Thursday, December 13, 2007

To hell and back

Book Review

To The End Of Hell: One woman's struggle to survive the Khmer Rouge - by Denise Affonço (published by Reportage Press, November 2007, 170 pages)

Denise Affonço’s heart-wrenching story of her life during the Khmer Rouge reign of terror in Cambodia in the late 70s is a compelling and chilling account of her survival against overwhelming odds. A French citizen, born in Cambodia of a French father, her background was known to her captors but she was able to cling to life, just, to outlive the genocide, and to give evidence at the trial in absentia of Pol Pot and his cronies. For that she remains eternally grateful to the Vietnamese liberators who crushed the Khmer Rouge and their rule by murder, starvation, disease and hard labour, in which 1.7 million Cambodians perished. She escaped this living hell in January 1979 with only her son still alive. Her husband was arrested and never returned, her 9-year-old daughter died of starvation as well as five other members of her husband's family. Denise had the chance to leave before the Khmer Rouge took charge of Phnom Penh but remained with her husband and children, prompted by her husband’s blind faith in the communist ideals at the heart of the Khmer Rouge ideology. He effectively signed his own death warrant, and those of others with that misguided devotion, while Denise was left to watch her daughter fade away before her eyes, unable to supplement her meagre rations enough to keep her alive. The inhumane treatment dished out by the Khmer Rouge cadre is exposed in full as Denise miraculously managed to cheat death herself before her liberation by the invading Vietnamese.

To The End of Hell was in large part, penned some twenty-five years ago as evidence at the Khmer Rouge trial but remained locked away until 2005 when it was published in France. The English language edition was released by Reportage Press last month and her recollections serialized in the UK’s Sunday Times Magazine. Today, Denise has married again and lives in France. Her memoir, one of more than twenty-five detailing the struggle for survival during the Khmer Rouge regime in my collection, is amongst the most moving and vivid. I recommend you buy it without hesitation. Part of the profits from the sales of the book will go to the Documentation Center of Cambodia (DC-Cam), where a scholarship has been set up in the name of Denise Affonço’s nine-year-old daughter Jeannie, who starved to death in 1976. DC-Cam is the independent research centre dedicated to recording the history of the Khmer Rouge period. Link: Reportagepress.

1 comment:

Andy said...

Here's a review of the book in The Economist Magazine.

Living through the terror
Dec 13th 2007

THREE decades have passed since the events being investigated, but early this month Cambodia's United Nations-backed war-crimes tribunal made its first decision. It refused to grant bail to the first suspect charged. He is known as Duch and ran the infamous Tuol Sleng torture centre in Phnom Penh during the nightmare of Khmer Rouge rule from April 1975 to January 1979. Among those indicted so far, Duch, at just 67, is a juvenile. Khieu Samphan, the Khmers Rouges' former president, is 73 and suffered a stroke last month. Ieng Sary, their foreign minister, is 82. His brother-in-law, Saloth Sar, better known as Pol Pot, died in 1998, a free man.

That the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia, as the tribunal is known, is at last functional makes the publication in English of Denise Affonço's harrowing memoir a timely reminder of why its work still matters. One of the worst of 20th-century atrocities demands some accountability.

The half-French, half-Vietnamese “pure product of colonialism”, Mrs Affonço was always the sort of person likely to suffer badly under Pol Pot's millenarian madness. She did not take advantage of her cushy job at the French embassy to flee the country as the Khmers Rouges advanced, blaming her “daft” husband, Seng, a communist who greeted the glowering new arrivals in Phonm Penh with bottles of Chinese beer, and believed that their orders to evacuate the capital the next day were well-meaning.

He was soon executed. It was more than three years before his wife learned of his fate—when she and other emaciated, desperate women were told that the futile earthworks on which they were toiling would be called “Widows' Dyke”. By then she had also lost her daughter and almost all the rest of her family.

She survived, she recalls with the obsessive recollecting that so often haunts famine victims, on water plants, toads, raw termites, cockroaches, rats and grasshoppers. The Khmers Rouges are notorious for a wide range of atrocities and absurdities, such as the gruesome torture at Tuol Sleng the banning of spectacles (why should anybody need to read?). But their vilest crime was to create famine in a fertile land. Mrs Affonço believed they wanted “to see us all die, one after the other; of exhaustion, hunger and sickness”.

The unanswered question, of course, is “Why?” From Stalinism to the Taliban, totalitarian lunacy is the twisted offspring of naive idealism, and the Khmer Rouge had its roots in Mao's Cultural Revolution in China.

There is a certain symmetry in this book's appearance now. “To the End of Hell” started life as testimony for the show trials in absentia of Pol Pot and Ieng Sary in 1979 after Vietnamese invaders had toppled their regime. These origins can be traced not just in the sober and moving retelling of a nightmare survived, but also in the portrayal of the Vietnamese as entirely beneficent liberators. The book, therefore, glosses over one reason it has taken so long for the surviving monsters to be brought to trial: that some of those now governing Cambodia, including the demagogic prime minister, Hun Sen, are themselves “reformed” Khmer Rouge cadres.