To the End of Hell

“A pure product of colonialism” with a French father of Indian origin and a Vietnamese mother, Denise Affonço could have used her French passport to escape the Khmer Rouge in 1975. Twenty-seven years after the Khmer Rouge were overthrown by the Vietnamese, thoughts of “what might have been” thread through these harrowing memoirs, recently translated into English. Affonço wrote most of this memoir within weeks of Cambodia’s 1979 liberation from the Khmer Rouge in time for the Vietnamese trials of those responsible for the atrocities. Affonço stayed in Cambodia in April 1975, despite repeated warning from a French Embassy attaché to keep her family together. Athough her children shared her French nationality, her husband Seng did not. Seng, the “armchair communist,” insisted that life would be better under the new regime. Within a year, he had been executed. She writes, “To this day I often still recall his words with bitterness. Alas, what for? The deed is done.”

The author vividly depicts the brutality that the world gradually came to recognise. Her story, written so close to the event from her standpoint as a worker in the fields, is dominated by descriptions of hunger, forced labour, disease and humiliation that were the norm for four years. Muslims were forced to eat pork, while starving non-Muslims looked on. People were made to fight for scraps thrown to dogs. The Khmer Rouge inflicted so called “re-education” and self-denunciation. It forced its slaves to dig “widows’ dykes,” mass graves in which they themselves would be buried. Her recollection of the minute details of cruelty is relentless.

The  effect of piecing memories together to make sense of them is deeply moving, though slightly awkward. The switches of voice from past to present is not signalled but clearly recognisable, with the retrospective guilt and self-questioning too often anticipating events. The death of her nine-year-old daughter by starvation seems almost gentle rather than shocking.

While an estimated two million people (nearly one third of the population) died during four years of Khmer Rouge rule, Affonço stayed alive through force of will. “Bizarrely, despite the slow torture that we suffer daily, we cling on to life. Death would have been a deliverance – but I don’t want to die yet… For who? Why?” She later answers, “I say over again like a refrain: ‘Denise, don’t die, stay alive to be a witness to all these atrocities; the world must know what’s happening here… You must do this for your children and for the loved ones you’ve lost’.” Now, she has.

Reviewer: Lydia Wilson is a freelance journalist and a PhD candidate in Arabic philosophy at Cambridge University.