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Confronting the Cambodian Genocide Through Oral History

In Phnom Penh, a new exhibit uses video interviews to expose the country’s youth to events they’d rather not believe.

A woman cries in front of the remains of more than 8,000 victims of the Khmer Rouge. (Pring Samrang/Reuters)

An estimated two million Cambodians—an astonishing quarter of the population—died from starvation, disease, torture, and execution at the hands of Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge between 1975 and 1979. Today, piles of victims’ bones can be seen at memorials throughout the country.

Even with such graphic proof, those who were born after the era of Pol Pot’s agrarian Communist vision and killing fields don’t always believe—or want to believe—the horrific stories their elders tell them about those years. Part of the reason is that, for decades, information about the genocide wasn’t part of official public culture. A 1991 peace accord, for instance, mandated that school textbooks not include material on the killing fields.

This is changing. In 2011, the Ministry of Education agreed to include the story of the Khmer Rouge in national school curricula. And this week, an exhibit at the Bophana Audiovisual Resource Center in the capital, Phnom Penh, highlights 10 survivors’ recollections through video interviews and dioramas.

The exhibit, “It’s Our Story—Memory of the Village by Khmer Rouge Survivors,” received support from UNESCO, which sponsors an annual World Day for Audiovisual Heritage each October 27. This year’s theme, “It’s your story—don’t lose it,” is particularly relevant for Cambodia, given the advancing age of those who experienced the Khmer Rouge, and the younger generations’ nascent awareness of the genocide.

The interviews and clay dioramas focus on a specific story from each survivor: standing in line for borbor, the watery porridge on which workers barely subsisted; serving as a babysitter while the children’s parents toiled in the fields; constructing a dam.

The survivor who recounts building the dam relates that fellow laborers were so overworked and hungry that some collapsed and lost consciousness, but a Khmer Rouge cadre forced them to get up and continue working. The interviewee who discusses waiting for borbor says that those in the queue were so hungry that they would desperately eye the spoon doling it out.

The artist Sarith Mang fashioned these clay figures that illustrate the memory of workers constructing a dam under the Khmer Rouge. (Courtesy Bophana Audiovisual Resource Center)

“We know in general that people were killed and people did not have enough to eat,” says Chea Songheap, deputy director of the center. “But these kinds of details are so poignant and dramatic: When we hear them, we are affected and we understand more and more.”  

Songheap says that the exhibit’s principal goal is to help disbelieving youth confront what happened through details presented in a public and official fashion. “They have to learn from it,” he says, “so that it doesn’t happen again to the Cambodian people.”

He adds that the survivors also benefit when their story is heard and accepted by younger generations. “When they speak about their suffering to people who don’t believe, they feel worse,” he says. “This way, they experience relief.”

“It’s Our Story—Memory of the Village by Khmer Rouge Survivors” is on view at the Bophana Audiovisual Resource Center in Phnom Penh through November 4, 2016.

About the Author

  • Mimi Kirk
    Mimi Kirk is a contributing writer to CityLab, with a focus on the Middle East and Asia. She lives in Washington, D.C.