A year ago Rwanda caught me completely off guard. It turned me into a pitiful sobbing ball of sadness. Only mountain gorillas distracted me from the genocide that consumed my every waking thought. I took my time to get ready for Cambodia. And a few weeks ago, ready I was.
When trying to make sense of an ugly monster like genocide, you push emotions aside and employ your logic instead. You learn about the circumstances prior to the disaster, gain insight into the mindset of the nation. You find out “why”. But you still continue to ask WHY. Facts can only get you halfway there. The rest of the way, you’re on your own. You get lost, and turn back where you came from, to look at the facts once more. You try again to find a way into understanding, or simply give up, staying lost forever. And even if you reach that vague state of comprehension, it doesn’t gratify you. If just feels hollow.
Cambodian genocide victims. Genocide Museum in Kigali, Rwanda
Seeing the pictures, or the remains of thousands upon thousands of victims is overwhelming. Your mind tunes out in order to defend itself, or you break down completely. When my vision begins to blur over the faces of so, so many people, I zoom in. Seeing just one person at a time allows me to refocus. I find someone I can most easily relate to: a woman around my age. I wonder what her and I may have had in common. What her life was like when everything was still fine. If, in another lifetime, we could be friends.
I like to look at the victims’ faces. This may sound strange. But they say that we are not dead as long as there is at least one person who remembers us. As time drags on, there may be no one left to remember the victims of the past. Their entire families may have died alongside with them – hence the word genocide. By looking into their faces, I’m honoring the life that these people had. If I was in their place, I would like someone to know that I existed. That I was here. That I was somebody, even if they will never know my name.
Whatever happened to the murderers? Well, Pol Pot was burned in Anlong Veng, in the north of the country. As soon as his regime was overthrown, enraged Cambodians did away with him and the rest of Khmer Rouge, and torched them alive. Sorry, that didn’t really happen. Pol Pot died quietly of a heart attack in 1998, almost twenty years post-genocide, having never faced justice. His body was cremated on a pile of tires. He got away with the murder of nearly two million people.
I wanted to make sure they really burned every last piece of him, so I made the trip. The nature around Anlong Veng is eerily beautiful. This was the last stronghold of the Khmer Rouge, and remained under their control well into the 90’s. Seeing the pile of ashes gave me some peace of mind. Hell holds a special place for the likes of him.
Pol Pot’s cremation site in Anlong Veng
I know that for many people this kind of misery tourism sounds unimaginable. Well, traveling for me is about getting to know the world, good and bad. I saw plenty of beautiful things in Cambodia, too. But I needed both sides of the story.
What’s the purpose of going someplace just to feel bad, someone may ask. Is it a case of morbid obsession, or sincere interest in historical events? That’s a valid question. I analyze my own motives all the time. It comes down to the value of seeing things with your own eyes. Everyone knows what the pyramids look like, yet most people would still want to see them. The thing is, I’m perfectly capable of feeling bad WITHOUT seeing with my own eyes. I’ve felt bad about the genocides of the world since I was a kid. Visiting the locations is the only thing left to bring me closer to that elusive state of understanding. Closer, but not quite there. I think I’ll stay lost forever, asking “why” until the end of my days.