Looking to Understand, and Heal, After a Genocide

Text by Dene-Hern Chen
Photo by Documentation Center for Cambodia

Phnom Penh, Cambodia – Youk Chhang’s vision was initially borne out of hatred – an unlikely beginning for an organisation that is responsible for the healing of a nationwide trauma.

At age 17, the Phnom Penh native had survived the genocidal regime of the Khmer Rouge, but just barely. The Khmer Rouge’s ultra-Maoist policies led to the death, starvation and separation of thousands of families. When the regime ended on January 7, 1979 – after three years, eight months and 20 days – approximately two million people had been killed, with thousands buried in mass graves all over the country.

The youngest of six children, only Youk and three of his sisters remained; most of his extended family had perished under the party’s cruel watch.

“I must admit I was looking for a way to take revenge rather than to reconcile with the perpetrators who committed the crimes against my family and many others,” Youk said, seated in his office bathed in natural light.

And so, the Documentation Center of Cambodia (DC-Cam) was established in 1995, as part of Yale University’s Cambodian Genocide Program. Through research, Youk hoped to shine a light on the injustices of the secretive regime, and bring those responsible to justice.

But his task grew as he and his team began travelling to villages throughout Cambodia to interview survivors and perpetrators of the Khmer Rouge. Youk realised, while speaking at length to individuals, that people were not caught up in vengeance, but ached to move past their losses.

“My first advice to all my staff – because I don’t always go there all the time – is just to listen. And I think people want to be free,” he said. “They’ve been hostages of the past; they’ve been trapped by the past.”

“Meeting with both the survivors and the perpetrators changed the way I see things and it turned [my purpose for] revenge into healing. I still believe that reconciliation is impossible in some cases, but healing individually is possible.”

Today, DC-Cam has gathered more than a million documents: 100,000 interviews with Khmer Rouge survivors and perpetrators, 20,000 physical evidence such as mass graves and prisons, 600,000 photographs documenting the Khmer Rouge period, and about 300 documentary films made during that time.

This information has been utilised not only as evidence in the Khmer Rouge Tribunal, set up by the UN and the Cambodian government to bring the regime’s top echelon to justice, but also to furnish a textbook educating teenagers about the period.

In Youk’s eyes, this was a big victory. After the war was over, the international community sought to sweep the regime’s atrocities under the rug in a bid for peace and national reconciliation.

But just as American writer William Faulkner once wrote, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past,” Youk believes that this page in history still affects the present. Over the years, DC-Cam has successfully lobbied the government – which is currently headed by Hun Sen, a former Khmer Rouge cadre – to make genocide education an integral part of the school system. Only in 2009 did it become compulsory for young Cambodians to learn about the country’s dark chapter.

“They are still the generation that is connected to the survivors,” Youk said. “They are touched by genocide because of their family, of their parents, and it has a huge impact for their behaviour and their thinking and their way of life.”

A first-time visitor to Phnom Penh will be struck by how often, and how nonchalantly, Cambodians speak about the loss of loved ones to the regime. More than 30 years after it ended, Youk believes that only now will Cambodians be able to consider reconciliation.

“It takes one generation to meet and discuss this in a less antagonistic and aggressive way,” he said. “Had we met 20 years ago, most of the [reactions] I’ve collected then were either angry, passive, or negative.”

Justice holds different meanings for different parties – especially in a court of law like the tribunal – but victims yearn only for the truth, Youk said. To this end, he is currently planning the construction of a genocide museum, which will be fully realised with a design by famed architect Zaha Hadid. The Sleuk Rith Institute plans to be the leading centre for genocide studies in Asia, and will house a museum, a research centre, and a campus.

Seeking to provide victims with a sense of understanding about the Khmer Rouge, the institution will also promote accountability among the public. Youk’s ultimate, and ambitious, aim is to prevent future genocides.

“Since the UN Convention on Genocide Prevention was signed in 1948, not even one genocide has been prevented. It has happened again and again,” he said. “Cambodia will learn from this mistake of human history.”

“This is not about today; it’s about the future.”

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