Journalist Robert Carmichael’s new book When the Clouds Fell From the Sky follows Cambodian diplomat Ouk Ket into the S-21 torture and interrogation centre and details the devastating repercussions for his family in France and Cambodia
In 2009, Frenchwoman Martine Lefeuvre testified at the Khmer Rouge Tribunal where Kaing Guek Eav, better known as Comrade Duch, was on trial for crimes against humanity, war crimes, homicide and torture.
In the witness box, Lefeuvre, who had only visited Cambodia once before in 1991, recalled her family’s three decades of suffering caused by Duch, who had signed her husband Ouk Ket’s death warrant at Phnom Penh’s S-21 prison on December 9, 1977.
“Ket’s suffering was and still is our suffering, and far from diminishing with time, I can tell you that the suffering is in fact more and more intense,” said Lefeuvre, adding that Ket was just one of 301 names on a death list authorised by Duch that day.
While S-21, also known as Tuol Sleng, has been the subject of many books about the Khmer Rouge, a new work by South African journalist Robert Carmichael, a former Phnom Penh Post managing editor, uses Ket and his family’s story to provide a fresh perspective on the harrowing site.
Combining extensive historical research and analysis with colourful narrative, When Clouds Fell From the Sky is arguably the most vivid and terrifying literary portrait of the prison to date.
The book begins with Ket’s return to Cambodia in June 1977 – a foreign diplomat posted at the Cambodian embassy in Senegal for the previous five years, he had received a letter from Phnom Penh requesting he come back to Cambodia “per the advice of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Democratic Kampuchea” to “get educated to better fulfill [his] responsibilities”.
Adamant that refugee reports trickling across the Thai border of murder and starvation were untrue, he departed for Beijing to catch the weekly flight to Phnom Penh – the country’s only formal link with the outside world.
While his young wife supported his decision, Martine fatefully told him as he left: “If one day I were to learn that you were dead, I will never believe you died a natural cause.”
Her husband replied with a smile. “But, honey, Cambodians are not savages,” he assured her.
Save for postcards sent in transit from Karachi and Beijing, Ouk Ket would never contact his family again. Meanwhile, his mother in Cambodia took solace in her belief that her eldest son was safe in France. “He surely would not have returned to this holocaust,” Carmichael wrote.
With a combination of original reporting and secondary sources, Carmichael tells Ket’s family story from his initial disappearance in Cambodia to his wife and daughter’s testimony at the Khmer Rouge tribunal. Along the way, they wrestle with false hope, bad news and the sense of ambiguous loss of having a loved one disappear.
Carmichael also interviewed both former prisoners and guards in order to paint a detailed picture of life at the extermination camp, where some 12,000 are estimated to have been tortured prior to their murders at the Choeung Ek killing fields outside the city. Details, such as the testimony of a guard who estimated he tortured only three genuine traitors out of 30 victims, bring the prison to eerie life for readers.
When Clouds Fell From the Sky provides enough historical context to be accessible to those less familiar with Cambodia’s recent history. It does not, however, lengthily rehash the same stories told in numerous other Khmer Rouge books – Carmichael sticks to quick facts in sections covering previously documented elements of the era.
Carmichael told Post Weekend this week that he aimed to provide a new perspective in what’s become a crowded genre.
And by telling the story through the eyes of Ket’s French wife and daughter – along with his Cambodian family – he hoped to make the story relatable to a foreign audience.
“The idea was to take two people who were not Cambodian, who had a deep connection with the place, and taking three other people who are Cambodian and melding all that together to try to tell this story of 50 years of Cambodia’s past up until the present day of Duch’s trial and conviction,” he said.
The book’s overall purpose, Carmichael said, was to draw attention to the underlying causes of government-sanctioned mass murder.
“[Democratic Kampuchea] is unique in its own circumstances, but its overall broad trajectory is not unique – it has happened before, time and time again, and will happen again, and the better prepared we are intellectually with what happened in this space … the better prepared we are to ensure a better future for everyone.”
Robert Carmichael will speak at Meta-House on Thursday, April 9, at 7pm about his new book, which is available from Monument Books for $27.50 hardback and $18.50 paperback and Amazon Kindle in the next few weeks. The website for the book is whencloudsfell.com.