I don’t think it’s just a coincidence that there is a rash of books about refugees suddenly available on the Australian book market. This month’s Australian Book Review includes a review by Peter Mares Confessions of a People-Smuggler by Dawood Amiri (Scribe) and of The Undesirables: Inside Nauru by Mark Isaacs (Hardie Grant). (Sorry, the ABR site is pay-walled.) Another title, Refugees: Why Seeking Asylum is Legal and Australia’s Policies are Not by Jane McAdam and Fiona Chong is reviewed at Readings, and no doubt there are others. I myself recently reviewed The People Smuggler by Robin de Crespigny. I think that there are a good many Australians who are appalled by Australia’s current policies and since the prospects of change look quite hopeless at the moment, it seems that about the only thing one can do is to try to counter the disinformation and hard-heartedness of the tabloid media through books.
There seems to be two strands of reportage tackling this subject. There are the exposés about the current situation, aiming to penetrate the veil of government secrecy about what’s going on behind the shrieking headlines, and then there are books like the one I’ve just read, Surviving Year Zero, My Four years under the Khmer Rouge. Books like this aim to show the Australian public that they have nothing to fear from people who seek asylum here: people who flee their homes as refugees have escaped unimaginable horrors but have since proven themselves to be worthwhile Australian citizens.
Sovannora Ieng’s story begins when he is just fourteen, as the Khmer Rouge arrive in the capital of Cambodia, Phnom Penh. His story traces the brutal four years during which his family were, like millions of others, uprooted from their homes, forced to work in the fields, beaten and starved, and spied upon by their friends and neighbours forced into it on pain of death. He himself was ‘lucky’ to escape execution. As we know, more than a million Cambodians didn’t (about 20% of the population died in the Killing Fields). It is an extraordinary story, told in simple prose that makes the horror painfully vivid.
Then Thon came up to me.
‘You will come with us, ‘ he whispered.
My stomach dropped. What did Thon want? He was just playing games again, I thought. That must be it. But there was last night. I had slept on guard duty, and he must have found out.
Then I saw two Khmer Rouge soldiers. They were dressed in their black uniforms with their knives and guns holstered on their waists and AK-47s strapped across their shoulders. They nodded to Thon and he pointed. They walked straight up to me. Grabbing my arms, they twisted them behind my back, pushing me to the ground. They tied my hands and arms – my two elbows joined behind me – and covered my face with a cloth.
‘Get up, ‘ Thon called.’ Follow me.’
I stumbled as he led me by the arm. I told myself to stay on my feet, otherwise they would drag me. I knew my group was watching, but they remained silent. I thought I would never see my family again, but I kept up, and I kept my footing as I was marched along. (p. 190)
There is some controversy in Cambodia about the UN-backed special court conducting trials of those involved in the genocide. No one of any great importance in the Khmer Rouge leadership has been tried, and it is thought by some that a South African-style Truth and Reconciliation Commission might help to resolve old enmities and perhaps enable the finding of some of the missing dead. In the epilogue Ieng explains why he felt compelled to leave the home he had made in Australia to go back to Cambodia and help: Cambodia is still in a mess. There is confusion, poverty, greed, corruption and no identity. (p. 289)
Of course the fact that he can do this is because Australia gave him refuge when he needed it, patched up the education that he had missed out on, and supported him to grow into a confident and capable young man who could reach his potential despite his dreadful experiences under the Khmer Rouge.
How many people of similar potential are languishing in our detention centres today, I wonder?
You can listen to an interview with the author on Radio Australia here.
Author: Sovannora Ieng and Greg Hill (no relation)
Title: Surviving Year Zero, My Four years under the Khmer Rouge
Publisher: Five Mile Press, 2014
Source: Review copy courtesy of File Mile Press
Fishpond: Surviving Year Zero