Guy Le Rumeur’s photos of Cambodia in the 1940s speak of a French family’s peaceful life in the country—relaxing on the beach in Kep, touring Angkor on an elephant and staying in traditional stilt houses in the countryside.
But one of his daughter’s memories of Phnom Penh is of her mother lifting the corner of a sheet covering bodies, trying to find the corpse of a Cambodian friend after a bombing raid by allied forces near Phsar Thmei in February 1945.
The Chinese neighborhood where textile factories were located had been bombarded from the air, Le Rumeur’s daughter Chris Dityvon recalled.
“There were at least 200 injured and more than 200 dead,” she said. Her parents would later adopt their Cambodian friend’s daughter, Meas Yenn.
World War II was raging in Europe, and Indochina, after France’s surrender to Hitler’s Germany in 1940, was occupied by Germany’s ally Japan.
Le Rumeur, a French career military officer in the colonial army, would be arrested by the Japanese along with many Frenchmen in Indochina on March 9, 1945; he would spend nine months in jail in Saigon.
Le Rumeur and his family had arrived in Cambodia in 1939. Among the children, three-year-old Dityvon and one of her siblings had been born in Africa, two others in Saigon and two more would be born in Cambodia.
Growing up in Cambodia was wonderful, Dityvon said in a recent interview in Phnom Penh.
“We were quite free—this was not the type of family in which one is told not to go out,” she said. “[Meas] Yenn and I would get money, get a rickshaw and go for a ride along the Mekong River.”
Dityvon’s recollection of Phnom Penh’s Japanese occupation tells of a period on which historians have hardly written.
Last year, she contacted the French authorities to find out whether French military archives would confirm what she remembered of the events when she was a child in the 1940s.
“They said there were no archives [for that period] in France,” she said.
But, she said, “I knew vaguely that my father had kept a journal.” Her brother had the journal and sent her a copy. “It’s because of this journal that I was able to piece together specific details,” she said.
After the arrest of Le Rumeur in March 1945, Dityvon’s family stayed at home for a little over a week. But one day, a Cambodian man rushed into the house and told her mother that the Japanese were about to take her and the children away.
Dityvon remembers the Japanese arriving and making them board a truck as Vietnamese people on each side of the truck yelled insults and threatened them.
According to historian David Chandler, a few days earlier the Japanese had posted notices stating that more than 8,000 Vietnamese living in France had been massacred.
This prompted ethnic Vietnamese living in Phnom Penh to turn against the French, wounding some with sticks and knifes, Chandler said. Shortly after, the Japanese herded French families into compounds north of the city where they stayed until the Japanese surrendered in August 1945, he added.
The compounds were neighborhoods surrounded by barbed wire where French people were made to share their homes with French families brought in from other parts of the city. Dityvon recalled her family ending up on an open terrace as few people welcomed large families.
The Japanese guards were friendly, she said. Although French children were told not to speak to them, the guards would smile and treat them warmly. At one point, Dityvon’s mother was even allowed to return to their home in the city to bring back some of the family’s belongings.
But dozens of Frenchmen were killed during the Japanese occupation, Le Rumeur wrote in his journal and in his 1962 book “Merveilleux Cambodge,” or wonderful Cambodia, which he penned under the name of Claude Fillieux since a military officer could not publish such a work.
Some were killed because they had joined the resistance movement against Germany and Japan; others while resisting arrest on March 9, 1945; and others following interrogation by the Japanese, he wrote.
Prior to this, Le Rumeur recalled fighting the Thai army near Kbal Krabei mountain in what is now Oddar Meanchey province. On Feb 27, 1941, the Thais bombarded the Cambodian and French forces all night and kept shooting until 10 am sharp, when a ceasefire was to take effect, he wrote in his journal.
The French were then forced to turn over Battambang and Siem Reap provinces to Thailand, with the exception of the area around Angkor. Sections of Laos were also handed over. Only in 1947 would Cambodia regain its territory.
The Le Rumeurs returned to France in May 1946, Dityvon said. The family had adopted so many Cambodian ways while living here that she had difficulty adapting to life in France. “It was terrible. I was walking barefoot…but what shocked [people] the most was that I sat on the floor—a thing one did not do.”
Dityvon was glad when the family moved to Martinique in the Caribbean a few years later. She eventually settled in Paris where she still lives.
After Le Rumeur died at the age of 103 in 2004, Dityvon discovered black-and-white photographs that her father had taken in Cambodia.
“They were on glass plates, about 23 by 30 centimeters in size,” she said.
Left in boxes for years, most of them were beyond repair. But she was able to recover around 70 of them, which Stephane Janin of Popil PhotoGallery in Phnom Penh arranged to be exhibited at the National Library, where they are on display through Friday.
Dityvon came for the opening of the exhibition last month, her first visit since leaving Cambodia in 1946. All she recognized was Wat Phnom where she had played as a child. “At Wat Phnom, I was home,” she said.