PHNOM PENH, Cambodia — In a low-rent office full of computers and file cabinets, a group of young volunteers is doing the job no one in this nation wanted to touch--cataloging a genocide.
It is a high-risk undertaking, conducted in partnership with Yale University Law School, because there are people in Cambodia, including some senior members of government, who have a lot to lose if they are linked to the Khmer Rouge's mass killings of 1975-79.
The Documentation Center of Cambodia, established in 1994 and supported by shoestring grants from the U.S. State Department, Norway and Yale, has collected 325,000 pages of original documents so far, and day by day it is shedding new light on the nightmare that claimed the lives of more than 1 million Cambodians.
"I cannot find the words in English--or my own language--to describe the suffering we went through," said center director Youk Chhang, 37, who, unlike his brother and sister, survived "the killing fields." Chhang later went on to earn a degree in political science from the University of Dallas.
The 1975-79 period has been expunged from Cambodia's history textbooks as if it never existed. But Chhang said he hopes that a serious study of the era, using research that the center is cataloging and will eventually make available on the Internet, will enable Cambodia to come to grips with its past and lead to trials of the senior Khmer Rouge commanders in an international court.
"People find this period so painful, they keep it inside and do not speak about it," he said. "But it's important that we deal with it psychologically and that research helps us know the importance of the rule of law so it can't happen again. If you don't punish someone for killing, how can you punish anyone for stealing a motor scooter?
"We also need a legal end to the Khmer Rouge to end the nightmare," he said. "We need genocide justice in a court of law. And this research could provide the basis of that case."
The Cambodian government says it supports international calls to try the senior commanders, and although Western diplomats do not put much faith in the statement, U.S. initiatives to convene a tribunal do appear to be gaining momentum, political analysts said.
"I've been following this as a matter of professional obsession for seven years, and the chances of convening a tribunal are looking very good," said Craig Etcheson, an American who was former director of the Documentation Center.
Even today, many young Cambodians do not believe that Cambodians were responsible of the genocide. They think that the killings were carried out by Vietnamese, Chinese or American agents. It is not an opinion held for long by Cambodian students who have taken tours of the Documentation Center.
Khmer Rouge leader Pol Pot, who died of an apparent heart attack in April, was inspired by Stalin and by Mao Tse-tung's Cultural Revolution. A radical Communist, he abolished money, emptied the cities and declared the beginning of Year Zero when his peasant army marched into Phnom Penh on April 17, 1975.
In his attempt to "purify" Cambodia, anyone tainted by foreign influence--and that included those who wore spectacles, had a higher education or belonged to the middle class--was marked for death. Tens of thousands of others were worked to death on collective farms or died of starvation. Pol Pot's reign of terror ended in 1979 when Vietnam invaded Cambodia.
Only remnants of Pol Pot's army survive today, after mass defections to the government side and a government offensive against the rebels' last stronghold in northern Cambodia. Although the Khmer Rouge was believed responsible for killing 10 Cambodians last month in an attack during national elections, it has been rendered ineffective as a fighting force.
The Documentation Center, whose slogan is "Searching for the Truth," operates with the approval of the government and is purely a research organization, making no attempt to analyze its data.
With 25 volunteers, Chhang has created a huge database that includes oral histories of survivors, profiles of Khmer Rouge cadres, photographs, maps, letters, songs sung by Pol Pot's peasant army and hundreds of personal diaries kept by the young guerrillas.
Inside one journal, amid notes on proper techniques for shooting and sketches of swans, is an unsent letter a Khmer Rouge boy-soldier wrote to his father in September 1978: "You are always in my heart. Please don't worry about me. I am here to protect our country, to protect our people. How is our village? How is my cow?"
Taped to a file cabinet near Chhang's desk is a 1986 photograph of Pol Pot, holding his young daughter and looking every bit like the adoring father. Above it is another photo, of Chhang and his 9-year-old daughter.
"You wonder," Chhang said, "how any father could be responsible for what happened in Cambodia."