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Cambodia: April 1975

There is a seventeenth-century proverb which says, ‘When war begins hell opens.’ In this once lovely country in the heart of Indochina, hell opened when the war ended.

This, then, was liberation. Sullen youths in black pyjamas and red-chequered scarves cradling AK-47s with all the warmth they could not feel for their fellow human beings. It wasn’t hate in their eyes. It was hell.

A breeze brushed the faces. The thousands of faces all along Monivong Boulevard.

It carried the smell of smoke, a city burning in places. It carried the smell of fear. They said the Americans were coming to bomb the city; it would be safer in the countryside. No one believed it.

It carried the smell of death. They had emptied the hospitals. Broken bodies wheeled out on hospital beds, the tubes and wires of a discarded technology trailing behind, plasma and blood in their wake. Those who could walk leaned on crutches. Those who could not, died. The debris of this once elegant colonial city littered the street; a child screaming, an old man coughing blood on the pavement, the weary shuffling of a million pairs of feet on a dusty road to oblivion.

There is another proverb: ‘Hell is a city.’ On 17 April 1975, that city was Phnom Penh.



Ang Serey was a handsome woman, though you would scarcely have guessed it. Her face was blackened by smoke, and you could not tell if it was sweat or tears that made tracks through the filth. Her eyes were red-rimmed and bloodshot, and afraid to stray to one side or the other lest they betray an emotion. Her feet shuffled in open sandals among all the others. Ahead of her she pushed a cart bearing a few meagre belongings. On either side were the children she dared not look at. ‘Hold on to me so that I can feel you are there,’ she had whispered to them. ‘If anyone speaks to you, say nothing. Let me speak.’

For days she had worked her hands until they blistered and bled. Digging in the soft earth among the suburban bougainvillea, rubbing the dirt into the sores and blisters till her hands were red raw. She had made her children do it, too. The boy had cried at first, waving his stinging hands in the air. Why did his own mother make him do this? She had struck him when he refused to go on. And when his tears dried they were replaced by a sullen stare of hatred. The girl was older, yet it seemed she understood even less.

Ang Serey was an intelligent woman. She knew she must use
that intelligence to hide itself; the black, peasant pyjamas, the
hands of one who worked the land. Somehow she had to make
the children understand. For if she couldn’t, their betrayal of
the truth meant certain death.

There had been so little time. Just five days since Yuon had flown out on one of the last helicopters with the American evacuation. Ten days since he had told her, tears streaming down his cheeks, that he had been unable to get a place for her and the children. He had cried most of that night. Her eyes had been dry. She wondered if he expected her sympathy. It would break his heart to leave them, he had said. But still he left. Perhaps they could mend broken hearts in the West.

She lifted her head slightly towards the clear blue sky and felt the heat of the sun on her skin. They had passed by the smoking cathedral and the railway station, all those shuffling feet.


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