Him Huy begins. Not on trial, his memory is clear. As a young farmer, he joined the Khmer Rouge and was soon dispatched to Tuol Sleng prison, S-21, where Duch, the hardened head of Khmer Rouge security, trained his hand-picked staff in brutality. Duch promoted the promising Him Huy to deputy chief of the prison’s security guards. “I had more than 10 guards under me,” Him Huy says with a measure of pride. Among his responsibilities: transporting prisoners to the killing fields, as many as 70 at a time. As Him Huy describes it, Duch tested the young deputy’s loyalty by ordering him to kill a load of Cambodians trucked from S-21 to Cheong Ek. Him Huy complied, shouting at the prisoners to kneel along the edge of a freshly dug pit, while he swung a long metal bar and struck each person on the back of the neck. When he was finished, he had filled the hollowed-out earth with piles of limp bodies. Asked why he talks about this now, he says it makes him feel much better. “I thought the Khmer Rouge was a good movement.” He hastens to add that Duch made all of the decisions; the guards just executed them. “I am a victim of the Khmer Rouge. Not just me. All of the S-21 guards.”
Norng Chan Phal places his hands on the picnic table and looks over at Him Huy. It is his turn to speak. As child prisoners at S-21, he and his brother saw their mother suffer the guards’ savage assaults. Indeed, tribunal documents and testimonies detail the guards’ prescribed responsibilities under the careful watch of deputy chief Him Huy and others. When the Khmer Rouge frantically evacuated the prisoners from S-21 as Vietnamese invaders poured into Phnom Penh, Norng Chan Phal was 9 years old. He and his brother hid, undetected, under a pile of prisoners’ clothes. When it was safe, they peeled back the clothing and went to look for their mother. Instead, they found battered corpses.
Outside the tribunal’s chambers, 61-year-old Prak Sakhorn and her 5-year-old granddaughter are inside the enclosure, waiting to witness the trials. As for many, the morning’s ride was their first time on a bus, or anything other than a bicycle or an animal-drawn cart.
Prak Sakhorn was in her 20s during the massacres. Asked about that period, she demurs and talks about her life today in a village where she earns a meager living and barters food for clothing and other essentials. Many Cambodians like her, mired in poverty, have little time or energy for coming to terms with their country’s past.
Enter the ethereal. More than 95 percent Buddhist, Cambodia’s population is culturally unfamiliar with openly acknowledging and analyzing human failures. Banned by the Khmer Rouge, the unofficial national religion is again an overt, celebrated part of everyday life, grounding Cambodians in daily moral prohibitions against killing, taking something not freely given, sexual misconduct, overindulgence, untrue speech, and intoxication. Cambodians find comfort in the overriding precept of karma that takes this painful accountability from the here and now and puts it into the next life.
With trauma defining so much of Cambodia’s history, memory is a curious part of the collective consciousness. Layered underneath the daily hardships is the past that people shared. But beyond the corruption, the poverty, and the widely accepted Buddhist precepts, the government revises history to obscure its own culpability. And while documentarians work feverishly to ground the nation’s history in facts, eyewitness accounts, and archival materials, there is no universal view about what happened, at least not on the surface.
A tribunal judge explains that the court is not addressing the victims so much as it is beating back myths and providing a “truthful narrative” to their children and grandchildren. “People thought it was legend, that it didn’t [happen], that it couldn’t have really happened. Many parents didn’t ever want to talk about it.”
The tribunal’s most important legacy may be a civil society where citizens are attuned to their past, even if it is culturally difficult to engage in a national dialogue.
This is the life work of Youk Chhang, a child survivor of the killing fields. The country’s caretaker of memory, the 52-year-old man with a warm, toothy smile is the peripatetic executive director of the Genocide Museum’s Documentation Center of Cambodia.
With his archive-filled research center, Youk Chhang creates curricula and trains thousands of Cambodia’s high school teachers. He must counter other versions of what transpired and just who is to blame, which are proffered by millions of former Khmer Rouge members and their offspring. Youk Chhang is intent on breaking down the treacherous societal schisms that these conflicting views form. If truth prevails, it will unify the country, he says. His focus is on the next generation.
Cradling copies of the first-ever Cambodian-written publication on the atrocities that he and his team compiled, Youk Chhang concedes that publishing accounts, posting pictures, and talking about the genocide is difficult for Cambodians who would much rather “put their painful memories behind them.”
But “we cannot move forward,” he continues, “unless we grasp what happened and why it happened.”
This article originally appeared in Moment magazine’s July/August issue. Moment magazine is an independent bimonthly of politics, culture, and religion, co-founded by Nobel Prize laureate Elie Wiesel. For more go to momentmag.com.