The book recounts the lives of five key people to tell the story of five decades of Cambodia’s history.
In this way it assesses the causes and consequences of the Khmer Rouge’s 1975-79 rule, a period of such bitterness that survivors refer to it as “the time when the clouds fell from the sky”.
It covers the 1960s – before Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge were a political force of any significance – to the 1970-75 civil war, which ended on April 17, 1975 when Cambodia’s communists captured Phnom Penh and took control of the country.
The book then looks at the Khmer Rouge’s disastrous 1975-79, when an estimated two million people died, before moving to the 2000s to examine the limited post-atrocity reckoning known as the Khmer Rouge tribunal.
Each character’s life links directly to these events, and it is these human stories that drive the narrative.
What follows is a snapshot of each of those five lives.
Ouk Ket was the oldest child in a large, well-to-do Phnom Penh family.
A bright and hard-working student, Ket* left Cambodia in 1968 on a scholarship to study statistical engineering in France.
He did not return to Cambodia until 1977, by which time he had met and married Martine Lefeuvre, a young Frenchwoman.
The couple spent most of those years in Senegal, West Africa, where Ket worked as the third secretary at the Cambodian embassy and where their two children were born.
In 1977, Cambodia’s foreign ministry recalled Ket “to get educated to better fulfil your responsibilities”. They went first back to France, where he left them – expecting to send for them later once Pol Pot’s government had decided on a new role for him.
Martine and their two children never heard from Ket again, and his disappearance into the closed country that was Democratic Kampuchea consumed their lives.
* A note on names: in Cambodia, the family name is listed first (Ouk) and the given name (Ket) comes second.
Martine met Ket in France in 1970. They married the following year and, after moving to Senegal, the couple had two children – a son called Mackara and a daughter called Neary.
When Ket was recalled to Cambodia in 1977, the four of them left Senegal and returned to France where Martine and the children remained, waiting for Ket to call them to Phnom Penh. That call never came.
Martine spent years trying to find out what had happened to Ket, years that were characterised by a growing fear that something terrible had happened to her husband.
In 2009 she gave powerful testimony against Comrade Duch, the head of the Khmer Rouge’s notorious S-21 prison, at Duch’s war crimes trial in Phnom Penh. Her husband’s disappearance, she said, had destroyed them.
“Ket’s suffering was and still is our suffering,” she told the tribunal, “and, far from diminishing with time, I can tell you that the suffering is in fact more and more intense.”
Martine lives in France.
Neary, the second child of Martine and Ket, was just two when her father returned to Cambodia in 1977.
She is the central character in When Clouds Fell from the Sky, and the book’s subtitle – A Disappearance, A Daughter’s Search and Cambodia’s First War Criminal – illustrates that.
Her life’s efforts to come to terms with her father’s fate and then to try to attain some form of justice for him comprise a significant part of the book’s narrative.
Neary’s first trip to Cambodia was on her 16th birthday in 1991 when she flew with her mother and brother to the country to meet Ket’s family for the first time. There they were confronted with the horrors of S-21 prison and with the killing field of Chhoeung Ek on the outskirts of Phnom Penh.
Trying to find out what had happened to her father, she said later, was “like a quest: you don’t have answers so you look for it all your life”.
Neary lives in France.
Between March 1976 and January 1979, Comrade Duch headed the Khmer Rouge’s most secret prison known as S-21. “Duch” was his nom de guerre – his real name was Kaing Guek Eav, and he joined the communist revolution in 1967.
In the early 1970s Duch, originally a teacher, was put in charge of a rural prison camp known as M-13A, and it was there that he learned the techniques of torture and interrogation that would eventually see him appointed to run S-21, the most important of the Khmer Rouge’s nearly 200 torture and execution centres across the country.
You can view an exclusive 6m00-long video of S-21 on this site.
The book opens with Duch and his staff fleeing S-21 on January 7, 1979 – the day that Phnom Penh fell to the invading force of Vietnamese troops and Khmer Rouge defectors. He disappeared into the Khmer Rouge-controlled areas in western Cambodia near the Thai border.
It was 20 years before Duch was found. At that point he was arrested.
Duch’s trial took place in 2009 at the international war crimes tribunal in Phnom Penh. The tribunal eventually jailed him for life in 2012, holding him responsible for the deaths of at least 12,273 people. The true number of people who died under Duch’s command can never be known, but was certainly far higher.
He is in prison in Cambodia.
Sam Sady grew up in Phnom Penh in the 1960s and 1970s, and her close friendship with her cousin Ouk Ket allows the reader to understand Ket’s life prior to his departure to France in 1968, and to learn what happened to Ket’s family between 1975-79.
Sady**, who is today a teacher in Phnom Penh, was one of the millions of ordinary people who were ordered to leave the towns and cities in April 1975 when the Khmer Rouge took power.
Along with the rest of the population, Sady was enslaved and forced to work in the rural gulags growing rice and labouring to build irrigation projects as the Khmer Rouge enforced their disastrous economic policies and restructured society to their bleak and brutal vision.
Sady’s story is that of almost every Cambodian living under the Khmer Rouge between 1975-79, and her tale of struggle, loss and recovery mirrors that of nearly every family.
Sady lives in Phnom Penh.
** Cambodian names typically take the emphasis on the second syllable, so Sady’s name is pronounced “Sa-DEE”.