Love, Faith, and Courage in the Killing Fields

“One death is a tragedy.
One million deaths is a statistic.”      ~Joseph Stalin

Banking on this banality of evil, the Khmer Rouge murdered or starved 1.7 million Cambodian citizens during the years in which they were in power, all with an eye toward establishing themselves and their Community ideology. Having wiped out 25% of the population, the Khmer Rouge will go down as history’s most totalitarian regime, for even though Mao and Stalin were responsible for more deaths, no dictator has ever destroyed one fourth of its citizens.

This chilling period of history forms the meta-narrative of Les Sillars’s Intended for Evil, but he has brilliantly shared the harrowing story through the eyes of one man, Radha Manickam who survived the Cambodian Killing Fields.  Of Indian ethnic descent, Radha was born into a Hindu Brahmin family, but came to faith in Christ as a young man in 1973.  Accustomed to a life of plenty, Radha’s world turned upside down in 1974 when Phnom Penh, his home city, was caught in the cross fire of the war between Vietnam and the United States.  As the violence progressed, the Khmer Rouge gained power, adding to the death and destruction.  As refugees streamed into Phnom Penh from surrounding villages, fleeing U.S. bombs and the Khmer Rouge’s reign of terror, the population more than tripled and food was very scarce.

Lee Sillars’s journalism background is evident in his skillful reconstruction of the political and historical implications of this period, the pointless movement of the masses and the evacuation of entire cities, the irony of communism’s rejection of an existing social structure only to create their own class system based on “kum, a revenge so brutal that it destroys an enemy so they never can rise again,” (79).

In 1975, year zero of Pol Pot’s “new calendar for a new era,” Radha and the entire Manickam family concluded that there was no future for them in Cambodia, and so they joined the current of bodies flowing from their makeshift camps to the next uncertain stopping point.  When their passports were confiscated, they learned the folly of trusting Khmer Rouge officials and eventually discerned that any mis-step could have devastating consequences, for even gathering food in the woods to supplement starvation rations was considered a “betrayal” and, according to Pol Pot’s brutal rule book, the guilty party “will be crushed,” (99).

Weakening the population through starvation was only one technique of the Khmer Rouge.  They undermined family bonds by separating relatives whenever possible, and they scorned (and ultimately abolished) all religions, including even those indigenous to Cambodia.  Anyone wearing glasses (the sign of an ability to read), possessing an education, owning a business, or practicing a profession was systematically eliminated, leaving behind a bankrupt culture that would take generations to recover.

Our family was introduced to the regime’s lasting effects ten years ago when we hosted a family of missionaries on home assignment following a term in Cambodia.  Arriving in our yard, their kids and our kids poured out of vehicles, mixed and mingled, and then headed straight for the woods to pursue adventure. Witness to the stricken look on their mother’s face, I was surprised at her explanation:

“Land mines.  In Cambodia, the kids can’t just go running off into the woods unless there is a well-marked trail.  For a minute, I forgot that it’s o.k. here.”

In that moment, the legacy of Khmer Rouge terror migrated into a back yard in Maine.

By grace, Radha Manickam’s life was spared because he was able to persevere in forced labor — a city boy, learning by trial and error what to do with the business end of a shovel and how to plant and harvest rice for back-breaking, spirit-crushing hours on end.  The soldiers in charge of his work details were essentially a brute squad who subjected workers to unspeakable torture and cruel indignities while overseeing canals that collapsed and agricultural projects that failed abysmally due to mismanagement and ignorance.

Disease and starvation were all that flourished until the Vietnamese ousted the Khmer Rouge in January 1979.  Tragically, most of Radha’s extended family had already perished, but grace triumphed when Radha learned that Samen, the wife he had been forced to marry in a mass wedding ceremony (set up to breed the next generation of new socialists), was also a believer.  Sponsored by Samen’s family in the U.S., they made their arduous way to California where they began to heal from the years of devastating loss and began to minister to other victims of the crisis in Cambodia.

Les Sillars’s chosen title, of course, brings to mind the biblical story of Joseph, the refugee, slave, and prisoner who found, at the end of his waiting that God had transformed the evil intentions of his brothers and all of his own suffering into a great good — for himself and for the people of Israel.  Brought face to face with the unspeakable atrocities committed by the Khmer Rouge, I am forced to question the contents of my own heart.  After all, the people who were conscripted into service as guards and soldiers were just common peasants and farmers, and following the fall of the Khmer Rouge, most of them went quietly back to their homes and families.  There is a sobering subscript to this inspiring story about Radha’s God-given courage under extreme circumstances:  a society can be plunged into evil by the removal of all that is good, and “those surprised by the evil found in human hearts don’t yet know themselves, and those terrified by the discovery have not grasped the grace of God.”

Like Joseph, Radha would affirm that his years of suffering are evidence that what evil men intend for harm, God was able to turn upside down for the accomplishment of His purposes and the advancement of His kingdom.

//

This book was provided by Baker Books, a division of Baker Publishing Group,  in exchange for my review.  I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 : “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

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Michele Morin

I am a teacher, blogger, reader, and gardener who finds joy in sitting at a table surrounded by women with open Bibles. I have been married to an unreasonably patient husband for nearly 27 years, and our four children are growing up at an alarming rate. Nonetheless, two teens still remain at home, and along with an incorrigible St. Bernard, we laugh, make messes, clean them up, and then start all over again. I love hot tea and well-crafted sentences, poems that stop me in my tracks and days at the ocean with the whole family. I lament biblical illiteracy and advocate for the prudent use of "little minutes." I blog at Living Our Days because "the way I live my days will be, after all, the way I live my life." You can connect with me on Facebook or Twitter.

56 thoughts on “Love, Faith, and Courage in the Killing Fields”

  1. Sounds like an amazing read! Definitely putting it on my list. And what a telling story of the mother at your house who was still so rattled with fear. Bless her. Thanks for sharing this book, and your reflections on it so beautifully!

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  2. A particular thing stands out for me, like a theme. The ordinary folk, the peasants conscripted to carry out the agenda, forced to administer the evil coming from the top, these represent, for me, the neutral bacteria in our pond. It is a story told on every level of life on earth. The good, the bad and the neutral – meaning those who quickly side with whichever force is in control.

    Like so many other tales of evil rising to power and imposing hardship and depredation on an entire population, those who are designed to remain neutral in status quo easily become tools for evil when evil is rampaging forward, just like the neutral bacteria joins forces with bad and causes stagnation, overgrowth of algae and ultimate death to a pond.

    And so, your word for this year – standing – just happens to be mine as well. Interesting. This, I believe, will unfold as the year to stand. History warns us it’s not an easy choice.

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    1. I’m thrilled that we share a word — a definite sign that we are to keep one another accountable and to spur one another on. And I’m so glad that you shared your thoughts on the Khmer Rouge — and others. Such a fitting (and dark) picture of how evil works.

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    1. Yes, me too. I find, too, that reading the work of Mindy Belz, a journalist who spends a lot of time traveling in hot spots around the world and then sharing the needs . . . so much violence and pain in the world.

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  3. This sounds like a powerful read. I love that you had a real life connection which spurred you on to not only reading this book but I imagine to digging into the history of this killing regime in Cambodia. I cannot even imagine the devastation. Thank you for broadening the scope of my world.

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    1. Those of us who took history classes in the seventies (from text books written in the fifties and sixties?) did not hear much about Vietnam or Cambodia. All I remember from that period of time is the worried expression on Walter Cronkhite’s face every evening. I learned a lot from reading the book.

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  4. If I ever, ever think that I am having a hard time, I need to remember stories like these. I am above blessed to be born when and where I was. My friend was recently telling me about a book she was reading about Cambodia; I wonder if it was this one. Thanks for sharing, Michele.

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    1. Les Sillars writes for World Magazine, so the book has been widely promoted in those circles. Like you, I marvel that we never compare “down” when we’re tempted to play the Poor Me comparison game.

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  5. Thanks for sharing about this book. I always find historical books more interesting when they focus on the stories of individuals and what it was actually like to live in those circumstances. I like the link with the story of Joseph too.

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  6. Wow, Michele! What a powerful book with such vivid evidence of the horror of what happened in Cambodia. I remember the news stories of those days as well as the movie, The Killing Fields, which my husband and I saw. How seriously we must attend to our gratefulness and strengthen our own faith!

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  7. Wow, Michele. This sounds like a powerful book. My son is doing a research project on a people group caught up in the Vietnam War. I’ve done just a little reading about that period in history, and it is heartbreaking. To hear of a story where someone persevered and triumphed over evil is truly hope-inducing. thank you for sharing this review.

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  8. Thank you for sharing your beautiful review of this book, Michele! I am putting this on my wishlist, as we have family connections with Cambodia, since our daughter-in-law is from Vietnam, but of Cambodian descent. The stories of those war years run deep through their family, and it is something that I, too, am just beginning to understand. What encouragement to read how God turned the darkness of what the enemy did, into good for those who followed Him. Blessings to you!

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  9. You’re gonna break my bank, making me put all these books in my Amazon cart! 😉 Thanks for sharing. Your words about this book in particular are compelling!

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    1. Sorry! I know the feeling, though, and then aside from the financial investment, there’s the “what do I do with all these books?” after we’ve bought them. My Kindle helps some with that, but . . .

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  10. What a fascinating and harrowing read but with the joyful reminder that what man has intended for evil, God meant for good. Thankful how this man gives glory to God and for God working in his life.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. Michele, how moving. It is indeed unsettling to consider the condition of the human heart without Christ and the restraining power of the Holy Spirit.

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  12. Thank-you for sharing this book, Michele. We spent 6 month living in Cambodia as a family, and it was said that a whole generation now lives (and raises their children) with PTSD-like symptoms because of the devastation that took place. It’s a story that needs to be told. Bless you!

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  13. Wow, so sad. Reminds me of the Corrie Ten Boom book I read last year, _A Prisoner and Yet_ . Do we really have any idea how blessed we are? Thanks for sharing, Michele. 🙂 ((hug))

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    1. No, I don’t think we do have any idea how blessed we are — at least most of the time, but God graciously gives us insights through the eyes of others who have suffered, and little by little, we learn. Thanks, Brenda, for your insights.

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  14. Michele, I thought you might be interested to know I have a daughter-in-law thanks to God’s enabling a man and a woman to escape the Cambodia of those times and find refuge in France where they met and married and had two sons, and a daughter who came to Canada to attend Bible School, met my son, married and has given us four beautiful grandbabies with dark hair and dark eyes and oh so big smiles! What a way God has of overcoming evil with good! Excellent review, as always ( :

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    1. I sure am interested to know that! What a glorious thing, and I’ve seen pictures of those dark-eyed beauties on your site. What a gift! Back in the 80’s when Cambodians were pouring into the US, I taught a Good News Club in the home of a refugee family. I was 20-something and completely ignorant of their dire situation, but I have such warm memories of the sound of their language, the smell of their food in the house, the sweet voices of the kids with their excellent English, acquired over night it seemed.

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  15. We went to Siem Reap and I adored it, not just for the amazing temple and cool, fun city, but the people are extraordinary. EVery business helps others – the people are constantly reaching out to make sure no one is left behind. THe visit to the Landmine musem totally change my world view (we could change the start of the world if every business around the globe did this). What a also loved was that people just decided to change things. The hospital was built because a DR was told if he could find the money to build it, he could. So he did. Aki Ra has single handedly demined over 50,000 mines. Everywhere it’s just one person not taking no for an answer and just setting about doing something amazing. Not affilated in anyway, but to read more on the LandMine Museum or to donate, click here http://www.cambodialandminemuseum.org/

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  16. This is a powerful and moving survival story…I’m sure you’d have cried half way through.
    Thank you for sharing a glimpse of this historical book.
    Blessings to you, Michelle.

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