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Surviving The Killing Fields: The Cambodian Odyssey Of Haing S. Ngor

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"He became famous through his academy award-winning performance as Dith Pran in the film The Killing Fields, but the key to Haing Ngor's screen success was the terrible truth of his own experiences in the rice paddies and labor camps of revolutionary Cambodia."

Here, in a gripping memoir of life under the communist Khmer Rouge regime, he reveals the country's descent into a hell beyond our imaginings: a world of war slaves and senseless brutality, where family life simply ceases to be. But with the pain he also gives us hope and an illuminating example of how the best sort of love can actually be strengthened through the shared experience of a life-threatening ordeal.

An eyewitness account of the real killing fields by an extraordinary survivor, this book is both a reminder of the horrors of war and a testament to the resilience of the human spirit.

504 pages, Paperback

First published January 1, 1975

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Haing Ngor

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Profile Image for Ahmad Sharabiani.
9,566 reviews56.6k followers
February 29, 2020
A Cambodian Odyssey = Survival in the Killing Fields, Haing Ngor

Here, in his memoir of life under the Khmer Rouge, is a searing account of a country's descent into hell. His was a world of war slaves and execution squads, of senseless brutality and mind-numbing torture; where families ceased to be and only a very special love could soar above the squalor, starvation and disease. An eyewitness account of the real killing fields by an extraordinary survivor, this book is a reminder of the horrors of war - and a testament to the enduring human spirit.

تاریخ خوانش سال 2017 میلادی

عنوان: ادیسه ی کامبوجیها؛ نویسنده: هینگ نگور؛

در «ادیسه ی کامبوجیها»، نویسنده در یادمانهای زندگی خویش به خمرهای سرخ باز مینگرد، و از آنها سخن میگوید، روایتی دلگیر از نزول یک کشور به جهنم را روایت میکند. ایشان دنیای برده های جنگ، و جوخه های اعدام بیرحمانه، و شکنجه گرهای بیروح را دیده بودند. این کتاب روایت شاهدان عینی در زمینه ی کشتار واقعی توسط یک بازمانده، و یادآور وحشت از جنگ و نشانه ای برای روحیه ی پایدار انسان است. ا. شربیانی
Profile Image for Mariel.
667 reviews1,053 followers
August 16, 2011
Kum. Kum is a Cambodian word for a particularly Cambodian mentality of revenge- to be precise, a long-standing grudge leading to revenge much more damaging than the original injury. If I hit you with my fist and you wait five years and then shoot me in the back one dark night, that is kum.

Kum-monuss. Ngor took the word for revenge and paired it with the word for people, monuss. "Revenge people." That's what they are, communist at the top and kum-monuss at the bottom.

Why did the Cambodian people allow the Khmer Rouge to herd them into the countryside as if they were valueless animals, to work twenty hour days on ill thought out (if they were thought out at all) projects that they would never finish, moving along to the next and then the next, starved and brutalized and murdered? How did the the Khmer Rouge think this was going anywhere other than... Well, it lead to a whole lotta death, more brutal regimes almost exactly the same (new faces on top, is all) and then some of the old people back in charge in not-getting-on-the-news-much oppression and (for some) success rates to sweep under tourist postcards of the Angkor Wat. (It can't get better. They have oil.) And for what? Revenge. Revenge on who knows who anymore. Someone is always pissed. The same old story you see see every day in some history book or news page.

Sihanouk, the royalist figurehead under French colonization who would bargain (at least it looked that way on the surface. The way it looks on the surface that the USA rushed into WWII to save Jews when it's told that way by middle school social studies teachers. The average guy on the street swallowed the prepared propaganda) for sovereignty from France and then get "elected" for a reign of rampant corruption. Pretty much The Godfather style of tributes, favors and protection money government. After him they had Lon Nol. At least Sihanouk stayed out of the USA versus Vietnam hot little mess going on next door. The USA stuck around to help out just like they did with Laos. Oh wait, they did no such thing. China was handing out money and weapons (but they'd never do that! Not to brutal dictators who kill civilians!) to communist wannabes that would eventually become the Khmer Rouge that would enslave a nation and kill off a quarter of the population. Not statistics like millions died years ago (I wasn't born when the Khmer Rouge were in power. It felt like it was yesterday reading it. Because it really is! It always is, somewhere). Fields of dead on dead and kum-monuss waiting to be born to replace them.

BUT, they weren't really communists at all. There are theories that the unknown leader (his name wasn't known until 1977! The Khmer Rouge took over in 1975) Pol Pot was a deranged psychopath. There's a lot to be said for that theory. So some privileged kids went to college in France where they learned of something called communism. Sounds like a neat way to get power, tell yourself you're in the right and nurse like snake's venom to your breast all your old little hurts by authority figures. Maybe at first they were sick of the corruption of Sihanouk (Pol Pot's cousin and aunt were in his harem). But they were idiots and didn't think out any of the theories, or bother to see how badly they failed in Russia and China, and were failing in Vietnam. Same old story of table switcheroos. China and Vietnam had their groups going on and the Cambodian commies learned that the historical racism towards their darker skin brethren was still in play. They were given the shit jobs (literally the jobs related to shit) and they weren't cut out for that stuff. More than likely it had to do with the typical pyramid scheme function of communist nations. This is totally a pyramid scheme (life sure feels that way). The guys at the top collected from the guys at the bottom. But they still took the guns, and the tanks and the other terrorizing of a nation revolutionary equipment.

Haing Ngor didn't know who Pol Pot was. He and the other Cambodians only heard "Angka". Everything was for "Angka". Sometimes it was a person, sometimes it was the nation. It was pretty vague, like an all-purpose entity to name drop when they couldn't be bothered with reasoning (which was always). If they thought about it themselves they'd probably get angry and shoot someone (that would stop their thinking! Brain...huuuurts...). The soldiers (most were teenagers or children. Children were also drafted as spies, the cchlop) and Khmer Rouge leaders in complete charge of their lives (for the joy of killing, if they weren't disillusioned sheep caught in the cog of the wheel of despair) weren't doing anything for a communist belief system. They didn't know what communism was. They would repeat the propaganda word for word (in mandatory meetings and unceasing songs. They had to listen to the same awful Chinese style music with propaganda messages on repeat while performing slave labor! If you are curious, search on youtube for 'Khmer Rouge music'. The songs are up there... I would have killed myself. Seriously, I've been forced to listen to Christian rock music). The leaders were in charge of their slaves for as long as it lasted. Most were later killed by Pol Pot (he had a lot in common with Stalin. Maybe he also took purging out of the handbooks). No, what Ngor saw was Chinese communism. What he heard was Chinese music. The killing intellectuals (doctor Ngor had to hide his true identity. When they new regime takes over he has to leave a patient on the operating table), moving everyone to the countryside to work. If you appreciate irony there's a whole lot to be found here. The Khmer Rouge said they were about building the nation to be totally self-sufficient and apart from the rest of the world? But everything they got they got from someone else. Everything they did was to spite someone else. (Is there a Cambodian version of cut off your nose to spite your face?) (My favorite bit of irony was when later, after the Khmer Rouge are hiding from the Vietnamese, the Western aid comes because people are moved by photos of the "starving" Khmer Rouge in the refugee camps. Ngor could identify who was KR and who wasn't because the KR were the well fed looking ones. Jesus!)

Haing Ngor, like Pol Pot, was of Cambodian and Chinese ancestry (his father was Chinese). Pol Pot was like Hitler and Voldemort (he even gave himself a new name. Solath Sar must not have been as revolutionary as Pol Pot), part Chinese, and yet what he really, really wanted was to wipe out other races from Cambodia, leaving only the "pure" Khmer race. I'm still going with the psychopath theory. There was no reason for racial genocide. That's not reasoning. It sure as shit wasn't communism. There couldn't have been a regime less about the people than this one (never mind that they were eating well and enjoying the Western luxuries they claimed to despise). The people were the "enemy" (they called them "New" people as in "new" to the Khmer Rouge. Code word for slaves in an infuriating propaganda way like those forced meetings. The back-to-back nonsensical repeat speeches about an ant killing an elephant absolutely killed me).

They didn't have the support of the people but no one knew how bad it was going to be. They spread bullshit tales of their "code" from occupied territory. So if the Khmer Rouge guerillas were torturing the populace out of revenge (most of their recruits were starving kids who suffered after the Americans bombed. The first recruits were pissed off about all of the corruption) why didn't the people fight back? There were a whole lot more of them than there were evil eyed teenagers with Chinese guns.

The way that Haing Ngor tells it the Cambodians were like other Asian peoples and they were steeped (like a tea bag?) in a culture of deference to leaders, be it status of position, race (supposed inferiority to lighter skinned Asians such as the Thai) and authority. They were all about saving face, avoiding what you really mean, to not cause offense or, as they called it, "breaking one's face". I can't attest to this truth at all from any personal knowledge. I know it really isn't true what he said about Americans not looking down on people as if they were better or worse than them based on station in life. People have treated me better or worse based on how much my clothes looked like they cost (or when my southern accent marked me as a must be a racist to ahem also southern Floridians when a child. Hell yeah we have those problems here). Maybe it's (sometimes) more subtle but it is still there. However, I'll buy it as a general vibe as a textual feeling to Ngor's own experiences. Culturally speaking, the younger people had to bow their heads lower than their elders, never point their feet towards another when sitting, stuff like that. That doesn't mean it was in their hearts they felt it was how it SHOULD be. Habit and expected behavior can be enough, though. I still feel like I have to wave at older southern people when I couldn't be bothered to do so when I see a young person.
They were coming off two governments where one would have to pay their own ransom to one jailer or another. Here were more people with guns in their faces telling them what to do. By the time they realized how deep the shit was, it was too late. Haing Ngor himself missed the chance to escape a couple of times because he couldn't guess what they were in for. Then they were undernourised (Sally Struthers could have used footage to extort money kinda malnourished), dying of dysentary and malaria (real doctors, if they lived at all, were not allowed to practice. A set up of no education, medicine, any benefit at all) and worked to death. If they didn't follow orders they were shot. It was more than a little bad. It could get worse and did. The thing about the Khmer Rouge is that they were always lying, getting the people's hopes up that they could eat the crops they slaved over. Were they lying because they also had no idea what they were doing? They wouldn't stay to harvest crops.
The numbers aren't exact but most put it at around two million of the population (projected between 6-8 million people) killed. I mean, fuck. They couldn't have known how it would escalate. Young women taken to country prisons because they had sex. Other single women were forced to marry men they didn't know or like (it has been said that they would "inform" on those husbands to get rid of them) to "reproduce" for the Khmer Rouge. They were too underfed to have kids. The Khmer Rouge didn't know what the fuck they were doing. Someone suggested someone or some thing and then they got mad when their ideas didn't work. Pol Pot had no basis of reality at all. A fucking psychopath playing a psychopath game with real people.

So the prisons. Haing Ngor didn't go to the special Pol Pot prison (I haven't looked this up yet but I should because it's totally in my area of interest) but he did get sent THREE times (no one else is known to have survived that three times) to one of the country ones and... Ngor prefaces all of these chapters with a warning for the faint hearted not to read on. I don't know how I feel about those warnings. His accounts are great for the fear that they had to live with as if it were another part of their bodies (rather an organ, replacing the heart for feeling and the brain for thinking). Anyone who went to these special places of extra special kinds of torment didn't usually live to talk about it, you know? I guess they demonstrated what he wasn't used to. That they were USED to it is what struck me. You can read about this stuff and start to think it sounds common. Or, worse, "Well, he didn't have it as bad as that guy did..." Like when comparing the famous Cambodian that Ngor won an Oscar for playing [Did I not mention that yet?]. Dith Pran's experience wasn't as bad as Ngor's. That hardly matters. It was awful. You shouldn't have to be USED to it, in any kind of way.

One of the things they liked to do in the country prisons was chop out the infants out of the pregnant women's bellies. They had a collection of embryo's hanging from the treetops. The women did crimes like being married to a Lon Nol officer (allegedly). They tortured Ngor (they chop off a finger the first time because the rat bastard Pen Tip tried to er rat him out for being a doctor. In another instance of irony, under the Vietnamese reign Pen Tip will study to become a doctor! After numerous attempts of trying to get Ngor killed for being a secret doctor), they tortured lots of other people. One women is eaten by a pack of Cambodian animals kind of like a wolf called a chhke char-chark. Tied to the tree trunk next to Ngor. That's not even suppose to be the worst of the Khmer Rouge prisons? Well, shit.

In a world (I'm doing my best movie trailer voice now. IN A WORLD!) where families were abolished (if they didn't already fall apart under the strain of separation and hunger), Haing Ngor and his wife, Huoy, grew closer than ever. Huoy saved her husband's life by giving him deliberately charred squash (did you know that eating burned food is an old-old school way to stem the effects of dysentary? This book is loaded with interesting survival skills on top of everything else) when she was so hungry (Sally Struthers!). It's not sap. They bickered but they were still a family, you know? Symbiotic, caring relating in that hell hole. In their courtship when he was a med student and she was going to be a teacher he would play manipulative mind games (fake jealousies of boyfriends he pretended to think she had to get her to show him devotion), cheating on her before they were really in love. Stupid shit and insecurity and immature people stuff. Sometimes people grow up. Haing Ngor is my kind of guy. This is not a memoir (I hate memoirs. Self serving and worthless wastes of print those are). You know that thing about Cambodians saving face? That's what makes this account so great. It's a hell of a story anyway, an insightful firsthand look into that heartbreaking and senseless pain under the Khmer Rouge. Why it happened, despite that it makes no sense at all that anyone would choose to do that to their own people. Why people went along with it. Why I think this has real value is that Haing Ngor broke away from that tragic cultural inheritance of saving face. He didn't try to make excuses or make himself look good about anything. This is what haunted him, this is what it was like for him, this is what he held on to what went around him. He recorded so much because he really did give a shit. It's that symbiotic thing that he and Huoy had going where they tried to live together as best they could. How do you live? He ate his own vomit, he kept quiet about being a doctor when a baby was improperly medicated under a Khmer version of a doctor. How the hell do you go about still being a person when what makes you a person is taken away from you? I don't think you can if you worry about saving face. How can you live with the desire of kum on your heart? I don't think he quite did.

Huoy died giving birth to their baby. If he had had access to proper equipment (that no longer existed) he could have saved either his wife or the baby. The undeserved guilt he still placed on himself is equal to anything as tragic about his life. I don't wonder that he became a restless man with bloody ghosts on his trail ever since (Cambodia's current head is former Khmer Rouge, by the way, as well as others with positions). He didn't become a doctor again, although he expressed desire to do so. He acted in films (it seems pretty limited, although there wouldn't be a lot of high profile acting roles for Asians in '80s Hollywood), stood halfway in America and Cambodian worlds yet living in the long gone past of his nightmares.

AND he was murdered in the '90s by Asian thugs who supposedly robbed him but they left all of the money. He had a substantial amount on his person they didn't look for yet they demanded the gold locket he kept hidden with a photo of his dead wife (he refused to surrender a photo in the face of guns years after he and his people surrendered all in the face of guns). Their guilty verdict was overturned (um of course the jury would be sympathetic but apparently that wasn't legal?) and then reinstated later. I wouldn't rule out connections to angry Khmer Rouge. He couldn't have made them too happy starring in a little film called The Killing Fields (costarring my favorite John Malkovich. I loved the story - ahem although I already knew it- of Malkovich saying to him in Khmer to kiss his ass and the statue was his [Malky was also nominated for Places in the Heart]). I've wanted to read Ngor's book since my teen years after I saw that film (coughs not because of Malkovich or anything). I should have done so sooner! Of all the shit that has always happened and probably always will what I really want to know is how people can still try to save face. There's no way to take kum and not get kum in return. They believe in kama (like karma). What goes around... It'd kill me to pretend it didn't happen.

Now I will break the Khmer Rouge's face with Yo Mama jokes! (Seriously, nothing could be worse. Cambodians pray to their mothers to save their lives when in trouble.)

Yo mama is so fat they rang her ass instead of the gong for meal times.
Yo mama is so fat they got lost thinking her ass crack was the front lines.
Yo mama is so fat they thought she was TWO 'new' people.
Yo mama is so fat the Westerners thought they were in Japan when they saw her great big moon.
Yo mama is so stupid she thought Pol Pot was a toilet.
Yo mama is so stupid she thought "Me horny, me love you long time" was American for "Help us!"
Yo mama is so fat her farts are the natural gas for all of Cambodia. Her right cheek is in Thailand so they are going to go to war for the rights.
Yo mama is so fat she plays Godzilla with Angkor Wat.
Profile Image for Alex.
1,418 reviews4,382 followers
August 29, 2011
I think I can sum up the lessons of this book with a Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal cartoon.

For the first half or so, I thought I had a handle on it. I've read Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China, which details what the Chinese suffered through under Mao and the Cultural Revolution; since the Khmer Rouge borrowed a lot of ideas from Mao, this was a story I was familiar with.

Then it got bad.

When you've just read 200 pages of people being harnessed like oxen to ploughs and whipped on until they drop dead of starvation, and then the author feels the need to tell you that what's about to happen to him is so bad you may want to just skip this chapter altogether...no matter what you imagine might be coming, it's worse than that.

There are three segments Ngor warns about.

This book is fucking rough.
Profile Image for Steven  Godin.
2,375 reviews2,248 followers
December 9, 2020

"The Khmer Rouge wanted a complete change of society, from the top to the bottom. Gone was everything that had governed our lives in the old times. Lon Nol was gone, airlifted to America before the fall; Sihanouk was gone, his fate a mystery. The monks were gone. ("The monks were bloodsucking imperialists. If any worker secretly takes rice to the monks, we shall set him to plant cabbages. If the cabbages are not full-grown in three days, he will dig his own grave.") The families were broken up, the children and elderly sent off to live in their own groups. There were no more cities. No more markets, stores, restaurants or cafes. No privately owned buses, cars, or bicycles. No schools. No books or magazines. No money. No clocks. No holidays or religious festivals. Just the sun that rose and set, the stars at night and the rain that fell from the sky. And work. Everything was work, in the empty, primitive countryside."

"Day after day the purge grew worse. Some were taken away for complaining, most for stealing food to stay alive. We tried to learn why the Khmer Rouge were killing so many but found no real reason. It was just something they did, a craving they could not satisfy. They created enemies to devour, which increased their appetite for enemies. Shock, horror, grief—with the death of my father, part of us died. Under the control of an alien force we responded, but without energy to spare. We were beings so imperfect and fragile in manufacture that we wore out constantly, or were destroyed for being defective by those who did not care. Everything was gone. The bond between humans destroyed. There was no hope. Two weeks later my brother and his wife were taken away with their hands tied. I never learned why. They never came back."

"I has survived three episodes of torture and prison as well as malaria and dysentery. I was alive. There were scars—scalp wounds, from the third prison; burn scars on my legs, from the second prison; half of my little finger missing, from the first prison. There were other injuries, mental and emotional, but I wasn't aware of them until later. At the time, I was in reasonably good spirits. And I was amazed. I had survived when thousands of people around me had died of illness or starvation, and thousands more had been executed. It was a miracle I was alive. I accepted it as such and thanked the gods. When I looked around, I saw other miracles. Everything, from the color of the sky to the taste of rice to the sight of a temple on the mountainside, seemed new and fresh. And the life-force within me was the same force within the earth and sky and all other living beings."
Profile Image for Mikey B..
983 reviews363 followers
November 24, 2018
This is a harrowing read. In this autobiography we get an in depth and very personal feel of life in Cambodia under Sihanouk, Lon Nol, and then the Khmer Rouge.

The Khmer Rouge upended everything in Cambodian society. They started - as they said – from Year Zero. Normal life was destroyed and the cities emptied. The author could not even wear his glasses for fear of being labelled as a bourgeois and being executed or at the very least of being imprisoned. He was a doctor but never admitted to this during the Khmer Rouge years.

This is a sad story. The author lost many in his family from the long years of ruthless labour and starvation under the Khmer Rouge. We also get a strong sense of the author’s resilience, possibly his inner rebelliousness was key to his survival. For much of the Khmer Rouge period the author and his wife performed various forms of slave labour. We also come to feel the helplessness of his inability to aid his fellow men during those long years. To do so would have put his life into jeopardy. I found the inseparableness of Haing Ngor and his wife, Huoy life affirming; they continually supported each other during the many dire experiences they underwent together.

This book has many parallels with “1984” by George Orwell. Angka – the name of the authoritarian regime of the Khmer Rouge are much like Big Brother. And as the author finds out, much to his detriment, anyone can “turn you in” for any purported suspicion. Angka controls and usurps all aspects of life like family, sex, and religion. It is heresy at the risk of death to question Angka.

Page 199 (my book)

What made it worse, what made it more appalling was that somehow it was ordinary. You put one foot in front of the other and you kept walking. You heard the cries of the weak but you didn’t pay much attention, because you were concentrating on yourself and your own survival. We had all seen death before. In the exodus from Phum Chhleav, the atrocious had become normal.

Page 388- 389

But the traffic on National Route 1 in 1975 was nothing like the traffic on National Route 5 in 1979.

In 1979 there were no cars being pushed, or motorcycles. There were no television sets, radios, electric fans or cartons of books being carried. If people had any possessions at all they carried them in small bundles on shoulderboards, on their backs, or balanced on their heads. They trudged along in barefoot groups, two or three or five skinny people in rags and then another few coming along a hundred yards later. Most had facial sores. In 1975 women had cared how they looked, but in 1979 there were only torn clothes, and the women had no sense of fashion or pride in their appearance. In 1975 when friends met they asked “Have you eaten yet?” or “How many children do you have?”. In 1979 they stared at you with haunted eyes and asked, “Who survived in your family?”.

It should be noted that this is the biography of Haing Ngor, the man who acted the role of Dith Pran in the film “The Killing Fields”. So this autobiography is entirely different from the story of the film. The book focuses much more on Haing Ngor’s arduous struggle under the Khmer Rouge. And very tragically Haing Ngor was murdered by a street gang in Los Angeles.
Profile Image for Adele McVay.
56 reviews2 followers
April 25, 2011
I read this book a long time ago, so this is not going to be an in depth review, instead it's a reflection on the impact it had on me.

I remember aged 21 working in an office and coming across this book, in tattered form. No one else in the office claimed it as theirs, but one guy had read it and recommended it to me. It wasn't the kind of book I would normally have been attracted to at that age. I was not shallow, but not the deepest of people either.

This book opened my eyes and made me mature a little. No other book before or since has had so much impact on me. I'd watched grainy footage from 2 world wars. I'd heard numerous references to "Nam". I'd been vaguely aware that something had gone on in the Falklands, possibly to do with Thatcher. I'd been desensitised to violent scenes via special effects (primitive as they were back then). But this book was an assault on my senses. The author does a great job of vividly describing events, not just visually, but emotionally. 14 years after reading the book I can still recall at least 4 gruesome scenes and one still brings a tear to my eye. After reading this I feared for humanity. I questioned my belief system and took an interest in politics. The most disturbing part of the book for me was the fact that it took place during my lifetime. These were not grainy images of a long ago war, I knew that while the events were happening, while a country was crumbling and people were suffering and dying I was being bounced on my fathers knee and getting on with being a toddler. It made me wonder "what else is going on, right now, elsewhere?" A couple of years later when I saw reports of genocide on the news I sat up and paid attention. I took annual leave from work and spent the time sorting donations and packing aid boxes bound for Romania. I would never have done that if this author hadn't opened my eyes to the harsh realities of war, regimes and dictatorships.

This is a book that cannot be unread and should be read by everyone of voting age.
Profile Image for Breanna Chov.
27 reviews2 followers
February 5, 2019
I grew of hearing just glimpses of my Dad’s family’s life before immigrating to the United States. Much of their stories seemed too unreal to believe.

This book gave a bigger picture for what the Cambodian people and my family endured. It is captivating, well written, and honest. There were times where I had to choose either to take a break from the book, skim read past the unspeakable cruelties of the Khmer Rouge, or buckle down and choose to read about the real experiences of Haing Nor and other Cambodians- to honor them in the only way I knew how, acknowledging their stories. The book will bring about anger, grief, but a sense of hope along with it. Not many people I know ever speak about the Cambodian holocaust, but this book gives way to the conversation. I definitely recommend this book, knowing it was written with great courage and perseverance.
Profile Image for Jessica.
15 reviews
May 22, 2009
One of the hardest, saddest books I have ever read. It is extremely graphic; nevertheless, I'll never see the world the same way again.
Profile Image for Noah.
157 reviews34 followers
June 26, 2016
After rereading this, I have decided for sure that it is my favorite book. It is the most disturbing, violent, and heart wrenching story I have ever heard. It is disgusting in parts, so when it warns the readers to skip ahead if you are faint-hearted, take the advice seriously. Haing Ngor started out in poverty, made it to the status of an upper middle class doctor, only to lose it all in the awful Khmer Rouge regime. This book records Haing Ngor's survival of the Cambodian Genocide against all odds, and his eventual triumph and rise to fame after the filming of The Killing Fields. It is a sad story, which on my first read through had me in tears. The greatest story I have ever read.
OLD REVIEW: This is a book in the same vein as Coming Out of the Ice by Victor Herman. It is a tale of survival against incredible odds, and in both books the author had to live in a world seemingly gone mad, where the bizarre and the barbaric became the everyday and the normal, with horrors like starvation and sickness commonplace. This book is not only Dr. Haing Ngor's personal memoir of surviving in these circumstances but also a history of the Communist takeover of Cambodia and a book discussing much of Cambodia's culture and customs. This book is disgusting, disturbing and emotional; it requires a strong stomach to read through. This is also one of only a few books (2-3 others besides this from what I recall) that have made me cry, and it got so bad that I had to stop reading for a while. I hope Dr. Ngor's prayers are answered and that he, his unborn child, his wife, and their families will meet in a better place far from this world's troubles.

Profile Image for Bexy.
86 reviews11 followers
September 18, 2012
A riveting read...'a must'. It's exceptionally well written account of the realities of life under the Khmer Rouge. Whilst the reading material may be hard for some, for anyone familiar with the atrocities that go along with brutal occupation and genocide the content is, sadly, not surprising. The book is also underpinned by love, hope and the human ability (or super ability in Haing's case) to survive - making this book a 'journey' that will stay with you.
249 reviews5 followers
February 6, 2014
In a word, harrowing.
I visited the Killing Fields in the outskirts of Phnom Penh about seven years ago and it too is a harrowing place to see the results of what some Cambodians did so violently to other Cambodians. Unfortunately at the time of my visit I did not have the excellent historical background that Haing Ngor provides us with as he brings together the events of the past, internal political factions and the superpowers and their game-plays that simply overwhelms a whole population and rips apart a society of which Haing Ngor is part of.
He trained as a medical doctor and not long after his graduation, the Khmer Rouge rebels began their sweep through the whole country. His family was prosperous and they lived a very comfortable life in the capital Phnom Penh. As the rebels advanced every component of the society the Cambodians knew began to be stripped away from them in a rapid decline and we are led through this by Haing Ngor's personal story and those of his family, friends and colleagues. At gunpoint he was forced to stop in the middle of a surgical operation that he was carrying out in the hospital, the whole population of Phnom Penh was forced to flee their homes, their families and their lives as they had known it. The abandonment of the luxuries of life, the destruction of housing, the collapse of the transport system, the ban on any sort of trading (food, goods, markets), the value of money vapourised, the destruction of anything associated with religion including the desecration of temples and statues, and the population was forced into the countryside to work as peasants as part of the "great revival of Cambodia without Western influences".
There was an interesting comment by the author about women and how they would not commit the torture and atrocities that men did. As a mere male I had not thought about this before and I think he is correct.
To the rebel soldiers these people swept away from the capital were soft and of low status which enabled the rebels to treat their prisoners/slaves with utter contempt. All work was manual work with long hours of labour and primitive hand tools. The projects they were forced to work on (canals, paddy fields, dams) were usually inadequately planned and often abandoned bringing more despair to the captives as they were then uprooted from their primitive base to another area where they had to start from the beginning again. Each week saw another level of society as we know it removed from them. Families torn apart, disease and no access to medicine or medical aid, inadequate food supply, sheer exhaustion from the demanding labour requirements, poor shelter, spying by traitors in their own compounds plus the fear of torture where death became a preferred option as an escape from the horrors they faced on a daily and hourly basis.
Despite all of the above, if you are willing to work through the descriptions of the animalistic torture that was imparted on the population at large and have an interest in Cambodia and its history I can thoroughly recommend this book.
489 reviews36 followers
August 3, 2011
The hardest book I have ever read, not because of the concepts or language (Roger Warner arranged Haing Ngor's halting English into a narrative that flows), but because of what happens. That includes a handful of Holocaust memoirs. Ngor survived three sessions in Khmer Rouge jails, and before the book recounts each of them it warns sensitive readers to skip what follows--and that is after the harrowing accounts of excruciating work, starvation and the casual execution of Ngor's relatives. The Khmer Rouge decided that ignorance was indeed bliss, that individuals with knowledge of medicine and engineering were class enemies to be extirpated through overwork and underfeeding. When the rice fields and worthless dams failed to perform, it was the result of sabotage, not leadership incompetent at best and murderous at worst. The society they created was so classless that when it all came crashing down, the Khmer Rouge were identifiable because of being a normal weight. Ngor was a doctor without tools; he feels powerless when he sees Khmer Rouge "nurses" give an infant a fatal overdose of a vitamin; he hasn't the tools to save the life of his own wife, who had already saved his. Through all this, perhaps the most astonishing facet is the deep love between Ngor and his wife Huoy. The Thai and the Vietnamese come off as less than selfish: the Thai forced thousands of Cambodian refugees back across the border into minefields where they perished; the Vietnamese invaded because the pesky Khmer Rouge kept raiding its border communities, but mostly because Cambodia is, under normal circumstances, a rice basket for the region, and they left when the fall of the Soviets stopped subsidizing them. Ngor became involved in post-Vietnamese politics, but evidently grew skeptical of the regime of the ex-Khmer Rouge Hun Sen, still President. Throughout, there is the corruption that lubricates Cambodian power and economics, known by its nickname "bonjour". After surviving the regime, the prison camps and the prison, Ngor acknowledged that he remained a difficult man, haunted by what had happened to him, and he met an end at the hand of Cambodian robbers in Los Angeles.
Profile Image for Jo.
136 reviews16 followers
January 1, 2017
Survival at the Killing Fields is an account by a rational, honest man, of his time living under one of the most brutal and pointless regimes in history, the Khmer Rouge. If the descriptions of torture in Khmer Rouge prisons, which the author survived 3 times, are chilling, it's the loss of his wife that brings you to tears. The sheer hopelessness of a doctor being unable to save his wife because the regime virtually abolished medicine is only one of many situations that exposes the stupidity and brutality of a regime that killed 25% of the country's population. What an incredible and tragic life story, of someone who went from doctor to war slave to refugee to Oscar winner to activist. A must read.
Profile Image for KB.
187 reviews7 followers
January 14, 2023
The man to the right of me coughed and stirred, but the woman to my left was silent. When it grew light outside I saw she was thin and old and dead... A guard unlocked her foot and then mine and then the prisoner on her far side, and the two of us carried the old woman's body out of the building. Beyond a quick prayer for her soul I didn't grieve. If anything I was jealous. She had taken the easy way out.

Absolutely horrific.
Profile Image for Harry Rutherford.
376 reviews75 followers
March 6, 2013
Survival in the Killing Fields is my book from Cambodia for the Read The World challenge. Haing Ngor was a doctor in pre-revolutionary Phnom Penh. That alone was enough to make him a target for the Khmer Rouge, but he managed to survive their regime through lies, determination, judgement and blind luck. Later he made it to America, was cast in the film The Killing Fields , and won an Oscar for best supporting actor.

Which is a remarkable story, and superficially one of the triumph of the human spirit over adversity; except that really, even an Academy Award is no kind of compensation for forced labour, torture, exile, and the death of most of your family. And in the Epilogue written for this edition, 15 years after the original publication, we learn that Ngor had a pretty rough time of it in the US — which I guess you have to say is not surprising, given all he'd been through, that he was living as a refugee with limited English, and that frankly he seems to have been a somewhat difficult man even before the psychological scarring of the Khmer Rouge years. The final tragic twist is that he was shot dead outside his home in Los Angeles in what was probably but not definitely a normal, non-political robbery.

So it's a dark book. It would be difficult to read except that the matter-of-fact way that it's told keeps it from being as harrowing as it might be.

In some ways I would have liked to read a non-Khmer Rouge book for Cambodia, because it seems a pity to always see these countries through the lens of their most spectacular historical traumas. But I'm glad I read this, even so. In some ways all these political atrocities start to blur together, all endless variations on a theme — torture, paranoia, propaganda, casual violence — but somehow they all have their own distinctive local flavour. The Khmer Rouge see to have been characterised by a particularly nasty combination of anti-intellectualism, viciousness and incompetence.
Profile Image for Iris.
53 reviews1 follower
September 8, 2011
Searing. Powerful. Unforgettable.

I recently decided that I wanted to learn about Cambodia, the Khmer Rouge, and the killing fields, especially because I plan on traveling there later on in life. I borrowed about 10 books from my library, and made it halfway through about 3 of them before I read this one. While those previous books were powerful, I found them to either be too hands-off, more interested in politics or explanations rooted in the nature of man, rather than the humanity and tragedy of what happened; or else I found them to be too focused on the events of what happened to the survivors -- their forced marches, who died in their families -- rather than in the details. And that is not to blame the books or the authors, for the details of pain and tragedy are often much rather forgotten, not only by society but by the victims themselves.

This book, on the other hand, melded the two uniquely, beautifully, tragically. With this book, I finally understood the history of Cambodia, the rise of the Khmer Rouge, the politics and philosophy of the Khmer Rouge, what happened to the Cambodian people, what the survivors as well as those who didn't survive had to undergo (the starvation, the brutal work regime, the torture) and most importantly, HOW this could have happened in a society thought to have been known for its peacefulness, and how man could do this to another -- all through the eyes of an amazing narrator, Ngor Haing. His strength, will to live, fiery personality, and unique voice are unforgettable.

I have to admit, it took me awhile to get through, simply because it was so powerful and harrowing. But it was well worth it. I have thought about this book often since finishing it. And it will probably stay with me for a very long time, if not the rest of my life. It is not an understatement to say that my entire view of Cambodian culture and the people, as well as the world, has changed.
40 reviews1 follower
August 7, 2011
A tragic but ultimately very human story. In many ways Ngor's story is even more horrific than that of Dith Pran, who Ngor played in the movie "The Killing Fields." That Ngor was able to survive not only the depredations that every Cambodian faced during that terrible time, but three separate imprisonments during which he was brutally tortured speaks to his sheer force of will and desire to live. But it's more than just his personal story. Ngor was a keen observer of Cambodian culture and the politics of the region, and he was able to explain the developments leading to the Khmer Rouge takeover of Cambodia thoughtfully and in simple terms.

It's fair to say Ngor never really was able to fully recover from the horror he endured - who could? - but that just makes his story all the more human. That he died in the manner he did is a cruel irony and reminds us how fleeting our existence really is. His story is one of a flawed but ultimately good man who devoted himself to the people of his country. Definitely worth reading whether or not you've seen the movie although it should be noted, this book is not for the faint of heart.
Profile Image for SethGyan.
78 reviews3 followers
February 22, 2020
This isn't just a reminder of how evil communism is but also a love story that holds the narrative even till the murder of the author. The love story of Haing and Huoy.

Life's tragic and for Haing Ngor it was all the more; even after surviving being under the Kmer Rouge and becoming a movie star, he still couldn't shake of the pain and tragedy of loosing Huoy and everyone he loved. He was depressed even till the end.

And the biggest irony is that he died a rough death whiles Pol Pot who engineered everything he went through died peacefully the same day.

He survived the land of bondage to die in the land of the free.
Profile Image for Nguyet Anh.
32 reviews
March 9, 2021
After watching the movie "Killing Fields", I was so impressed by Haing Ngor's acting. He won multiple prestigious awards, including Academy Award, despite having no prior experience in acting. I then learnt that he himself was also a victim of the Killing Fields and started to read this book. Throughout the book, I was filled with mixed emotions: inspired when Haing Ngor explained Buddhism practices, delighted when reading about the sweet moments between him and his wife, disgusted and frightened by the torture under the Khmer Rogue regime and relieved when he eventually found a more peaceful life in the US.

I totally enjoyed the book from the start to the end. His storytelling was honest, detailed yet impactful. It was also interesting to learn how Cambodians view the Vietnamese in general and the similarities in our culture and thinking. The book truly enlightened me with the first-hand account of a long and painful episode of Cambodian history. This was the first time I got to know the full extent of the cruelty of the Khmer Rouge regime and the sustained sufferings that the civilians had to go through.

Toward the end of the book, he described his acting experience in the "Killing Fields". Beside his natural gift for acting, I feel that he did not have to try too hard to play the role of Dith Pran as he had experienced the same miseries himself. Various film scenes reminded him of the four years under the Khmer Rouge so vividly that his on-screen emotions, which were very genuine and moving.
Profile Image for Yvan Ysla.
15 reviews4 followers
February 4, 2021
I still remember when, on a cold winter night in the now distant 1985, I went with my parents to the cinema to see The Killing Fields, a film that deserved to win the Oscar that year and which had a profound impact on me. The main character in the film was the Cambodian journalist Dith Pran, who was played by Haing S. Ngor, the author of this book. And like the movie, this book is one of the best I have ever read. A must-read for all those interested in those dark years lived by the Cambodian people, written by one of the victims of that genocide regime. Reading the book, one can’t stop wondering: how could Haing S. Ngor endure all that suffering. How could he put up with all those injustices and arbitrariness? Seeing even his wife dying in his arms, day by day. And for what? Which was the reason for so much sacrifice, death and pain? Nobody knows. the Cambodian people, forced to work in the fields (the cities were almost completely evacuated and their inhabitants forbidden to return) saw that whether the harvest was good or bad, they continued to suffer starvation. There was practically no hope for better times. Contrary to Dith Pran in the movie, Haing S. Ngor didn’t try to flee the country once the Khmer Rouge seized power. He thought that as a physician, he will be needed by the new government. But that was an almost fatal mistake. As since the very first day one of the main objectives of the Khmer Rouge was to punish and persecute the country’s intelligentsia. Even wearing glasses was a sin punished by death. It seems that the aim of the Khmer Rouge was: “as we can’t make everyone rich, we will make everyone poor”. A book that shows that human resilience can be immense.
It's been a couple of years since I read the book, but I still remember it very well. This is one of those books that one never forgets. If I could give this book more than five stars, I would.
Profile Image for Eastern Lit.
8 reviews1 follower
September 10, 2013
Over the years I have read a fair few autobiographies of survivors of the Pol Pot regime, yet this is the only one which still haunts me to this day.

This book definitely isn’t for the faint hearted. It’s heartbreaking and horrowing. There are graphic descriptions of torture and murder, of disease and starvation, of crimes against humanity both within the Khmer Rouge and outside (including the rape of women by Thai soldiers as they try and escape Cambodia, and the mass killing of Cambodian refugees in Thailand). The description is so vivid you can almost smell the death of the people around him.

Ngor describes not only life under the Khmer Rouge, but also life before and after the regime. He also discusses Cambodian society and politics, and, unlike other autobiographies of survivors, describes what happened to other people.

Survival in the Killing Fields is like a mini history of contemporary Cambodia. A history which everyone should read and learn about.

For the full review, please visit: http://easternlit.wordpress.com/2013/...
Profile Image for Carys.
6 reviews
September 15, 2013
This had to be the most tragic book I've ever read about the Khmer Rouge and what they did to their own people. The chapters of his times in prison are what haunted me the most. That the book warns sensitive readers to skip those parts should say enough about the horrors he had to live through.
When Ngor is not in prison, he has to watch his family get ripped apart through the random executions, which made the Khmer Rouge so feared. Being a doctor only makes it worse for him, I believe, as he is powerless to help the suffering and dying around him.
For me, the most touching and beautiful part of this whole story is the deep and selfless love between Ngor and his wife Huoy. It is wonderful, yet saddening to watch these two lovers keep not only themselves alive, but their care and devotion towards each other.
I cannot recommend this book enough and believe it's a must-read for everyone who wants to learn not only through history books, but also through human lives.
Profile Image for Michael.
308 reviews22 followers
November 9, 2014
This is a amazing book. Powerful. It will help you appreciate how good your life is, and show you how horrible it could be. People can be such monsters. The things some people are capable of doing is just mind blowing to me. This is a very sad and disturbing story of Haing Ngor's survival during the Pol Pot communist regime take over in Cambodia in the 70's.(1975-1979) This book enraged me. But I couldn't put it down. I highly recommend this book to anyone that thinks they have a tough life. Anyone that thinks things are horrible because they cant have everything they want. APPRECIATE THE SMALL THINGS!!!! Life's simplest pleasures are it's most beautiful and important parts. My heart goes out to anyone that lived through this horrible experience. And I am extremely grateful my life has not thrown something like this at me. I think this is an important book for anyone to read. Will put a lot of things in perspective.
Profile Image for Avi.
16 reviews
April 30, 2016
Korea is often termed the 'forgotten war' in comparison to the events of Vietnam, but it is Cambodia which was a truly forgotten country during the Cold War era. And while the efforts of New York Times reporter Sydney Schanberg, Dith Pran and the film The Killing Fields did much to bring to light the political turmoil within which Cambodia found itself embroiled in the 1970s, this memoir by Haing Ngor (who played Pran in the film) is the definitive, harrowing account of life under the brutal Khmer Rouge regime, who displayed a disregard for knowledge and skill among many things, but above all the sanctity of life. A difficult, but unfailingly important read about a fascinating country which, as Ngor says, diverged from the path taken by its neighbour Thailand in the most unimaginably gruesome way, and is still suffering the effects of that divergence today as viewed through the state of its society and culture.
Profile Image for Jill.
7 reviews7 followers
March 16, 2009
Ngor's story of his experiences in Cambodia before, during, and after the Khmer Rouge takeover in the late 1970's. Absolutely gripping and often emotionally trying. I usually do my best to avoid violent scenes in books and movies because they just play over and over in my head, but I found myself feeling awful skipping the gory parts (he warns you when they're coming). How can I claim discomfort at just reading about them when millions actually suffered through those horrendous crimes. I didn't know a whole lot about Cambodian politics or the Khmer Rouge before I read it - it's a great mix of personal experiences and informative history. Highly recommended, though it's not just light entertainment.
Profile Image for Diz.
1,560 reviews87 followers
January 17, 2017
This is a very powerful book. Haing Ngor tells the story of his survival of the killing fields of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia in the late 70s. It's hard to imagine the brutality and inhumanity that he describes. If you read this book, be prepared to cry a little. I feel it is important to remember stories such as this in order to remind ourself how demonizing others can lead to some very dark outcomes.
Profile Image for Tom.
66 reviews26 followers
February 3, 2009

This book is just terrifyingly sad, but necessary. Note that when Ngor gives one of his caveats that he is about to tell you something really, really terrible, he is NOT FIDDLE FUCKING AROUND. He means it. He's about to lay some seriously terrible shit on you. And it will haunt you.
Profile Image for Judi.
597 reviews40 followers
July 22, 2013
I read this book on the heels of Tree of Smoke by Denis Johnson. This book certainly fleshes out the massacre in Cambodia during the years of conflict in Southeast Asia. It serves to flesh out the greed, hate, fear, cruelty common to all wars.
Profile Image for Lesley.
2,363 reviews
November 5, 2016
This is about what happened in Cambodia in the 1970's. This is excruciatingly violent with the brutal yet casual executions of innocent people. This genocide was evil! Its humbling to read of such suffering but yet overcome with the love this man had the human spirit.
4 reviews3 followers
March 5, 2009
This book is sooo crazy and takes you into a very depressed state of mind all through out it but such a good description of what was happening then. This is an AMAZING and heart wrenching book
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