An eerie feeling washed over me as I began the audio-guided tour of Choeung Ek, known by most of the world simply as The Killing Fields. There I stood, among teeth and bone fragments, tattered and faded pieces of clothing poking up out of the dirt, listening to the sound of children singing in the distance. I stared down at what looked to be part of a jaw bone and felt the weight of a reality I could not begin to comprehend. One can spend their whole life reading and researching about genocide, but the idea that humans are capable of such hatred and violence remains beyond comprehension. Yet comprehensible or not, there in front of me was the Killing Tree. Now covered in memorial bracelets, it was once covered in the blood and brain matter of women and children. This tree is where most of the children brought to this place were murdered, their bodies beaten against the tree and then thrown into the mass grave nearby.
I looked across the field to find the singing was coming from a nearby elementary school. The crowd of children laughed and sang as they ran around the playground, blissfully unaware of what existed on the other side of the fence. As I attempted to brush off this strange reality, I heard a commotion behind me. Sure enough, what looked to be a high school field trip had descended upon Choeung Ek. While most of those walking the fields were in a quiet and somber mood, the students were simply teens excited to be out of the classroom for the day. They bounced around, flashing the peace sign as they took pictures in front of the mass graves. Merely one generation removed from the atrocities committed on this site, their light-hearted response while at first shocking ultimately served as a reassuring illustration of the resilience of humanity.
Later in the day I made my way to the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum. Originally a high school in the middle of Phnom Penh, in August of 1975 it became known as Security Prison 21 (S-21). This is where many prisoners of the Khmer Rouge were jailed, tortured, interrogated, and often killed or sent to Choueng Ek. Visitors to the museum can walk through the interrogation rooms and the makeshift prison cells. With barbed wire lining the buildings and blood stains still on the ground, it felt as if I was walking through Auschwitz. Pictures hanging on the walls told the stories of some of the victims that had been tortured and killed in each room.
A major focus of the museum is Case 002, the United Nations supported Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC) Tribunal trying three senior Khmer Rouge leaders: Nuon Chea, former Chairman of the Democratic Kampuchea National Assembly and Deputy Secretary of the Communist Party of Kampuchea, Khieu Samphan, former Head of State of Democratic Kampuchea, and Leng Sary, former Deputy Prime Minister for Foreign Affairs of Democratic Kampuchea. Former Social Action Minister, Leng Thirith was originally included in this list but has since been declared unfit to stand trial. These three remaining Khmer Rouge leaders are charged with grave breaches of the Geneva Conventions of 1949, crimes against humanity, and genocide.
Case 001 focused on the former chairman of S-21, Kaing Guek Eav. Known by most simply as Duch, he was originally sentenced to 35 years but his sentence was recently extended to life imprisonment. He was convicted on charges of grave breaches of the Geneva Conventions as well as crimes against humanity for his part in the atrocities that played out at S-21.
As these Khmer leaders age and pass away, many question the point of continuing such trials. Why should the Cambodian government and its people devote so much time and money to try those who might not live to spend any real time in jail? Beyond the cost, these trials have struggled with delays and corruption. They tend to become a financial as well as an emotional drain on those conducting them. Thus, the question becomes: where does the funneling of time and money into war crimes tribunals lead? Do these trials serve a great enough purpose to counterbalance the costs? These questions are of course not specific to Cambodia. Many struggle to justify the time and money put into trying war criminals. Even the International Criminal Court (ICC) has struggled, taking years to reach their first conviction.
In response, I am brought back to this idea that we as humans are inherently drawn to this notion of justice. We yearn for some semblance of order in the world, where those who commit horrific crimes are ultimately held accountable for their actions. We desire to live in a world where impunity does not reign. The truth is this: while atrocities cannot be undone and Pol Pot’s reign has been over for decades, the remnant pain is palpable. The people of Cambodia long for justice. They long for the conviction of those who committed these crimes against them, regardless of the cost.
As an illustration of the desire for the people of Cambodia to experience this sense of justice, the ECCC facilitates study tours for students, teachers and citizens. The study tours take participants to Choeung Ek, Tuol Sleng, and the courtroom, often allowing them to sit in on part of a trial. In this way these ECCC trials do more than simply convict criminals. They bring a small peace to those who have suffered for so long. In the end, that’s what this quest for justice is all about. Our hope for justice brings with it the potential for peace.
Follow Corrie on Twitter @corrie_hulse
Cambodia, Justice, Genocide, Asia