when broken glass floats

“We are like the dust of history being blown away.”

Him, When Broken Glass Floats, p. 330

When I start thinking about war or genocide, I go to the images first.  Maybe this is so I can feel as though I’ve survived something.  Reading the narratives puts it into perspective, or assuages (or feeds) the guilt, that I feel this way when I’ve never experienced it for myself.  Call it whinging, posturing, or vicarious trauma.  I don’t know that the impulse goes by a name.

Chanrithy Him’s When Broken Glass Floats is, to date, the most emotionally difficult survivor account I’ve ever encountered.  She describes her experience living under the regime of the Communist Khmer Rouge, which instated a policy of social engineering that resulted in genocide.  Agricultural “reform” measures and the insistence on total self-sufficiency in the matters of food, water, and medicine led to widespread famine and disease.  By forcing the entire Cambodian population to work as farm laborers, the Khmer Rouge hoped to institute a classless society under a totalitarian government.  Intellectuals, as well as those who only appeared to be educated, were executed; books were destroyed; money and symbols of Westernization, including Western medicine, were looked down on.

This system led to the deaths of approximately 1.4 to 2.2 million people.  Half those deaths were likely by execution, the rest by starvation and disease, such as amoebic dysentery, edema, and cholera.  The Khmer Rouge ruled from 1975 to 1979.  The phrase “Year Zero,” which we use to mean “building from the ground up,” was coined in relation to the 1975 Khmer Rouge takeover of Phnom Penh, as it immediately set about destroying all previous evidence of Cambodian culture and substituting new revolutionary ideals in its stead.

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