In the first few weeks after Cambodia fell to the Khmer Rouge in April 1975, the nation's cities were evacuated, hospitals emptied, schools closed, factories deserted, money and wages abolished, monasteries emptied, and libraries scattered. Freedom of the press, movement, worship, organization, association, and discussion all completely disappeared for nearly four years. So did everyday family life. A whole nation was "kidnapped," and then besieged from within. Meals had to be eaten in collective mess halls: Parents ate breakfast in sittings, and if they were lucky their sons and daughters waited their turns outside. During the years 1975 to 1979, Democratic Kampuchea (DK) was a prison camp state, and the 8 million prisoners served most of their time in solitary confinement. One and a half million of the inmates were worked, starved, and beaten to death.
The shadowy leaders of Democratic Kampuchea gave few clues to their personal lives. In 1978, the first journalists into DK from Yugoslavia, had to ask the prime minister, "Who are you, comrade Pol Pot?" He was evasive (Pol Pot, 1978, pp. 20-21). New light on his social background suggests its importance for his political life. How little is explained by his personality, though, remains an anomaly.
The story began in a large, red-tiled, timber house on stilts overlooking a broad, brown river, downstream from the town of Kompong Thom. The river teemed with fish, its lush banks lined by coconut and mango trees.