In 1977, young diplomat Ouk Ket was recalled to Cambodia 'to get educated to better fulfil [his] responsibilities'. Left behind in Paris were his French wife and their two young children; they never saw him again. Through this tragedy, the book explores the infamous S-21 prison, the UN-backed trial of its commander, and Cambodia's years of terror.
To keep you is no benefit, to destroy you is no loss.'
During the Khmer Rouge's four-year rule of terror, two million people, or one in every four, Cambodians, died. In describing one family's decades-long quest to learn their husband's and father's fate and the war crimes trial of Comrade Duch (pronounced 'Doyk'), who ran the notorious S-21 prison in Phnom Penh, WHEN THE CLOUDS FELL FROM THE SKY illuminates the tragedy of a nation.
In 2012, Duch was sentenced to life imprisonment, having been found responsible for the deaths of more than 12,000 people. He was the first Khmer Rouge member to be jailed for crimes committed during Pol Pot's catastrophic 1975-9 rule during which millions were executed or died from starvation, illness and overwork as Cambodia underwent the most radical social transformation ever attempted. Designed to outdo even Mao's Great Leap Forward, it was an unparalleled disaster.
At the same time, the Khmer Rouge closed Cambodia's borders, barred all communication with the outside world and sought to turn the clock back to Year Zero. They outlawed religion, markets, money, education and even the concept of family.
The revolution soon imploded, driven to destruction by the incompetence and paranoia of the leadership. Yet instead of recognising their own failings, the leaders sought unseen enemies everywhere. In their pursuit of purity, they destroyed a nation.
Like hundreds of other returnees, when he returned in 1977 Ouk Ket was utterly unaware of the terrors being wrought in the revolution's name. Hundreds of thousands of other Cambodians perished in nearly 200 institutions like S-21.
To illustrate this era and its consequences, Robert Carmichael has woven together the stories of five people whose lives intersected to traumatic effect: Duch; Ket's daughter, Neary, who was just two when her father disappeared; Ouk Ket himself; Ket's French wife, Martine; and Ket's cousin, Sady, who never left Cambodia and still lives there today.
Through these personal stories, the author's own research, numerous interviews and months spent following Duch's trial, Robert extrapolates from the experience of one man to tell the story of a nation. In doing so, he reaffirms the value of the individual, countering the Khmer Rouge's nihilistic maxim that: 'To keep you is no benefit, to destroy you is no loss.
Crisply written, elegantly constructed and thoroughly researched . . . a perceptive, often heart-breaking book.
A standout. Carmichael . . . both humanizes the story and brings new insights into the causes of the Khmer Rouge's reign of terror. - Christian Science Monitor
Both the poignant story of a young woman seeking the truth about her father's disappearance . . . and an unflinching portrait of the executioner who oversaw the torture chamber where he was imprisoned. An unforgettable book.
A beautifully written book that does a masterful job weaving the history of the Khmer Rouge tribunal with a more personal story of human tragedy and redemption. This extremely thoughtful work is the product of its author's deep understanding of Cambodia. Anyone trying to make sense of the Khmer Rouge war crimes court should read this timely book.
ROBERT CARMICHAEL worked for a decade as a foreign correspondent in Cambodia, leaving in 2017. His first stint was from 2001-3 when he was the managing editor of the Phnom Penh Post. He returned in early 2009 to cover Duch's trial, working for German wire service dpa, Radio Australia, Voice of America, the BBC, Deutsche Welle and others. Robert developed excellent relationships with some of the leading lights at the tribunal as well as experts in related fields including academics David Chandler, Stephen Heder and Craig Etcheson and Youk Chhang, who runs the genocide research organization DC-Cam. Robert travelled widely, interviewing people about the Khmer Rouge period, the impact of the tribunal and the thorny issue of reconciliation.
Robert's website www.robertcarmichael.net contains many of his articles.