Surviving the Killing Fields Book Review

Survival in the Killing Fields

I visited Cambodia in 2013. One of the places we visited was The Killing Fields, one of the many in Cambodia. The one we visited was in the village of Choeung Ek , 30 mins from Phenom Pehn. During the visit, I chose to do it with the audio tour which had stops for various landmarks. To put it mildly, it was a very affecting experience. I bought “Survival in the Killing Fields” in Phenom Penh in an attempt to understand what it was like from one person’s perspective.

Enter the doctor

That person is  Dr. Hiang S. Ngor and the book is best summarized in his words.

Nothing has shaped my life as much as surviving the Pol Pot regime. I am a survivor of the Cambodian holocaust. That’s who I am.

The book follows Haing Ngor as he tries and ultimately survives the Pol Pot regime. There are chapters that the author warns about, asking for readers to skip it if they are averse to gore. And with good reason – these chapters were particularly rough to read through.

Red Khmers

Literally translated as the Red Khmers, the Khmer Rogue are followers of a communist party. Led by Pol Pot, the Khmer Rogue arrested, tortured and eventually executed anyone suspected of belonging to several categories of supposed “enemies”.

These include:

  1. Anyone with connections to the former Cambodian government or with foreign governments.
  2. Professionals and intellectuals – this included anyone with glasses
  3. Ethic minorities
  4. Economic “saboteurs” – former urban dwellers who lacked agricultural ability.

The Khmer Rogue swept through the country, laying waste to society as the Cambodians knew it.

Uprooted

For Dr. Haing Ngor, he was forced to stop in the middle of a surgical operation at gun point. Through a bit of acting, he was able to convince the Khmer Rogue that he was not a doctor. Together with his wife My-Huoy, they were made to leave the city.

In fact, everyone in Phnom Penh was forced to flee their homes, their families and their lives. Their destination? The countryside. The Khmer Rogue planned for them to work as peasants as part of the “great revival of Cambodia without Western influences”.

To the Cambodians and Haing Ngor and his family, this meant the abandonment of the luxuries of life, the destruction of their houses, the collapse of the transport system, the ban on any sort of trading and the devaluation of paper money.

Prisoners

To the soldiers , people from the capital like Haing Ngor and his family were soft and of a lower status than themselves. This ideology empowered the rebels to treat them with utter contempt.

Work-wise, the Khmer Rogue instructed their charges to perform long hours of  hard labour with primitive hand tools. Projects they were forced to work on (canals, paddy fields, dams) were usually inadequately planned for and often abandoned. This brought more despair to Haing Ngor’s family as they were then uprooted from their primitive base and separated to another area .

Haing Ngor’s wife passed away giving birth as she required a C-section. Although being a gynecologist himself, he was unable to practice as he would have been exposed and would lead to the death of himself, his wife and his child.

Food was also in short supply. Prisoners around Haing Ngor were collapsing from sheer exhaustion from a combination of insufficient nutrition and the demanding labour. All these factors were compounded by spying by traitors in their own compounds which inevitably led to torture.

***

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Free skies at Cheoung Ek

During my walk in Choeung Ek, the atrocities  committed by the Khmer Rogue were in evidence. At the end of the audio tour, there was a pure white stupa containing the skulls of victims of the killing fields. It was a dedication to the many that gave their lives that such a event will never happen again but it was in the dozens of mass graves above ground – many with bits and pieces of cloth and bone peeking through – that tells of many real lives affected – including Haing Ngor.

***

Dr. Haing Somnang Ngor went on to escape the Killing Fields and left for the United States with his niece. He eventually won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor in 1985 playing the role of  Dith Pran in “The Killing Fields” . Although initially unwilling to  act, he changed his mind after interviews with the filmmakers and recalling that he promised his late wife to tell Cambodia’s story to the world.

He said of his role in “The Killing Fields” :

” I wanted to show the world how deep starvation is in Cambodia, how many people die under communist regime. My heart is satisfied. I have done something perfect “

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