When I left the Killing Fields my intent was to visit the Toul Sleng museum, where most of those who were killed were tortured prior to being shipped to their slaughter. The locals call it part of the genocide loop, and while I find this description a bit foul, I can not argue with the term. But I wound up unable to visit the school that transformed into a palace of torture, because something both horrific and amazing occurred as I exited the Killing Fields.
One of the beggers that I passed unfazed entering the grounds hit me up again upon leaving. He looked 70/80 years old, but I could tell he was much younger. He had lost both legs due to a land mine. But the hunger in his belly radiated off his face so much I could not ignore him, pass him by, like I sadly so often do. I asked him if he had eaten today. He said no. I believed him, it looked like he had missed quite a few days of eating over the years. Even if he had both his legs I would think he might have at most weighed 90 lbs.
As it was quite a bit passed lunch time and I had yet to eat all day, I opted to buy him food rather than just give him a few thousand Riels he was looking for. I decided to take him and my driver to get some food about 75M from the entrance of the Killing Fields. We all got fried rice. We started to talk a bit after we ordered, but I never figured on what was about to occur. Not in the slightest.
At some point on my journey around the grounds, I realized it would be impossible to ever forgive a member of the Khmer Rouge. How can one ever forgive someone who helped slaughter 3 million people and destroy an entire country that still to this day is attempting to recover? They turned a once vibrantly growing Cambodia into a remnant of a soaking wet paper towel that holds only the basic, primitive, DNA of a country. I mean, really, who could ever forgive anyone of such a destructive impulse, one who senselessly slaughtered so many. Impossible.
It was not until after we sat down and ordered that it occurred to me to even ask what he did during the conflict. And I was only able to ask because my driver was able to translate. When he told me our “friend” was a card carrying member of the Khmer Rouge did I understand just how prevalent this was in Cambodia. How prevalent it still is in Cambodia.
I read a figure that only eight percent of Cambodia is over the age of forty. And one can easily assume anyone who is over 40 was/is Khmer Rouge, or at least supported them, as they would have been killed if not. There are still a remarkable number who still support the regime. Lunch suddenly became a tense affair.
Once I heard that he was Khmer Rouge, I got sick to my stomach. Once I realized I was going to pay for his lunch, that I was going to feed a murderer, I nearly went faint. He still wore his black cap, an implication that he is still an adherent of the Khmer Rouge philosophy if not the actual party itself. I only learned about the implications of the black cap afterwards. I am fairly certain that had I known before I would never have found myself sitting next to him at a lunch table.
I asked him how he felt about the Khmer Rouge. It was obvious my driver was not 100% comfortable asking this, but after a little encouragement, he did. This was the last question I asked. While it was quite obviously hard for him to tell of his time as a solider, once he started the stories blossomed like flowers bursting forth from the earth above a mass grave.
His full name was sadly a bit beyond my ability to transcribe. He said his name was Duk or Doc with two other words that I never quite caught. When I spoke to him I called him Duk mainly due to the novel Donald Duk and my affinity for it. This caused no problems.
Duk told me that he had no idea that the Killing Fields happened during in his time as a Khmer Rouge solider. He hates that so many people were killed here. At the same time, he had no idea just how many people he killed elsewhere. It was obviously a lot though.
Now, Duk hates that he was ever a solider. Though I wondered if he had remained whole throughout those four years if he would have felt the same way. It was easy to see the regret written all over his presence when he talked about killing. But he still wears his black hat. And as he went on it grew impossible to hate him. It also seemed that I had turned into some sort of confessional, a position I never wanted to be it, but I was captivated by the tales he told. And while it felt really strangely, oddly, horribly voyeuristic, I was enraptured by it all.
I kept asking myself questions: “is this true?,” “is this how he reals in the foreigners?” But as he went on, as his story unfolded, I understood what he said to be the truth. I can not imagine that much sorrow coming from anything but truth. Acting does not have the capacity to convey what he emanated. I was amazed that he kept going, that he simply was able to keep talking. It was equally fascinating and abjectly horrifying.
His power was obviously derived from his limbs and the weapons they held. But when he talked about losing his legs to a landmine, his plug into the structures of power, he changed from monster into a human being. He was so totally human. And even though he helped in such a massive genocide, I could not hate him as I did before I heard his story. It was so easy to despise him when he was faceless. It was easy to displace his humanity. His story, his presence, himself made this impossible.
Today he hates that he was ever a soldier. But he equally understands that had he refused to fight he would have wound up unknown skeletal remains at the Killing Fields or some other field of death. He knew that if he refused to serve as a solider he would no longer exist. So while part of me, the part that has never had to choose from such repugnant options, questions his adherence to such ignorance, a greater portion of me totally understands his reasons for joining a genocidal regime. Well not really understand, more like I can see the appeal. . The preservation of one’s existence is sacrosanct.
Put in the same position I question just what I would do. This realization was far from a happy one. In the past two plus years I have chosen to live above all else. When faced with the closest thing to death I have ever confronted, I did exactly what I always said I would not. If I was ever put in Duk’s position, would I too become a solider to survive? Would I kill indiscriminately to assure my own existence. I would like to think the answer to this is “HELL NO!” But….
Does the survival instinct override morality? Does it erase what one considers right? Does it blur the distinctions of right and wrong till both fail to exist? That I am even asking these questions makes me think I am weaker than I have ever thought. But after hearing Duk’s story, I am confronted with nothing else. It is not a place I want to visit often, that is for sure.
So while it was hard talking to him, and while I thought just an hour before it would be utterly impossible to forgive any member of the Khmer Rouge, before our meal was over, I clasped my hands in front of my chest in a sampeah and told Duk that I forgive him. As I forgave him, I did not even understand what I was doing. It was just a natural impulse. On my ride back to my guest house, I realized exactly what I had done as I replayed the whole incredible experience over and over in my head. At first I was horrified by my action, but as I continued to reflect I understood it. I was thrilled I did it. The act of forgiving is the most human thing we can do. It is instinctual. Somewhere as we grow most of us forget this.
And with this simple act, forgiving a monster of the Khmer Rouge, I realized I could forgive anyone. I finally found a launching point for something I have tried to reconnect with for 30 odd years. And I when I realized this, I blasted off, radiating forgiveness across the globe the next time I meditated. How could I not? Now I am not suggesting that I can forget offensive and/or egregiousness actions towards me or others. I just forgive them. Forgetting them would far too easily allow the same actions to occur again. Forgive, never forget…
And with a simple act of clasping my hands in front of my chest and saying “I forgive you” to a mass murderer, I understood that forgiveness is a power that all of us have, that far too few of us use. It was like magic once I forgave Duk. How could I also not forgive a family member that beat me senseless, or someone that forced me to get a restraining order, etc, etc… if I was able to forgive a mass murderer.
Now will I struggle in the future forgiving someone? Most likely. I know it will be hard, but now that I have forgiven all of yesterdays’ atrocities and slanders, I know that I can do it.
As I departed I left knowing Duk is human today. He was also equally human when he behaved like a monster. I left hoping that as he confessed his past that he can find a more permanent connection to his humanity. I hope he understood my act of forgiveness. Perhaps he did not even notice. Perhaps he can not forgive himself; thus, any outside forgiveness is impossible to embrace. I hope not, but I know just how hard it is to forgive yourself.
My journey to the Killing Fields and the subsequent lunch only took four hours. But the experience will have an overwhelming positive effect on my life going forward. While it was amazingly emotionally hard and left me drained and unable to do much the rest of the day, it is hard not to characterize this as one of the top ten moments of my life.