Elizabeth Becker was a correspondent for the Washington Post in Cambodia from 1973, but left when the regime swept to power in April 1975.
Invited back in 1978 just before the Vietnamese invaded, she was given a tour of the country with two other Westerners, an academic and another American journalist who was killed by a gunman in unexplained circumstances. She became one of just two journalists to see firsthand the workings of the brutal regime, which would become responsible for the deaths of up to two million people, or one third of the entire Cambodian population, and come out alive.
Becker’s historical coverage is academically detailed, but always compelling. She recounts Cambodian history stretching back to the glory days of Angkor, up to the French colonial period and the creation of the circumstances that allowed for the rise to power of a regime that would commit some of the most horrific crimes against humanity in the 20th century. She meticulously covers the post-Khmer Rouge years too, looking at how peace was thrashed out between world powers for whom Cambodia was really nothing more than a pawn in a bloody geopolitical game.
But while the factual history is all there, this is never a dry read, as Becker weaves her history with the evocative voices of Cambodians telling their stories. Most notable is the former city banker Mey Komphot, who tells how he managed to survive by covering up his middle class background when he was shepherded out of Phnom Penh to work in the “utopia” the Angkar aimed to create in the countryside. This blend of scholarly approach and reportage is what makes When the War Was Over such a fabulous read and a deserved classic.
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