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~A Sense of Responsibility~
When my copy of 'The Elimination' by Rithy Panh came through the letter box I took it out of its wrapper and thought "Oh boy, what have I done?"
The subtitle will maybe give you an idea why a sense of trepidation came over me. In full, the book is called 'The Elimination - A Survivor of the Khmer Rouge Confronts his Past and the Commandant of the Killing Fields'.
I was pretty concerned about what I might find. Even though I'd asked for this book, even though I'd told myself that I should be thoroughly ashamed to know almost nothing about something that took place during my own lifetime, I was still struck by a fear of what I might find inside the covers. It was partly the fear of horrific torture and killing - but rather more a fear that it might be just too hard to understand and to follow. What if one third of the population of Cambodia had been killed and I couldn't be bothered to read about their loss? How would I be able to live with the failure to give the dead my proper attention?
~A book to make you stop doing anything else until it's finished~
My fears were brushed aside as soon as I started to read. I was hooked so badly that I was making excuses not to go for dinner or a drink with my colleagues just so I could go back to my room and read more. The absence of a normal chapter structure helps to bring about a sense that you just can't put the book down until the author has finished. Instead of telling myself I'd read to the end of the next chapter, I had to keep going. It felt disrespectful to the dead every time I had to go to sleep or leave for the office. I wanted to give this book my total attention.
There's an oft repeated and mostly very appropriate saying that if you have to put the word 'Democratic' into your country's name, it's probably the last adjective that the country deserves. Think North Korea or the old East German regimes or the Democratic Republic of Congo. So-called 'Democratic Kampuchea' was the name that the Khmer Rouge gave to Cambodia during the rule of Pol Pot between 1975 and 1979. I was far too young to be watching the news when Pol Pot came to power so I can forgive myself for not following the story at the time but I have no excuse to offer for how I managed to not 'educate' myself in the decades since then. Mention Cambodia to me and I'm more likely to think of the beautiful ancient temples of Angkor Wat or the child sexual abuse that led scumbags like Gary Glitter to be expelled from the country. I knew the term 'The Killing Fields' but I didn't really understand the scope of what had happened in Cambodia.
~One Man's Story - and the story of many men~
Rithy Panh was a young boy when Pol Pot came to power. His family were intellectuals, his father a school teacher and schools inspector. The educated were the people Pol Pot wanted to eliminate. A little like Chairman Mao and his Cultural Revolution, Pol Pot thought that getting rid of the people who were bright enough to resist him was the way forward. Anyone considered to be counter-revolutionary was to be punished and it didn't take much to earn that label. If you'd had contact with foreigners, been part of a political organisation, worked as a civil servants or a policemen or even just got yourself a good education, then that was all it took to get marked out as one of Pol Pot's 'New People', one of the not quite real Cambodians that Pol Pot wanted to eliminate.
The figures vary on just how many were killed in what the book calls the 'autogenocide' - i.e. the genocide of your own people - but estimates stretch to almost a third of the population. Most genocides and periods of 'ethnic cleansing' (genocide's younger brother) are based on creating a system of 'us and them' where one group is encouraged to take arms against those considered in some way to be outsiders. Fundamental differences are needed to create the will to kill. Think of Hitler and the Jews during the Second World War, the Hutus and Tutsis in Rwanda, or the Ottoman Empire and the Armenians to name just a few of the more high profile historic examples. I had never heard the term autogenocide before and I think it's mentioned only once in the book but it was the word that stuck in my head. Wikipedia defines it as "the extermination of a country's citizens by its own people or government" and in some ways it's all the more shocking in its randomness.
The UN says 2-3 million people were killed. UNICEF puts it at 3 million. Study of mass graves gave evidence for a shocking 1,386,734 victims of execution but many more died from starvation outside the so-called killing fields. Rithy Panh's father stopped living rather than died - he stopped eating, devastated at the destruction of the country he loved. Rithy Panh describes the deaths of young cousins who were too young to understand why there was nothing to eat and whose parents could no longer provide them even the basic needs of life.
~An tale of two men - Rithy Panh and Comrade Duch~
The book presents many aspects of the genocide and their impact on Rithy Panh's life. We learn that he grew up to become a successful filmmaker specialising in political documentaries including several about his homeland. We discover that for the book he has gained special permission to interview Comrade Duch, one of the chief torturers or the Khmer Rouge regime. We read the one to one exchanges between the two men, observing how Duch can rationalise his past activities, how he can lie to himself and to his interviewer, and almost most sickening, how he's merrily convinced that he's going to be absolutely OK because he's embraced Christianity and bought into the twin concepts of repentance and forgiveness.
Intercut with Rithy Pan's interviews and his reflections on the evils of Comrade Duch, we follow the author's own life. The exodus from Phnom Penh as Pol Pot emptied a city of 2.5 million inhabitants and sent them out to the countryside. We read how Pol Pot eliminated individuality by forcing everyone to wear identical black clothes. We read of the death of love as men and women were randomly married off to one another by the regime without knowing their new partners. The depths of Rithy Panh's personal misery are profound and you'll wonder how much more a young boy could possibly live through - there's the death of his father, his forced estrangement from his family and his consequential rebirth into anonymity with all the terrible things he had to do to stay alive. All these horrors are presented calmly, almost unemotionally as we see the impact his abuse has had on his life. We read his observations on the sheer absurdity of life under Pol Pot when he works as a sort of orderly in a hospital where none of the untrained nurses or doctors know what they are doing because all the real nurses and doctors have lost their jobs for being intellectuals. If you ever needed proof that you can't run a system without letting the intelligent people rise to the top, then Democratic Kampuchea was that proof.
~Do you have a strong stomach?~
Perhaps the most directly shocking passages are about the torture and killings of the millions of Pol Pot's victims. The torturers are mandated to get confessions from their captives following a long list of approved methods of torture. Comrade Duch is more disturbed by his killers improvision and going off the approved list than by the deaths that ensue. There are some things that will leave you wondering if you really could have just read what's on the page - especially the revelation of torture victims being exsanguinated, the blood removed drop by drop until they eventually die. How Rithy Panh could stay calm enough to talk to this man, the person directly responsible for the death of people Panh knew as well as many he didn't, is astonishing. It's as if he has to compartmentalise his feelings, keep his past locked up inside so as not to want to rip the face off this evil torturer.
I learned a lot about Cambodia and Democratic Kampuchea. I'm not sure I can ever think of the country in quite the same way again. Rithy Panh's objectives in writing this book must have been many and complex. I'm sure he wanted to pay tribute to his family, to tell the world about his experience and to reveal the man behind Comrade Duch. I like to think he'd be glad to know that this particular reader filled a big gap in her historic knowledge and loved every page of his brave and compelling story. If we run away from unpalatable and uncomfortable real-life horror, don't we risk that the torturers and the killers are protected by our reticence? This is a book so compelling that it's not hard to get hooked and it's a rare author who can write of things so horrifying and still make you want to know more because of the essential humanity in what they portray.
The Elimination by Rithy Panh
Published by The Clerkenwell Press, April 2013
With thanks to the publisher for providing a review copy and to curiousbookfans.co.uk for arranging to send the book