Khmer Rouge Attack: February 1979 

Rockets explode in the middle of the night, startling everyone. The second foster family and the Ung children leap from the hut and wade across the river. On the other side, they take shelter in an abandoned warehouse for the night. Pithy and her family join them there and the large group passes a long night. In the quiet of the morning, a rocket hits the shelter, killing Pithy and injuring her mother. As Luong runs for her life, a man in front of her is shot. She, Chou, and Kim hide behind a stone wall, but disturb a hornet’s nest. Once the Vietnamese retake the village, their foster father goes to survey it and returns with stories of atrocities perpetrated by the Khmer Rouge on the people who remained behind.  

Luong worries that she, Chou, and Kim will need to find a new home soon, but her concerns are erased when Kim returns one day with Meng. He takes Luong, Chou, and Kim back to where he is living with Khouy and Laine, his wife. Both brothers have changed a lot but their presence floods Luong with happier memories. The older brothers announce that they will all return to Bat Deng to find their uncles and aunts. 

The Execution: March 1979 

Meng announces breathlessly that the Vietnamese have captured a Khmer Rouge soldier, who is being held in the camp. After the jail was mobbed by villagers demanding that he be released to them for justice, the Vietnamese officials decided to accede to their wish for revenge. 

Luong is eager to attend the execution, although Chou begs her not to go. Undeterred, she heads to the crowded field and wriggles her way to the front, facing the prisoner. He looks at her and she shrinks in terror. But the crowd’s energy sustains her as rage eclipses fear. A young woman and an older woman, who both lost their families to the Khmer Rouge, act as the executioners. The old woman hits the soldier in the head with a hammer, reminding Luong of Pa. She almost feels pity for the soldier, but concludes it is too late for such an emotion. Blood from his execution splatters her as the women continue to hit and stab the prisoner. The field empties but Luong remains, staring at the body. She realizes that his death will not change anything that has happened to her family. Vietnamese soldiers dump his body in a putrid well. The chapter ends with Luong counseling other children to be careful not to get any of the water on them or the smell will never come off. 


Violence organizes these two chapters and each includes a graphic scene of death. Pithy’s death is a central event in “Khmer Rouge Attack” and the execution of a captured Khmer Rouge soldier is the focus of “The Execution.” Luong is present to directly witness both scenes, which changes her perspective on the war’s random violence. While she has seen many corpses and been present for other military attacks, these are the first chapters when she is an eyewitness to the moment of death. This means it is the first opportunity for Luong and the reader to see her reaction to the killings. An important contrast between the two deaths is that Pithy’s death is presented as a senseless injustice, while the soldier’s execution is purported to be an act of justice and revenge. The atrocities that the Khmer Rouge perpetrate in the village during the assault lends support to the idea that executing the prisoner is necessary and fair. 

The crowd that gathers to watch the prisoner’s execution have had everything taken from them by the Khmer Rouge. As the volunteers begin to hit and stab the prisoner, it seems that his death may satisfy the crowd. Despite this, it is no more an act of justice than the executions Khmer Rouge soldiers carried out against supposed traitors. Instead of following a humane and fair legal process, the Cambodian villagers demand that the Vietnamese soldiers turn over the prisoner. Instead of a judicial system, he faces an angry mob that hungers for revenge. In this way, the soldier’s execution mirrors the events of the Killing Fields, like those where Pa, Ma, and Geak died. Even the weapons used to kill the soldier are the same as the ones Luong imagines were used to kill her family, weapons that she has been trained to wield. This disturbing episode frames justice as revenge, demonstrating for Luong and the reader the limitations of this way of thinking.  

In the logic that governs the execution scene, the villagers deserve to kill the soldier because they have suffered at the hands of the Khmer Rouge regime. Two of them identify him as the person who murdered their families, and there is no hesitation in their move for revenge. While this is in keeping with the logic of the Angkar, this scene turns certain aspects of society upside-down. The soldier takes on the role of victim, but more importantly, women publicly drive the pursuit of justice. Until this point in the memoir, women have been confined to passive roles in designated spaces, like their home or camps exclusively for women. Before the Khmer Rouge regime, they were expected to be docile and beautiful, without playing an active role in public life. Under the Angkar, women are subjugated to an even greater degree. Based on Luong’s experience, women are targets of violence who face rape and abuse, especially if they are unmarried or do not have a man to protect them. Women perceived as being strong are sent to camps where they are brainwashed and trained to be servants of the regime. In this scene, women actively and publicly seek revenge and begin the execution.  

Luong had been excited to watch the execution, but after it’s over, she only feels sadness. She opens up the possibility that the villagers might have deserved revenge and the soldier might have deserved to die, but that does not make the execution right. This is an ethical dilemma that many nations confront after war and genocide, and there are no easy answers. 

The field where the soldier dies offers the gathered mob the opportunity to reclaim their lives, land, and heritage. At the same time, the violence of the execution does little to ease the losses Luong has suffered. As she recognizes that the soldier’s death does nothing for her, she faces an important ethical moment and begins to release the rage that has consumed her. When she advises the village children to avoid the well full of corpses, she expresses an idea that she had begun to consider in “Flying Bullets,” namely that exposure to violence, whether through sight or other senses, can cause harm.