Forgiveness is possible

Publish date 15-02-2021

by Nello Scavo

Cambodia, wounds open to reconciliation.

It's easy to forget. But it is of little use, if then the injuries do not heal completely. As in Cambodia, where the slaughter ordered by Pol Pot in the 1970s is still an open chapter. Many, in truth, would rather not talk about it anymore. The process of international justice at the top of the Khmer Rouge was followed with little attention from the European press.

It is difficult to explain this to the survivors of the fratricidal war, under whose grudge there is still a certain propensity to settle the accounts left open from time to time. The Catholic Church has also been working on this for years, which after being ravaged by persecutions preaches rebirth through reconciliation that does not erase memory.

Years ago I went to personally see this miracle of forgiveness that does not end up on the front pages. While Thyep at the age of 14 fought wearing the Khmer Rouge scarf, the little Hoeung at the age of four reluctantly went to the schools of the "Party" with a rifle on his shoulder. Hoeung hated people like Thyeup from childhood, who sowed terror by eliminating anyone who thought otherwise. An extermination on which a trial was opened thirty years later. Hoeung and Thyeup, both of Khmer blood, ended up hating each other. One wearing the uniform of the "Communist Party of Cambodia", the other trying not to give in to the brainwashing imposed by the dictatorship. However, hatred has lost. We found them both at the service of an elementary school between the rice fields and the jungle, in the north of the country. "I believed in the Khmer Rouge, I was a boy, and I went to fight down on the border with Vietnam." Thyep smiled bitterly, who was in his fifties knowing that life expectancy for a male is on average 57 years. He spoke of his youth as of a remote era. Too great that cruelty to think of having taken part in it. Hoeung, about ten years younger, told of that time without ever smiling. "When some of us children disobeyed, or maybe we refused to spy on our parents, the older comrades received orders to punish us." Those who retreated met the same end. "They took us along the river, lying on the ground and slaughtered in front of everyone," Houeng recalled. Kicks, punches, sticks, ripped hair and much worse. “Then we were tied up and imprisoned in a jute sack. Finally, one at a time the bags were thrown into the water ». The rest was done by the current or the crocodiles. It also happened to Hoeung to be punished, "I was little, they massacred me but they did not kill me". In the count of the nearly two million deaths there are also these innocent people torn from their families and swallowed up by a page of history that has gone bad. At the beginning of the 1970s, Cambodia had almost seven million people. In 1976, when the Khmer Rouge were defeated, fewer than five million inhabitants were counted. A "genoci¬dio" far more serious, in proportion, than those perpetrated by Hitler and Stalin.

"I remember the only time I saw Pol Pot. He came to visit us there, on the border." Thyep seemed to meet the “prophet” of social redemption, of the rediscovered Khmer pride after decades of French colonization and the frustration of an independence that did not bring prosperity. Now for him, uttering the name of Pol Pot is like speaking of a curse that has eluded one generation and swept away another. Forty years later, the two former enemies have a dream in common. Not for himself, but for his children: «We hope for them an adequate education and a good education. If we had had them too, perhaps we would not have let ourselves be pitted against each other ».

On September 2, 2020, a page in that history of mass mourning closed. Kaing Guek Eav, Commander Duch, who had been entrusted with the Tuol Sleng concentration camp, died at the age of 77. With him goes another piece, the penultimate, of the meager batch of former high officials of the Khmer Rouge to the bar in a UN court, which for over a decade has tried to bring justice, at least symbolic, to those 1.7 million deaths. Of the former Khmer Rouge, at least, he is the one who spent the most time in prison: he was arrested already at the end of the nineties, after being recognized by a photojournalist in the new life he had built in the west of Cambo ¬gia, becoming an evangelical Christian and working for an NGO. Unlike the other four defendants in the trial, Duch was at least the only one to collaborate at least partially even after his sentence, testifying against the others. Pol Pot died in 1998 without ever having to answer for the horrors caused by his utopian plan to bring Cambodia back to “Year Zero”. He almost succeeded. But Thyep and Ho¬eung's newfound friendship and Duch's conversion say he has failed.

For years the Catholic Church, after being devastated by persecutions, has been preaching a rebirth that does not erase memory.



The memory of two survivors of the murder perpetrated by the Khmer Rouge which in the 1970s caused 1.7 million deaths. Then on opposite fronts, today serving in a school among the rice fields.




A forgotten genocide

The Khmer Rouge constituted the armed arm of the Communist Party of Kampuchea in Cambodia. Born in 1960 as an offshoot of the Vietnamese People's Army, the militia allied with the Viet Cong during the Vietnam War. After the conquest of power following the US withdrawal, the Khmer Rouge led by Pol Pot proceeded to the "purification of Cambodia", killing everyone belonging to the more educated classes - it was enough to wear glasses to be pointed out as intellectual - and unhinging family ties to build a "new society".

From 1975 to 1979 a real genocide took place, a quarter of the country's population was destroyed. Pol Pot became prime minister of the country, which took the name of Democratic Kampuchea until 1979, when his dictatorship was overthrown due to Vietnam's invasion of Cambodia. 

Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge later reconstituted an armed movement with an anti-Vietnamese and anti-Soviet function on the border with Thailand, with the support of the United States, China and Thailand. Starting in the 90s, the organization broke up until it was completely dissolved in 1999.


NP dicembre 2020

Nello Scavo

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