Book Review: A Story of Unimaginable Evil

In 1975, Savathy Kim was a young college girl studying law when the Khmer Rouge swept into Phnom Penh. Her story, first told in French under the title Jeunesse Brissee and translated by Mary Byrne, is likely to leave scars on anybody who reads it. Despite her ordeal, Kim would end up as a member of the Cambodian Supreme Court.

From the time the youths in pajamas cleared out the city, the ensuing four years, until the Vietnamese arrived to drive them back into the forest, were a period of what Kim called "genocide and unimaginable horror that left 1.7 million of my people dead."

It is as if Cormac McCarthy's novel The Road had come to life. The story of the Khmer Rouge's decision to drive all of the residents out of Phnom Penh has been told many times over the last 35 years. But it has never been told with such force. At the time, Kim was staying with a prosperous uncle. They were awakened by youths in black pajamas, telling them they had to leave the city because the Americans were going to bomb it.

They drove away in the uncle's Peugeot after having learned that the order had been given to chase everyone out within 48 hours. "Sick people, children, the wounded, the elderly, pregnant women—everyone was sent away without exception. Phnom Penh emptied like a body losing blood."

At first, the uncle was the leader of a band of 15 family members, including two wives and servants as well as Kim and her brother, Kolbutr. In the ensuing days, they would lose more and more of their possessions. They would abandon the car and take to the road. They would be rounded up as non-peasants identifiable by their lighter skin and soft hands. She was separated from her brother, who had long hair and wore glasses. Later he was seen with his head partly shaved. He had already been condemned, she writes, for wearing glasses, a sign of the bourgeoisie. He was executed. Eventually, she would learn, every single member of the group that left Phnom Penh was murdered.

She writes in one engrossing passage of how the band decided to turn back through Phnom Penh to get to the Mekong River to find the city deserted, without a sign of life except for a few members of the Angkar Pakdevkat, or revolutionary council, working on the banks of the river. Every soul had been ordered out. Kim and her troupe staggered along with invalids still in their hospital beds, rolling down the roads. Ultimately they would be left with virtually nothing, stripped clean, and would be separated, the aunt and uncle being sent away to a work detail, where they were murdered as well.

Eventually, for the rest of her period of confinement, Kim was sent to a korngchalat, which amounted to a concentration camp and years of terror. It was where she would become so dehumanized that even her name was taken from her. She was renamed Borng Tha.

The Khmer Rouge, she writes, "broke the family unit. But beyond the family, there was no longer any social solidarity, neither relatives nor neighbors at the heart of which an individual could identify himself, or form a network of confidence. The regime introduced distrust even in the home. Children had to devote their life to the Angkar and no longer respected their parents; their consciences were violated in front of their helpless parents.

"The Khmer Rouge transformed each human being into a machine devoid of all critical sense. Moved by famine and the fear of being killed, people lost all sense of each other and were capable of denouncing father, brother, or sister. This was what we had become. It was every man for himself. The regime taught me not to trust even my closest relatives, such as my own aunt and uncle, and this forced me into solitude. Silence was a guarantee of safety, according to the expression dam-doeum-kor, which means "plant the kapok tree," a silent tree whose canopy stifles noise."

Eventually, the women in the korngchalat, she writes, "lost all moral sense." Even feelings of friendship became suspect. Some people hid their identity by simulating madness and wearing rags. They stole food and betrayed each other. And at all times there was the ever-present terror, which grew when the Khmer Rouge began fighting among themselves. The Mekong became rife with floating bodies.

Kim writes that years later, "I began to have vivid nightmares, and night after night they invaded my sleep: the bloody arbitrariness of the Khmer Rouge regime; being brutally awoken at three in the morning to go to work; the fear of going down into the water in the paddy fields; being hungry and exhausted; being scared they would take me away; seeing soldiers take other people away with their hands tied behind their backs."

Finally, on Jan. 7, 1979, she writes, "the Vietnamese took Phnom Penh, and the Khmer Rouge suddenly became invisible. We were free, and left to ourselves."

But Kim's passage back to a normal life was tortured to say the least, just as the passage of the entire country back to normal life has been tortured. Thirty years later, Cambodia hasn't come to terms with what happened to it.

"I had been working as a judge for almost fifteen years," she writes, when, in 1997, she was given an opportunity to spend a year working and studying at a law school in the University of Michigan in the United States. Two months after her arrival in Michigan, however, she continued to have nightmares.

"At the law school, I was asked to give a presentation on the post-conflict situation in Cambodia after the withdrawal of the Khmer Rouge. I was so moved to tears during the presentation that I lost my voice. It took me a long time to regain my composure after that and for months afterwards I felt unsettled."

Eventually, she writes, talking about the past convinced her that things had really changed, "but it still wasn't enough to free me of my nightmares; they continued to rise to the top of my mind, like fermenting bubbles in a glass of beer."

Eventually, she conquered her fears enough to go back to the places where she had been imprisoned and mistreated.

"My intention, therefore, in writing this book was to move beyond the idea of a personal chronicle. Instead of merely documenting my own life, I wanted to document the daily reality experienced by so many women during those three years, eight months and twenty days we lived under the Khmer Rouge regime."

The book, she concludes, is "an homage to the great majority who courageously defended their dignity, even to the death. It is also a homage to those female survivors who, after the fall of Pol Pot and his regime, were the first to give back meaning to our existence by rebuilding the family unit, and weaving a social network around our national identity."

Thirty years after everything had been said about the horror of the Khmer Rouge, it has been said again. This is a compelling book that must be read.