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When the War Was Over: The Voices of Cambodia's Revolution and Its People by Elizabeth Becker (Simon & Schuster: $19.95; 502 pp., illustrated)

November 02, 1986| Lynne Bundesen | Bundesen was a photographer in Southeast Asia from 1976 to 1979

From the first day of victory, the Cambodian Communists known as the Khmer Rogue enforced a revolution of unprecedented terror and destruction. The outlines are generally known; how the capital city and towns were emptied and everyone sent to the fields; how the cream of the old society was systematically hunted down and often killed; how there was scant food, poor shelter and no relief from a punishing work schedule; how the population was ruled by terror, and how punishment by torture and death became routine. -- Elizabeth Becker,

from the Introduction. I write this review with a bias. I know Elizabeth Becker, and I know just how hard it is to explain what it was like in Cambodia from 1975 to 1979.

In early December, 1978, Becker and I drove from Bangkok to the Thai-Cambodian border. Becker was in Bangkok interviewing in preparation for her impending trip into Kampuchea. She and two others, journalist Richard Dudman and Malcolm Caldwell, a British scholar and activist, were to be the first Western reporters into Cambodia since the April, 1975, victory of the Khmer Rogue.

Our driver was afraid. He argued with us about the route we wanted to take. He stopped short of our destination. We insisted that we knew where we were going, and we prevailed. Becker and I spent the day walking through the refugee camp that had been established in the border area and photographing. We talked to people who had just walked, run, struggled and otherwise found their way out of their homeland and were now in the camp waiting to see what the future would hold, if they were to have one. Now, Becker remembers what the future had meant in the Cambodia the refugees fled:

It is a cautionary tale. One of the most frightening aspects of the Khmer Rogue is the intent behind their madness. Much of the destruction of their revolution was done in the name of the future, or at least how the Khmer Rogue saw the future in countries calling themselves modern. In the name of efficiency and increased productivity, the Khmer Rogue abolished family life, individual life, the rhythms of agricultural life, and instituted a system of labor camp life throughout the entire country.

That night, back in Bangkok, Becker told me about a dream that she had had. She had dreamed that she was running in front of all her colleagues, running exposed in front of fellow workers and friends and strangers. In her dream, she hid in a bathroom shower. We talked, later that night, about her impending trip into Cambodia and about how valuable the information that she brought out would be to a world that did not want to hear about the horror we could hear so well in the hot Thai air.

Becker went into Cambodia. The last night of her two-week trip, she was awakened by a sound:

I yelled, 'No, don't shoot.' I ran into my bedroom, shutting the door but forgetting to lock it. I kept running, into the adjoining bathroom, and jumped into the bathtub. I lay stomach down inside the tub. I wasn't thinking, I was moving by instinct, and some part of me remembered advice during the war years when I was told that the tub was a porcelain fortress and the best protection any house offered from stray bullets.'

Back in Washington in the early '80s, Becker and I were sitting in her living room, playing with her infant child and talking about our experiences in Southeast Asia. "How," I asked her, "do you respond to people who ask what it was like over there in the 1970s?"

She answered: "I tell them that it was sad. They don't want to hear any more than that."

Now, after seven years of writing and research and repeated trips to Cambodia, Vietnam, Thailand and France; now, when people are ready to hear more, Becker has written the definitive book on the Cambodian Revolution. It is a lucid explanation of how something so horrible as the autogenocide that killed more than 2 million people in Cambodia could happen at all.

"When the War Was Over" tells individual stories of triumph over suffering.

And it tells the story of Elizabeth Becker and her trip to Cambodia in December, 1978--the trip on which she was shot at late at night in a government house in Phnom Penh; the trip on which Malcolm Caldwell died; the trip that made front-page headlines around the world; the trip that ended when the Vietnamese invaded Cambodia and the internal slaughter stopped.

The book is at once impassioned and impartial, the work of a woman who was there and who understands the ideals that connect this period of world history with the people who made it.

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