Tuesday, 22 September 2009

The Killing Fields

"The Killing Fields: The Facts Behind the Film" by Sydney Schanberg & Dith Pran: A Review
This book is not concerned with how the film "The Killing Fields" came to be made, but with the background story which formed the basis for that film; it is about true events which one of those involved, Sydney Schanberg has described as "a story of war and friendship, of the anguish of a ruined country and of one man's will to live."
The book is about Cambodia, from the time of the fall of the corrupt regime of Lon Nol, in 1975, through the atrocities perpetrated by, the communist Khmer Rouge, to reflections on the tragedy of Cambodia today. But it is no abstract commentary on history: it gives the events of those years as experienced by two men who were in Cambodia when the crisis struck in 1975; each relates his personal insight into that time.
Sydney Schanberg was a reporter with the New York Times, stationed in Cambodia in the early seventies; there, he made the acquaintance of Dith Pran, a Cambodian, who began by acting as Schanberg's interpreter, then became his associate, and finally his friend.
What was it like, living on the edge of a battlefield, reporting on innocent civilians - men, women and children - being caught up in the horror that is modern warfare? Schanberg comments; "Our lives proceeded in this fashion - from one intense experience to another, an unnatural existence by the standards of normal life, but perfectly natural when living inside a continuous crisis. We broke our tension - we had to, for psychic survival - to push away the bloody images with good food, laughter that was often too loud."
Schanberg and Pran often visited the hospitals of the city, Phnom Penh. Pran recalls that this caused great anguish to Schanberg, seeing people lying there, helpless, suffering, and being able to do nothing about it. Nevertheless, they continued with their visits: they knew that they must try to bring home to people the human realities of war.
The anguish that Schanberg felt is visible in his newspaper articles, reprinted in the book. After a visit to one hospital, he wrote: "The tile floors are slippery with blood. They have long since run out of pain-killing drugs. Bodies are everywhere -some people half conscious crying out in pain, some with gaping wounds who will not live. Some are already dead and, in the chaos, just lie there with no one to cover them or take them away."
In the last days of the Lon Nol regime, the evacuation of the Americans began. Both Schanberg and Pran could have left the country, but - although Pran saw his family off safely - both elected to stay. But when the Khmer Rouge forces took over Phnom Penh, Schanberg was unable to help Pran - no Cambodians were allowed to leave the country. All the other journalists were taken out of Cambodia, and the friends were forced apart.
In the book, Schanberg reflects honestly about the guilt he felt when he and Pran were separated: "I've often asked myself whether he would have stayed had I not been so driven to stay. When he was missing, maybe dead, it was something that I stayed up a lot of nights thinking about. How much did I influence him? Maybe, if I had gone, I could have probably talked him into going with me."
The Khmer Rouge were systematically killing all the intellectuals, so Pran disguised himself as a taxi driver and hid his intelligence. He was placed in a village commune where he helped to farm the land - it was heavy, manual labour - for the Khmer Rouge turned their back on any machinery as contaminated by Western influence. In the commune, any who showed an independent spirit were weeded out. Pran recalls that "They didn't kill people in front of us. They took them away at night and murdered them."
Finally, he escaped the commune, and the book tells of his journey across Cambodia, suffering from malnutrition, and full of sorrow at what had become of his country.
It was near the town of Siem Reap that he came across the "Killing Fields" - the site of the Khmer Rouge's purge of any tainted by old ideas. "There were two main execution areas," he recalls, "and these alone must have held four to five thousand bodies, barely covered by a layer of earth. in the water wells, the bodies were like soup bones in a broth."
Finally, he made his way across the Thai border, to a Red Cross camp. In 1979, he was reunited with Schanberg, and returned to America, where his family, supported by Schanberg, had waited so long for his return.
This is a book that recalls a tale both courageous and honest. Often, we hear of wars in far off countries and are too distant from what is happening there to understand or sympathise. This book brings us that much closer to events in Cambodia, and shows us both the effect of modern warfare, and the destructive nature of an ideology, on people just like ourselves.


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