Friday, November 23, 2007

A Thanksgiving to Remember

I wanted to let you read this piece from Loung Ung's website blog. I know she won't mind me posting it here. Link: www.loungung.com.

A Thanksgiving to Remember
In my 27 years of living in America, Thanksgiving comes and goes in my life without much flare. But when I sit down to enjoy the holiday tradition tonight with family and friends, I know this year what my gratitude rests on—the commencement of the Khmer Rouge Tribunal in Cambodia.
On Monday, November 19, Khieu Samphan, the former Khmer Rouge head of state was arrested and charged with war crimes and crimes against humanity. Samphan’s arrest makes him the fifth high ranking Khmer Rouge official detained by the UN backed tribunal, Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC) , along with Kaing Khek, Iev, also known as Duch, the notorious director of S-21 prison, Nuon Chea, former foreign minister and Ieng Sary, deputy prime minister, and his wife Ieng Thirith. Ten years in the making, and finally, the prospect of justice is drawing ever near. After I read this, I put my head down on my desk and cried.
I’m not big on tears. There are only a few times in my life when my emotions overtake me. The first time this happened was April 15, 1998—the day Pol Pot, aka Saloth Sar, aka Khmer Rouge’s Brother Number One died. I was in my office in Washington DC when I heard the news on NPR. With trembling hands I closed my door and locked myself in. I sat leaning against the wall, knees pulled closed to my chest. It was a beautiful blue sky. I stared at the green spring buds on the tree outside my window, heard the birds chirping, but I was numb.
On NPR, a reporter described Pol Pot as a charismatic, grandfatherly, and gentle leader to his followers. Someone mentioned he was a good father to his 12 year-old daughter Sitha. This was the man whose policies killed an estimate of 2 million Cambodians from 1975-1979, almost a third of the country’s population of 7 million. Among the victims were both my parents, two sisters, and many relatives. On the radio, Pol Pot’s victims were mentioned only in numbers. Their names, family, and humanity buried while this mass murderer will live on in infamy. In my mind, I was back in the war, the deaths, the starvation, the pain, the sadness, the horrors, the soldiers. The tunnel was deep and dark. I curled into a fetal position on the floor and sobbed. Pa, Ma, Keav, Geak. The world may forget but I never will. I don’t know how long I was on the floor before I was pulled out of the killing fields by a booming laugh. My friend Aaron’s voice echoed in the hall as he and several colleagues walked past my door. It saddened me that life went on as usual for others. My life had changed, time stopped, and I was frozen in it. I wondered how many people in the world this news even mattered to.
In 2001, I finally made my way to Anglong Veng, a place where Pol Pot was buried. At the site, I stood on the edge of the small dirt mound. Around it, the beautiful land—red patches of earth in the midst of lush, green trees and shrubs—breathed of new life and hope. Inside me, flames combusted in my stomach and sucked air out of my lungs. But instead of breaking down, I was fueled by anger. When I returned to the city, I contacted the Documentation Center of Cambodia, a group that headed up the movement to call for a Khmer Rouge tribunal. I asked what I could do. The director, Youk Channg said they would like to translate my memoir into Khmer. I gave them the rights to the book and helped with fundraising. Today, both my books are published in Khmer, and First They Killed My Father has even been serialized in two Khmer newspapers and on the radio.
Over the years, I continued to support the call for a tribunal. As the negotiations for the trial drag on, I returned to Cambodia another 20 times, and waited. Then in July, it happened. The ECCC formally charged its first defendant, Comrade Duch. A flurry of emails bounced back and forth between my friends and I. Could this really be happening? I was dizzy with joy. I reserved my tickets to travel to Cambodia in January. At the moment, due to lack of funding, the state of the tribunal is still far from certain. But we are nearer now to the end goal than we’ve ever been. So when I sit down for my Thanksgiving dinner, I will give thanks to everyone involved for bringing the ECCC to life, the Khmer Rouge criminals to trial, and giving the Khmer people our opportunity to tell the world our side of the story. And then I will tell my father, mother and sisters I have not forgotten them. Peace and good karma to all.
Loung Ung

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