Donnerstag, 22. Januar 2015

So, why did you participate in genocide (part III)

“When I volunteered I knew that I would become a member of the ‘tiger group’ and when I entered the ‘tiger zone’ I knew that I would have to become a tiger, too. There was no morality. I knew I would have to be as cruel as they are and show my ability”

This is one of the most impressive quotes from my research so far – it is not the original quote as the transcription has not been done yet, but from my notes. It is a powerful quote and my interviewee was trying to use this metaphor of the tiger zone to show us what it meant to him when he joined his local militia, a so-called chlop. My interviewee went on to explain that his group of 30 people were tasked with ensuring ‘security’ in the district. And he knew that he would have to perform within the group because if you did not perform well, the leadership would watch him critically and possibly kill him.

When I heard this in the interviewee, I must admit my heart started racing because I thought what he was doing was admitting that he had killed as part of the role which he had taken, but without saying so much. Whether he did or not, I cannot say with certainty, but he went on to say that he managed to avoid killing in the group. This was possible because no action undertaken by the group such as arresting people or killing them was done by individuals but always by several people, normally no fewer than ten, as they were wary that they may be attacked if they ventured around in too meagre a number. Thus he was able to tag along and arrest people but never actually had to kill any of them, because this was always done by others who apparently readily volunteered for the job.

Why would they volunteer, I asked our interviewee. And his sober reply was that if you volunteered to kill, it was much easier to get a promotion. A promotion, a step up on the career ladder of the Khmer Rouge party hierarchy. A pretty banal motive, but one which is understandable, one which most of the readers of this blog can probably relate to. Not that any of you readers have probably killed to get ahead, but you can imagine the motivation. It’s human. And perhaps this example of the promotion is not the best example of what I am trying to convey.

Hardly any of my interviewees say that the people who killed during that time did so because they hated the victims, or because they believed in the necessity of the revolution. No, they say that people participate because they are scared and ‘fearful for their security’, they say that they wanted to remain a part of the killing group because of the better rations they received or the status that came with such a position. These are not the evil monsters portrayed in films about genocide. They are people who are normal neighbours in the village who in this extreme situation make decisions with extreme consequences.

The banality of their motivations does not excuse their actions (if we even want to enter into a moral debate). If anything it highlights that there was a decision present (to whatever degree, sometimes with much more force than others), that the people did possess agency on whether to be recruited and what they did in these positions. The totalitarian regime of the Khmer Rouge created a context in which people had little avenues for resistance, but there were various ways to go about living, working and surviving, and moreover various reasons people felt that they had to participate. It is my hope that my dissertation will be able to lay out these reasons with a degree of clarity which so far has not been done, so we can look into the participants and understand them. Grapple with what it meant for them and try to reconstruct why they did what they did.

Picture by Daniel Welschenbach

Donnerstag, 8. Januar 2015

Somto, nyom obje Khmei!

No, dearest reader, I am not drunk – that is my simple phonetic transliteration of the Khmer sentence ‘Sorry, I don’t speak Khmer!’. And, oh deary  me, it is still as true as it was when I stepped off a plane a good five and a half months ago. I can say some numbers, can politely say thank you, hello and goodbye, but that is unfortunately about the limit of my linguistic endeavours. That is the curse of having a translator by my side the whole time – no, I will rephrase that, it is the tiny downside to the amazing blessing of a having a translator by my side the whole time.

When I arrive at an interviewee’s place, Duong introduces us, but sometimes there is an awkward moment when he runs back to the moto to grab a pen or something and I stand there like a lemon, smiling and wishing I could at least make a little bit of small talk. I kept promising myself I would try to improve my Khmer language skills, but I’m glad no-one held their breath – the situations in which I need it are so few and far between, and there are barely more situations in which it would even be appropriate.

During interviews I don’t understand anything but single words – I now recognise words like chlop (militia), you-tea (army) or youn (a derogatory term for Vietnamese people), but little more than that. But this is also quite freeing, it gives me time to take notes on the last batch of translation which Duong has given me, it gives me time to mull over what this means and what line of questioning could be good next.

But there are moments when this neatly segregated world of linguistic division where all things flow through Duong collapses. It happens like this: I look up from my notebook and see the interviewee peering in my direction and saying something – they do this a lot, but you can tell they are normally looking at me, but speaking to Duong, but I notice that they are talking to me. So I readjust my brain out of Khmer mode. And think English. Nope. German I don’t even bother wondering about, as who here would speak German. But no, it is la langue francaise – former French colony, remember?!

 Oui, mesdame et messieurs, I dabbled in a little French at school, and have since held the odd conversation with my former French teacher grandma or friends of my family while they lived in Toulouse, but my French is a long way from anything which one could count as competent. Yet it suffices to be able to break out of the straightjacket of linguistics which Khmer has me bound into. It has happened only three times so far, and twice the conversation stuttered and failed after ‘comment ca va’ as my brother in tongue, as it were, has forgotten even more of his pre-1970 taught French than I. But it makes us both glow with a sense of being able to talk right to each other. Needless to say if I could speak fluent Khmer, this bond would not suddenly be there but it is just the contrast to our otherwise mediated conversation.

But on one trip to Kampong Thom we met a man whose French was – while quite accented –excellent as he’d been a student in France prior to the genocide. And while he wasn’t an interviewee he showed me round a local pagoda which had doubled as a security centre during the Khmer Rouge regime, and though I couldn’t follow everything (accent plus my catastrophic vocabulary), it was a moment which was quite special.

I am undecided as yet whether I think I prefer my interviews to be translated, or whether in an ideal world I would speak Khmer fluently or they English. It is not a choice I have to make, as I don’t and they don’t, but both ways certainly have their merits. Even so, it is quite nice to break out of patterns once in a while.

Samstag, 6. Dezember 2014

A photographic exhibition of former Khmer Rouge

Hello, dear readers. You’ll have noticed my blogs have been a little sparser recently. I have actually been pretty busy, bumbling around the field looking for former Khmer Rouge who are willing to talk to me. I have to admit there has been a bit of a dry spell recently and it has been a little frustrating. However, a little project I have going on the side has kept my spirits up nonetheless.

For the last four weeks, I have been accompanied by the photographer Daniel Welschenbach who has been taking photographs of people with whom I had previously conducted interviews and who lived in areas I was returning to for further interviews. People were surprisingly open to Daniel taking their portrait and the photos which have come out of this are quite impressive indeed.

We have spent some of our evenings in the field designing an exhibition together which will present his photography to the public along with some of the findings of my research. This is an exciting opportunity for me to tell the wider public beyond this blog and the academic community a little about what my findings are. I am especially happy to say that we are planning to present the exhibition in both Cambodia and Germany.

Here in Cambodia we are working together with the Heinrich-Böll-Foundation, the organisation whose office space I am sharing when in Phnom Penh and who I have a doctoral scholarship with. Daniel and I have met several times with the country director Ali and are excited to be able to put together an exhibition on who becomes Khmer Rouge and will hopefully be shown in not only Phnom Penh (in the German Cultural Centre Metahouse) but also in Siem Reap and Battambang. This is a great opportunity for me to tell Cambodians themselves what I have found out about a tragic time in their history.

In Germany, we’ll be coming to a city near you (well maybe) with exhibitions planned in Bielefeld (where Daniel is completing his photographic studies next year), Marburg as my academic and home base, as well as possibly other places too – we’re open to ideas and suggestions! I hope to be able to organise a couple of talks to coincide with the openings of some of these exhibitions so watch this space if you want to hear a little more live on the topics of Khmer Rouge and why people participate in violence!

The exhibition is planned to show the portraits of former Khmer Rouge along with quotations from some of my interviews on why people decided to participate, following elements of myconceptual model, showing how human the reasons were for participating and how it really could have happened to anyone. We want to combine this with some reflections on how the former cadres also perceive of themselves oftentimes as victims, as well as in some rare cases as heroes. It may be a provocative exhibition for some, but it will be based on the findings of my research and I look forward to sharing some of the insights from my research.

This is all still in the planning stage and so things may change a little as they develop, but I am excited enough about this collaboration project with Daniel that I wanted to share it with you already! Now, if you were expecting to see some teaser photos already, I’m afraid I have to disappoint you. Daniel says we need to keep up the suspense until you actually come and see the exhibition for yourself.

Mittwoch, 19. November 2014

Food, glorious food

Food, glorious food! Hot sausage and mustard! While we're in the mood. Cold jelly and custard! So goes the song, but here it could be changed to something with fish amok, fried rice and beef loklak – that’s if you don’t talk about the ants, cockroaches and boiled eggs with chicks inside that are all special snacks here.

You may remember me mentioning in the blog I wrote about a typical day in the field, that I’m vegetarian. Yes, I have been off and on since school and it is a battle of principled beliefs and the craving for a good schnitzel or burger; normally I am vegetarian for a couple of years and then go on a big trip to a country with no vegetarian infrastructure and thus am forced to eat meat (the first time it was excruciatingly difficult as meat repelled me at the time). And back in Europe I often just stuck with it, until a conversation with my best friend and vegetarian pain in the arse Paul (who I originally converted induced, stupid me!).

The first half of this year I craved meat, and was quite looking forward to the opportunity of being in Cambodia for six months to renege on my principles and go for it. So my first evening here, it was grilled beef with lime, chili, garlic and pepper. YUM! But then a friend pointed out that it was actually quite easy in Phnom Penh to be vegetarian. And I realised it was. So after two days of enjoying meat again, I was back off the bandwagon. And in Phnom Penh it’s easy – there is delicious food from all over the world for reasonable prices and everywhere has a vegetarian option or two or more on the menu. And at the end of the alley I live is a restaurant called ‘Vegetarian’ – now if that doesn’t give me the ‘vegetarian infrastructure’ I lamented, I don’t know what I am expecting!

It gets a little trickier out in the provinces. There are conspicuously no vegetarian cafés, Lebanese falafel shops or Mexican burrito places, and this is hardly surprising. I was positively charmed by Phnom Penh when I arrived at the diversity of the international cuisine and also the availability of traditional Khmer food adapted for veggies. Well, in the provinces, it gets a little more meaty and thus difficult.

Most places, if not in the centre of a provincial town, have a system reminiscent of a cafeteria, in which there is a table with several pots of different dishes from which you choose the meal of choice and get some rice to go with it. I have not yet seen a pot without fish, chicken, pork or beef. I just don’t think those dishes exist. And so normally I’ll be able to order some fried rice or if lucky they may even make me some fried vegetables to go with some rice, and if I’m less lucky at the beginning I would eat something from one of the pots, something with chunks of meat which look least likely to fall right off the bone and thus let me pick them out. Nowadays I tend to just go without the meal and by dinner time we can normally rustle up some fried rice somewhere.

Am I a fussy eater? Not really. I struggle with the thought that I come to a place and then make extra demands as I don’t want to eat the food of this country. Does that make me an arrogant Western person, unwilling to let himself be immersed by the culture of the country he is researching? Or does it make me a pragmatist who is happy to be in the provinces and eat a bland diet of fried rice and vegetables day after day, to uphold his dietary principles, but still enable him to do his research? Obviously, I come down on the latter side of the debate, but it does worry me what the people in the places we eat think. Particularly in a country overrun by Western development workers, many of whom seem ignorant of the people and the culture around them (but more on that another time!)

And then we return to Phnom Penh at some point and I breath a culinary sigh of relief. And off I go to my favourite café Java for coffee and scones, and maybe a pumpkin and carrot soup.

Dienstag, 11. November 2014

So, why did you participate in genocide? (Part II)

Oh dear me, it has been a good three or four weeks since the last blog. And there are a lot of good reasons for this – hard at work, had my mother and brother to visit and spent the evenings with them instead of working, and all sorts – but the main one is that I have writer’s block regarding the topic I promised you. I promised to give you some first results from my interviews, but every time I get out my big black and red notebook and look through the pages, I have literally no idea where to start telling you about the many conversations I have had, the many stories I have heard, the lives which have been laid out before me. The type of academic I am, I feel I don’t want to start talking about it before I have combed through the interviews in detail and found the patterns. So I have decided to start simply by telling you just one story, randomly chosen.

The interviewee spoke to me at a restaurant near his home in the province of Kampong Chhnang. After the Khmer Rouge entered the area he grew up in, he was evacuated to a different part of the district to avoid being on the frontlines, and collective work under the Khmer Rouge began. In 1972, he was called to a meeting by the commune chief along with all the other young villagers. Here, the village chief spoke to the young people and assigned them all to different tasks. My interviewee (whose name I even don’t know myself to enhance his anonymity) was assigned to the village militia, called chlop in Khmer. He didn’t really mind this assignment, he said, and most of his friends didn’t seem to mind either – as everyone went along with it you could hardly stay behind. His main task was to patrol the village and watch out for Lon Nol spies (the enemies during the civil war) entering the village, but none ever came by. This task was easier than growing rice in the fields which is what he had been doing prior to that so he became quite accustomed to his new role.

From here he was assigned to be a soldier at the front and when the Khmer Rouge had taken Phnom Penh and gained power over the country he was assigned to become a guard at one prison, and then a second. This was preceded by intense background checks into whether he or his family had any involvement with the previous enemy and checks that he was from the poorest classes and thus a true peasant and revolutionary. The prison he ended up was security office number 21, S-21, the now infamous Tuol Sleng which today houses the country’s goriest genocide museum. My interviewee says he was a guard here, in charge of watching over the people, chained together in small rooms, and making sure they didn’t commit suicide – the people were needed for interrogation (oftentimes brutal with the prisoners coming back covered in blood) in order for his colleagues to find out about their treacherous activities and about other people in their ‘strings’ of foreign agents, so the story goes.

‘I was scared for my security,’ says my interviewee, even though he had a good life with three meals a day. While this fear may strike one as strange to hear from the guard of a prison, this is a recurring motif in many interviews – all guards (all cadres at all for that matter) were potentially also moles of the enemy. If someone committed suicide, immediately the guard would have been arrested (and many of his comrades were), as this was seen as suspicious of him being a member of a treacherous string also. And in the space of a fateful few minutes he could change from guard to prisoner. Several people died on his watch, but always from starvation or the consequences of the torturous interrogation, never suicide leaving him in the clear.

One day, though, he has to work all night guarding and standing up, and eventually he dozes off on his feet and is caught. Thrown into a cell with no food or water for several days (and fed after three days only through the compassion of a fellow guard), he is suspected of trying to sabotage the prison, but in the end he is let out again, but now guards the perimeter of the prison rather than the prisoners themselves. The man is arrested again later for being suspected of graffiti-painting a slogan against Ângkar but again can persuade his superiors of his innocence. It would seem his fear ‘for his security’ was quite justified. Only when the Vietnamese invade is he relieved of his duties – while fleeing he saw a huge pit filled with dead people and mused to his friend ‘If we had stayed any longer, we would have been killed too – Vietnam has saved our lives.’

When I asked him, why he believed others at the prison had killed prisoners, he said that he believed there was one reason, and one reason only: orders. He acted because of orders and nothing else and he assumes the same is true for others. If he had ever been asked to kill, he would have done so, but he was never asked.

Although I chose this interview randomly, it does talk about events others have experienced, it shows the complex dynamics of the time, and the manifold roles that people were thrust into. Displaced person and later Khmer Rouge cadre; guard at Tuol Sleng and twice prisoner at the same. Assigned with everyone else. Orders to be obeyed. Fears for security. Context and conditions beyond imagination. Did not kill. But close to the action, so close that prisoners die on his watch. My interviews seldom paint pictures of black and white, and this interview was no exception. It is a messy picture of why people participate in genocide, but it is a picture with contours, which opens important questions which I am slowly finding answers to.