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Same Same, But Different

A personal reflection on the Khmer Rouge Genocide

by Brooke Hartman

How does one write about a second horrific genocide so soon after leaving the first?

I was recently in Rwanda writing about forgiveness and reconciliation for this magazine (see Issue 4). I visited memorials, spoke to survivors, and stood at the edge of mass graves. Now, just a few months later, I am in Cambodia doing it all over again. It’s hard not to compare. It’s hard not to measure loss in numbers and time frames. In perpetrators and methods. And it’s hard not to find value in the loss by what’s been restored or redeemed—which seems to be the entire country of Rwanda, while poor Cambodia feels a little bit like Southeast Asia’s forgotten child.

Once an elementary school, S-21 was transformed into a prison and torture center.

Once an elementary school, S-21 was transformed into a prison and torture center.

These are the ways I try and make sense of nonsensical things like genocide. Kigali’s genocide memorial had an entire floor dedicated to genocides in other countries I’d never even heard of. It’s kind of like a shirt everyone wears here— front: SAME SAME, back: BUT DIFFERENT.

As I walked through the S-21 school-turned-torture site and the Killing Fields in Cambodia, I was numb. The sights and sounds bounced off my eyes and ears and fell to the ground. Not a whole lot made its way inside—not even the shreds of clothing or encased display of teeth. Not even the tree used to kill little babies. I didn’t really allow myself to picture how things were carried out or what a person must have been feeling standing on that same ground forty years ago. Same Same, I thought, but different.

On the inside, my heart and brain were tripping over each other to close all the blinds, pull the shades, lock-up, and post a blinking neon sign: No Vacancy. We’re full.

It shouldn’t be this way, right? We should have endless reserves of compassion and empathy. There should never be any compassion fatigue. Yet I have a Master’s Degree in this and can’t master it.

So instead of trying to wrap my head around what I’ve seen here, I’ve decided to start thinking a bit more broadly. How does God see genocide? Groups of people killing groups of people—what a painful experience for the guy who designed and created them!

I can only relate it to how it would feel if my best friend and my husband hated each other. My best friend is my favorite. My husband is my favorite. Together, we’re the three best friends anyone could ever have.

A tree Khmer Rouge executioners dashed babies against, now covered in bracelets to memorialize the dead.

A tree Khmer Rouge executioners dashed babies against, now covered in bracelets to memorialize the dead.

They find value in each other because I find value in each of them. When Jeff is funny and Sprinky laughs, I’m in heaven. When Sprink refers to Jeff as her best-friend-in-law, my heart soars. (Yes, that’s her name. Bethany Sprinkle, but I call her Sprink.)

I think this is how God must feel when relationships are forged between each of us. We are his favorites—each of us. When we find value in each other, when cultural differences are celebrated and cherished, when we share and encourage and love one another, he must be delighted.

And by the same token, how awful it must feel when one bullies or intimidates another one. When one crashes a plane into three-thousand other ones. When one sets off a bomb at a marathon and kills another one. When groups of ones are owned by other groups of ones. When 3 million ones are tortured by a few other ones. When one entire race wipes out another entire race.

It’s a double loss. His favorite destroyed his other favorite.

In Cambodia, about two million people were killed—that’s 1 in 4—during the four years of the Pol Pot regime. Two million of God’s favorite creations. When the Khmer Rouge took over, schools and factories were closed within 48 hours. Phnom Penh was empty. Everyone was forced out of the cities and into collective farms and labor camps in the countryside.

People were targeted on the basis of their intellect. Provincial living was valued, and education was despised, so anyone who was a teacher, artist, lawyer, doctor, or intellectual in any capacity, who could speak a foreign language, who had glasses (because it was assumed this person could read), who had soft hands (because it was assumed this person held a white-collar job and therefore was educated) was captured, tortured and killed at one of the 300 killing fields throughout the country.

A mass grave at the Killing Fields

A mass grave at the Killing Fields

One of God’s favorite creations used his skills and passions to build a field in order to kill another one of God’s favorite creations because of his skills and passions. Wait, what?! And here’s the kicker—the real hard lesson I learned from Duch, a man responsible for the deaths of 12,000 people at those camps and in those fields—God loves the killers as much as he loves those who died. As much as he loves me.

Weeks before leaving for Cambodia, as part of the preparation process, each member of our team was assigned a different aspect of Cambodia to present to the group. My section was post-Khmer Rouge history, and a good chunk of it was the fall of the Khmer Rouge leaders through the UN-backed tribunals. Because I only had two minutes to present forty years of history, and I wanted to keep the group entertained, I assigned nicknames to all key players, like Prince Nordy for Prince Norodom, and Prince Randy for Prince Ranariddh, and Hunny for Hun Sen. Funny, right?

For Duch, I simply added an “e” at the end and pronounced his name Doosh, seemingly appropriate for the man responsible for the torturous deaths of 12,000 people at S-21, and who was given a 35-year sentence, appealed it, and was re-sentenced by the UN for life. “Yeah!” The group said, feeling both silly and justified. I thought it was pretty funny. This usually happens before I bite it, socially.

When the presentation was over, one of our team members said, “It’s actually pronounced Duke.”

What are the chances her parents went to the church of the Cambodian pastor whose parents, brother and sister died in the regime, who met Duch at a Christian Leadership course, led him to Christ, baptized him, stood with him at the killing fields as he confessed to his crimes and asked for forgiveness, and is now advocating for his release?!

*hangs head*

Was it too late to take back that little “e”? 

Duch –Photo by the Guardian UK

Duch –Photo by the Guardian UK

Click here to read an article about Duch’s conversion and the pastor who led him to Christ.

This is a hard one to swallow: God loves Duch. God loves killers. They are his favorite. And God has the ability—the desire, even—to redeem anyone, sometimes using the pastor whose family was killed by the regime to achieve that purpose.

Duch is the only regime leader to date who has confessed to his crimes. Before his arrest, he went back to his village to start a house church with 14 families. He is still serving his life sentence.

When I left Rwanda, I wished I could take the banner from the memorial site and wrap the entire globe in it: If you knew me and you really knew yourself, you would not have killed me. Yes, Cambodia. You too.

And as I leave Cambodia in the next couple of weeks, I’m left with this from Frederick Buechner: “Here is the world. Beautiful and terrible things will happen. Don’t be afraid.”

God redeems.