“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


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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. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. 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

  4. 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.

  5. 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.

  6. 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.

  7. 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… 🙂

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