Most former soldiers, government officials, doctors, teachers, and educated people were forced to dig pits and were then clubbed to death. An estimated 1.7 to 2 million people were killed, that is almost one fourth of the Cambodian population was killed under Pol Pot’s regime. To recover from something of this magnitude is almost impossible. Children were separated from their parents and worked in children’s communes. The youngest, who stayed with their parents, were expected to report on their parents at daily meetings in the communal dining halls. Among the ‘crimes’ they were to report their own parents’ efforts to hunt frogs and collect other food for their children. Child spies lurked beneath the houses at night to overhear complaints. Children who were around the ages of 5-12 were put to work as soldiers. Trained to kill and prepared to fight at any moment. Many of these children who were too young to be put in these miserable circumstances did not survive due to physical exhaustion, famine, and malnutrition.Due to these occurings families were not only separated but they were also destroyed because many of the family members who left to “work”, never came back. Cambodia’s traumatized society is beginning to undertake the fraught, painful business of reckoning with their history by finding lost family members and reuniting with them. A television show called “It’s Not A Dream” takes the difficult task of reuniting members of Cambodian families who were shattered by the genocide. The regimes’ crimes were rarely spoken about, let alone attempts made to seek redress for victims. In large part, this was because people remained scared.Although the Khmer Rouge were snuffed out by the Vietnamese invasion, it existed for another two decades. Pol Pot and his supporters established a stronghold in the west and continued as an insurgent guerilla force. In many villages people have been living side by side with the executioners for decades (UK). For many years there was a virtual taboo on even speaking of the Khmer Rouge as if the very words were…a malevolent spirit lurking in the corner of every room. The silence was due to the fact that Cambodian’s lacked the vocabulary of therapy and healing to process a crime of the magnitude of the one perpetrated against their society. Foreigners working with Cambodian refugees and survivors have encountered evidence of pervasive mental illnesses caused by the regime of terror, murder, and repression to which Cambodians were subjected under Khmer Rouge rule. The Khmer Rouge’s attempt to restart society at “Year Zero” involved a concentrated effort to exterminate the country’s educated classes. Nearly two generations of young Cambodian men grew up learning little more than how to kill. When it was finally time to rebuild, there were effectively no bootstraps with which the country could pull itself up again. Even today young Cambodians are not taught about the genocide in high school. Some kids are skeptical that the Khmer Rouge’s crimes even occurred. A poverty-stricken country one of Asia’s poorest, albeit with 7% predicted economic growth this year–most young people appear to be focused on getting ahead rather than looking back. The space for discussing, redressing and healing from the genocide only began to open up in the past decade with the establishment of the Khmer Rouge Tribunal.
Founded in 2006, the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia is a ‘hybrid’ tribunal using both Cambodian and international judges and staff to investigate the Khmer Rouge’s crimes against humanity and bring leading regime figures to justice. Intended as a southeast Asian equivalent of the Nuremberg trials, the tribunal, which has cost $232 million so far, initially enjoyed broad support. The presence of the international community raised the comfort level of the population to speak about the Khmer Rouge crimes. However the pace of proceedings seemed glacial, due to the advancing years of the suspected war criminals, two of whom died while facing trial. Another was ruled mentally unfit to stand trial. Pol Pot, The Khmer Rouge’s top leader, died in 1998, having never faced charges. This, along with persistent accusations of political interference from the Cambodian government, has soured attitudes towards the court. The proceedings are a ‘sham’ and for many victims, it is ‘too little, too late. The tribunal was an ‘imperfect vessel’ for delivering justice, moreover Cambodia’s leaders needed to strike a balance between two imperatives: delivering justice for victims, and completing the reintegration of former Khmer Rouge into society. The most important aspects of the tribunal’s work were those that needed to take place outside the courtroom triggering changes in Cambodian society. Today Cambodians have overcome the fear of talking about the genocide, to the point that even the perpetrators feel emboldened to say their piece. There’s a lot of people who want to tell the world they were fooled by a grand idea of a revolution which went bad. For a few of them, Cambodia’s opening up about the genocide finally brought about the prospect of some healing, however bittersweet. The Rwandan genocide was a massacre ignited by ethnic division and carried out by the Hutu majority mostly against the Tutsi minority. Between 800,000 to 1 million people were killed in 100 days. Most were hacked to death with machetes, neighbor turned on neighbor, and villages lay strewn with bodies. This tiny nation sent shockwaves across the world. However Rwanda got back on their feet in a quicker, more just, and more efficient way. The Rwandan Genocide was largely fueled by the politically-influenced ethnic divide between Tutsis and Hutus.
After the genocide, the Rwandan government implemented a campaign to remove ethnic distinctions from the country. Today, in Rwanda, there are increasingly no ‘Tutsis’ or ‘Hutus,’ only ‘Rwandans.’ According to the United Nations, to establish swift justice for the thousands accused of committing genocide, the Rwandan government re-opened the country’s traditional court system known as “Gacaca.” Trials were conducted by locally elected judges, and lower sentences were granted if the defendant repented and tried to reconcile with the community. Forgiveness was asked for and granted publicly, establishing unwritten, yet commonly held and understood, social expectations from the community and the perpetrators. One of the most fascinating outcomes of the Gacaca courts was the responsibility given to perpetrators to not only serve a sentence, but to do so by doing good to their victims. A Hutu man who had killed a Tutsi woman’s husband would come back and help her rebuild her house. Cases like these helped Rwanda find reconciliation where no one else thought it possible. Forgiveness has transformed this valley from a place of death to a place of life. Tools that were once used to take lives, now give life by producing crops and raising livestock. With pride, people work together side-by-side despite their past. Most of the women lost their husbands in the genocide. But today, it does not matter what side they were once on, all that matters now is their future. This is reinforced by the literal translation of their village’s name: ‘do something with your life’ and their sheer determination to do just that, is palpable. In the end only reconciliation and forgiveness can bind up a nation after genocide. Through pain and perseverance Rwanda is conquering her dark past. On the other hand Cambodia is far behind in terms of recovery but their progress is surely there. Genocide is an act that needs to be overcome not only by each person but as a society, through the government and as a country through each other.