Backstory: Cambodia's healing history lessons
Many rural Cambodians still don't understand why they and their families were condemned to extreme suffering, let alone murder.
PHNOM PENH, CAMBODIA
Past several fenced-off mass graves linked by a meandering footpath in the Khmer Rouge killing fields of Choeung Ek, Chen Van arrives at the centerpiece of the memorial ground – a glass-walled, obelisk-shaped stupa – and stares dumbfounded.Skip to next paragraph
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The shy farmer who has traveled far from the southeast by bus to be here gazes at row upon row of human skulls arrayed neatly on wooden shelves, and bursts into tears. Burying her face in her checkered shawl, Ms. Van tries in vain to muffle her sobs. Perhaps, she says, some of the disembodied heads once belonged to her three brothers.
Also visiting the memorial is Nguon Bei, from a farming village in the south. He, too, professes to be taken aback by the gruesome sight – for an entirely different reason. He just can't believe, he says, his old comrades could have done this.
A small man with an unruly mop of hair, Mr. Bei wears a faded UNICEF shirt with a heart emblazoned on it. Until recently, he was a Khmer Rouge stalwart. "I came here to see those thousands of skulls and hundreds of mass graves people are talking about," he adds, glancing furtively around.
Choeung Ek is one of Cambodia's handful of memorials of the Khmer Rouge genocide that, between 1975 and 1979, claimed the lives of nearly 2 million citizens – a third of the nation's population then.
Van and Bei – and 396 fellow villagers from across the country – are here on a two-day, all-expense-paid educational trip organized by the Documentation Center of Cambodia (DC-Cam), a leading research institution on the killing fields.
Mention Cambodia, and the first image that most Westerners think of is heaps of skulls. So it may sound peculiar that numerous survivors – and some perpetrators – themselves have yet to learn about the true extent of the killing fields. During the Khmer Rouge era, rural Cambodians were isolated and resigned to fates imposed by tyrannical overlords. Many still don't understand why they and their families were condemned to extreme suffering, let alone murder, by the Khmer Rouge who proclaimed themselves the liberators of the dispossessed. And governments since have done little to educate them about the period.
"Most survivors living in rural communities have only isolated memories of atrocities," explains Ly Sok Kheang, a researcher for DC-Cam, who is escorting the villagers around memorial sites. "Many don't even know what happened in neighboring provinces."
Every month since February, the research institution, founded by Yale University in 1995, has brought villagers to Phnom Penh in groups of 400 to 500 to show them documentaries, encourage them to share memories, and brief them about war-crimes tribunals slated at long last to start next year in a UN-sponsored trial.
"If [the villagers] can witness the enormity of the crimes," Mr. Kheang adds, "they come to finally understand what happened not only to them personally but to our entire nation."
This is what happened to Cambodia: In 1975, under the mantle of "liberation," Pol Pot's peasant army of Maoist guerrillas swept into Phnom Penh and immediately imposed their puritanical vision of a classless, agrarian society. Urbanites, labeled "new people," were herded out into rice paddies to sweat in extreme privation alongside rural "base people." Intellectuals – teachers, doctors, dance instructors, or anyone wearing glasses – were systematically eliminated.
In 1979, invading Vietnamese troops sent the Khmer Rouge fleeing to remote jungles, yet even now several reconstituted ex-Khmer Rouge cadres, including Prime Minister Hun Sen, retain a grip on politics and business.
But this is how Van saw it: With her family broken up and interned in separate communes for men, women, and children, she was forced to toil from 5 a.m. to 10 p.m. while subsisting on a starvation diet and sleeping exposed to the elements under flimsy thatched awnings. A mushroom picked unbidden in the forest could have gotten her killed – everything belonged to Angkar ("the Organization").