Wednesday, January 7, 2009

They were left forgotten 30 years ago.

Today is the 30th anniversary of the end of the People's Republic of Kampuchea. The Khmer Rouge ruled Cambodia for 4 years (1975-1979) in what can only be described as one of the most horrific, bloody, inhumane periods modern civilization has ever seen. Between 2-3 million people were killed in a country whose population was no greater than 7 million. Unlike other genocides the world has witnessed, the Khmer Rouge attempted to turn people into agricultural robots, devoid of thought, emotion or relationships. Today 33% of the population is under 15 years of age, a fact that is striking obvious when visiting the country. One also notices the lack of elderly people. There seems to be an age cap at around 30 years of age, which upon reflection seems logical considering the country's recent violent history.

The Cambodian genocide has gone largely unnoticed. We remember the Holocaust, Rwanda, the former Yugoslavia and Sudan, but not the most devastating mass murder in history with regards to a percentage of a country's population. 30 years after the end of the genocide, no one has been sentenced for the crimes committed. Pol Pot, mastermind of the macabre regime died naturally in 1998. Cambodians believe this date to be the actual end to the conflict that had plagued their country since American and Viet Cong dabblings started in the 1960s.

The remnants of war remain as hundreds of innocent people are killed or maimed by the leftover unexploded ordinances of war.

Luong Ung, a survivor of the Khmer Rouge movingly described her reaction to the Hollywood movie "The Killing Fields" starring John Malkovich; a movie tracing the real-life story of Dith Pran, a Cambodian photographer who managed to survive the genocide, becoming a New York Times photographer. (he actually just passed away this year)

"Americans will never know what it was truly like" I think.
"They won't remember the smell, the sound, or the heat. For two hours, they'll sit in the dark and watch but they'll never know what it was like to be there for three years, eight months and twenty-one days. What it was like thinking every day that I was going to die and not knowing if the war would ever end. When the credits roll after two hours, the lights will come back on, and they'll leave the war. But I can't."

After having visited Tuol Sleng, a high school turned Khmer Rouge prison of death, I couldn't help but notice how one was affected at a personal level of the horrors committed, due to the well-documented nature of the prison's victims. I was able to put a face to the statistics as photographs of the victims, from young babies to old women to Westerners, continue to survive. Perhaps the most important thing to take away from here was that these were crimes against humanity, and not just some legal definition, but real people...people that had at one time their own lives and stories to tell. Sometimes it seems that a number such as 2 or 3 million is hard to process...

Sometimes it becomes too easy...

The following is the dedication at the beginning of Luong Ung's book "Lucky Child".

"To the Khmer people - for theirs are not only the voices of war, but testimonies of love, family, humor, strength and courage"