Witnessing the Remnants of Genocide

It’s hard to reconcile the experience of visiting the grounds of genocide. I’ve read about the Killing Fields and studied the history of the Khmer Rouge, but nothing could have prepared me for witnessing the remains and memorials in person.

From 1975-1979 close to 2 million men, women and children died at the hands of the Khmer Rouge. The leader of the Khmer Rouge, Pol Pot overtook Phnom Penh in April of 1975. The KR’s ultimate goal was to create a completely agrarian state – which meant eliminating the educated population and restructuring Cambodia into a peasant society.

The result of this “restructuring” was one of the most horrific displays of inhumanity, one of the worst cases of genocide this world has ever seen.

Many of the Cambodian survivors wish to educate the international community, as well as their own Cambodian youth on the country’s troubled past, and so they have turned former prisons into museums and memorials. During the Khmer Rouge regime office S-21 was used as a center for detention, interrogation, torture and killing. S-21 is now named The Tuol Sleng Museum, and it is open to the public. Most of the rooms are empty, aside from visual reminders of the inhumane living conditions victims were exposed to.

As I walked into the Tuol Sleng Museum I was overwhelmed with a sense of heaviness, a deep sadness that reflected my environment. I was entering a place that proved hell can exist on earth. A place that demonstrates the most severe forms of evil can endure.

To further inform museum guests, some of the rooms were filled with photographic evidence of the atrocities committed by the Khmer Rouge. The KR meticulously documented everything – which makes touring the center surreal.

The cells, which were formerly classrooms (S-21 was a high-school before the KR overtook it) still contained remnants of proof that torture took place there.

Many of the visitors were taking photos, myself included, but I feel so inappropriate about it now. I thought it would serve as a reminder to me, but I’m asking myself now, a reminder of what? Pictures to prove that I’ve been where evil has occurred? This is the only photo I feel comfortable sharing.

A simple flower, placed in the window shutters of the cell rooms. A piece of beauty, of nature, of good among so much bad.

I later visited the Choeng Ek Genocidal Center, also known as The Killing Fields. Once again bearing witness to previous massacre, I found myself questioning what I was doing there. I understand that it is important to honor those who were killed by not ignoring the harsh reality of genocide, but I just didn’t feel right being there. Everything was so exposed. The clothes, the bones, the skulls of victims.

As I try to square my feelings about this I have at least come to the conclusion that the more people know that atrocities like this can happen, the more preventable they are in the future. The United States did little to interfere, as the Khmer Rouge thrived for 4 years. Let it not matter what region of the world, what resources are at stake, what political power play at cost. If evil on this scale is occurring anywhere in this world, the only human thing to do is to interfere.

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5 thoughts on “Witnessing the Remnants of Genocide

  1. as someone who grew up, and remembers vividly, the atrocities of “the killing fields” and Pol Pot/KR, thank you for bringing it back into focus.

    It seems that time has a way of dulling ones senses. This is an atrocity that should be remembered on the same level at the holocaust.

    I remember my father telling stories of relocating vietnamese at the end of the Viet Nam war, and how this broke his heart–yanking them from the only country they’d known, plopping them down in Laos. I also remember him crying when this genocide occured–helpless as we were stateside and he was no longer flying.

    My heart will always have a fondness for Asia and Micronesia. Growing up there was a magical time, even with a war going on. The people were beautiful, loving and giving. I’d like to go back and visit once more in my life. With each picture you post of your adventures, it just really cements that idea in my soul.

  2. I think the international Khmer Rouge tribunal is a farce at best. There is no way that trying five surviving members of the Khmer Rouge leadership will bring either justice or closure to the millions of innocent victims who have perished or are still reeling from their genocidal rule. I think the focus should be on education and raising awareness so that similar atrocities do not happen again.

    • I agree. I attended the tribunal last month and found it to be political theater. What saddened me the most was seeing the auditorium filled with elderly Cambodians, sitting there attentively watching one of the defense lawyers argue semantics with the judges for an entire day. The trials have gone on for so long – the Khmer people deserve justice and closure, but I agree that the tribunal seems to be causing nothing more than continued distaste and mistrust.

  3. Pingback: Phnom Penh in film (& a few life lessons). «

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