Book review: When Clouds Fell From the Sky - Cambodia's terror dissected

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 09 May, 2015, 10:37pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 09 May, 2015, 10:37pm

When Clouds Fell From the Sky
by Robert Carmichael
Asia Horizons Books

Estimates of the number of people who died during the Khmer Rouge's murderous rule in Cambodia from 1975 to 1979 range from 1.7 million to 2.2 million, around a quarter of the population at the time.

Almost every family lost members - and in When Clouds Fell From the Sky, South African journalist Robert Carmichael's goal is to bring one family into sharp focus. Taking his title from a local saying about the Khmer Rouge's time in power, Carmichael, who has been based in Cambodia on and off since 2001, sets out to tell the story of Ouk Ket, his French wife and their two children.

A 30-year-old diplomat, Ket returned to Cambodia voluntarily in 1977 at the height of the madness, leaving his family behind in France. Ket and hundreds of his fellow diplomats, and other educated Cambodians living abroad, had received letters ominously stating: "The government requests you to come to Cambodia to get educated to better fulfil your responsibilities."

The letters were a ruse to bring Ket and the others home so they could be exterminated. In the Khmer Rouge's twisted vision, only peasants could be fully trusted, and even then not all of them. As the Paris-educated son of a member of the late King Sihanouk's household, Ket was one of the primary targets. He was sent to S-21, a former school in the capital, Phnom Penh, that had been turned into a prison and torture centre. Six months later, Ket was dead, another body tossed into a mass grave.

In January 1980, his wife, Martine, learned Ket had been killed. In 1991, she and her children made the first of many visits to Cambodia in an effort to discover what they could about Ket's last days. Those trips culminated in Martine and her daughter, Neary, appearing at the 2009 trial of Comrade Duch, the man who ran S-21 and the one senior Khmer Rouge cadre to be jailed for his role in the regime.

Carmichael met Martine and Neary by chance in 2009, and they, along with Ket's cousin Sady, who survived the Khmer Rouge era, are the witnesses to Ket's short life. But, just as Martine and Neary find little evidence of Ket, beyond the photo taken of him soon after his arrival at S-21, and an entry in one of the prison's ledgers saying he had been executed, so Carmichael struggles to make his book work as the record of one family.

His book is subtitled A Daughter's Search, yet we learn very little about Neary, or Martine. Carmichael writes movingly of their loss, but with Ket already a spectral presence in the book, his wife and children stay frustratingly elusive.

Much of the book is taken up with a blow-by-blow account of Duch's trial, as well as the history of the Khmer Rouge. Far more interesting are the passages about what prompted the Khmer Rouge's extreme violence, and whether there can ever be true reconciliation in Cambodia when so many cadres are not being prosecuted.

Carmichael writes in an accessible style, but ultimately Ket remains in the shadows, like so many of the Khmer Rouge's victims.