Saturday, March 27, 2010

Reflections on Genocide

Excavated mass graves at the Choeung Ek site. Each of the 29 graves contained remains of more than 100 bodies; the largest had almost 400.

Located 17 km outside of the capitol city, the Killing Fields of Choeung Ek have been preserved as a memorial to the genocide perpetrated by the Khmer Rouge against the Cambodian people between 1975 and 1979. Similar execution sites have been found throughout Cambodia containing the remains of more than 2 million people brutally executed by the Khmer Rouge. Min Gi and I visited in the early morning, just as the school children were biking to the nearby school.

The "Magic Tree" where Khmer Rouge soldiers would hang a radio to blast propaganda to drown out the cries and screams of the prisoners. There was also a "Killing Tree" where soldiers supposedly smashed infants' skulls against to save money on bullets.

A Buddhist stupa was constructed at the site to honor the dead. The stupa contains many of the remains found in the grave sites, including clothes and bones of the victims, preserved as a religious monument. There is also a small museum on the grounds which includes a small documentary movie theater and some of the weapons used for execution.

Clouds reflected in the tiered stupa

After spending about three hours walking around the grounds reflecting on the events that occurred at the site (we were the first ones there and there were very few tourists until just before we departed), we went into to town to see the Toul Sleng Genocide Museum. The museum is housed in the former Khmer Rouge prison, S21, that served as a holding and torture center for people later executed at the Choeung Ek fields.

Classrooms converted into tiny brick holding cells.

The prison was a former secondary school. It was eerie to see how starkly the cheery, yellow-tiled, institutional floors contrasted with the preserved cells and torture devices and other exhibits. Of the estimated 17,000 prisoners, only 12 were known to have survived, four of whom are still alive today. One documentary at the museum had a former Khmer Rouge soldier and a former prisoner touring the site again, together, describing the torture techniques that were used.

An individual torture room for the most "dangerous" prisoners.

Overall, the morning was sobering and a little depressing. I learned a lot about Cambodia's dark and recent history, and I hope to learn more in the future. What's so unimaginable is that the United Nations allowed the Khmer Rouge oppressors to represent Cambodia's interests until 1993. Western countries' role in the atrocities in Cambodia (and other parts of Asia for that matter) make me ashamed of my country.

The Killing Fields and Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum

Genocide is impossible for me to understand.

It took a long time for me to accept that reality. When I was young, I thought (naively) that I could figure everything out if I just thought about it long enough. I wanted to believe that we could study these mistakes and learn from our collective historical mistakes. I believed in the power of humanity to improve itself. That "world peace" was possible--and even could be achieved within a lifetime.

I remember reading everything I could about the Holocaust and Stalin's regime to try to understand how people could participate in mass murder. I very quickly realized that the perpetrators of the worst violence were not all psychopaths. It's too easy to simply label the soldiers "evil"--they were often relatively normal, somewhat idealistic young men and women. Even the leaders maintained a distance from the worst of the atrocities, making it less immediate. And after awhile, one stops feeling like there is a big difference between 2,000,000 and 2,000,001 people killed.

I still don't know how to reconcile the existence of such evil with my understanding of people, who I believe generally act in ways they believe are good and right. No one is the villain of their own story. But then, how do these things still happen? I don't know. I really don't...

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