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Memoir Takes Readers ‘To the End of Hell’

Dozens of books have documented Khmer Rouge atrocities and the lives of victims under the regime. Add to that the powerful memoir of Denise Affonco, a Vietnamese-French born and raised in Phnom Penh: “To the End of Hell: One Women's Struggle to Survive Cambodia's Khmer Rouge.”

Affonco, who now lives in Paris and works at the EU’s Institute for Security Studies, discussed her book at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington last week, at a forum moderated by another Cambodia chronicler, Elizabeth Becker, author of “When the War Was Over.”

“Cambodia closed off purposely from the rest of the world,” Becker told the audience. “The only news we were getting was from the refugees who talked, such extraordinary stories, like hers, that were hard to corroborate. This is such a fantastic story. People were trying very hard to figure out what was going on. At the same time she was trying to write her biography.”

Affonco’s father, Maurice, was a Portuguese-French who taught French, English and Latin at the royal court and passed away in 1955. As a French citizen, Affonco was given the option of leaving Cambodia when the Khmer Rouge came to power, in April 1975, but she decided to stay in Cambodia with her husband, Seng, who was Chinese and did not have a French passport.

Affonco and her family, along with millions of their fellow citizens, were evacuated to the countryside where, for almost four years, they endured hard labor, famine, sickness and death. A committed communist, Seng believed that the Khmer Rouge would bring an end to five years of civil war; he was one day taken away by Khmer Rouge soldiers and never returned.

Affonco’s nine-year-old daughter, Jeannie, starved to death.

“On her last day, before she died at 4 o’clock in the morning, she woke up and asked me, ‘Mom can you give me today just one bowl of rice?’” Affonco recalled. “I couldn’t, because on that day I didn’t have any rice. I did not need any jewelry, any fortune in the world, no money or anything, just a bowl of rice.”

After more than three years, Affonco managed to escape when Vietnamese troops overthrew the Khmer Rouge in January 1979.

“I am very lucky to be still alive today, thanks to the Vietnamese soldiers,” she said. “This I must repeat until my last day. Thanks to them I am still alive.”

Affonco staid in Cambodia and testified against the regime in trials set up by the Vietnamese in 1979. She worked as a medical assistant in Siem Reap, then as an interpreter for the Minister of Health, in 1979, before leaving with her 15-year-old son for Vietnam and France. She

The French version of her book is titled “Dike of Widows,” a name given to an irrigation project undertaken by widows under the Khmer Rouge.

Eileen Morrison, one of the forum participants, said she learned a lot from the discussion and the author’s insights.

“I just think that the Cambodian people are really amazing, to have lived through something like that, because it was so horrible,” Morrison said. “Like how she says when you are starving, it’s kind of a lower animalistic state, so it’s really hard to remain human.”

The memoir has been published in French and English, and a Vietnamese version is hoped for in the future. A portion of the royalties from the English edition will go to the Documentation Center of Cambodia, where a scholarship has been set up in Jeannie’s name.