Making Sense of a Genocide

My heart is heavy. I feel a small puddle of tears form on the bottom of my eyelids. The creases begin to burn but not from the scorching afternoon sun shining above. Behind me, I leave a man crawling on his knees. His legs are broken and contorted upwards towards his stomach. He inches along, swinging his thighs forward and almost taking the rest of his body to the cement. A sign hangs from his neck, explaining how he, and so many other Cambodians, have suffered from what happened only a few decades ago.

It’s not a scam. I know it’s not a scam, because what happened here is written behind the half-empty eyes of every adult I meet here. The story, I’ve read, of how the civil war took over Cambodia and all of it’s people for four years in the 70’s. Controlled by communists under the name of the Khmer Rouge, it aimed to create a perfect race, cleansed of all middle-class, educated, foreigners or basically anyone who wasn’t a farmer. It’s estimated that 5 million people died due to this genocide, all organized by a man named Pol Pot. I was astonished to have never heard of this historical event that too closely resembled Hitler’s holocaust. But now, as I walk through the streets of Siem Reap, it couldn’t appear more real.

The man crawled up to me while I was having lunch. His eyes were bloodshot red. Half of his teeth were missing. His skin was dark and hair jet black – exactly what the Khmer Rouge wanted their people to look like if you were to survive. He did not beg for money. He simply wanted me to understand and purchase something from his library of stories about the war. I had read enough already and my heart begged not to be put through another massacre. Instead, I asked him questions and sat their with him enjoying his will to survive.

You were a soldier? Yes

When? 22 years ago

I did the math and realized he must have been a teenager when the civil war happened. He was ordered to fight with the army. Ordered to kill his friends, family, neighbors… anyone who didn’t cooperate or talked badly against the Khmer Rouge, or were educated, or looked impure. Sadness began to ease into his drooping eyes as my questions pushed forward.

Did they make you fight with them? Yes, if I didn’t I wouldn’t have survived. But I became a soldier for Cambodia again and fought against them. I killed them.

My questions stopped there as I felt my heart sink deeper with empathy. What could I do to take away his pain? I handed him a few dollars and told him he needed his books. I just wanted to talk to him. He thanked me and wished me luck. I wished him luck also.


I heard a similar story from the receptionist at my hostel this morning. I sat with him for a while and told him he looked like my uncle Bill. He smiled when I told him this, and mentioned he too is of Filipino decent. This man was 1 years old when the Vietnamese defeated the Khmer Rouge, but he remembered the first six years of his life dodging bullets in the streets of Siem Reap as the army tried to rise again. He laughed at the thought of this, just as so many others do when remembering the civil war.

The aftershock of the Pol Pot’s genocide is everywhere, from the armies destruction to the Angkor temples, the killing fields which display thousands of human skulls, and the crumbling buildings of Phnom Penh.

The people, however physically disabled they are from stepping on landmines or mentally traumatized they are from watching their family die before them, are humble. Although struggling, they are happy to be alive. Every single Cambodian was affected by the war – a genocide that much of the world was blind to.

Every single Cambodian I meet has a similar story – all have lost a loved one from the genocide. And every time I hear the story, they’re smiling. What else can you do?

One Comment Add yours

  1. r says:

    Thats Heavy. We never hear these versions of these lives here in the US. Thanks Nat for enlightening us. Wow, Im stunned. Dad.

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