Ing Phousera’s last moments in Phnom Penh in 1975 were spent at the back of a French military truck speeding out of town. The 13-year-old boy, his siblings and their French mother boarded the first convoy taking foreigners from the French Embassy to the Thai border at the end of April 1975.
Their Cambodian father Ing Phourin, a public servant who taught economics at a local university, stayed behind.
Ing Phourin had had to climb a wall to join his family inside the embassy compound. But the French authorities were not issuing papers to Cambodians and, like so many others who had taken refuge at the embassy when the Khmer Rouge marched into Phnom Penh, Ing Phourin eventually walked out, Ing Phousera said. “My father had a UN diplomatic passport and was to catch the last Air Cambodia flight. Still, he never really meant to flee the country,” he said in an interview.
Ing Phousera went to a refugee camp in France and later settled near Paris with his family once his mother found work. In 1978, they learned that Ing Phourin died the previous year in the Sotr Nikom district of Siem Reap province, where he was relocated by the Khmer Rouge.
Ing Phousera became an artist and a book illustrator and for years tried to do a book on the 1970s in Cambodia. “It took a meeting with [Cambodian film maker] Rithy Panh—who encouraged me to continue this work of remembrance—to start getting rid of my guilt and get back to the drawing board,” he said.
Rithy Panh talks about this feeling of guilt in the introduction he wrote for Ing Phousera’s illustrated album “L’Eau et la Terre,” which Editions Delcourt released this month in Paris.
The Cambodians who survived the Khmer Rouge “live in fear and with the guilt of not having been able to die for freedom,” writes Rithy Panh. “One’s life is made of the absence of the others, those whom we are not able to think of as dead.”
The name of the album refers to the way Cambodians in the countryside describe their universe as being “toek dei,” or water and earth, said Ing Phousera, who signs “Sera” on books and artworks.
What prompted Editions Delcourt to publish the 112-page, color book was the author’s sober words and images, which convey, without hate or sensationalism, an infernal world hard to grasp for people who have not lived it, said editor Thomas Ragon.
The story begins shortly after the Khmer Rouge takeover of Phnom Penh on April 17, 1975, and ends in late 1978 as a rumbling in the distance announces the arrival of Vietnamese forces.
The Khmer Rouge era—from the evacuation of Phnom Penh and life in the work camps to purges in Khmer Rouge ranks—unfolds through vignettes of people’s lives. The short, poetic text and images express, rather than tell, the absurd reality into which Cambodians were plunged.
In the illustrations, faces kept as still as masks—any show of feeling could be fatal—emerge from the darkness of a black and dirt-brown world, with the red of blood the only color allowed.
At the beginning of the album, a soldier appears, his eyes glazed, devoid of hope. ”I was a soldier of the fleeting [Lon Nol] Khmer Republic. I am already dead,” he says, expecting the lot of Lon Nol’s officials and soldiers who were among the first victims of the Khmer Rouge.
Images of the exodus follow, as city people are herded to work camps, some of them giving up and being killed or left to die along the way.
Then life becomes never-ending work punctuated by slogans shouted relentlessly. Resigned faces fill the illustrations while a Khmer Rouge screams in a speaker, “We must, without delay, battle to produce and speed up work, from sunrise to sunset.”
In one vignette, a city man stops eating and lies down to die. “Explain to the children when they are old enough to understand. And please forgive me for leaving you alone,” he tells his wife. “This is no longer my country.”
In another vignette, a young man, called to a meeting from which he does not expect to return, finds himself married and told to produce children for the regime.
Toward the end of the album, a Khmer Rouge soldier under torture, his features tense with pain, confesses that had he known he would be arrested, he would have tried to find ways to prove his loyalty.
The next page shows a world then gone, with a man in a peaceful jungle setting. “I dream of a time when climbing to get sugar palm was not a crime punishable by death,” reads the text.
The album contains maps indicating where people were relocated in 1975 and where mass graves have been found.
People’s stories and facts mentioned in the album came out of Ing Phousera’s research on the era. For his first illustrated album “Impasse et Rouge,” published by Albin Michel in Paris in 2003, there had been no need for him to research the atmosphere at the end of the Lon Nol regime since he lived here at the time.
The story is about Snoul, a Lon Nol soldier posted in the trenches on the outskirts of Phnom Penh in the last days of war with the Khmer Rouge. The character is based on Yem, a man who had worked for Ing Phousera’s father and had become a paratrooper in the Lon Nol forces.
“I will never forget the evenings around the camp fire when he would tell me and my brother about his battles, his injuries,” Ing Phousera said. “But the people dying in the streets, or the piles of bodies blackened by fire, this, I saw myself.”
He called that album “dead end” because this was the solution the Khmer Rouge offered the country in 1975; “and red, which is the color of blood and represents the violence that filled my life at the time,” he said.
In one scene of the album, Lon Nol soldiers, feeling abandoned by their leaders as the Khmer Rouge forces approach, shoot down one of their own planes on suspicion that the pilot was fleeing the country.
For survivors, once the clamor of war stopped, “The end came in the silence, in suffering, and then, there was no longer hope,” Ing Phousera writes near the end of the album. The Khmer Rouge era was about to start.
Ing Phousera, who teaches at the University of Paris 1, Pantheon Sorbonne, has illustrated numerous books besides these two. This has earned him a series of European awards over the years, including an author/publisher award for “Impasse et Rouge” in Paris in 2003.
For Ing Phousera, these albums are his way to “fight” and expose what the Khmer Rouge have wanted to hide, he said.
“I’m always amazed by the relative ignorance of people in general, and especially the young, on that era. Everyone thinks he knows and nobody does. And Cambodians [who lived through it] say nothing or very little.”
Ing Phousera, who lives in Paris, first revisited Cambodia in 1993.
“What struck me? The smells, the sensations are still here—instinctively I rediscovered the streets of my childhood. Phnom Penh is a city I love, as I love Paris today,” he said.
He was able to find a few surviving members of his Cambodian family, and he keeps on searching.