Saturday, December 03, 2005

Documenting Cambodia's Genocide, Survivor Finds Peace

Stefan Lovgren in Phnom Penh
for National Geographic News
December 2, 2005

As the director of the Documentation Center of Cambodia in Phnom Penh, Youk Chhang has spent the last ten years cataloguing the crimes committed by the Khmer Rouge regime three decades ago.

A survivor of the "killing fields," Chhang lost scores of family members in the genocide. He says he came to his work "to get revenge."

What he found was salvation.

"They say that time heals all wounds," he said. "But time alone can do nothing. You will always have time. To me, research heals. Knowing and understanding what happened has set me free."

An affable man whose eyes stir with emotion, Chhang speaks with precise purpose. He has no problem sharing his own history, which he does because it is part of Cambodia's collective memory.

"I'm no different from everyone else," he said. "Most people here lost a family member in the genocide, and everywhere you look there is a story."

Frayed Documents

Led by dictator Pol Pot, the communist Khmer Rouge regime undertook a radical experiment to create an agrarian utopia in Cambodia. The regime reigned from 1975 to 1979, and its policies were responsible for the deaths of up to two million people from starvation, disease, overwork, and execution.

Yet little has been done to heal the trauma. Only a couple of the old regime leaders have been arrested. A war crimes tribunal is still in the planning stage. On the busy streets of Phnom Penh, not a whisper is heard about the country's darkest days.

But the sordid details can be found inside an anonymous colonial building near Independence Square. This is the home of the documentation center, which this year marks its tenth anniversary since it was founded by Yale University's Cambodian Genocide Program.

The filing cabinets in here contain more than a million pages of frayed documents detailing executions, tortures, incarceration orders, forced confessions, and memorandums to and from top Khmer Rouge officials.

"The Khmer Rouge [officials] were meticulous record keepers," said Chhang, sitting in his office on the center's third floor. "They didn't realize that writing everything down would come back to haunt them."

One of the center's goals is to compile and organize the information so that it can serve as potential evidence in court. Its other objective is to simply record and preserve the brutal history of the regime.

"We don't make judgments," Chhang said. "We are only recording who did what to whom, so the puzzle can be put together."

Written documents make up only one part of the archive. The center also houses some 20,000 photos, as well as many films. Staff have conducted more than 20,000 interviews with both victims and perpetrators.

There is also the physical information gathered from more than 19,000 mass graves. During the interview, Chhang said his office had just received word that another mass grave containing 60 bodies had been found. The suspected killer had apparently come back to the grave to loot it for gold.

Selfish Crimes

Most Cambodians are extremely reluctant to talk about the genocide. In classrooms, almost nothing is taught about the Khmer Rouge. Chhang describes one textbook that has a short paragraph on Pol Pot, which says "a lot of people were killed" when the dictator's government was in power.

Chhang lost two sisters and tens of other relatives during the Khmer Rouge era, and he came close to losing his own life.

As a 14-year-old boy working on a communal farm, he was caught picking a vegetable to eat, an act banned by the Khmer Rouge as selfish. Soldiers tortured him in front of his mother.

"She couldn't cry, because that was considered a crime, so she turned around and walked away," he said. "For years I didn't understand how she could do that. Now I know that it saved our lives."

When the Khmer Rouge regime collapsed in 1979, Cambodia's economy was completely shattered, and widespread starvation continued.

Chhang says his mother gave him the equivalent of a dollar and told him to walk to neighboring Thailand. After staying in a Thai refugee camp, Chhang made his way to Dallas, Texas, where he later worked on crime prevention.

He returned to Cambodia in 1992 to begin the work of documenting the atrocities committed during the genocide.

"This work must be done," said Chhang, who still has a big scar on his leg where a guard cut him with an ax. "We can't bring back what we lost. But without legal proceedings, we would give impunity to those who cultivate genocide."

Into Court

Meanwhile, the United Nations war crimes tribunal for Cambodia, similar to those established for Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia, has been delayed for years. There are concerns that many of those responsible for the atrocities will never set foot in court.

Pol Pot died of a reported heart attack in Cambodia in 1998. Only two major figures from the old regime are in custody. Some believe the current government could even block a tribunal, because many of its officials were themselves members of the Khmer Rouge.

Chhang, however, says the public has benefited a lot just from the debate surrounding the tribunal.

"As long as people stay engaged, everyone benefits," he said.


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