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Postcard from Cambodia – Part 1: Apocalypse Junction

November 29, 2019

I find it strange how a visit abroad sometimes points you towards one consistent theme, even if many of the inputs have nothing to do with the country you’re visiting.

My wife and I have just come back from Cambodia. One of the stops was Siem Reap, home of Angkor Wat, the country’s magnificent cultural jewel. As always when we go travelling, we bring a heap of reading material with us – usually non-fiction but on this occasion an equal smattering of novels. Over a period of three weeks I usually reckon to get through at least ten books – my wife the same. When we’re not reading, we’re exploring, or simply watching our fellow travellers.

In our hotel in Siem Reap we noticed a large number of American families. They were scrupulously polite, seemingly clean-living with well-behaved kids. It turns out they were evangelical Christians on a mission to Cambodia. The mission was to welcome the overwhelmingly Buddhist population into the arms of Jesus.

Very enthusiastic they were too. As we descended to the ground floor for breakfast, the sound of singing, whooping and clapping came from the top floor. They were presumably limbering up for a day’s foot-slogging through the streets of the city. I’m not sure how far they got because the average Cambodian’s knowledge of English is fairly limited, and I suspect that this hardy band from Philadelphia don’t have much Khmer.

Whenever I encounter Americans proclaiming their faith, these days I think of the so-called religious right, whose useful idiot Donald Trump will bring closer the apocalypse they pray for. This, of course, is grossly unfair to the Catholics, Episcopalians and Mormons who generally don’t rally to Trump’s flag. Yet when I see a video of a pastor claiming that the president is doing God’s work, I still find it hard not to think of the Antichrist, the Rapture, the saved and the unbelievers like me who are doomed to hell.

You may have guessed by now that my unifying theme is apocalypse. Apart from the biblical version, apocalyptic events come in different shapes and sizes. Here are four of them, one of them fictional, and the rest real enough. Was my choice of reading influenced by current political and environmental instability? Maybe, but not consciously so.

The Baghdad Diaries, by Nuha al Radi, depicts an apocalypse inflicted upon the people of Iraq by American and British weaponry in the 1991 Gulf War.

Al-Radi was a well-connected Iraqi sculptor whose world, like that of millions of her compatriots, was turned upside down as the anti-Saddam coalition bombed their country into the stone age. Apologists for the bombardment would have suggested that the Iraqis should blame Saddam for their misfortunes. But claims that the Coalition had no grudge against the Iraqi people did not wash the people themselves who if they were not killed or maimed, found themselves coping with shortages of medicines, food, water and electricity, while their rulers continued to live the high life.

After the defeat of Saddam, the embargo of Iraq took further toll. Law and order broke down. Black marketeering, theft and casual violence ruled the day. Al-Radi died of leukaemia the year after the 2003 war. She believed that the war of 1991 was responsible for her illness as well as those of an uncountable number of other Iraqis. She may well have been right.

What made her story easier to relate to was that she was an educated woman, familiar with the ways of the West and not particularly religious. It was easier for me, a privileged Westerner, to imagine how I would have reacted to the destruction of all I take for granted on my ordered society.

At any rate, many of those who lived through the past thirty years in Iraq will surely agree that they have witnessed a man-made apocalypse.

If one continues to think of an apocalypse in the broader, non-religious, sense, my next book describes just such an event. Last Witnesses, by Svetlana Alexievich is a compilation of stories told by people who as children were caught up in the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941.

The subjects were aged between four and twelve at the time of the invasion. They tell their stories in graphic detail: of bombing, shelling, the burning of homes; of mothers, fathers and siblings executed before their eyes; of fleeing to the forests, starvation, the kindness of strangers and betrayal by neighbours; of life in orphanages and, in rare cases, the joy of reunion with loved ones after the war, or the bewilderment of meeting parents they don’t remember.

I found it impossible to read the book from start to finish. Each little episode contains a drama of almost unbearable pathos. After a few such stories, I found myself needing to come up for air. How could a human being shoot a baby’s bottle from the grasp of a baby, then shoot the baby, and finally the mother?

Alexievich’s book was first published in the Soviet Union in 1985. The translated version only appeared this year. Why so long? While the West eagerly embraced Solzhenitsyn’s works – Gulag Archipelago and Ivan Denisovitch – because they confirmed the narrative of the hard-hearted Stalinist core of the West’s main adversary, perhaps Alexievich’s work, which celebrates endurance, patriotism and humanity in the face of unbearable cruelty didn’t fit the desired profile. Her other standout book, The Unwomanly Face of War, about women’s role in the conflict against Germany, deals with similar themes. Her Nobel Prize for literature clearly helped her reach a wider audience, which she richly deserves.

Every theatre of the Second World War had its own horror stories. But the experiences of those who survived the conflict in Eastern Europe were surely unparalleled in scale and viciousness, not only against the Jewish population but against those whom the Germans were taught to despise as untermenschen – sub-humans. It’s not hard to understand how bitterly the likes of Vladimir Putin, whose parents suffered during the siege of Leningrad, resented the fall of the Soviet Union and the subsequent lack of respect with which the former empire and its components were treated by the West.

The superhuman effort by the USSR in the Great Patriotic War, without which the Nazis might never have been defeated, is surely as much imprinted in collective memory of those who survived it and the descendants of the victims as is the Holocaust on collective Jewish memory, and the suffering of the civilian populations of Germany, China and Japan.

And if commemorations of the end of the conflict were designed only to respect and mourn the victims, rather than boast of military prowess, it would be an insult on the part any former combatant not to send their leader to Moscow for the 75th anniversary of the end of the  Great Patriotic War. And that includes President Trump.

Next to a fictional apocalypse. Robert Harris’s latest novel, The Second Sleep, imagines an England eight hundred years after the collapse of our technology-based civilisation.

An unknown event reduces the population by 90%, and leaves the remainder in a world without all the modern amenities upon which we have come to rely: electricity, power, communications. The church, which has survived as an institution, turns its back on exploration of the past by blaming the event on the apocalypse foretold by the biblical Book of Revelations.

Hence it is 1483 in a calendar that begins at the year 666, the Number of the Beast. Most of the infrastructure of the final century before the apocalypse – roads, towers, power stations and houses, have crumbled into dust, leaving only the ancient churches, fashioned from stone, standing. England is once again an agrarian society, reliant on blacksmiths for agricultural tools and subsistence farming. All evidence of the collapse, including books, that might contradict the narrative of the apocalypse, is ruthlessly suppressed.

Yet here and there lies evidence of another age. The murder of a priest who became too curious for his own good sets the stage for another of Harris’s compelling plots. His theme is close to my heart, for I’ve long been concerned about our reliance on the internet. Despite its original creation as a resilient form of communications in case of war, over thirty years it has evolved as the essential wherewithal for modern communications, supply chains, defence, security and government.

What would be the consequences of a catastrophic event that takes down all of our satellites? Have we gone past the point at which we could re-build our analogue technology before deadly consequences set in? The technology we rely upon is pervasive yet uniquely vulnerable. So it’s not hard to imagine some human apocalypse, be it internet failure, disease or war reducing those who survive to the conditions of a pre-industrial age.

Last but not least, a reminder that although memories of one apocalypse or another may fade over time, humanity has a way of reminding each generation that madness and cruelty is not the sole preserve of a more primitive age.

I remember the Khmer Rouge as if they were around yesterday. But our current visit to Cambodia was my first opportunity to breathe the air in spaces they once occupied. Prison S21 in Pnomh Penh was once a secondary school. When the Khmer Rouge took power they converted it into a prison and interrogation centre for the victims of the regime. Out of 21,000 inmates, only sixteen are known to have survived. The rest died under torture or were shipped out to the killing fields where they joined the other 2.5 million Cambodians who died at the hands of a government that wished to strip the country of its educated elite and all other potential obstacles to its vision of an agrarian society based on collective farming.

The buildings themselves have been turned into a genocide museum. They’re full of exhibits, from torture equipment to the photos of thousands of frightened inmates taken at the behest of Comrade Duch, the prison commandant. It’s strange how perpetrators of genocide often seem to obsess about the bureaucracy of extermination. Just as the Nazis did in their concentration camps, so the Khmer Rouge kept meticulous records. Those that remained intact after their fall tell a baleful story.

We declined to visit the killing fields themselves. The shattered skulls in the Genocide Museum were more than enough evidence of what took place.

One little detail I discovered before visiting the museum reminded me how easy it is to take the moral high ground by imagining that such events are beyond the control of the bystanders. Cambodia paid in blood for the use of its mountainous region as a passageway for the North Vietnamese in the war against the South. The United States is alleged to have dropped more bombs on Cambodia than it did in the entirety of the Second World War.

After the Khmer Rouge were driven out of much of the country by the Vietnamese army, their remnants occupied much of the border area with Thailand. Not only did America and Britain allow them to retain their seat at the United Nations, but they supplied them with armaments to create a buffer zone that would prevent Vietnamese incursions into Thailand. Realpolitik at its most repulsive.

Since the events in Cambodia we have seen other killing fields – in Iraq, Syria, Rwanda, Bosnia and Burma. Some argue that we’re living through another – in China. Which goes to show that you don’t need an Antichrist to bring about an apocalypse – only the powerful not caring and the rest of us standing by and doing nothing.

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