then covering them setting fire to the bodies, and in the morning digging over the ashes for compost. Making compost cakes from collecting cow dung mixing it with urine and baking them to be used in the rice fields. Malaria is rife. Living with the stench of death, watching as her sister-in-law die, her daughter and her nieces’ die within hours of each other from starvation and later other members of her extended family. She was told not to discipline her children as they no longer belong to her, as they belonged to the Khmer Rouge. That their lives were not worth a bullet to kill them with. “To keep you is no gain,” they were told by the Khmer guerillas, “to destroy you is no loss.” The famine causing her to eat all sorts of insects, scorpions, cockroaches, rats and termites. Even scrounging along side dogs for scrapes. Cambodia was taken back to year Zero.
In 1979 when Vietnam invaded Cambodia, Denise found she could no longer stay, and her struggle to get out with her son is also documented in this gripping story. She learned much later after her exodus with hundreds of others across the border into Vietnam that her mother was standing only meters from her at the border, yet neither knew,… her mother died shortly after.
During her release a Vietnamese doctor asks her to document everything she had experienced and endured later to be used in evidence in court. It was many years later in France where she now lives that during a conversation with a European Professor she realised many knew nothing of the real events of those years. “I really don’t understand why people talk of a Khmer genocide. They only did good things for their country. I visited Phnom Penh in 1978, the Cambodians were living happily and in perfect health” said the Professor. Outraged at the ignorance, this book was born from the notes she had written in a state of shock in Seem Reap, and she has dedicated this work to her little nine year old daughter who died of hunger and to all those still lost or buried somewhere in the jungles of Cambodia
Denise tells of a time shortly after her arrival in France of watching one morning a family member cooking up a meal of rice with carrots, leeks and large chunks of beef, assuming it was for the family, but was told it was for the family dog. She almost fell over backwards, as in Cambodia even in normal circumstances the dogs were fed leftovers. In the inclusion of this book she tells of her home for the past 25 years in France, working as bilingual secretary at the Institute for Security Studies of the European Union her marriage in 1994, though it has been a struggle to fit in, the memories of the past are buried within her heart. Her son has never spoken about his ordeal, what he saw or suffered.
Not surprisingly I notice in the back of the book part of the profits from sales of this book go to the Documentation Centre of Cambodia where a scholarship has been set up in the name of Denise Affongo’s nine year old daughter Jeannie. In 2005 when Denise’s book was published it was finally agreed between the United Nations and the Cambodian government to bring the surviving Khmer Rouge Leaders responsible, to trial. The book has a Chronology from 1863 – 2007. There is a small black and white map, and some family photos Denise managed to save with the help of some children stuffing them down their clothing so as not to get caught. Everything else was destroyed. During 1975 – 1979 there was no schools, no teaching, no music or singing allowed, no speaking in their native Cambodian language. Anyone learned or intellectual were instantly killed.
In the front of the book Jon Swain a British Sunday Times Senior Foreign Correspondent happened to catch the last commercial flight into Cambodia in 1975 witnessed the fall of the city, and writes his account of what he saw. Returned many times to report from Cambodia and his experience is immortalised in the film The Killing Fields. David Chandler a professor of history at Monash University in Melbourne Australia and author of many books on Cambodia such as Voices from S 21, A history of Cambodia to name a few had as he says the privilege of meeting Denise and interviewed her about her experiences in relation to a book he was writing. He also has written an introduction for this compelling story of a woman’s steadfastness and bravery.
Have I said too much about what is in this book……… no I don’t think so, for there is much to read, to learn and understand in the well written biography, of the horrors, so that no one should have to go through what Denise did.