“Why?” a young American ahead of us asked his friend. “Do you get why this happened?”

His Cambodian companion started describing the events that led to his country’s descent into hell, but the young man interrupted him.

“No, no…..I know what happened. WHY did it happen?”

That question haunted us as we filed past the row upon row of human skulls – scarred by the implements of their torture – inside the Choeung Ek memorial Stupa, and onto the grounds of the former orchard: the Killing Fields, where mass graves were discovered.

How does one begin to comprehend the unimaginable horrors of genocide? How is it possible for one man to brainwash the masses into believing in the myth of the greater good? Why does individual conscience and moral judgement get subsumed in the face of such manufactured moral dilemma?

Between 1975 and 1979, Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge, in an experiment to set up an agrarian utopia inspired by Mao Zedong’s ‘Great Leap Forward’, unleashed a cultural genocide that decimated nearly a quarter of the population of Cambodia. Conservative estimates place casualties at over 2 million.

Thousands of innocent civilians were rounded up and tortured in the notorious S21 in Phnom Penh – a former school turned security prison, now the Tuol Sleng genocide Museum with its macabre and meticulously documented photos of inmates and an array of torture implements. They were then transported to killing fields like Choeung Ek, to be executed and buried in shallow mass graves. The executions were far from humane as evidenced by the loudspeakers ostensibly installed to drown out the screams of victims, or the ‘bashing tree’ where infants were battered to death. Thousands more died of starvation and malnutrition in slave camps

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Choeung Ek has few macabre displays of death and mass torture, apart from the stupa filled with skulls. Just numbered signposts marking a significant spot on the audio tour. A calm, matter of fact narration by a survivor, Ros Kosal, interjected by harrowing stories by other survivors and haunting music by Cambodian composer Him Sophy.  Yet the impact is far more visceral. All you crave at the end of it is to hide, even from your loved ones, and mourn the degree of depravity of the human soul.

The display of the skulls, denied a proper Buddhist cremation, is apparently perceived by many locals to be disrespectful. Prince Sihanouk himself is said to have offered to bear the cost of the funeral rites. But their objections were overridden for what is considered political propaganda.

That brings us to the question of treating memorials to mass massacres as tourist attractions. In this case, even managed by a foreign company in a deal quite similar to the running of their major temples! We debated visiting the killing fields long and hard. In the end we were glad we went, and came back with a better understanding of this gentle nation and its harrowing tryst with evil.

This isn’t the first mass massacre in the history of the world. But this is the first where war, religion or ethnicity did not play a large part. Yes, ethnic minorities of Chinese and Vietnamese descent and the Muslim Cham, were persecuted. But their own people were victims as well. All professionals, intellectuals, soldiers, monks, urban elite, and anyone perceived to be against the revolution were potential targets. Their torturers: 15 – 19 year old peasant soldiers who had fled the US carpet bombing of the border villages (that incidentally decimated another 150,000.)

“He was a monster.” said R. But is it that simple? What about all those who carried out his orders? What about those who kept silent? Or the rest of the world, that turned a blind eye, and even overtly supported the Khmer Rouge leadership – actually granting them membership in the UN! – because it was in THEIR best interests to do so? Aren’t we all culpable?

It took all of a decade to set up an international tribunal. In the meantime Pol Pot’s disgruntled comrades conducted a show trial that sentenced him to a comfortable house arrest. That he lived to a ripe old age, and got to play with his grandchildren and eventually died of a heart attack (or suspected suicide on his terms), is almost enough to make one question the existence of God.

That world leaders and the UN are now pursuing the remaining – and aging – collaborators more enthusiastically than trying to influence the corrupt government (peopled by some ‘reformed’ ex cadres of the Khmer Rouge!) to respect and restore the rights of the common man, is causing much anguish.

Marshall Kim, founder of the Cambodian-American Foundation for Education, claims it is too late for revenge.

“I don’t mean to say we should forget. We can’t. Let the horrors be documented in books and films and let the truth be recorded for the entire world to learn. But by pursuing this trial instead of working to improve the lives of young Cambodians, the United Nations demonstrates it still has not learned the lesson of the Killing Fields: Act before it is too late.”

Genocide has happened many times in history,
in Nazi Germany, Rwanda, Bosnia…
and unfortunately it is likely to happen again.
Remember us when it does
~ Ros Kosal’s parting words on the audio guide


Posted by

Madhu is an Interior designer turned travel blogger on a long sabbatical to explore the world. When not crafting stories on The Urge To Wander, she's probably Tweeting @theurgetowander or sharing special moments on instagram.com/theurgetowander

61 thoughts on “Why?

  1. I have read recent articles on the debate of sites such as these developed for tourism — thought-provoking arguments on both sides. If done respectfully, they can be such an important educational tool and one that helps future generations understand, as well as helping to make sure we don’t forget.

    1. Sadly, a few people come to gawp, in clothes they wouldn’t wear to a memorial such as this at home. But yes, I too believe it is important to remember.

  2. We debated long and hard before visiting the Killing Fields too, Madhu – but on balance I’m glad we went. It was an amazingly beautiful day, and I felt a strange sense of calm whilst I was there seeing the wild flowers and butterflies flitting around.

    As for why – who can answer that question? Pure evil.

    1. I was dreading the visit Marianne, since Hiroshima was fresh in my mind and that was horribly gruesome. I was surprised by how well presented this memorial was, so heartbreakingly calm and contemplative.

  3. Why…why is it people capable of committing these atrocities against humankind, rise to power?
    Why…why is it magnanimous, compassionate people do not?

  4. Why indeed? It is truly hard to understand the lengths one would go to to further a vision, or an agenda, or delusion. Why do people lose all sense of balance and right?

    I am torn between making an attraction of the horrors in one’s history – but if it will remind people of the terror and inhumanity of totalitarianism, if only to remember those who perished, and the courage of those who fought, there may be some sense in the genocide museum.

    Thanks for a thoughtful post, Madhu. 🙂

  5. Perché? Motivazioni indicibili o imbecillità incredibile? L’umanità continua a macchiarsi di crimini. Perché? Per tornaconto? Per comodità? Per fame? Tutto questo è raccapricciante, la storia è costellata di crimini, talmente tanti da non credere quasi che possano appartenere allo stesso essere che riesce ad amare e intenerirsi, a gioire o piangere. Che brutta bestia l’uomo, si porta addosso una malattia che sembra incurabile: la distruttività umana.

    1. Without a doubt Angeline. For if there is one thing that is certain it is man’s short memory, coupled with his thirst for power.

  6. Dear Madhu,
    This was an important post that posed some very important questions. How can this keep happening over and over again? It is important to have memorials, because not only does it educate people, we owe that much at least to the victims.

    My father lost his whole family in the Holocaust. I’ve been to the museums, but couldn’t bring myself to visit the camps when I was over there. I knew the story by heart, the kids were way too little, and I couldn’t bear the thought of it. But I’m ready to go back and visit, the kids are older, and I am glad that it is there. When I go to Cambodia, I will visit, and try to understand what happened, and why. The next question we need to ask is “How can we keep this from happening again, to anyone, anywhere?”

    1. I have read your father’s story on your blog Naomi and I am so sorry he had to go through all that suffering, I hope with all my heart that we can stop this from happening again. But I am too cynical to believe we can.

  7. You can’t help but utter “Why” upon visiting the Killing Fields. The memorial, remains and hearing one story after another as we walked the field bring chills and sadness to the atrocities perpetrated by one man. Why one man can be so evil??? We may not know the answer, but evils acts occurs everywhere.

  8. Many human actions, especially those in the wrong, do not have a reason… a justificated reason… is unfortunately inherent in our DNA.
    If I go through the story, which I find always painful, in every period I saw bloody wars, acts of power over the weaks…
    Since memory of man has preserved traces…
    I despair for what has not yet occurred, for what the children of my kids will have to testify.
    I can only meditate… for what I’m… in the sincere hope that when my karma will be “mature” perhaps I will no longer return to samsara.
    Unfortunately, it is because of us adults:
    we have lost the grace, the freshness and innocence of a child…
    and the child inside of us try to hide it (maybe for fear of the consequences).

    1. You are so right Claudine. I fear for future generations too, and certainly don’t want to be around to witness any of it.

  9. We did not go to the museum as we were there just over night. Our driver and guide explained that the existing villages are so infiltrated by Khmer that no one feels safe today, and he feels it could happen again. How horrifying to live in perpetual fear. Important questions, Madhu..Why?

  10. oh amiga; i would be torn as well – to see or not to see…i think i would have been physically sick… and w’o a smile in my heart for a long time afterward. it’s almost as if seeing that gives us the emotional push to become more assertive, to speak up- speak out, to try our best to keep this from happening, to educate… all the while our hearts are wrenched from our souls as we contemplate the torture and sadness and grief. i often think of how the indigenous indians of the americas were treated, and i am saddened that our genes are possibly linked to some of those who came first, conquered the ‘savages,’ melted their icons and used them in churches… there’s been so much senseless death, and it is time for our world to heal. now only why did this happen, but what can we do about it, and how do we help restore peace to our world?

    through your post, you have made a difference. thank you.

    1. Thank you Lisa. I have no doubt all of us carry genes tainted with the blood of fellow human beings. As long as man is what he is, these things will continue to happen. We can only try to increase awareness and protest loud enough in the hope of keeping recurrences low.

  11. Such places full of death, proof of the incomprehensible, confront us with the worst sides of humankind, that which is withhold inside of us. Our potentials, what we as a species obviously are capable of, what we cannot comprehend. And with that we stand face to face with fear.
    We may ask forever why. Will a plausible explanation, make a difference? Will it stop things like these from happening again?
    History shows that humans will always be willing to set moral aside, when they catch fire.
    Madhu, your header-image, in spite the macabre tang, is gorgeous.

  12. Mankind is indeed strange and cruel. Anyone and all of us can become evil during certain circumstances. Scientists have concluded and confirmed this. Philip Zimbardos experiment and others show our true weaknesses and abilities. Most of us follow the line, but some of us are strong and resist even if we are risking our own lives.

    Important post – thank you

  13. Wow, what a horrible event in our world’s history. I do not remember learning all of these details. Thank you for bringing them back into our minds. We need to remember atrocities such as these.

  14. The Pol pot saga is known and I know of this memorial too.I’m sure it’s quite another thing to actually visit it and stand on the killing fields.
    One question you raise here is what occurs to me all the time: the chain of responsibility.
    As fellow human beings, inhabiting the same planet, we all share the blame of letting it happen. To look away, to pretend it is on the other side of the globe, to remain busy with our own micro-worlds, is equally a matter of shame.
    Why could not the Asian countries – India and others, respond decisively and quickly? Why did not the UN step in? A lot of WHYs?

    Another soul-searing post Madhu.

  15. Before I went to Cambodia in early 2011, I read a number of great books about the Khmer Rouge days and found the stories quite horrifying. I also went to the Killing Fields and Choeung Ek. I did find both places terribly depressing, especially knowing the details of suffering and injustice from the books I read. But these places gave me a great understanding of Cambodia and the culpability of neighbor vs. neighbor as well as the outside world’s involvement. I definitely think memorials such as these need to exist, if just to remind us of the horrors we’re capable of inflicting on one another. In the case of Cambodia, which as you say is a very gentle culture, it really is hard to believe the Khmer Rouge and Pol Pot were able to rally people to their cause and to induce people to kill each other in the name of an ideology. Yet. How many times has this happened in the history of mankind? Very sad, Madhu.

  16. Thank you Madhu, this needs to be seen. I don’t think we will ever know the answer to why, but hiding such things will not change them.

  17. I agree…This need to be seen…Tourist attraction? I remember when I visited Dachau…Some boys were outside laughing and shouting while waiting to go into..When we found them later on inside it was not laugh on their faces or their eyes…I am sure them, like us, were impressed and asking themselves a lot of “Why”? May be it is too late for us to change anything, but mankind needs to remember, and victims have the right to be remembered…And, one day, may be politicians will have common sense and enough humanity to act before, freely from economic or political interests….
    Thanks for this post Madhu!

  18. “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.” ~ Edmund Burke
    We definitely need to be made aware of such atrocities. I hope that such memorials serve to educate against such things ever happening again. I so agree with you, Madhu that people should approach such horrific sites with a sense of deep respect, reverence and awe.

  19. You raise an interesting conundrum about making sites like this into tourist sites. It sounds disrespectful, but as with the two concentration camps I’ve visited in Europe, I think it’s important to preserve what is left and let people come and remember. I left the concentration camps in a daze of emotion — the same way I felt when I left the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C. To me, these are living museums and let us better understand and remember the atrocities that happened, despite the human confoundment as to why.

  20. “… All professionals, intellectuals, urban elite…” – here we are near to the WHY: Hatred vs. intellectuals has been often in the history of Germany too – and there still is as a daily mobbing strategy. The mediocre hate the intelligent because the non educated are envy. Bad if hate becomes legally and is allowed to kill …

  21. Stunning and horrifying genocide perpetuated by the Khmer Rouge. Your well researched narration brings to the fore what we had read years ago. It is sad that such atrocities still continue in different forms and scale.

    Thank you Madhu.

  22. Great post. I didn’t go to Choeung Ek when I was there, but from what I’ve heard, it is quite macabre. I think the question of “why” is so hard to unravel in situations like this. Hopefully we can eventually learn to prevent things like this in the future.

  23. Vile and shocking as it was to see, it has to be spoken of Madhu – it always has to be spoken of. Too easy, otherwise, to put our heads in the sand and think it can’t happen again, that these people, or those people, are different to ‘us’ – the horror, the brutality it’s there, latent in us all, all our communities, and sometimes it erupts and sputters down again, and sometimes the circumstances are aligned so that these holocausts take, and sweep through whole nations. Why? Fear, I think, coupled with this pent up, latent bestiality of ours.

  24. History can be and often is cruel – and we can’t make done like undone – if we only could learn from it, but we too often forget the learning – but when we remember it and use the learning and use the regrets forwardly and say “never again” – then it’s great …

    Great and very interesting post… 🙂

  25. Wonderful, thoughtful post Madhu. I felt much the same way when I visited the Vietnam War museum in South Vietnam. The implements of torture used by the north against the south were simply unimaginable. We have been so blessed to live where and when we do. Thanks for this thought-provoking post.

  26. This is something I have been wanting to see and is on the list when we visit Cambodia. Thank you for writing about this atrocity. As always, you did an amazing job.

  27. Madhu, thank you for a most touching and sensitive approach to this topic. I have no answer to the question as to Why? That extreme bitterness and hate drive the few to exact such punishing wide-scale revenge on humanity is beyond me.

  28. Madhu, Such a poignant post, told with your signature insight and compassion. These memorials to “Man’s inhumanity to man” present a sad, cautionary tale for current and future generations. I’ve just been writing about the aftermath of the Vietnam War – certainly not the same, but another reminder of how low we can sink. Thank you for a powerfully written reminder. All the best, Terri

  29. Thanks for sharing this. I’m not too familiar with this part of history and I learned something. As for the why–I don’t think many of us will ever understand.

  30. Echoing TBM’s comment thank you for sharing this and how can we ever understand such things. We shouldn’t forget them and memorials help with this but I do think these people should have a proper burial as their beliefs would require.

  31. Dear Madhu

    It was nice to see someone asking the same questions which have been driving me insane for a while. Why do not only leaders but also the masses conduct such behavior and such actions? How do you make someone believe that certain people are less worthy of living than others?
    I think most of the answers revolve around the selfish soul of man. There is always a reason not to step in – mostly because the countries facing these sorts of things are of no interest to the western world. Take Burma for example, why does nobody do anything, and why is burma never occupying the evening news? well, because they have nothing that the western world would want. On the other hand, when Saddam Hussein was bombing the kurds, many countries were more than happy to step in – why? Because, Iraq had oil…
    The partial answer as to why the masses follow the horrible orders of their leaders is maybe a lack of confidence? Some people are because of their lack of opinion and confidence easier to influence than others, and those who aren’t follow the leaders anyway, because they don’t want to be the ones standing out of the crowd ( the nation).
    As to whether these sorts of places should become turist attractions: i think it depends… I think that mostly people, because of their curiosity, justify being insensitive towards such places and remains from places like these by saying that it is merely research. I think it is important to distinguish between what one has to do in order to gain knowledge from an incident like that, and what one wants to do. I think it is important to stay respectful towards the people that have died in such tragic episodes, and give them the peace that they deserve. For example: after holocaust, a lot of jews were dug up from their graves to be examined, which is something that goes against their religion. I think that after everything they have been through, the least we can do is let them rest according to their belief. That being said, of course it is important to try and get to the bottom of these kinds of massacres so that we can try to prevent them from happening – although that would require that the countries who have the power to do something about it actually take action instead of hypocritically shaking their heads after it has taken place.

    I apologize for the length of this comment, there were just some things I had to get out:)

  32. OMG … I am left speechless. I cannot stop the tears. This is so well written. My heart aches but I know that this information has to be told. You are masterful at how you convey these stories.

  33. What happened in this country, as well as in China, is definitely horrific. So many people suffered because of the beliefs if ine person and their desire for power. One can only wish that such events do not happen again.

  34. You’ve raised good questions here. They are still searching for land mines in that sad country. On my last visit the capital revealed in those shabby buildings a hint of a glorious colonial period and further afield evidence abounds of a noble ancient history. Most perpetrators of evil escape. There are still fiends from the holocaust hiding in different parts of the world. But who is ultimately responsible for these horror events and how are they to be dealt with? That is the question, and we are loth to deal with that as fingers point back to all of us for tolerating events like this in principle in our own lands.

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