The brutality of the Khmer Rouge and its assault on Cambodia isn’t something that comes up a lot in American thought anymore, sadly. Part of it has to do with our distance from it, both in time and geography — 45 years ago in a part of the world that still struggles for the attention of a typical American to its problems beyond whether it’s an immediate threat to us. And for Americans, the Cambodian nightmare is wrapped up in our memory of the Viet Nam War, which so many of us tend to recall in terms of how it affects us, rather than how it affected the actual residents of the region in which it was fought.
With Year of the Rabbit, France-based cartoonist Tian Veasna’s account of his parents’ struggle during the Khmer Rouge reign of terror in Cambodia, there’s at least now an accessible document detailing the experience of the Cambodian people during that time. Veasna achieves something unusual by putting faces on the figures of history who typically go without identity, while also providing the general historical context to the events that led to genocide, in a masterful balance that begs you to keep turning the page.
Year of the Rabbit opens in 1975 as the Khmer Rouge defeats the Khmer Republic, which is supported by the Americans, and takes Phnom Penh. This war had raged for five years and the immediate view of so many living there was that war was over and some viewed the Khmer Rouge as a group that would restore structure to the country. The immediate landscape certainly looks different from wartime and certain restrictions are lifted, giving Cambodians hope, but the overzealous Khmer Rouge clearly spread fear and paranoia as they sweep Phnom Penh for filthy capitalists and wait for no trial to punish them. Despite the apparent brightness of the future, people are fleeing by the order of the Khmer Rouge, who claim the Americans are going to bomb the city.
Fleeing is exactly what Veasna’s extended family is preparing to do, including his father Khim, a doctor who fears that because of his job he will be taken into custody by the Khmer Rouge and never seen again. Also at stake is the baby Khim’s wife, Lina, is carrying. That’s Tian, who is born after the family has dispensed of all vestiges of their life before the takeover and try to survive in the village of Ta Prom as the Khmer Rouge announce that all citizens but those with specialized skills, like doctors, are barred from returning to the cities. And so begins a process of rounding up the citizenry, putting them through reeducation camps, and sending them out into a police state overseeing agricultural regions where poverty, oppression, and paranoia punctuate a new existence of slavery for the people of Cambodia, overseen by fanatical fascists.
Over the course of Year of the Rabbit, family members become displaced from each other, and Veasna follows the various experiences. Death and violence become typical aspects of their everyday experience, but Year of the Rabbit portrays something that I find just as horrific — an Orwellian existence in which you don’t know who to trust as you try to survive in a life of starvation and overwork, where every aspect of your experience is policed and dominated by the idea that your displacement from loved ones has caused you to live in a vacuum that appears to be impossible to escape from. The Khmer Rouge’s rule wasn’t just about beating the people into submission physically but also intellectually and emotionally through a systematic process that stripped them of their humanity but didn’t always do them the favor of letting them die.
Veasna’s strength is in putting this sprawling story down in terms that don’t funnel the oppression onto the reader. Part of that is through the artwork, which never overpowers even the grimmest moments and turns them into something overwhelming, but keeps its cool, maintaining the same presence it has in the intimate character moments. Veasna also begins each chapter with some context, but rather than just write out a few lines of history, he uses these breaks to parse out the details in a number of engaging way — maps showing the changing terrain of the country, notated drawings pointing out details of Khmer Rouge garb, charts of where humans fall on the Khmer Rouge power scale, examples of what makes the Khmer Rouge suspicious, tips on how to survive the Khmer Rouge, and more.
And despite the claustrophobic nature of his characters’ experiences, Veasna’s eye is on the wider picture that isn’t always in view of those in the middle of the situation. He focuses on the hopeful thoughts that keep members of his family going, that causes them to always keep their eyes and ears open and look for signs that things may change, opportunities may arise, and which lead them to believe that some missing family member could appear again. This view of life is buoyed by the experience of crossing paths with people from their past, typically willing to pass on news, sometimes good, and when in a position to, do a favor. Amidst the engulfing dark cloud, on a person-to-person basis, there is hope, and Veasna keeps his reader’s interest by never forgetting that aspect. After all, he is living proof that hope can actually pay off.