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Confronting a Land of Sorrow

I was standing by myself, glad to be out of the hot, cramped, Soviet-made sedan that had brought us to Choeung Ek. As I stood there, I saw a young girl bend down and pick up a small object. She held it up in to show to her mother, then threw it into one of the pits nearby. I walked over to where the girl had stood.

It was my second visit to Choeung Ek, and already I had seen the torn remnants of clothing in the sides of the pits, and the fragments of bone scattered across the ground. I had not, however, noticed the human teeth still embedded in the dirt.

Stupa at Cheoung Ek Choeung Ek is only one of the many sites commemorating the victims of Cambodia's tragic history. It is estimated that roughly 1 million people -- about 16 percent of the country's population -- died during the three-year reign of the Khmer Rouge communists. The tragedy is difficult to grasp on a human level -- a million deaths, thousands of miles away, in a land most of us have never seen.

In Kompong Speu, there is another shrine, near a temple called Wat Po Pai Phnom. Throughout the province, abandoned buildings are a common sight, their crumbling walls pocked by bullets. They are a reminder of a civil war that claimed 300,000 lives before the Khmer Rouge came to power.

Perhaps some of Lon Nol's soldiers had holed up here, making a last, desperate stand in the final days of the war. Perhaps the Khmer Rouge had executed enemies here. Perhaps the Vietnamese had fought here. In the scorching dry-season heat, silence hangs over the buildings; 500,000 stories that will never be told.

The shrine at Po Pai Phnom is basic -- a simple bamboo and thatch structure holds the remains discovered in mass graves nearby. An elderly Buddhist monk, almost toothless, tends the memorial. A pet monkey is tied to one of the posts on the front porch. A handful of visitors file inside slowly. The only light is that which filters in through the unglazed windows. In the center of the room, a large table is piled high with a pyramid of skulls.

Stare at the skulls, and try to understand.

Try to reconcile the scattered bones with the reality of a life once cherished: You were someone's child once. Perhaps, somewhere, there is someone who still remembers you as that child. Perhaps there is someone who remembers you as an adult, being led away by the Khmer Rouge. Perhaps your killer remembers you. Probably not; they killed so many people, and who can remember a stranger's face? Now, nothing remains but a broken skull, one among many, all without names.

The monk rearranges a few of the bones that surround the pile of skulls. The monkey scampers in through the window, but the rope tied to his collar is too short to let him go farther.

It is easy to ignore suffering when it is not directly in front of us. We can know that such suffering exists, yet that knowledge might not register on our emotions. Until we understand that the victims are real, the truth will not seem significant.

It is as if the landscape of our nightmares must overlap the landscape of places we know before tragedy will resonate. A friend once told me how, in 1975, his family had been evacuated from Phnom Penh, how they had walked out of the city along a road littered with bodies of the dead and dying. As I stood on a bridge over the Bassac River, his story became real. My friend walked this road.

Try to imagine your last remaining possessions carried in a sack thrown over your shoulder. Try to imagine your father, your brother disappearing. Try to imagine starving, eating snails, snakes, rats. Try to imagine watching your child growing thinner each day, or the sound of your baby crying for want of food. Try to imagine your own hunger as you give the child the few grains of rice you have been rationed. Try to imagine slaving in the fields for the well- fed murderers who killed your family.

When we do not confront hardship, the loss is our own. If we isolate ourselves, surround ourselves only with people who look, speak, think like we think, we cannot understand the world in which we live.

Kindness and charity stem from an understanding that it is often only fate that makes our lives easy or hard. If we never look beyond the mirror, we may become blind to that truth.

Years ago, while teaching English to Cambodian refugees, I realized that two of my students were no longer speaking to each other. In private, I asked one of them why. The woman related bitterly that her friend had insulted her for being so poor. Then, suddenly, the anger disappeared from her voice.

"I don't care I poor," she said. She gestured at the worn apartment around her. "This my home. My mother and father here, my baby here. We have food. This my home. I like."

Her accent and incorrect grammar did not matter.

I have never heard more eloquent words.

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