“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. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

  4. 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:)

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