Traumas of another genocides

We want to present an essay of a VIVES-student about genocide in combination with a totalitarian regime. Hans Decouttere’s experience with the Cambodian genocide resulted in a few surprising points-of-view. Our colleague of the English department supported Hans to express his thoughts about this tragedy.

I don’t like the Dutch term Herinneringseducatie, which can be literally translated as ‘memory education’. It reminds me of uncountable school trips to war museums, to the trenches of Hill 62 and other memorials of the First World War, and even to a few former work camps of the Nazis throughout Europe. On top of that, I still remember how my teachers at school spent many hours on the History of the First and Second World War. To put it bluntly: at the end of elementary school, everyone in my class enjoyed war museums because they were the best places to play hide-and-seek. And we also had become very fond of the war cemeteries: in our vivid imagination, their trimmed lawns could easily compete with the football fields of the Premier League.

Anyway, by the time I graduated from secondary school, my memory was over-educated with dates and historical facts about war, which made me especially sure about one thing: I had seen and studied enough about war for the rest of my life! Many years later, in 2003, I decided to take a sabbatical. I moved to Cambodia, for many people still the country of Pol Pot and his Khmer Rouge. But I’d been there a few times before and I knew that it was most of all a lovely place with beautiful beaches, friendly people, unspoilt hill tribes, delicious food and cheap, very cheap beer. In other words: an ideal country for a long holiday – and the Cambodian genocide was the last thing I was interested in. As I’ve said, I had already seen and learned enough about wars. And concerning Pol Pot and his companions: they had already been defeated more than 20 years ago!

During the first months, I travelled from the famous temples of Angkor to the most remote places of Cambodia in order to write one the first Dutch travel guides about the country. Afterwards, I wanted to settle down for a while. I found myself a nice apartment in the capital, emptied my backpack, filled the fridge with Beer Angkor and pizza, and made acquaintance with my new neighbour. Andrew Richards turned out to be a former US marine who had fought in Vietnam. After his tour of duty, he had discovered he wasn’t welcome home anymore, so he had returned to Asia – where ‘Mister Andy’ made a living as barkeeper or as an exporter of handicrafts, depending on his mood and the opportunities presented to him on his trips throughout the yellow continent.

Andrew was the best neighbour I’ve ever had. He taught me everything I needed to know to survive in Phnom Penh: he showed me how to deal with the beggars, how to stay healthy, where to find the best street food or pubs to go out at night and even how to find my way home at six o’clock in the morning… Yes, ‘Mister Andy’ and I got along very well. We soon became real night revellers who knew everything about Phnom Penh by night. And that’s how I discovered the strange habit of my new friend. The talkative war veteran never said a word about his military tour in Vietnam. He even refused to answer any of my questions about that time. But after about ten cans of beer, he couldn’t stop talking about the atrocities and bestialities he had seen – and
committed – in Vietnam, all those years ago. Ten cans of beer, and you could listen for hours to his strange war stories. I’ve to admit I was a few times wittingly generous when I visited ‘Mister Andy’ with a case of beer under my arm, which was not so nice of me. On the other hand, six dollars was a small price for a night of war stories – stories you’ll never read in war books and that no one will ever see at the cinema.

Then there was Joannie. She was a Cambodian lady who worked as a teacher at the school in front of my apartment. I’ll never forget the first words she said to me: Jij spreekt Nederlands – You speak Dutch! As I wanted to learn Khmer, I immediately asked her to become my private teacher of Khmer. So Joannie – who had fled her country many years ago and had ended up in Holland, where her request for asylum was denied – came to teach me Khmer every day. I did not only learn the language from her, but also many interesting things about Cambodian customs. Until that strange day, when Joannie locked the door, closed the windows and dropped the curtains. Suddenly, she began to whisper her secret about the Khmer Rouge: how the Red Khmer had looted the orange farm of her family and how they finally had killed her parents. I remember that day. I can still see the fear in Joannie’s eyes when she told me her story. I can still see her shivering when she was whispering about the murders. I remember how scared I became, just by listening to her. And I remember how we looked around all the time – just like we were expecting the Khmer Rouge could enter our room any second.
But most of all, I was staggered by the fact that she had never told her story to anyone before…

My friend Sokha, the director of an orphanage near the municipal garbage, was also the sole survivor of the genocide in his family. On many occasions, something reminded him of his family, and he mentioned nonchalantly and matter-of-factly that he had watched four members of his family being clubbed to death. Or he pointed out a kind of cricket or a weed that he would eat when he was starving under the Khmer Rouge… I was always amazed on how Sokha didn’t seem to be affected by what he went through. For him, the Cambodian genocide was so matter-of-fact that he didn’t seem to care.

There was also ‘Mister Monkey’, the bicycle-taxi driver in my street who disappeared one day. I met mister Monkey a few weeks later near S21, the former torture camp of the Khmer Rouge – nowadays a big tourist attraction. The monkey proudly showed me his new mobile-phone: “I tell tourists I survivor S21. Tourists
like. They give lot of money.” I knew that only two or three people had survived S21 and that Mister Monkey was definitely not one of them. But I didn’t care. For Mister Monkey, the invented stories of the genocide represented a small fortune. He could finally send his five children to a decent school! And I sent the poor rickshaw driver as many tourists as I could…

There were many stories to be told in Cambodia – and I discovered quite soon that they were not always true. Even First They Killed My Father, the famous novel by Loung Ung, contains details which don’t match with the historical facts. But how could they? The author was only five years old when the reign of the Khmer Rouge began, so how could she have had so vivid and detailed a memory of the events as they have been documented in her book? Surprisingly, Cambodians don’t care if a story is true or false. They don’t care about a Binjamin Wilkomirski more or less. After all, why should they? Cambodia counts a record number of victims of a posttraumatic stress disorder (PTDS). In every family there’s at least one person who suffers from flashbacks, nightmares, fantasies, headaches or frightening thoughts – and I name only a few of the mild consequences of PTDS: I’ve seen a grandmother who had become really deranged after what she had experienced under the Khmer Rouge Regime, the woman has already been dependent on her family for over 25 years!

Anyway, the stories of Joannie, Sokha, ‘Mister Monkey’ and Loung Ung – which could be true, false, hidden, exaggerated, in a few cases even funny but mostly faded or distorted by time – dragged me into a war I’d never learned about at school. They also changed my ideas thoughts about war. The historical facts seemed no longer important. Even the individual stories had become unimportant. What really started to intrigue me was the way those people cope with the past – again something which my teachers at school had never talked about. At school a war was easy: there were the good ones (The English, the Americans…), the bad ones (The Germans…) and a few victims. And after every war, trials were held, the bad ones were punished, compensation was paid and life went on. But not in Cambodia.

First of all, I learned that war is not always the fight between the good and the bad ones. Many Cambodians who considered themselves as normal, moral people before the genocide were forced during the Khmer Rouge Regime to commit acts they never dreamed possible. Some starving souls betrayed and turned in their parents or best friends to obtain a little food in order to survive. For others it was kill or be killed, and so they became killers. Worst of all, some even started to enjoy the killing and the power. They have been on a super guilt trip ever since, in which they found it hard to live with themselves after what they’ve done… The phrase I like to use is that the Khmers ‘have looked into the abyss’. I, and the other Westerners, have not. In this, I always felt I had something to learn from my Cambodian friends. As their stories show, you cannot always draw a line between ‘being normal’ and ‘being a monster’. Evil is in each of us. Everyone can become a perpetrator and even a monster – and in case you think you’re the exception to the rule, read about the Stanford Prison.

Secondly, the Cambodian genocide made me think about what happens after a war. When I arrived in Phnom Penh in 2003, the UN had just arrived to prepare the Khmer Rouge Tribunal. I saw them be driven around by their personal chauffeurs in brand new Lexus SUV’s. I saw how they spent their hardship allowances in the most expensive shopping malls and restaurants. I saw how they departed on Friday mornings for the most exclusive beach resorts. I sometimes overheard their conversations – Cambodia was just another stopover in their career. I’ve read their expensive words about trial and retribution which would lead to reconciliation. But I always wondered what the average Cambodian, who earns less than a euro a day, thought about these rich
Western career-hoppers who were supposed to bring justice.

Anyway, it took the UN four years to set up the trial and finally, in July 2006, the court came into existence. The tribunal is now running, thirty years after the end of the Khmer Rouge’s rule, when an estimated 1.8 million Cambodians were killed or died of starvation or disease. Thirty years, I think that says enough about the UN and all its agencies which mask their royal wages – your tax money! – under expensive buzzwords… It definitely shattered my naivety about international courts which are supposed to bring retribution for all the victims of a war.

So when I came home in the middle of 2005, my head was spinning around with everything I had heard and read about the Cambodian genocide. And everything I had learned at school about war seemed a big lie to me. Until I saw S21: The Khmer Rouge Killing Machine, a documentary made by Rithy Panh. I had met the film director a few times, but at that time I didn’t know the man – himself a survivor of the Khmer Rouge – had brought together prisoners and guards of the former genocide prison. I wondered a long time why he had done that, until I read somewhere on the outskirts of the internet about a few Cambodian monks who have done the same since 1984, long before UN experts came to tell the Khmer how to deal with their past…

Once a year, on the 20th of May, Cambodians gather at a place called Choeung Ek or ‘The Killing’. In the shadow of a huge glass tower containing hundreds of skulls of victims of the Khmer Rouge, a group of actors re-enact the gruesome events from Choeung Ek’s recent past. Actors portraying political prisoners with their hands securely tied are led to a broad expanse of grass and forced to kneel. Young men wearing the simple black
uniforms of the Khmer Rouge approach each prisoner and, using sturdy bamboo sticks, pantomime executions inflicted by blows to the back of the prisoners’ skulls. As each prisoner slumps to the ground, bodies begin to accumulate visibly, simulating a vast killing field… May 20, known benignly as the Day of Remembrance but more popularly called the Day of Hatred, has since 1984 been a sort of dark holiday in Cambodia. A day when the survivors of the Cambodian holocaust make a grim pilgrimage to Choeung Ek, to mourn lost family members and to re-kindle feelings of anger towards the Khmer Rouge. When I see photographs of the commemoration, I’m always struck by the sight of several hundred orange-robed Buddhist monks quietly viewing the mock
executions. Buddhist monks attending an event called ‘the Day of Anger’ might present, to an outside observer like me, a strange puzzle. But as noted by Rutgers University anthropology professor Alexander Laban Hinton in his masterful study Why Did They Kill? Cambodia In The Shadow Of Genocide: “Monks preach that one must learn to control and extinguish one’s anger, which arises from ignorance and desire and leads to violence and suffering. In Buddhism, the mindful way of dealing with anger is to recognize its source and to allow it to dissipate, since anger, like everything else in the world, is impermanent.”

In a way, the presence of the monks at Cheoung Ek on May 20 is indeed symbolic of the central paradox of the Cambodian holocaust. A nation steeped in religious traditions of emotional self-control and non-violence somehow became the venue for one of the most devastating episodes of genocide in human history. As Professor Hinton documents, Buddhist precepts of nonviolence were ultimately undermined by another element of Cambodian culture, most notably the ugly tradition of “disproportionate revenge”. Disproportionate revenge turns the Old Testament principle of “an eye for an eye” into “a head for an eye.” Every injury must be avenged by an even greater injury. Spinning out this logic of disproportionate revenge on a national scale, the Khmer
Rouge leadership demanded that all “city people” or “class enemies” be “smashed” as retribution for decades of oppression of farmers and peasants. It explains why entire families and even monks and children were taken to the killing fields and “smashed” with a mind-numbing brutality.

A few monks survived the Cambodian holocaust. And since 1984 they hold their annual ceremony at Cheoung Ek, which bears even a greater, baffling paradox: the monks do not only pray. They do not only light candles for the victims. They do not only help people mourn their murdered relatives. They also invite the former perpetrators to their ceremony! Yes, they invite former murderers, to let them question together with their victims what happened in that dark period. In this way, the monks let – exactly as Rithy Panh did in his movie – the former perpetrators and victims share their common past, their common suffering and therefore their common outrage about what happened.

To invite ‘the hated’ at the Day of Hatred seems for us, Westerners, the ultimate paradox. Would you like to be invited by a priest to talk to the murderers of your parents? Anyway, the monks at The Killing Fields have done so for years. And from what I’ve read about it, with remarkable results: people – victims as well as perpetrators – seem to heal from their headaches, nightmares or more severe forms of PTDS. But restorative justice, as
scholars call it, not only focuses on healing of people: restorative justice also focuses on reconciliation for the community! Restorative justice programmes enable people to ‘reconnect’ with their past while mending the wounds of the society. Not only by allowing victims to have their voices heard and their questions answered, but also by providing a space for those who are viewed as perpetrators. While it may be too much to ask from the victims to forgive the perpetrators – as the Cambodian monks do – restorative justice provides the tools necessary to bridge the gap between the two groups; allowing a healing of a society and a movement towards a reconciliation. In short: people who even couldn’t trust their own children during the Khmer Rouge Regime,
learn to trust each other again…

The work of the monks at Cheoung Ek portrays a totally different view of a war and its aftermath – definitely not a view we that we see in the movies or learn about at school. Nowadays, scholars from all over the world come to study the work of the monks. Among them psychotherapists who work with traumatized people (not necessarily witnesses of a war or a genocide, but also people whose trauma was provoked by ‘ordinary’ causes, such as traffic accidents or the loss of a child), therapists who know very well that trying to forget the past or individual processing of a trauma is not the best way to deal with PTDS. What they learn from the monks is the way to healing from a trauma is not an individual matter, but a task for the community – that’s why I prefer the English term ‘Social Remembrance’ to Herinneringseducatie. Moreover, the monks claim that forgiveness is not a
religious concept, but something which one can learn… That’s another amazing thought, isn’t it?

Anyway, as I tried to describe, the monks at Cheoung Ek portray a totally different view of a genocide and its aftermath. They tell the world that everyone can become a victim, but also a perpetrator. And they tell us that not retributive justice, which focuses on criminal prosecution and punishment, but ‘social’ justice is the way to deal with the past. You don’t have to agree with those ideas. To invite the murderer of your parents or children might indeed be a step too far for most of us. But what if your brother had to become a killer while your sister was murdered at the same time, as happened in Rwanda, the Sudan or in the former Yugoslavia?

Hans Decouttere (OAR student VIVES English department)

PS I would like to address my acknowledgement to my VIVES- lecturer Mr Ludo Timmerman, who gave me his support to write about my unusual Cambodian experience. And the fact that the monks as well as many of my Cambodian friends continued to be moral, spiritual people after experiencing their genocide was definitely the most important lesson for me. Therefore I dedicate this essay to them.