*Warning: This post is a reflection on a war memoir. The book is painful, tragic, and graphic to read. Though I do not relay the graphic horrors, there is the natural horror of war.
From the time I was young, I have (rightly so) been sensitive to the tellings of genocide. At the age of 21, I had the incredible opportunity to be in Anne Frank’s Haus in Amsterdam. I was unsettled and jittery for more than a week after, with nightmares.
Walking through a simple street memorial can send me into a day of introspection—a day of being no good company whatsoever. I often feel as though I am unusual. It’s not that I have insensitive or brutish friends. They just don’t seem as affected an hour or two after visiting such a place. Everyone processes events and sorrow in different ways, this I know. Maybe I don’t seem affected either. All I know is that when I am faced with a tangible memorial of war, I feel isolated.
This is why I avoid novelizations of the Holocaust or really of any war. Visiting museums or memorials are bad enough. So, why, you ask would I pick up such a book as this memoir from Cambodia’s Killing Fields?
This is the reason.
“The cost of war is a lifelong legacy borne by children. And I know this: As a survivor, I want to be worthy of the suffering that I endured as a child. I don’t want to let that pain count for nothing, nor do I want others to endure it. This may be our greatest test: to recognize the weight of war on children.” P20-21
Reading helps me feel as though the suffering has not been in vain. I don’t generally bear heavy guilt from being born in a wealthy, often dominant, country. Why? I believe that guilt doesn’t motivate action…it often prevents change. Lingering in guilt is useless in the scheme of change. I have seen guilt debilitate friends to inaction, which then cultivates more guilt. That’s not to say that guilt doesn’t have its place, yet it is to merely expose our sin to us. We must move beyond it to change and walk away from that sin.
I don’t even truly feel as though I am alleviating pain by reading of that which belongs to another. Yet, I know that the telling is important. More important than my own comfort.
But to choose to read this, I cannot linger. For the sake of my family, I must read quickly—like ripping a Bandaid off a wound. The pain is intense, but for me, it will fade away. I may be changed; I pray I may be changed. But the horrors will still fade, for these are not my own living memories.
“The Khmer Rouge know how to strike deeply. The head is the most sacred part of the body to a Cambodian. To be struck in the head, even to have a younger person or enemy touch your head, is enormously insulting. And yet our captors seem indifferent to our lives before this moment. There is only the history of the here and now.” P 100
Can I possibly relate to having everything in my life rearranged or destroyed?
In Chanrithy Him’s firsthand account, the oppression deepens as the book wears on and comfort and custom are stripped away. The Khmer Rouge tries to take away language and dignity, as eventually, there is nothing left. The most difficult part for me to push through was the death of the author’s 3 year old brother—who died of dysentery and dehydration. So curable. So senseless. (And so, so painful for this mama of three little ones.) As this young boy dies without his mother who is too ill to go to the hospital to hold him, the horror of war swept over my whole body, my consciousness in waves. It is true, these innocent children—too young to understand why Mak* cannot visit—hold them—they are the casualties of greed, selfishness, and lies that men and women rationalize as a necessary evil to rid the world of “gross inequality” (in this case). The Khmer Rouge railed against class and custom, destroying even themselves in the process.
Is there hope? Hope for a people who were treated as chattel by their own countrymen? Left by the world to die?