Graphic Novel Depicts the Years Before Zero

Civil war was the backdrop to the final years of Ing Phousera’s childhood.

“I will never forget the evenings around the camp fire when [this soldier] would tell me and my brother about his battles, his injuries,” he said. “But the people dying in the streets or the piles of bodies blackened by fire, this, I saw myself.” 

What had happened to turn Cambodia into a land where cadavers were a familiar sight for children?

This is what Mr. Phousera, an artist who goes by the name Sera, sought to explain in his graphic novel entitled “Bitter Cucumbers,” an excerpt of which is featured here.

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The work, which will be more than 100 pages once completed, will depict the events that led to Cambodia being taken over by the Khmer Rouge forces in April 1975—40 years ago this month.

“It speaks of the moment in history when everything tumbled,” Sera said. “Because I realized that, in fact, people hardly know or have misconceptions as to the chain of events and history.”

“If you ask [Cambodians] around you why war spread through Cambodia in 1970…whether they are young or old, I have noticed that nearly everyone will answer that it was due to the U.S. bombardments,” he said. “Granted, the secret American bombardments were a reality, but those bombings were not in themselves the cause of the war…but rather one of the consequences.

“And so I spent these years re-reading and working on [outlining] this history through the vehicle of a graphic novel,” he said.

In 1965, then-Prince Norodom Sihanouk had secretly authorized the communist forces of North Vietnam—the Viet Cong—to set up camps along the Cambodian border and receive military supplies sent by China through the port of Siha­nouk­ville, with some of the supplies going to the Cambodian Army.

As historians note, Prince Si­ha­nouk did not really have a choice, considering the strength of North Vietnam. Still, in 1969 he tacitly agreed to shut his eyes if U.S. forces supporting South Vietnam were to pursue the Viet Cong in sparsely habited parts of Cambodia. This led to a massive U.S. bombing campaign along the Cambodian border.

So Prince Sihanouk’s attempt to keep Cambodia out of the war actually plunged the country into the conflict, Sera noted.

Born in 1961, Sera clearly remembers those bombardments and the civil war that tore Cambodia apart in the early 1970s until the Khmer Rouge victory of April 1975.

Sera and his family were among the people who took refuge at the French Embassy when the Khmer Rouge seized Phnom Penh on April 17, 1975. His father, Ing Phourin—a businessman with French university degrees who spoke four or five languages—had to leave the embassy when the Khmer Rouge ordered Cambodian nationals out.

However, because Sera’s mother was French, he and his siblings were allowed to leave the country with her when the Khmer Rouge evacuated the embassy a few weeks later.

Sera never saw his father again. He eventually learned that he had been living in a village near Siem Reap City prior to the Khmer Rouge defeat. “In December 1978, he was killed by [Khmer Rouge leader] Ta Mok’s troops, who had been sent to ‘clean up’ the Siem Reap area,” he said.

While living in Paris, where he teaches at the Universite Paris 1, Pantheon-Sorbonne, Sera has made countless trips to Cambodia and conducted numerous workshops in the country since 1993. “This is my country,” he said.

Sera had hoped to complete his book this month to mark the 40th anniversary of the Khmer Rouge takeover, but he was delayed by an­other major project: a monument to the victims of the Khmer Rouge genocide.

This began in 2011 while he was conducting research on memorials in Cambodia as part of a project funded by international research institutions.

“What struck me was that nowhere in Cambodia is there on public grounds something to mark this tragedy,” he said. For example, there is not even a plaque at the sites of the dam projects in Ban­teay Meanchey and Battambang provinces to indicate that thousands of people died there of forced labor during the Khmer Rouge, he said.

While the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum and the Choeung Ek Genocidal Center have been set up to acknowledge those killed there, these were specific places where the Khmer Rouge executed political prisoners and especially other Khmer Rouge, Sera said.

These victims differ from the tens of thousands who died of starvation, forced labor or casual execution by the Khmer Rouge, he said. “And I believe that Phnom Penh deserves, for the young generation as well as those who have known that period, something to evoke that drama.”

At first, Sera conceived of a sculpture that clearly suggested suffering—people dying, bodies without limbs. But after discussing the design with the Phnom Penh authorities, he agreed to change his approach. “Indeed, on public grounds one cannot display something that overly disturbs. So I came up with a much more soothing form.”

“It is a figure that invites appeasement and contemplation… meant not so much to recall but to evoke, providing a place for people to reflect and pay homage to those who are no longer here,” he said.

The monument, which is now in the process of being cast in bronze in Phnom Penh, will consist of the figure of a man falling backwards, supported by only one pillar touching his shoulders. The bronze figure will stand over a square water basin with a wall made of Cambodian earth as a backdrop.

France is providing most of the funding for the monument, which was granted as one of the official reparations approved by the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia to civil parties in the ECCC’s Case 002/01.

The French Embassy and Sera are now in talks with City Hall about the best location for the monument and hope to see it installed in Phnom Penh within the next few months. Sera also intends to complete his graphic novel this year.

He named the book “Bitter Cucumbers” in reference to a Cambodian tale.

As the story goes, a king who loved a particular gardener’s sweet cucumbers—trasak pha’em in Khmer—told him to grow them exclusively for him and gave the gardener a spear to kill anyone trying to steal them.

So when the king came without warning to take the cucumbers, the gardener killed him, taking him for a thief. After looking into the incident, government officials named the gardener king Ta Trasak Pha’em. According to historian Alain Forest, the story legitimized a change of royal dynasty and a king named by human dignitaries rather than the gods.

As the title of Sera’s book indicates, heirs of this gardener king brought plague to the land in the 1960s and 1970s: The sweet cucumbers turned bitter.

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