Friday, 1 February 2013

Bearing Witness

Once my colleagues convinced me that Angkor Wat should be on my travel agenda, it made sense to make a stop in Phnom Penh, too. After I researched it a bit more, I realized that I would have the opportunity to visit the Killing Fields, site of many horrors perpetrated by the Khmer Rouge. Being Jewish, I knew it was a responsibility to do so -- it’s so important to ensure that victims of genocide don’t go unnoticed and are not forgotten.

It’s so sad to think that genocide continues, even after Hitler and after Rwanda. Apparently, evil does walk among us, and it knows which buttons to push to ensure its plans are carried out. Past horrors provide different lessons to different people: the decent ones want to prevent genocide from recurring; the dictators learn how to kill efficiently. Pol Pot’s regime took lessons from the Nazis, recording the names and photographing every victim and burying them in mass graves.

Yesterday, I visited Tuol Seng, site of S-21, a former elementary school turned into a prison where supposed traitors, people with an education and those involved in cultural pursuits were imprisoned and tortured. It’s a shocking juxtaposition: a seemingly benign series of concrete school buildings around a verdant courtyard where trees are blooming, but inside, narrow cells, shackles and instruments of torture.

I happened to latch onto a tour being given by a woman of about 40 or 50 whose two young siblings disappeared, never to be seen again. More than two million people – one quarter of Cambodia’s population at the time – were murdered by the Khmer Rouge in fewer than four years during the late 1970s. Anyone with an education, anyone who wore glasses (looking smart), anyone in government ... they and their families were rounded up and killed. Lots of little children were included, because Pol Pot didn’t want anyone left to seek revenge. Eventually, he even turned against segments of his own army.

This morning, I went to the Choeung Ek Killing Fields, one of 300 or more such sites throughout the country. The prisoners who didn’t succumb to torture or who were otherwise left alone at S-21were blindfolded and handcuffed, shoved into trucks in the dark and driven to these sites, where they were executed, either immediately or the next day. Bullets were too expensive for the Khmer Rouge, so they used whatever was at hand: clubs, hoes, machetes.  ...  Those who weren’t dead were still pushed into the mass graves and covered with DDT, thus killing them. Soldiers didn’t waste weapons on babies; they simply smashed them against trees.

Horrified? I certainly was, and saddened, too. Such a waste of life, so much pain and suffering for both victims and survivors. Such a waste of human potential, both on the side of the victims and that of the killers, often young men and women without education who were easily brainwashed.

Cambodia has not forgotten – and I won’t either.

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