Who wants to remember any of this? Might forgetting provide a better way forward? A way to move on from a past laden with so many afflictions?
Remembering is not easy.
Remembering is hard work.
Remembering is painful.
Remembering stirs up loss, grief, trauma.
While I can confirm that nothing about remembering is easy, as I’ve spoken with numerous survivors and former Khmer Rouge soldiers in the past months, there is one thing I continue to hear: “we cannot forget”.
They tell me that even if they wanted to, they couldn’t forget life under the Khmer Rouge. But this is the point – none that I have spoken with want to forget.
As I have listened to story after story after story I have begun to see the importance of remembering. Forgetting, it seems, is seen as the final offense to those whose lives were lost under the Khmer Rogue. “We must remember”, they tell me.
I understood this when I first visited the Tuol Sleng Prison museum. Staring down row upon row of faces of victims I became aware of how important it was to see each of them. This wasn’t just an archive. This was an act of remembrance.
And while remembrance holds significance for those whose lives were taken, it holds equal significance for those who survived.
Let me attempt to make this more relatable.
Each of us can think of a bad memory. A painful, rotten memory. One we'd be happier to discard of than to carry with us any longer.
Unfortunately however, amnesia is not selective. Our past is not simply a matter of the past; it is a matter also of the present and of the future. As the Italian writer Carlo Levi expresses, “the future has an ancient heart”. We bring all of who we are with us.
We can try to forget. But this is dangerous business. When we experience pain and grief and trauma, our bodies and our spirits, they remember. I am convinced that trying to forget does not bring relief or healing. We have to labor through our hard memories.
And in the past few months I have met many brave Cambodians doing just that. I have begun to view this work as a kind of reclamation. In many cases, a reclamation of physical locations, were tragic things have happened and these sites have been reclaimed as places for mourning, for paying tribute, for honouring.
In other cases it’s a reclamation of the memory itself, of revisiting those unpleasant experiences and sharing them with the next generation. In this sense these difficult memories are reclaimed with pedagogical value, and survivors feel their act of remembrance contributes to educating the next generation and the hope of ‘never again’.
In other instances I have witnessed the reclamation of relationship through simply remembering together. The categories of victim and perpetrator are grey in most cases of genocide, but they are especially porous in Cambodia. Remembering alongside one another is a powerful act. A reminder that we are not alone - not alone in our suffering – and not alone in our hopes for the future. The Cambodians that remember with others speak of group cohesion and solidarity formed out of such practices. Surely these are needed social assets in post-conflict environments.
What I have seen in Cambodia is the transformative potential of memorialisation initiatives.
Memories can haunt us. They can be loathsome and wicked, like ugly monsters we keep locked in the back closet of our being. But we can’t get away from them. They remain there, scratching their claws and snarling on the periphery of today. Trying to forget doesn’t rid us of their presence.
I have seen Cambodians courageously greet unpleasant memories and transform them into means for healing and reconciliation. While this work of remembrance remains anything but easy, I am convinced it is our best way forward.
Important questions emerge here:
How is conflict remembered?
Whose experiences are remembered? Whose are forgotten?
What impact do memorialisation efforts - or a lack thereof - have on post-conflict peace processes and reconciliation?
How shall we remember?
That is a question that extends beyond this blog post, a question I will spend many months cozied up to in the year ahead. But for now, as I pack and ready myself to return to Europe tomorrow, I remember each of you.
I remember your faces. And your stories.
I remember the silence that sat with us at the table,
beside the mango tree,
near the pagoda.
I remember your grief. And your resilience.
I remember your welcome. Your openness to share.
I remember your sadness. And I remember your hope.