Laying old ghosts to rest

By Sonia Nair
Surviving Year Zero

Surviving Year Zero: My Four Years Under The Khmer Rouge | The Five Mile Press

surviving-year-zero

The Khmer Rouge’s bloody, totalitarian regime – which lasted from 1975 to 1979 and culminated in the deaths of around two million Cambodians – may have last reared its ugly head a few decades ago, but justice has been slow to arrive. War crime trials that started only three years ago saw two former Khmer Rouge leaders sentenced to life imprisonment for their inexcusable roles in the murder, political persecution and other inhumane acts related to the mass executions of countless Cambodians. Yet corruption continues to infiltrate the trials, with many of the chief warmongers still not held accountable.

It is under this patina of grief and frustration that Sovannora Ieng and Greg Hill’s co-written Surviving Year Zero: My Four Years Under The Khmer Rouge emerges. It is one of a slew of personal accounts to surface in recent times – Enemies of the People, Red Wedding, and Never Fall Down – detailing the travesties that were committed under the despotic Pol Pot administration.

Each of these accounts is horrific and illuminating in its own distinct way, distilling the perilous Year Zero regime through the lens of disparate Cambodians that were disproportionately affected by the four years in in some shape or form. Yet the common feelings of loss, loneliness, bewilderment and the eventual need for redemption pervade across each account, as the indelible scars of living beneath the constant threat of death refuse to fade.
Ieng, who spearheads the narrative in Surviving Year Zero, wasn’t even 14 when his life was irrevocably changed by the genocidal reign that decimated Cambodia. As a result, his memories are rendered in the simple, clear voice of a childlike narrator whose stark language and frank recollections only serve to underline the atrocities of the crimes committed.

The fact that Ieng traces his life to a time before the Khmer Rouge takeover is telling, as they speak of a defiant refusal to be defined by the harrowing years of injustice that characterised many of his formative years. Ieng’s pre-Year Zero reminiscences are colourful and idyllic – teeming with memories of a happy childhood, despite Ieng being from a family that was neither rich nor without its fair share of misfortune.

Time and place are abstract concepts within the book, with the narrative plodding lugubriously along with Ieng in an almost dreamlike sequence as he is needlessly shuttled from place to place depending on fate and circumstances that are nearly always outside his control. The result is a discombobulated sequence of events that goes to the heart of the disenchantment and despair of being a war prisoner.

Despite the bleak setting however, Ieng exercises a surprising amount of self-determination in his state of capture. From scavenging for geckos and crabs to eat raw to pretending to be an orphan to escape a moribund hospital, Ieng’s ability to evade execution and outlast the various maladies that afflict him throughout the four years bears testament to the interminable human spirit – although millions are nowhere near as fortunate as Ieng in their attempts to stay alive.

As Ieng recalls, “They tried to push him in. They kicked him and pounded him and smashed him until he fitted into the cage. His arms and legs were broken, and blood was everywhere. They had broken his limbs for the sake of getting him into the cage.”

Similarly, despite the overwhelming cruelty of many war criminals, Ieng encounters an equal number who display an unwavering sense of camaraderie and perseverance in unbearably dark times.

The violence depicted in the book is never gratuitous, but nevertheless comprises harsh and unflinching portrayals that can be at times hard to read. The tale of a mother who fed her dead children to her next of kin out of a lack of food is heart-wrenching and highly distressing, while the tale of two lovers who were caught and tortured to death is rendered in a strangely matter-of-fact tone that belies the severity of the crime at play.

As Ieng recalls, “They tried to push him in. They kicked him and pounded him and smashed him until he fitted into the cage. His arms and legs were broken, and blood was everywhere. They had broken his limbs for the sake of getting him into the cage.”

Ieng’s tale comes at a time when Australia’s duplicitous asylum seeker policies are making headlines around the world. The very fact that Ieng’s highly important account may not have made it into the pages of a well-bound book if he wasn’t accepted as an asylum seeker in 1980 is but one of the many testimonies of humane asylum seeker policy and its ability to offer victims of human rights infringements the second lease of life they deserve.

It should not be forgotten that who we are and who we might become often unjustly lies at the hands of those who should know better, but often do not.

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