OUR FATHER, WHO survived the Killing Fields, would never let me travel to South-East Asia when I was a student, so the first time I visited Cambodia was when I was twenty-nine, with him and my sister Alison. In the plane, he warned us about the smallness of the airport, the dirtiness of the streets and the poverty of the people. He described the landmines and the lepers. It was as if he had raised us the way Siddhartha was raised – safely ensconced from all the possible perils of the world – so that the first time we saw sickness, ageing and death, we would feel like our insides were sucked dry. He wanted us to be prepared.
Our father was twenty-three when Pol Pot′s army marched into Phnom Penh, on 17 April 1975. They were an army of children. Their skin was brown. Their hair shone orange. Their eyes were oysters in two moons. They looked around, moving slowly, as if they were lost. Theirs was the breath of small animals in the night. It was as if they had not been taught how to walk, eat or laugh, but had learned these things by doing them. Every sense woke up when they reached the city. Many of these boys had never been inside a city before, so every stimulus could only be predatory. Their uniforms were pyjamas dyed black as night, and some carried their AK-47s upright, as though they were going to set off fireworks.
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