Survival in the Killing Fields
By Haing S Ngor and Roger Warner
My Rating: 5 out of 5 Stars
“I have been many things in life: A trader walking barefoot on paths through the jungle. A medical doctor, driving to his clinic in a shiny Mercedes. In the past few years, to the surprise of many people, and above all myself, I have been a Hollywood actor. But nothing has shaped my life as much as surviving the Pol Pot regime. I am a survivor of the Cambodian holocaust. That’s who I am.”
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There are so many books on the Cambodian genocide that it’s difficult to know which one to read first. I’ve read 4 books so far on along with a load of other books on the history of Cambodia (Pol Pot: Anatomy of a Nightmare, When The War Was Over). I’ll say that without a doubt, Survival in the Killing Fields by Haing S. Ngor and Roger Warner is the best book on the subject. So if you don’t know where to start your exploration of Cambodia, begin with this unforgettable and heartbreaking book.
If you’re still interested in reading more about the topic but from someone who was a child during the genocide, I also recommend First They Killed My Father (Amazon | Bookshop.org) along with Luong Ung’s sequel of life after the Khmer Rouge in Lucky Child (Amazon | Bookshop.org).
Survival in the Killing Fields – A Summary
Haing S. Ngor grows up in a middle-class family in rural Cambodia. His mother is Khmer and his father Chinese. His father is a businessman. Ngor is quite rebellious—a hot temper and head-strong personality.
He moves to Phnom Penh to study medicine, becoming an OBGYN doctor in a military hospital and thus an army officer. His educated, military, Chinese, and upper-middle-class background make him an easy target for the Khmer Rouge.
Ngor marries a woman named Huoy, a teacher who’s from a family too poor to be accepted by his family. Some of the best parts of the book are his descriptions of his love for his wife.
When the Khmer Rouge overthrow the Lon Nol government, enters Phnom Penh, and forces everyone to evacuate on April 17, 1975, Ngor leaves along with his family to the countryside. Like most other city people, he moves several times until he ends up in a slave labor camp in the Northwest.
Under the Khmer Rouge, Cambodia is divided into several zones: East, North, Northwest, and Southwest. Each zone is under a different commander who manages the zones in different ways. Some treate the people under them better than others. Unfortunately for Ngor, the commander and high-level cadres in the Northwest zone are the cruelest and most incompetent. The famine is the worst here. The people in the Northwest suffer the most and have the highest rates of death. People die from starvation, malnutrition, disease, overwork, torture, and execution.
In fact, Ngor ends up in prison not once but three times, yet he survives. Even before he begins his description of prison, he warns the reader that what they’re going to read is going to be bad and if they think they can’t handle it, they should skip ahead. And it is bad. Probably the hardest thing I’ve ever read. When he gets to his third imprisonment, he writes something along the lines like you think those other two experiences are bad, wait til you read about my third one!
From everything I’ve read on the Cambodian genocide, surviving a stint in a Khmer Rouge prison is as rare as winning the lottery. NO ONE SURVIVES KHMER ROUGE PRISONS! In the notorious Tuol Sleng prison in Phnom Penh, 20,000 people died and eleven survived. Yes, only eleven!
Because it was so rare that anyone came out of a Khmer Rouge prison alive, it did cross my mind that perhaps he made up the fact that he was in prison that many times. Even Ngor admits that it was unheard of for someone to survive a Khmer Rouge prison.
I’m not disputing that these things happened in Khmer Rouge prisons. I’m just wondering if he’s using other people’s stories for his story. I guess, though, it doesn’t matter because someone did and their story needed to be told.
By the time I got to the end of the book, though, I was more of the mind that he probably did experience all of this himself.
Ngor eventually makes it out alive and gets to the United States.
The rest of the story is pretty amazing. He’s living in Los Angeles when he gets the main part playing Dith Pran in the movie, The Killing Fields.
The movie is based on an article that Sydney Schanberg wrote in 1984 about his friend and colleague, Dith Pran. Ngor won the academy award for Best Supporting Actor.
I want to pause his story here and just say something that has always bothered me about his award. His character was clearly the main character in the movie, yet instead of best actor, he gets best supporting actor.
There is an excellent epilogue that was written by Roger Warner (the co-author) 15 years after the original edition was published that tells the story of how the book was written and about the rest of Ngor’s life. I loved this ending because Warner talks about what Ngor was really like as a person—a talented and heroic but also a deeply flawed individual who probably was affected by what happened to him than most people around him realized at the time.
He truly loved his country, and I can imagine what it was like to experience his country being torn apart by incompetent and narcissistic leaders and used as a pawn by the U.S. China, Vietnam, and Thailand in their own struggles for supremacy. His story should make you angry.
Survival in the Killing Fields – My Thoughts
I really love Survival in the Killing Fields. I’ve read it twice. The first time I read it was when I was first in Cambodia and the second time was just the day before I write these words. I really love this book. I think I love it more than any other book I’ve read this year. It’s a powerful, heartbreaking, and inspiring book.
I reread another book on the Cambodian genocide called First They Killed My Father. I also loved that book and there are no flaws in it. It is a superb book.
But if I had to choose only one book for you to read, I’d have to say Survival in the Killing Fields would be my pick. But if you can, read both.
Ngor was an adult when all of this happened. Loung Ung, in First They Killed My Father, was five years old. You get a completely different perspective. If you can, I’d read both.
Because Ngor was an adult, his experiences were more varied than Loung’s. As an adult, Ngor had to deal with the jealousy and backstabbing that adults experience but that five-year-old children might not. Ngor had a relative who was jealous of him and who stabbed him in the back and he had a former colleague who kept on getting him in trouble. Ngor interacted more with the Khmer Rouge than Loung did. He saw people who he knew before become Khmer Rouge leaders.
Ngor’s suffering is comparable to the worst things you’ll ever read on slavery in the American South or the Jewish people during the Holocaust. I’ve already mentioned the imprisonment and torture. But there is another scene in the book that stood out for me. The Khmer Rouge are having the new people plow a field but there are no oxen to do the plowing so Ngor becomes the ox, and as people do with oxen, he is whipped when he doesn’t go fast enough.
Ngor also does the best job at explaining Cambodian culture and history than other books on the genocide. His explanation of the concept of kum was rather enlightening:
“Kum is a Cambodian word for a particularly Cambodian mentality of revenge—to be precise, long-standing grudge leading to revenge much more damaging than the original injury. If I hit you with my fist and you wait five years and then shoot me in the back on dark night, that is kum. … Cambodians know all about kum. It is the infection that grows on our national soul.”
At the end of the book, Ngor gives one of the best analyses of who was responsible for the nightmare that the Cambodian people went through. I’ve read Philip Short’s book on Pol Pot and even after all his research, Short can only conclude that the United States was responsible even after all the mounting evidence of the role that China, Vietnam, Thailand, and the French played in the disaster.
More Posts on Cambodia
- For those looking for a step-by-step itinerary that’ll take you from the best temples to the best islands, here is my travel article on how to spend 3 weeks in Cambodia.
- This travel guide on Angkor Wat and Siem Reap is ideal for those who’ve fantasized about being the next Indiana Jones.
- My Phnom Penh travel guide will give you lots of tips and recommendations on what to see, how to see it, where to eat, where to stay, and how to get around the city.
- If you’re looking for more books on Cambodia, here’s a complete list of 25 must-read books about the country.
My Favorite Books on Cambodia
- First They Killed My Father – Review – By Loung Ung (Amazon | Bookshop.org)
- Lucky Child: A Daughter of Cambodia Reunited With the Sister She Left Behind – Review – By Loung Ung (Amazon | Bookshop.org)
- Lulu in the Sky: A Daughter of Cambodia Finds Love, Healing, and Double Happiness – Review By Loung Ung (Amazon | Bookshop.org)
- When the War Was Over – Review – By Elizabeth Becker (Amazon | Bookshop.org)
- Voices from S-21: Terror and History in Pol Pot’s Secret Prison – By David Chandler (Amazon | Bookshop.org)
- Pol Pot: An Anatomy of a Nightmare – By Philip Short (Amazon | Bookshop.org)
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