Chanrithy Him: When Broken Glass Floats: Growing Up Under the Khmer Rouge

Chanrithy Him: When Broken Glass Floats: Growing Up Under the Khmer Rouge (W.W. Norton & Company, 2001).

Normally, I can’t wait to get to bed. I can’t wait to lie in bed and read. The house is quiet, the kids are asleep, the tv is off – just quality time with a book. But when reading this book, reading wasn’t always pleasant. This is really not a book you read to to enjoy it or to be pulled into another world and explore it. I read this in part because my boyfriend recommended it, in part because we sponsor a child in Cambodia and in part because I didn’t know much about the Khmer Rouge and wanted to learn.
This is the story of Chanrithy Him and her family, her parents and seven siblings. This is her story of how it was growing up in a Cambodia, torn apart by the Khmer Rouge. What this family is put through is truly dreadful. There are passages where you just question how any human being is cable of inflicting such suffering on others – or how anyone manage to survive it all.
Chanrithy tells engagingly about how she and her family is forced to leave their home and find their way out of the city, ending up in various villages in the country as they move along. Very quickly her father is executed – being a man of learning, he was not wanted by the Khmer Rouge who sought to create a society where all was equal and where anybody with any education was a threat to be eliminated. After being forced to dig his own grave, her father is killed with a hoe …
Her mother is then the sole caretaker of the family but most of the children are forced to work, sometimes being sent to work camps far away on their own and never given enough to eat. The lack of food and the very hard work naturally have an impact on their health, inflicting various diseases on them or causing rather minor diseases to become much more critical.
One of the hardest things for me to read was the story of how her three-year old brother lies in hospital, dying, and how all he wants – of course – is his mother. But she is too sick to be able to walk to the hospital to see him so he ends up dying without his mother visiting him – and when he has died, his sister takes his shirt off him because the family needs that for another child…
Also, the story of Chanrithy’s other little brother who does survive the Khmer Rouge is heartbreaking since he is too young to really understand what’s happening – but not too young to feel the suffering and the hunger – and is left too fend for himself all day when his older family member are working in the fields.
An execution of a pregnant woman is also a scene that stays with me.
Although we are all more or less desensitized to stories of human suffering, war crimes, and killings, the Khmer Rouge were so cruel that parts of this story really shocked me. And as if the physical suffering they inflicted on the people of Cambodia wasn’t enough, they also tried to eliminate the culture by minimizing the importance of family, the polite ways of addressing others – and of course killing off anybody who in any way caught their displeasure.
One thing I was really impressed with in Chanrithy’s memoirs is the fact that she does tell stories about some members of the Khmer Rouge who was kind and helpful, caring and friendly. She does share how some of them helped her in various ways – some of them just by being kind and showing some humanity.
This is a dreadful history of a truly tragic period of human history. I would like to conclude by saying something along the lines that if you don’t know history, you are doomed to repeat it, but sometimes I fear that these various tyrannic regimes actually take notes from each other so that they constantly evolve and each new regime becomes even more horrible than the one before, capable of inflicting even more suffering.
Still, knowledge is a good thing – unless of course you are living in a country ruled by Mao, the Khmer Rouge or other regimes hating education and knowledge. For us, fortunate enough to live in countries where we have the freedom to do pretty much whatever we wish for, in some ways we have a duty to honor the people suffering in other countries by at the very least reading about their plights.

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