I think of the trees
and what their eyes have seen.
Life and death, and genocide pass
beneath their leaves
and still they stand;
they must have their own way of mourning,
as living beings witness to such horror.
After Angkor Wat and Siem Reap, my brother and I made our way to Phnom Penh. As a peace & conflict, and genocide scholar, I was eager to see first hand many of the places I had read about in my research of the Cambodia genocide that took place from April 1975 to January 1978 during which over 25-30% of Cambodians (nearly two million people) were killed by their own government through execution, famine, and disease.*
[S-21 Prison Camp, former high school in Phnom Penh]
Through my connections as a Rotary Peace Fellow, and the organization I work for, my brother and I were able to meet with Youk Chhang, the director of the Documentation Center of Cambodia (DC-Cam) , and child survivor of the genocide. We talked at length about historical memory, transitional justice, family, documents, immigration, and healing.
One of the many memorable things he said was that he always tried to find beauty in the world even in the context of horror, because the darkness can get you down. He said that if you look around his office, there are plants and there is art, and lots of big windows; but no bones or skulls or torture tools.
I agreed with him and said that especially for people doing the kind of work we do, we need to find something positive to put all of our complex emotions and feelings into. I would guess that for survivors, creating a space for building something positive is essential for continuing life after experiencing such violence.
[streets of Phnom Penh]
After meeting with Mr. Chhang, we visited the S-21 prison (the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum), and the Killing Fields (The Choeung Ek Genocidal Center). A very moving example of the finding a way to create something beautiful after such horror, and in away that allows for healing is a song at the end of the audio tour at the Killing Fields called “Oh Phnom Penh.” It was written right after the end of the genocide as people were attempting to process what had happened to them as a people. The depth and emotion in the song is indescribable especially when sitting on that hallowed ground, and walking the streets of that impoverished city.
YouTube video of “Oh Phnom Penh” song, posted by the Documentation Center of Cambodia:
*It must be mentioned that, as in many places around the world, that the United States conducted a secret war in Cambodia (1965-1973) during which hundreds of thousands of Cambodian civilians were killed via US bombing raids, and internal displacement and famine. Americans did not begin to even learn about the full extent of the war until 2000. Historians and scholars argue that the US bombing helped the genocidaires of the Khmer Rouge gain initial popular support because of their anti-American ideology.
I also just found out that the United States also conducted a secret war on Laos for over nine years.