Thursday, March 15, 2012

The Killing Fields

During my semester abroad in Rwanda and Uganda, I studied conflict and genocide—how a country collapses into violence, how an individual can murder a neighbor with a machete, how a people move forward, how reconciliation begins, and how justice must be made. And after numerous trips to both Western and African memorials, I came to accept and understand my reactions to the pictures of children and broken skulls. Yet I am still surprised at how easily I can walk on dirt littered with bone shards, sit underneath a tree that the Khmer Rouge threw babies against, and side-step pieces of decaying clothes. I can so quickly emotionally detach myself from the horror of genocide, and I haven’t yet decided if that is a great strength or a great weakness.

My SIT program focused a lot on establishing a collective memory and how that memory shapes the political, social, and economic transformation of a country post-genocide; in short, does it bring the people closer towards reconciliation and lasting peace or back towards violence?  A subtopic within this conversation centers on how a nation memorializes the atrocity.  In the West, museums (think the Holocaust Memorial in Washington D.C.) are often incredibly factual, filled with videos, details, photographs, and artifacts. They strive to paint a clear picture of how something like the Holocaust happened, and they try to get visitors to grasp the scale of the genocide. But they are careful not to be too gruesome. Yet in Rwanda and Cambodia, many of the memorials are simply rooms with bodies preserved in lime, bones, and skulls. These sites force people to confront the atrocity—to stand in the same place as the victims and to see the physical evidence of their machete-beaten bodies.

Both have their strengths and weaknesses. I think that Western memorials allow us to put up a screen between our lives and the lives of the victims. We cannot see their bodies. We are not walking on the ground they walked on. We are not confined in the rooms that they were confined to. And we do not directly speak or interact with the survivors. But this attachment allows us to get a well-rounded understanding of the genocide and that might help us see warning signs in the future.  African and Asian memorials force us to confront the brutality and horrific nature of genocide. They force us to see the body of one individual so that the statistic of a million may sink in. At the same time, I think that seeing a body or a skull is so traumatizing that many of us simply shut down immediately, preventing us from making that connection that is so essential.

I often wonder why I shut down. Does it mean that I can’t fully comprehend the enormity of each single life lost? Can I not move beyond the statistic? And if I can’t when I’m literally standing on a path of shattered bones, then how can I expect anyone else to. Because achieving that—mourning the individual rather than looking only at the statistic—really is the best way to prevent dehumanization and genocide. 

Shards of bone and a tooth. Every so often, the groundskeepers must walk the paths to collect bones that surface. They say that the dead are still not at peace yet. 

This is the tree I mentioned earlier--the one that the Khmer Rouge threw babies against.

Remnants of the victims' clothing.

Photographs of the victims at the Tuol Sleng, which was named S-21. Here, the Khmer Rouge systematically documented the lives of their victims before torturing them and forcing them to sign confessions before taking them to the killing fields.

The cells that victims were forced to live in for months during their torture sentences. 

A quick side note before ending, I'm sure that many people believe that it is impolite to take photographs of a site where such atrocities were committed. They think it is rude and disrespectful. But I would counter that I know in my heart of hearts why I take these pictures, and I believe that showing them to others who cannot come and visit is really an extension of these memorials' missions--never again.

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