Friday, November 25, 2005

Healing the wounds of the past

Bangkok Post

Nov 24, 2005

By Ker Munthit,


Khmer Rouge victims and killers come together to seek reconciliation for the atrocities committed during the four-year genocide in Cambodia.

The older Cambodian excitedly called out the younger one's name, smiled broadly and threw an arm around his shoulder. It might have looked like a scene at a school reunion, except that Chum Mey, 75, was a victim of Khmer Rouge torture, 50-year-old Him Huy was an executioner, and their encounter in a Cambodian killing field was part of a remarkable attempt to lay to rest a few of the ghosts of this nation's holo­caust.

Nearly two million people died under the Khmer Rouge's four ­year dictatorship, yet little has been done to heal the trauma—no South Africa-style Truth and Reconcili­ation Commission, no DNA testing to identity loved ones left to rot in the killing fields, and a war crimes tribunal that is barely off the draw­ing board. So some Cambod­ians are taking matters into their own hands.

The event that brought 25 former Khmer Rouge operatives and 25 of their victims to the mass graves and prisons of the 1975 to 1979 reign of terror was co-organised by the Documentation Centre of Cambodia, an independent group researching Khmer Rouge atrocities.

Entering unknown psychological terrain, unsure how victims and perpetrators might respond to acre sites in three provinces and the capital, Phnom Penh, can't yet be judged. But by the end of the three-day journey, the participants had shared stories of hardship and cruelty, exchanged apologies and absolution, and prayed together for the dead.

At S-21 prison, now a museum in Phnom Penh, Chum Mey showed how he was shackled by his arms and legs. He told how interrogators, accusing him of being a foreign spy, ripped out his fingernails during a 12-day torture session. The floor was still faintly stained with blood.

Later that day, the perpetrators' bus arrived at Choeung Ek, a killing field site near Phnom Penh. Standing on the edge of a mass grave, Him Huy told his story.

He described trucking inmates from the prison, hands tied and eyes blindfolded. After they were made to kneel by open graves, the killers struck their heads from behind with heavy metal bars. Night hid their deeds and a generator's noise muffled the cries.

"One blow for one person. Then, those who struck the blows stepped into the grave and slashed the prisoners' throats with knives in case they were not dead yet," Him Huy said. "I bludgeoned four or five prisoners too."

He said he did it to save his own life, acting under the orders.

Kaing Khek Iev, the S-21 chief, is in detention awaiting trial. But only this year was funding for the tribunal agreed upon, and now the impoverished Cambodia government of former Khmer Rouge officer Hun Sen is claiming it can’t afford its 54.3 million Cambodia riels (547.000 Baht) share of the costs.

Youk Chhang, head of the documentation Centre, said both perpetrators and victims were "survivors" of the Khmer Rouge, and that a dialogue was important to overcome mutual suspicion and fear.

“They are either silent or angry when they react to the past or to the other side of themselves”, he said.

On the second night of the trip the two groups came together around a TV set to watch a documentary about the Khmer Rouge era. One woman was so overcome by the memory o she lost that she walked out.

The next day the two buses finally traveled in the convoy, bringing the two together to walk through a rice field to a former Khmer Rough prison at Kraing Ta Chan, south of Phnom Penh.

Here, a pile of Human skulls lies behind a glass window, and Kim Teng, a 35 years old policeman, wonder weather any remain of his relatives. He became an immate at the prison at the age of six with his mother and two year-old brothers, about a week after his father and grandfather were killeld. He and his mother survived, but his little brother starved to death.

Also on the trip was Soy Sen, a 49-year-old, former prisoner who told Kim Teng he helped to bury his relatives.

“I buried them along this stretch here," he said, pointing at the ground. He added that several other prisoners were buried in the same grave, which was dug up by villagers seeking gold teeth in the anarchic fight for survival immediately after the Khmer Rouge regime fell.

"I have longed to find their bones and hold them in my hands," the policeman said, voice trembling, close to tears. "But now I have to assume this and pray for me to carry no more pain."

Even that shaky surmise was relief enough for him to forgive 61-year-old lep Duch, the prison's former deputy director, who was on the tour.

"He apologized to me for the suffering endured by my family. I forgave him," Kim Teng said. "I gave him a chance, the only and final chance, and there won't be a second chance for him."

lep Duch professed to understand how the victims' suffering might make it difficult to mend fences with someone like him. He said he was remorseful, but declined to discuss his job at the prison when asked by a reporter.

Only at the end of the trip did Chum Mey realise that Him Huy, placed burning incenses at the memorial and ask the souls of the death not to think of him as a killer, saying: “I was just struggling to survive too”. But he seemed to resist teh concept of guilt, consistently avoiding the words "remorse" or "apology".

Prak Kharn, 50, an interrogator at the S-21 prison, was more willing to confront his past, saying: "I feel ashamed. I accept that I have guilt for what I did under orders from others. It was inhuman. I regret that."

Most of the victims said they understood the circumstances that compelled their travelling com­panions to act as they did. They also said their Buddhist convictions forbid vindictiveness.

But forgiving did not come easy to all. "Emotionally, I'm still hurt," said 52-year-old Nuon Mom, who lost her husband. Should she ever find his killers, she said, "I'd like to eat their flesh and suck their blood." AP


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