“Those who don’t study history are doomed to repeat it. Yet those who do study history are doomed to stand by helplessly while everyone else repeats it.” I read this quote on Facebook today and it was certainly timely. Today, we visited the Killing Fields and the Toul Sleng Genocide Museum in Phnom Penh, Cambodia.
It was certainly one of the most sobering days of my life. The atrocities committed by Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge between 1975 and 1979 are hard to believe. It is estimated that between one and two million people were systematically killed during this massive genocide. The victims included children, entire families, teachers, doctors and professionals, Cambodians, Thais, and Vietnamese. Anyone who might pose any kind of threat to the regime of the insane Pol Pot was killed and buried in one of the 343 killing fields that have been found in Cambodia.
Our guide, who lived through those years as a child, was able to provide first hand witness to many of the hardships that affected him and his family. His narration of the political situation that gave rise to the Khmer Rouge regime and its subsequent defeat was spellbinding. The devastation of the population, the resources and infrastructure of the country has just begun to regenerate and improve very slowly over the past dozen years since their 2003 independence (despite a coup in 2007 and a current communist dictator, ruling in the guise of an elected prime minister).
What I found equally discomforting to the history and impact of the Cambodian genocide is the fact that I lived and grew up during that time and yet felt strangely ignorant of the severity of the atrocities. Of course, I knew via our western media of the “trouble” in Cambodia, but my daily life in Calgary as a family man and a school principal rolled along without any significant thought or assistance to the people in Cambodia.
Our detached western lives have somehow removed us from the horrors that occur in our world on a daily basis. As well as the Nazi genocides, the major mass exterminations in Darfur, Bosnia, Rwanda and Syria and the expulsions of millions of refugees in every corner of the world, just seem to pass through our lives as stories on television. We are hard pressed to feel the actual horror and suffering of these real people, in our lives.
Our first reactions tend to deny that there is much that we can really do, as we are too insignificant to make a difference. We may make a monetary offering in some fashion through a charity or church organization, and it may make a micro difference in someone’s life, but I sort of believe it is done more to ease our own conscience. And maybe that is just the cold hard reality of our world. Problems of the magnitude of the horrors that we witnessed on a small scale today in Phnom Penh were so massive that one individual (me) can do so little, that we should just accept that fact. Or is this acceptance comparable to putting a cheque in the mail to assist some larger cause and believing we have done all we can do?