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'Banyan' Lifts The Veil On Cambodia's Nightmare

When Michele Bachmann, through the most circumstantial of evidence, recently linked Hillary Clinton aide Huma Abedin to the Muslim Brotherhood, it wouldn't have been irrational to think immediately of Joseph McCarthy's witch hunts. Bachmann's claim was quickly dismissed, bringing a rare moment of sort-of agreement between the parties, but it serves as an important reminder. Paranoid character-smearing is a time-honored tool of totalitarian regimes.

Fortunately, America is still a place where the rule of law, whatever its shortcomings, remains intact. When it's completely absent, any inconvenient or suspicious person can be labeled an enemy of the state and disappeared on the flimsiest of pretexts.

The Khmer Rouge, who ruled Cambodia from 1975 to 1979, used this tactic to quick and devastating effect, killing millions in a nightmarish four-year span. Families were torn apart, and most of those that didn't die of starvation or bullets became slaves. Vaddey Ratner was five when her world was destroyed, and her book, In the Shadow of the Banyan, while technically a work of fiction, borrows heavily and directly from her own experience.


The novel begins as many horror stories do, in an idyllic setting seemingly insulated from any danger. Young Raami's world is one of poetry, lotus ponds and butterflies. She wears a brace on her leg due to a bout with polio, but wants for nothing. Her father, the so-called "Tiger Prince," dotes on his wife and two daughters. Despite his privileged position, Raami's father is cautiously optimistic when the revolutionary army seizes power. It means the Cambodian civil war is over and augers, perhaps, a more egalitarian era for the poor of his country. He's soon disillusioned.

Vaddey Ratner survived four years of forced labor under the Khmer Rouge, and has since come to the United States, where she studied Southeast Asian history and literature at Cornell University.
Kristina Sherk
Simon & Schuster
Vaddey Ratner survived four years of forced labor under the Khmer Rouge, and has since come to the United States, where she studied Southeast Asian history and literature at Cornell University.

At gunpoint, the family is forced into a parade of refugees pushed out of the capital, Phnom Penh. Uncertainty, fear and hunger spread like wildfire among the displaced citizens. Raami's father, a well-known poet, copes by writing. He tells his daughter that he writes because "words give me wings," and once fed her stories when he thought she couldn't walk, so that in her imagination she could fly. It's the kind of whimsical gift you impart to a child, which, of course, Raami is. She's soon forced to mature, though, and her father's words prove prophetic.

"The Organization," as the country's antagonists are known, grows increasingly brutal. Revolutionary enemies are found everywhere, and the Organization even begins to cannibalize itself. "They hide among us, sharing our beds and our meals!" one camp leader bellows. "And when we find them, we must rout them out! We must crush them like termites! We must show no mercy!" After purging the obvious counterrevolutionary targets, the regime, echoing Stalin's methods, finds targets among the true believers. There is a struggle between those loyal to "the Cause" and those of "the Party." The idealists, of course, become more trouble than they are worth.

The last 40 pages or so of the book are a hallucinatory glimpse into hell — an army of ghosts pushed on by nothing but basic survival instincts. Ratner's account of these dark days feels like memoir, the kind of thing that can't be authentically fictionalized without substantial firsthand knowledge. The writing, too, reflects the seismic existential shift. The playful innocence that marked the novel's start gives way to furtive, monochrome descriptions as the Khmer Rouge pull Democratic Kampuchea — a sick joke, no doubt — into famine and oblivion. The blasted landscape Ratner describes feels almost like science fiction, like an alien slave colony on some faraway moon. If only that were true.

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