on 22 June 2015
Genocide, gang rapes, torture, pirates, brutal murders, suicide, chemical weapons…
Inconceivable brutality utterly mutilated the once beautiful and vibrant countries of Vietnam and Cambodia beyond recognition. In just several decades of ferocious civil war, millennia of history, two passionate cultures, and millions of suffering people were changed forever.
The horrors of the Vietnam War represented one of the darkest periods in all of history. The sheer level of inhumanity inflicted by both sides decimated the lives of countless millions, and the majority of their stories are simply heartbreaking. That such extreme suffering can even be endured is almost as shocking as the realisation that one human being could willingly inflict such terrible suffering on another. But from the heart of such darkness arose the most inspiring acts of courage. For ultimately, the causes, nature and consequences of this terrible war lie with the insecurities, doubts, confusion, mistakes and vulnerabilities ignited by international pressures and ideological influences on two innocent nations. The passion, beauty and vitality of the Vietnamese and Cambodian people, of all the people of Indo-China, make their vast suffering all the more painful to contemplate.
‘River of Time’, is the account of the tragedies of these two nations by a lone British journalist, Jon Swain, from 1970 to 1975. This book can be described in one word: Incredible. It is undoubtedly the most powerful book I have ever read. Swain’s journey, and the journey of several of his closest friends in the turbulent world of war journalism at that time, have even been depicted on the screen, in the Oscar-winning film, The Killing Fields. Swain lived in Indo-China for five years in the 70s for the duration of the American participation in the Vietnam War, and what he witnessed and was a part of was shocking, inspiring, heartbreaking, moving, utterly brutal and terrible in equal measure. I was not aware, as I am sure most of the world is still, of the sheer extent of the suffering of the Vietnamese and Cambodian people.
The horrors inflicted by the Khmer Rouge, Vietcong and Americans alike undoubtedly rivalled the atrocities of the Nazis during the Holocaust. I truly feel deeply affected by what I have read. Particular moments that burn in my mind are the family separations, the death of children and babies, Swain’s time in captivity in Ethiopia, the heinous torture carried out by the Khmer Rouge, and in particular the unimaginable sadistic cruelty of the notorious Comrade Duch, in charge of the most terrifying death camp in Cambodia. But what disturbed me the most was the account of the merciless rape and slaughter of thousands of girls as young as ten by the pirates of the South China Sea as a beleagured and weary people tried to flee the communist regime after the war. Such incidents are very hard to read.
Swain writes so beautifully and eloquently of the eternal beauty of Cambodia and this only amplifies the pain of its utter decimation by the war. The raw passion and rugged charm of Phnom Penh, of Saigon, of the countryside, the people, are why Swain fell so in love with Indo-China like so many of the journalists who visited it did, many of whom lost their lives in the pursuit of the truth.
I read this book while travelling across China and Vietnam, evoking an even greater longing within me to understand the war-torn and fascinating histories of such diverse and enchanting cultures of the East, and, after reading River of Time, I feel another step closer to understanding the true nature of the human condition. One fact remains certain, that Jon Swain’s book will stay with me for the rest of my life as one of the most shocking books I have ever and will ever read.
“Nature spoke with nightfall. From a thousand arbours in the forest came the hum of insects. Then darkness dropped. The silence became complete. The moon rose and crept through the clouds, its shifting light forming obscure patterns on the waters. I felt the river carrying my body on a current of happiness. A host of memories passed before my eyes: strolls by moonlight through the temples of Angkor; the warmth and smile of a child’s face. Aspects of Cambodia which are true and good. I always hope that the perfect combination of time, place and love that made Indo-China unique, a Paradise for me, will come together again. I am ever hopeful, but how difficult it is to believe that it ever can.”