The serenity of the setting, the graceful branches of old trees beneath a dazzling blue sky belied its reality. We were amid the mass graves of countless Cambodians, children, men and women. The Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum in Cambodia is part of the “The Killing Fields,” the title of the 1984 Academy Award-winning movie about the tribulations of Cambodian journalist Dith Pran.
It has been more than 35 years since the Khmer Rouge under the dictator Pol Pot launched the campaign of slaughter that killed 1.5 million to 2 million Cambodians. Through executions, starvation, beatings, slavery and unspeakable deprivation, the Khmer Rouge attempted to create what they saw as a pure civilization, untainted by capitalism, forcing more than 2 million to leave cities for gulag-like work camps.
If you excelled, if you had a profession, education, a business, you were targeted for termination. All vestiges of culture and society — religion, traditions, health care — were prohibited. Marriages were broken up, families scattered. Random pairings matched a queue of men with a queue of women. An invasion by neighboring Vietnam brought it to an end in 1979.
Tuol Sleng is one of 400 mass graves. It was overwhelming for me and my traveling companions. On the trunk of a particular tree and on fences circling the graves hung a multitude of colorful string bracelets. They belonged to the children who perished. In the circles of red, yellow, blue and green, you saw childhood joys, simple pleasures, innocence.
Another tree, majestic with welcoming shade, bore the sign, “Killing tree against which executioners beat children.” Respectfully removing our shoes, we entered a glass tower that holds the skulls, bones and ragged clothing of those killed. There was a depth of sadness, not only for the massacred, but also for the brutality that humans are capable of. I felt that I was standing on sacred ground. My lips formed a prayer. All I could think was, “Why, God?”
Later I attended a dinner celebrating the 25th anniversary of Catholic Relief Services in Cambodia. I sat with the leaders of ministries and agencies that work with us to improve education, health and livelihoods. They exuded energy, poise and intelligence. How could that be with those killing fields so close by, in geography and in time?
The man on my right had attended Oxford University. He had been a bit older than his fellow students due to years spent in the countryside under the Khmer Rouge. On my left was an attractive and vivacious lady who had trained to become a physician in France. Next to her was a man who went to Minneapolis and Boston to earn degrees in public health.
They were eager to share stories of their pasts in Cambodia, telling me that under Pol Pot, they began each day hungry, wondering where they would find food; how after the brutality ended, various agencies, church groups, even strangers, came to their aid, gave them a chance.
They told me that it is time to put the past behind, even if that means a role for the Khmer Rouge in the country’s future. They want an acknowledgement of the atrocities, but most of all they want peace, a peace that may require them to let go of the need for their pound of flesh.
There was laughter that evening, a celebration of spirit, drive, opportunities, of strangers who cared. I thought of the many parish groups who reached out to people like these 30 years ago. These are the fruits of your labor. Compassion is humanity’s signature.
Before we left Phnom Penh, we stopped at the Jesuit Refugee Services’ Peace Cafe, which offered gifts crafted by victims of land mines. We were drawn to a simple metal form of Jesus on the cross without his left lower limb. These victims claimed Christ in their suffering; they knew Christ claimed them in his.
Woo is president and CEO of Catholic Relief Services.