By Charlotte Pordage
Over thirty-four years after the fall of the Khmer Rouge regime, and I did not even know that my sister was arrested by the Khmer Rouge - Youk Chhang
I peer at the wall and see rows of grainy black and white photographs, hundreds of faces staring right back at me. Some frightened, others defiant; most are remarkable for their apparent lack of emotion, they seem simply unaware of their sad fate.
It is almost impossible to escape the feeling of being watched by these nameless faces, identified only by number. The people in these photographs could scarcely have understood the magnitude of historical event they now symbolise. Their final days were spent suffering at the notorious S-21 prison, now the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum.
As I think about the horrors afflicted on these people, it becomes more and more difficult to consider each one in turn. But, it’s almost impossible to resist the numbness of conscience that such repetition brings. These are the forgotten voices of the Cambodian genocide, those that never had the chance to tell their story.
Youk Chhang, executive director of the Documentation Centre of Cambodia (DC-Cam), is trying to remind Cambodian’s and tourists of the forgotten stories that are overlooked or simply never shared.
It was a conversation with his deaf sister, Kolthida Ekkasak, that he realised just how many stories were untold. Over the years Youk has forgotten much of the sign language he used to communicate with Kolthida as their efforts to stay close waned. When Kolthida was diagnosed with terminal cancer in December 2013, Youk spent a great deal of time with her.
He said: “… No one bothered to ask her about her experience during the Khmer Rouge period. She was a survivor and while everyone in the family knew how others had fared and their experiences, we never took the time and effort to know her experience. Over thirty-four years after the fall of the Khmer Rouge regime, and I did not even know that my sister was arrested by the Khmer Rouge. It also made me wonder how different her experience was as a deaf person and the indescribable spirit and resourcefulness she must have had to survive. This revelation informs me as much as it saddens me to no end.”
Youk has spent nineteen years recording and preserving the history of the Khmer Rouge, feeling a critical need to bring stories, such as his sister’s to light.
According to Youk, “education is the cornerstone of all transitional justice endeavours.” He believes it makes no sense to organise the trial of criminals if you are not prepared to educate future generations about the atrocities of the Khmer Rouge and how to prevent it happening again.
He said: “We should never rest on our laurels of having ‘buried’ the Khmer Rouge and put the period behind us; if there is anything we should have learned by modern history is that mankind carries the seeds for its destruction as much as it’s evolution, and the line between humanity and inhumanity is far smaller than most people realise in their ordinary lives.”
Despite the importance of Youk’s work, he finds it difficult to get funding for DC-Cam and stories such as his sister’s, which was previously unknown, illustrate the gap between the centre’s efforts and the reality of obtaining justice in a post-conflict society.
In recent times, there have been criticisms about the disrespectful behaviour of western tourists at sites such as Tuol Sleng and Choeung Ek (killing fields), prompting discussions about whether transforming such culturally sensitive sites into tourist attractions could turn history and suffering into a choreographed spectacle. Youk thinks this behaviour comes down to a lack of knowledge more than anything else and the best way to address the issue is through patience and education, adding that the history of mass atrocities will always be a spectacle as extreme depravity and evil inherently invites curiosity.
He said: “We should not discourage intellectual curiosity if it facilitates our goal of education and ultimately prevention. What we must discourage is the trivialisation of the human story. This is the ultimate mission of DC-Cam.”
Charlotte is a 24 year old freelance writer from the UK, currently based in Australia. She contributes to Yuppee magazine and is a web-writer for content marketing company Quill. She is mad about travel and her latest piece featured in Venture travel mags December issue!
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