Survival in the Killing Fields


By Haing Ngor

With Roger Warner

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Nothing has shaped my life as much as surviving the Pol Pot regime. I am a survivor of the Cambodian holocaust. That’s who I am,” says Haing Ngor. And in his memoir, Survival in the Killing Fields, he tells the gripping and frequently terrifying story of his term in the hell created by the communist Khmer Rouge. Like Dith Pran, the Cambodian doctor and interpreter whom Ngor played in an Oscar-winning performance in The Killing Fields, Ngor lived through the atrocities that the 1984 film portrayed. Like Pran, too, Ngor was a doctor by profession, and he experienced firsthand his country’s wretched descent, under the Khmer Rouge, into senseless brutality, slavery, squalor, starvation, and disease — all of which are recounted in sometimes unimaginable horror in Ngor’s poignant memoir. Since the original publication of this searing personal chronicle, Haing Ngor’s life has ended with his murder, which has never been satisfactorily solved. In an epilogue written especially for this new edition, Ngor’s coauthor, Roger Warner, offers a glimpse into this complex, enigmatic man’s last years — years that he lived “like his country: scarred, and incapable of fully healing.”



The Prize

I have been many things in life: A trader walking barefoot on paths through the jungles. A medical doctor, driving to his clinic in a shiny Mercedes. In the past few years, to the surprise of many people, and above all myself, I have been a Hollywood actor. But nothing has shaped my life as much as surviving the Pol Pot regime. I am a survivor of the Cambodian holocaust. That’s who I am.

Between the years of 1975 and 1979, Pol Pot and his Khmer Rouge communists exchanged our traditional Cambodian way of life for a vast, brutal experiment in communism. Toward the end of those years I was living in the northwestern part of Cambodia in a tiny agricultural village. By then, the luxuries of life before the revolution were a half-forgotten dream. I went barefoot. My clothes were rags and my ribs were showing from hunger. To keep the Khmer Rouge soldiers from killing me, I had to pretend I was not a doctor. They had already killed most of my family. And my case was typical. By destroying our culture and by enslaving us, the Khmer Rouge changed millions of happy, normal human beings into something more like animals. They turned people like me into cunning, wild thieves.

I began stealing on a small scale. Slipping out of my hut after dark, blending into the shadows, pausing to look and listen for soldiers, hearing only the crickets and frogs in their loud nighttime chorus, I crept into the village garden. Reaching into the rows of ripening corn, pulling the husks carefully back, I twisted the corncobs from their stalks, pulled them out, and smoothed the empty husks to their original shape around the hollow space inside. In the daytime, to a casual observer, the corn would appear to be untouched.

At first I stole alone. But other people in the village were hungry too, and they needed a leader. My gang raided fields and gardens by night. Our favourite target was rice.

For Cambodians, rice is not a side dish. Rice is the centre of our meals, a clean, neutral medium that sets off the flavours of other foods we add to it. Traditionally, until the Khmer Rouge took over, we had eaten rice every day. Under the Khmer Rouge, we hardly ever ate rice at all – not rice as it should be, with each grain separate and moist, and a clean, fragrant steam rising from the bowl.

Rice had become an obsession for my gang. I led them to rice paddies ready for harvest. Like madmen, we broke the stalks and branches of the rice plants with our hands, threshed the branches by rubbing them back and forth on the ground with our feet, and filled huge hemp bags with unhusked rice before hurrying away. Later, in hiding from the soldiers, we removed the husks with mortars and pestles, cooked the grains, and ate until our stomachs could hold no more.

We also raided vegetable gardens belonging to other villages nearby. I built up a large supply of stolen food and gave the extra food away. In all I fed more people in the village than anyone except the regime itself. But I wasn’t content. It was time to strike back.

Under Khmer Rouge rule, all private property was outlawed. Cooking at home was outlawed. Everything from work to sex to family life was tightly controlled. Everyone in the village was supposed to eat together at a central mess hall, called the common kitchen.

One day at the common kitchen while taking a meal, the usual starvation ration of a bowl of watery broth with a few rice grains at the bottom, I glanced through the open doorway of a nearby storage shed. On the floor of the shed lay a small hand-powered rice mill.

As soon as I saw it, I knew that it was only a matter of time before the rice mill was mine.

Stealing the rice mill was not a rational idea. It was not like stealing food, where the benefits balanced the risks. Owning the rice mill wouldn’t keep me from starvation. At most, it would allow me to remove the husks from stolen rice a little faster than with a mortar and pestle. And the risks were higher than stealing food. The shed was next to the common kitchen, and the kitchen was guarded by soldiers night and day.

To me, stealing the mill was a test: It was a test of my abilities as a thief, and a challenge to the miserable life I had been living. It was a way of finding out whether the gods wanted me to live or die.

Each time I went near the common kitchen I watched the shed without appearing to watch it. Very slyly. But there were always soldiers around.

Eventually I concluded that the only chance lay in trying to steal the mill when the area was full of people.

A few evenings a week the village leader held political indoctrination meetings that everyone had to attend. Like most Khmer Rouge, the leader had taken a new name to show that he had a new revolutionary identity. He called himself Mao, probably in imitation of China’s Mao Tse-tung. He was an uneducated man who wore the standard black pajama uniform of the Khmer Rouge.

During the next meeting that Mao held near the common kitchen, I sat at the edge of the crowd with my back against the shed. The walls of the shed were made of a stiff, woven material, like rattan. The evening had turned to black, starry darkness. No moon yet.

Mao opened the meeting with the usual slogans. The rest of us got wearily to our feet and obediently shouted the slogans back to him, pounding our fists against our chests, and raising them in straight-arm salutes. ‘Long live the Cambodian revolution!’ he shouted. ‘Long live the Cambodian revolution!’ we yelled back, though we didn’t mean it. He said it twice more and we repeated it for him, and then he started with the next set of slogans.

When he was done we sat down and he began telling us how lucky we were to be living under such a regime, where everyone was equal and where meals were served to us every day. How lucky we were to be struggling together to build a modern and powerful nation.

The truth was that under the communists the country was much worse off than it had ever been during my lifetime. We had no electricity. No clocks or automobiles. No modern medicines. No schools. No religious worship. Very little food. And we lived in constant fear of the soldiers.

He went on with his speech, reciting phrases he had learned like a parrot from his superiors. Every speech was almost exactly the same. The crowd sighed and settled down.

It was time.

‘Lord Buddha,’ I prayed silently, ‘please forgive me. I do not steal to get rich. I share with others. Please protect my life once again.’

I leaned forward, pulling the wall of the shed with me. The bottom of the wall overlapped the floor of the shed but was not fastened to it. I pulled myself backward and up into the narrow gap between the wall and the floor and into the even blacker darkness of the interior of the shed.

‘Our workers, peasants and revolutionary soldiers,’ Mao was saying, ‘have launched an offensive to build up the economy! We are struggling with nature to become masters of our fate! All our cooperatives are waging an offensive, working with great revolutionary zeal for the sake of a spectacular great leap forward!’

Groping around on the floor I found a round, heavy object, heavier than expected. Fumbling, pulling at anything that stuck out, I broke the mill down into its parts, two heavy grindstones plus the casing and crank.

‘. . . they are now resolved to launch another relentless offensive . . .’ Mao’s voice droned on.

Pushing against the bottom of the wall, I managed to squeeze out the same way I had come in.

‘. . . and on to victory!’ Mao bellowed.

In front of me, the silhouettes of heads and shoulders facing dutifully in Mao’s direction. To the side, an irrigation ditch, part of a network of canals. With a grindstone under each arm and the crank in my waistband, I settled into the water. Go slowly, I told myself. Do not make a ripple. Do not make a sound. Going slow is much better than going fast.

The speech, interrupted by mandatory clapping, grew fainter. Only my nose and eyes were above water, like a crocodile; my feet pushed on the mud underneath. The stars shone in the sky and again in their reflections on the surface of the water. But a glow had appeared on the horizon. The moon was about to rise. Time to hurry. Time to speed up before it was too late.

Climbing out of the ditch, I walked as fast as I could to the fertilizer shed where I worked during the day and hid the mill under a manure pile. I ran to my hut, changed into dry clothes and ran back toward the kitchen, where once again slogans were being shouted and repeated loudly by the crowd. Then long applause. Too late – the speech was over.

In the moonlight, soldiers had come to inspect the spot where I had been sitting, beside the shed. Curious civilians peered around, some of them calling my name. When I ran up, out of breath, Mao called me to the front and demanded to know where I had been.

Walking toward him, I let my back and shoulders sag. My eyes lowered in deference and my mouth formed a silly apologetic smile.

‘Sorry, comrade,’ I told him meekly, ‘my stomach was upset and I dirtied myself.’ I patted the seat of my trousers in case my meaning wasn’t clear. ‘I just went home to change my clothes.’

Raucous laughter came from the crowd, even the soldiers. Everyone knew what it was like to have intestinal problems. Everybody did, because of our unsanitary living conditions. Even Mao, a man of more than average cruelty, began to grin. He waved me off, like a parent who is amused by the wrongdoings of a child.

I walked back to the storage shed and sat with my back against it, as before.

I ground rice in the rice mill later that night.

And the next night I led my gang out to steal again.

On a very different night, six and a half years later, I was sitting in the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in Los Angeles. I wore a tuxedo. On my feet were shiny patent leather shoes. On the stage a woman announcer read, Haing S. Ngor, pronouncing it Heng S. Nor, which is as close to the correct pronunciation as foreigners usually get.

Since leaving Cambodia, my life had changed as completely and as dramatically as it is possible to imagine. I had come to America as a refugee. With no experience in theatre or film, I had been hired to play a fellow Cambodian named Dith Pran in a film called The Killing Fields. I was aware of mistakes in my performance, just as I was aware of making many mistakes in my real life. Yet I had been nominated, along with several other experienced professional actors, for an Academy Award.

But then, I thought, what is so special about acting in the movies? It is a matter of taking on a new identity and convincing others of it. Convincing others, perhaps, the way I had convinced Mao the Khmer Rouge village chief. Waiting for the envelope to be opened and the winner announced, I was excited, but my heart was at peace. Whatever happened, I could accept. Because I knew that my best performances were over before I left Cambodia. And the prize there was much greater.


Early Rebellions

My earliest memory is standing at the back door of my parents’ house and gazing at the rice fields. The fields fascinated me. Low earthen dikes divided them into a pattern like irregular chequerboards, with paddies instead of squares, and trees rising here and there where dykes met.

It was a sight that changed with the seasons. By January, partway through the dry season, the fields were covered in brown stubble. By about April or May when light rains fell, a few paddies were planted as seed beds, turning a delicate green. When the rainy season itself brought its heavy storms, teams of men and women transplanted the seedlings to the rest of the paddies. Over the rainy months, the rice plants grew thick and green and lush, and the dykes were hidden from sight until around August, when the rains stopped, and the plants gradually began to turn golden. The farmers went out and harvested, leaving only dry stubble behind. They threshed the stalks, milled the grains and sold the rice to families like mine.

We ate the rice gladly, and we always set some aside for the monks, who came to our house every morning with their alms bowls. The monks wore robes, yellow or orange or even brown if they had made the dyes themselves from tree bark. Their heads and eyebrows were shaved. They were calm and silent, speaking not a word as they walked from one house to the next in a single-file line.

Those are my first memories, the rice fields changing with the seasons and the monks coming to our house each morning. And that is how I would like to remember Cambodia, quiet and beautiful and at peace.

But in fact the first entire incident I remember was not so peaceful. I was about three years old. The year was probably 1950. My mother sent my older brother and me into the rice fields to get water from a pond. It was the dry season. Soldiers from the village garrison fished at the pond with their shirts and shoes off. We filled the pail. My older brother took one end of a pole on his shoulder and I took the other on mine and we put the pail between us. We were returning to the house, two little barefoot boys carrying a single pail, when we heard a sharp bang! behind us, near the pond. Then we heard another bang! and the soldiers shouting. My mother appeared at the door. I had never seen that expression on her face before.

Come here, children! Put the pail down! Drop it right now! Hurry!’ she said. We set the pail down and trotted obediently toward her. She ran out of the house anyway, grabbed us by the wrists and dragged us in. There was more shooting behind us, and our neighbours were yelling.

The next thing I knew, my brother and I were in the hole under the big low wooden table that served as my parents’ bed. It was dark and cool in there, with sandbags on the sides – my parents had known there was going to be trouble. Some of my other brothers and sisters were already under there, and more came tumbling in, a half-dozen wiggling children. Then my mother came in and finally my father, who had run from the market and was breathing hard, his face wet with perspiration.

We heard a shot nearby, then more shots right outside our house. Something crashed, and glass broke on the tabletop above us, while my mother clutched us tighter and prayed and my father cursed. We children tried to make ourselves even smaller in our hole in the floor under the table.

Then after a while there wasn’t any more shooting. We heard voices outside. Someone called my father by his name. He climbed out. A few minutes later the rest of us got out. There was broken glass on the floor and holes in the wall above the front door. Outside there was a big crowd, and more people running up to it on the street and everyone was talking at the same time:

‘No, the rest got away. Nobody else killed . . .’

‘The soldiers got back to the garrison and fired down from the watchtower . . .’

‘He used this tree for cover. So many bullet holes in the trunk of the tree, huh? Even in the doorway of the Ngor house . . .’

I pushed my way through the legs of the crowd. I had to see for myself. By the tree in front of our house, in the centre of the crowd, a man lay face down in blood. Next to him was a single-shot carbine. Other children had wormed their way in with me, some of them with younger brothers or sisters hoisted on their hips.

We looked on, wide-eyed.

The dead guerrilla was sturdily built, with a strong back and thick legs. His bare feet were wide and calloused, like a farmer’s. His skin was dark brown. Tattoos covered his arms and shoulders. He wore a pair of torn short trousers. Around his waist were a krama – the Cambodian all-purpose scarf – and some strings hung with Buddha amulets and prayer beads. He had no shirt. He was not from the towns or cities. He was a man of the earth, from the countryside. From the very heart of peaceful Cambodia. And he had rebelled.

Now, many years later, grown up and living far away, I think: Yes, there was trouble even then. Maybe not revolution but a deep, hidden discontent.

To outsiders, and often even to ourselves, Cambodia looked peaceful enough. The farmers bound to their planting cycles. Fishermen living on their boats, and their naked brown children jumping in and out of the water. The robed monks, barefoot, walking with deliberate slowness on their morning rounds. Buddhist temples in every village, the graceful, multilayered roofs rising above the trees. The wide boulevards and the flowering trees of our national capital, Phnom Penh. All that beauty and serenity was visible to the eye. But inside, hidden from sight the entire time, was kum. Kum is a Cambodian word for a particularly Cambodian mentality of revenge – to be precise, a long-standing grudge leading to revenge much more damaging than the original injury. If I hit you with my fist and you wait five years and then shoot me in the back one dark night, that is kum. Or if a government official steals a peasant’s chickens and the peasant uses it as an excuse to attack a government garrison, like the one in my village, that is kum. Cambodians know all about kum. It is the infection that grows on our national soul.

But the fighting had been so small-scale back then, before the other countries got involved, that the damage was limited. When those few ragged guerrillas attacked the garrison in my village, it was only news for those of us who lived there. Nobody else cared. The attack might have been reported in the Phnom Penh newspapers, but not outside the country. It was only a minor incident in an inconclusive, low-level civil war. Wars like this are always going on in different parts of the world. And those in the outside world know little about them.

Cambodia: it is just a name to most people. Someplace far away where something terrible happened, and few can remember exactly what. Mention Pol Pot or the Khmer Rouge and people start to remember. Or bombs dropping and genocide or even a film called The Killing Fields. But all that came later.

Cambodia is a part of Indochina, which in turn is part of the landmass of Southeast Asia. ‘Indo-china’ because a couple of countries to the west lies India, which gave Cambodia its religion and alphabet; and a couple of countries to the north is China, which gave Cambodia its merchant class, including my father’s side of the family. For many years the region was known as French Indochina, because France colonized Cambodia and the neighbouring countries of Laos and Vietnam beginning in the mid-nineteenth century. The guerrillas who came to my village were trying to get rid of French rule. And in Vietnam at the same time as this shoot-out, Ho Chi Minh and his communists were also trying to force the French to leave, with a rebellion on a much larger scale.

Vietnam has usually overshadowed Cambodia in world news, because the wars there are larger, and because Western countries have gotten directly involved in the fighting. So more people know about Vietnam than Cambodia. But I have never liked having to explain that Cambodia is next to Vietnam, or even near India and China. To me, Cambodia means something very special. It was the name of the country around my village. And like all children, I believed my village was the centre of the world.

The village was called Samrong Yong. It was a sleepy crossroads on the highway south of Phnom Penh, with houses one row deep and rice fields and forests beyond. After the shooting incident, my parents moved us children out of the village to a friend’s house in the countryside, where they thought we would be safer. Every afternoon my parents came to the house and spent the night with us, and every morning they went back to the village to do business at their dry-goods store. Until one afternoon Papa didn’t come back.

The guerrilla rebels kidnapped my father. My mother collected money for his release. After she paid them, they set my father free but took her prisoner instead, so then Papa had to raise ransom money for her. When they were both free, corrupt soldiers of the other side – Cambodian officers of the French-backed government – arrested my father and put him in jail. They accused him of working for the guerrillas. After all, he had been seen leaving Samrong Yong every afternoon to visit them. Of course, the soldiers were using this as an excuse for getting ransom money.

I was sent to stay in Phnom Penh. While I was there, the rebels and the military took turns kidnapping my father again. My father hated paying ransom, but there was nothing he could do. He had nobody to protect him. Like nearly all merchants, he was Chinese-looking, with pale-coloured skin and narrow eyes. This made him an easy target. Most other Cambodians were of the Khmer race, with round eyes and dark brown skin, or else were of mixed racial descent.

When I finally came back to the village, the rice fields looked the same. The monks still made their rounds in the morning. But every afternoon, a new militia of young men and women marched around the village with machetes and wooden rifles. They were always out of step, and never looked like a real army, but they had the strong support of the people. The whole village was tired of the corrupt soldiers of the French-backed government, and tired of the corrupt guerrillas too. The man who had helped organize the militias, our young king, Norodom Sihanouk, felt the same. Sihanouk was trying to get the French to leave the country. He wanted the guerrillas to leave too, because some of them were communists allied with Ho Chi Minh. Sihanouk didn’t want the country ruled either by a Western power like France or by communists. He wanted Cambodia to be independent and neutral. In the Buddhist tradition, he wanted the middle way.

Because of all the ransom payments my father was very poor. He sent me to a Chinese school with my older brother, Pheng Huor, but soon he took me out because he couldn’t afford the tuition for both of us. I didn’t mind. Pheng Huor was smarter than me. He could take an abacus, the Chinese calculator with rows of wooden beads, flick the beads around with the tip of his finger and get the answer to a problem in seconds, while I would still be trying to remember what each bead stood for. Pheng Huor had always helped my father after school. I had always helped my mother. My mother was darker in colour, like me, partway between a Chinese and a dark rural Cambodian.

While my father rebuilt his business and my brother studied at school, my mother and I went off on daily bartering trips in the countryside to get the family’s food. I carried a long piece of bamboo across my shoulders with a hook at each end. From one hook hung a basket with fresh pastries cooked by my hardworking father, and from the other hung another basket with peanuts, dried fish, salt, soy sauce, and anything else we thought we could trade. At sunrise we were off, on foot. The baskets bobbed up and down from my shoulderboard and I adjusted my stride to fit the rhythm. My mother wrapped her krama, or scarf, around her head and placed a basket on top, steadying it with one hand.

We walked away from National Route 2, the paved highway that passed through our village, onto oxcart trails and footpaths. Soon we were out of earshot of the automobile traffic and into an entirely different world of fields and forests. We walked through open rice fields to shady villages, where thatched-roof houses built on tall stilts stood among tamarind, mango, banana and palm trees. The villagers were ethnic Khmer, friendly, dark-skinned people who had mastered the art of living off the land without working very hard. Each house had its garden surrounded by a reed fence, with vegetables and tobacco growing inside. Chickens clucked and pecked at the dirt, and roosters crowed at all hours. Mostly we bartered for rice, because we could get it more cheaply from these villagers than we could in Samrong Yong.

We walked all day, and I became strong and healthy. On the way home, I foraged for lotus plants, whose roots and seeds are tasty in soups; for water convolvulus, which is something like spinach; and for sdao tree leaves, rather bitter-tasting, as many of the rural foods are. Whenever we passed through woods, my mother wrapped a few grains of rice in a leaf and placed it on the ground as a gift to the local spirits.

When I was about eight years old I was allowed to go out to barter on my own, without my mother. My favourite village was in a grove of sugar palm trees, which have tall, slender, curving trunks and fan-like fronds on top. Every morning the men scampered up the sugar palms to gather nectar from the flowers. They boiled the nectar in vats for many hours to make a crude brown sugar that tastes like molasses. They sold the palm sugar in the market, or traded it to me.

They also made an alcoholic drink that was slightly bubbly and tasted like beer. They made their best-quality beer right up in the palm trees. One morning when I walked into their village the men waved at me from the treetops. ‘Hey, boy! Hey! Ngor Haing!1 Come up here! We’ve got something for you!’ I climbed up the bamboo ladder. At the top, on a platform connecting several nearby trees, the men were sitting with loose, happy grins and glazed eyes. They were drinking fresh palm beer. I tried some. It was delicious. I drank more. The hours passed. We were laughing and joking up there in the tree until I realized that I had to get down and didn’t have any control over my arms or legs. The ground looked far away and small, like the earth under an airplane. They had to carry me down. No more bartering for me that day. I was too busy weaving around on the footpaths and falling over. When I got home my mother scolded me and my father gave me a stern, angry look. He said I would never amount to anything if I spent time with the wrong people.

I disagreed with my father. The country people had always been nice to me. But I was very stubborn then; if my father said I was wrong about anything, automatically I felt I was right, without even considering what he said. That was my personality: If I hit my head against a wall accidentally, I would butt it again, to see if I could make the wall hurt.

Medically speaking, I was hyperactive as a child. I had a short attention span and far too much energy. I liked sports. I loved fighting. My gang, from the western side of the village, was always getting in fights with the gang from the eastern side of the village. If the eastern gang came at me when I was alone, I took my baskets off the hooks, waited calmly and got ready to swing my shoulderboard at their shins. I wasn’t afraid. My fighting and playing displeased my father, who worked every day without a break and who expected me to stay home and help his business. But the more he scolded me the more I stayed outside.

It became difficult to meet my father’s gaze. My oldest or number-one brother, who was slow-minded, worked for my father all day long as an ordinary labourer, as faithful as a water buffalo. My number-two brother, Pheng Huor, the smart one, was already keeping my father’s accounts. I was the number-three brother, with two more younger brothers behind me and three sisters too. I wanted to help the family, but I didn’t want to work all the time. It was too much fun to play.


On Sale
Dec 26, 2003
Page Count
528 pages
Basic Books

Haing Ngor

About the Author

Haing Ngor, a Cambodian by birth and doctor by profession, launched his Hollywood film career in 1984 with his Academy Award-winning performance in The Killing Fields. He died in 1996.

Roger Warner is a journalist and author of Shooting at the Moon: The Story of America’s Clandestine War in Laos. He first met Ngor at a Cambodian refugee camp in 1980.

Learn more about this author