The International Victimology Institute Tilburg promotes and executes interdisciplinary research that can contribute to a comprehensive, evidence-based body of knowledge on the empowerment and support of victims of crime and abuse of power.

International Victimology Institute Tilburg

INTERVICT promotes and executes interdisciplinary research that can contribute to a comprehensive, evidence-based body of knowledge on the empowerment and support of victims of crime and abuse of power.

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Repairing the harm of genocide? Impressive encounters on a trip to Cambodia - Marola Vaes

Between the 23rd and 27th of June Prof. Antony Pemberton and junior researcher Marola Vaes visited our new research partner TPO (Transcultural Psychosocial Organization) in Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia. In a three day meeting, INTERVICT and TPO concretized the research method and objective and finalized the strategy for data collection. The trip to Phnom Penh was given further perspective by a visit to Tuol Sleng and Choeung Ek – two places that keep the horrors of the Khmer Rouge regime alive until today. This first blog post is Marola’s report on the trip.

Phnom Penh is a smelly city. Small scooters and tuk-tuks compete with large pick-up trucks on the main streets and roundabouts. Through the car window, we see shiny, high-rise buildings next to multilevel houses in traditional Khmer design along the road our taxi takes us. The drilling sounds of the many construction sites in the city center – be it for houses, roads, or more tall buildings – only add to the hectic but productive spirit that we feel surrounded in. Upon arrival at our hotel, we are welcomed by the Cambodian staff with gentle smiles and the humbling sampeah greeting (bowing the head towards folded hands in respect). It feels odd to realize that our warm and colorful first encounter with Phnom Penh is in stark contrast with our knowledge of the cold and dark history of the Cambodian genocide (1975 – 1979).

Reparations project Intervict ECCC

At the same time, it is this history that has drawn us to this country. As an ongoing international criminal justice procedure at the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC) aims to alleviate the harms suffered through victim reparations, we feel the need to empirically examine the actual impact of such measures on the experience of victims. To this end, we meet Dr. Sotheara Chhim (director of TPO), Sopheap Taing and Sokunnara Thlen (TPO program supervisors and researchers) over the course of three days to engage in an in-depth discussion of our initiative. TPO is Cambodia’s leading NGO in the field of mental health care and psychosocial support. With many projects focused on the population of genocide survivors – some also in collaboration with the ECCC – TPO plays a significant role in the efforts to heal the emotional and social scars left after decades of violent conflict. We are happy to be able to work with and learn a lot from these skilled and dedicated professionals. Dr. Sotheara’s own examination of the Cambodian traumatic stress reaction, a condition survivors experience as Baksbat, or ‘broken courage’, motivates the contextualized approach we want to take in this research. In addition, Miss Sopheap and Miss Sokunnara bring a high level of practical experience to our debate on how to implement our project in a way that optimizes our examination of victimization and justice experiences while also safeguarding the well-being of respondents. In summary, it was a highly productive meeting that inspired both sides, giving much confidence for the future.

Reparations project Intervict Genocide Museum

A visit to the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum and Choeung Ek in the weekend that interrupts our meeting re-emphasizes why the Cambodian atrocities deserve not only our attention but that of the whole world. The museum, which chronicles the Khmer Rouge policy of total destruction, make a look back into history unavoidable.  In fact, located right in the city center, there is literally no getting around a confrontation with the enormity of evil to which Cambodians were subjected here. The impressions collected inside of “building A” of this former high school – dark stained floors, rusty bed frames, iron arm and leg shackles and other remnants of torture – really leave too much to the imagination. In another building, the eyes of executed children, men and women haunt observers from a large exhibition of photo collages and testify to the strict documentation policy enforced by a highly paranoid regime.

Reparations project Intervict Killingfields Museum

By the end of our audio guided tour, we come to stand eye to eye with two of the men who did survive this place, an encounter with Bou Meng and Chum Mey which I will never forget. The brave men now spread their autobiographies from inside the very complex that represents the center of their suffering.

Reparations project Intervict Choeun Ek

The day after we visit Choeung Ek, better known as “the killing fields”. It lies more on the outskirts of the city, just 8 kilometers from Tuol Sleng; the relative calmness of the area disguises the imaginable terror felt by the more than 20.000 people executed here en masse during the Khmer Rouge regime. Some of the bones of victims that have been exhumed from the mass grave sites across the fields are honored in the tall memorial stupa, while several thousand remain buried below a large and deep pond of water. But they do not remain in silence. Every few weeks the caretakers of the Choeung Ek terrain have to collect the restless human remains that continuously find their way to the surface, likely because of subtle movements in the ground and the rains. It’s like the souls of those who perished on the edge of the mass grave pits keep reminding us that what has happened here should never be forgotten. And I agree with them. As much as I leave Phnom Penh empowered by TPO’s work and an outlook on doing valuable research together, I also leave burdened with a heavy question: How can law, or anything at all, repair the grave harm and injustice that feels irreparable?