Genocide in Cambodia, Rwanda and Serbia: Whether to Remember or Forget

Nuon Chea       pauline nyiramasuhuko

Over the past week, the news carried stories of three trials of accused genocide perpetrators whose actions took place on three continents. Ratko Mladic stands before a court at The Hague for his campaign of “ethnic cleansing” against Bosnia’s Muslim and Croat populations in former Yugoslavia. More than 200,000 died in this conflict between 1992-95. Pauline Nyiramasuhuko and her son were handed life imprisonment for their roles in the Rwandan genocide, having been found guilty of crimes against humanity. More than 500,000 died during this 1994 killing frenzy. In Cambodia, Nuon Chea, now 84, is one of four former leaders of Khmer Rouge leaders charged with genocide being tried in Phnom Penh by United Nations-backed tribunal. An estimated 1.7 million people died as a result of the Khmer Rouge actions between 1975-1979.

ratko mladicEach of these trials has been hailed as a triumph of justice. Each is seen as a significant event leading to closure of the national pain caused by the atrocities that took place on European, African and Asian soil. Historically speaking, this may very well be the case. Yet, one senses that on the ground where the genocides occurred, closure happened long ago. For the generations who have grown up since, these trials appear to only resurrect a past they would rather forget.

Nowhere was this made clearer to me than when I was in Cambodia a few years ago. The countryside around Phnom Penh is saturated with former Killing Fields. Some remain as sites where the curious can stand amidst the graves that held battered bodies. Now located within the sprawl of the city, I searched for one in particular. Knowing I was within a few blocks of the site, I stopped a man seemingly in his late 20s or early 30s and asked if he knew the location. He responded brusquely, “Ask an old person. They’re the only ones who care about such things. That’s all in the past. Better to forget.”

A professor once told me that the more unbelievable the atrocity, the more likely it would succeed. When the scale of an action is beyond our comprehension, it is allowed to pursue its end uncontested until it’s too late. As slow as we are to comprehend such evil, we seem quick to put the atrocity behind us once it has passed. No matter how deep the wound, nature takes over and strives to heal it. War trials after the fact are akin to pulling off a scab; previously able to ignore the wound, it is made raw once again.

On one hand, our ability to put the past behind us could be looked upon as a good thing. After all, it allows for life to be normalized. On the other hand, one cannot confuse this with the ability to forget. Rather, the collective memory of those who have been harmed lingers below the surface from one generation to the next. Visiting Croatia recently, I came across villages where Serbs and Croats lived next to each other for centuries. Now, in well-tended neighborhoods lay battered shells of homes once owned by Serbs. I spoke with a Serbian UN official about this. “How was it,” I naively asked, “that people who lived as friends and neighbors for centuries turned on one another. Her response, “Animosity was always there. It just waits for its chance to surface. The Serbs from those towns will never return.”

The trials against perpetrators of genocide may not have a cathartic impact on people who have closed the book on this history. Still, they do remind the rest of us that ‘evil’ left unattended can foment unimaginable tragedy. The rest of us must remember this, look for the signs, and be ready to react before it makes its move.

Life Sentences in Rwanda Genocide Case:

Nation Watching Preliminary Khmer Rouge Hearing:

Bosnian Serb genocide suspect Mladic refuses to enter plea:


by William Repicci

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