Back in 1945, as the world came to comprehend the width and breadth and depth of the Holocaust, as we came to understand that nearly six million Jews (along with millions of other minority groups and perceived enemies of the Nazi Reich) were methodically and maniacally killed simply because they were born Jewish, we collectively uttered the phrase “Never again.” Though I don’t have evidence of it, I’m pretty certain this wasn’t the first time the world had said “Never again.” It wasn’t the first time we vowed to stand up against hatred and violence, to refuse to let people be killed simply because they had blood or ancestry or beliefs that a more powerful group did not like. It wasn’t the first time we said it, and it wasn’t the last time we failed to keep our word.
Unfortunately, “Never again” has proven time and again to be an empty promise. Witness Darfur. Witness Rwanda. Witness Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge.
In 1975, amidst the chaos of the war in Vietnam, which had spread into Cambodia, and the surge of communism in Southeast Asia, the Khmer Rouge came to power in Cambodia. For the next four years, they would rule the nation, taking a country that seemed on its way to a golden age back into the stone age. The goal of the Khmer Rouge, led by Pol Pot or “Brother Number One,” was to turn Cambodia into a nation of peasants, all equal laborers in the rice fields. He abolished money, ended all education, destroyed vestiges of culture, and emptied the cities, moving all city-dwellers into the fields. He also divided up families and created a fear that made everyone suspicious of their neighbor and quick to report any misgivings to the authorities.
But he didn’t stop there. As with all megalomaniacs, Pol Pot was obsessed with threats to his power, both real and imagined, and went to all ends to eliminate his enemies. In his case, anyone he considered an intellectual was a threat, and his definition of intellectual was insanely broad. Work at a school, and you were an intellectual. Speak a language besides Khmer, and you were an intellectual. Wear glasses, and you were an intellectual. Fit his description of an enemy, and you and your family were eliminated.
During the reign of the Khmer Rouge, over two million Cambodians died. Some died from malnutrition and overwork. Others were brutally murdered by members of the ruling party. We played witness to this horrible history while in Phnom Penh, visiting the Tuol Sleng Museum and the Killing Fields of Choeung Ek.
It isn’t hard to imagine Tuol Sleng as the school it once was, but what stares you in the face is the prison that this school became. The tile-floor classrooms have been subdivided into tiny cells, barren except for a cot and the manacles that kept prisoners immobile as they were tortured. The balconies through which students once moved as they went from classroom to classroom are enclosed with barbed wire, intended to keep the desperate from throwing themselves to their deaths. The playground now houses eleven tombs holding the bodies of the last people killed here as well as instruments of torture used to coerce confessions from prisoners. What is most haunting, however, are the rooms simply covered in photos of the people held prisoner here. The photos are of men and women, boys and girls, even babies. Some look like people you passed on the street earlier in the day. None look dangerous or threatening. And practically none of them, once their photo was taken at this prison, had a chance of survival. Of the thousands and thousands of people that passed through Tuol Sleng, only about seven survived. The rest either died while being tortured at the prison or were taken on to the Killing Fields.
The Killing Fields, located about fourteen kilometers outside the city center of Phnom Penh is an eerie place. Today birds and butterflies flutter about, kids at a nearby school sing and shout, and farmers next door plow rice fields with their water buffalo. Look closely at the green fields, however, and you’ll see grass-covered crater after crater, each the site of one of the 129 mass graves found here. From the ground, pieces of bone and tatters of clothing peek out, exposed by two decades of erosion. A monument in the middle contains the unearthed bones of some of the 9,000 victims found here. Buried alive, beaten to death with blunt objects, hacked to death with machetes, swung against trees until their skulls were smashed (in the case of babies), or sometimes mercifully just shot in the head, many of the victims of the Khmer Rouge were killed here, in what once was, and is again becoming, quiet countryside.
As you wander amidst all the horror, you wonder many things. You wonder how anyone could perpetrate that kind of violence on another human being. You wonder how the world could stand silently while it happened. You wonder how the U.N. could continue to recognize the Khmer Rouge as the official government of Cambodia until 1992, fourteen years after they were overthrown by the Vietnamese army. And you wonder just exactly what “Never again” means and when those words will apply to all people in all places.