Same Same, But Different

Well. It’s really hard to come up with an organized thought about a second horrific genocide history (Cambodia) so soon after leaving the first (Rwanda).

I can’t help but view Cambodia’s genocide through the lens of Rwanda’s, because I can’t unexperience my time there, and the world opened a little wider for me after. It’s hard not to compare.  It’s hard not to measure loss in numbers and time frames.  In perpetrators and methods. And it’s hard not to find value in the loss by what’s been restored or redeemed—which seems to be the entire country of Rwanda, while poor Cambodia feels a little bit like Southeast Asia’s forgotten child.

These are the ways we try and make sense of nonsensical things like genocide. Kigali’s genocide memorial had an entire floor dedicated to genocides in other countries I’d never even heard of.  It’s kind of like a shirt everyone wears here— Front: Same Same  Back: But different.

As I walked through the S-21 school-turned-torture site and the Killing Fields in Cambodia, the sights and sounds bounced off my eyes and ears and fell to the ground. Not a whole lot made its way inside—not even the shreds of clothing or encased display of teeth.  Not even the tree used to kill little babies. I didn’t really allow myself to picture how things were carried out or what a person must have been feeling standing on that same ground forty years ago.  Same Same, I thought, But different.

On the inside, my heart and brain were tripping over each other to close all the blinds, pull the shades, lock-up, and post a blinking neon sign: No Vacancy. We’re full.

(They’re currently up there writing a want-ad for tiny monkeys dressed as humans, rainbows, and baskets full of puppies. Those the only openings we have at the moment.)


It shouldn’t be this way, right?  We should have endless reserves of compassion and empathy. There should never be any compassion fatigue.

Or wait. Is it that there shouldn’t be so much evil? Maybe we weren’t designed with the capacity to absorb the intentional deaths of several million people in two countries at the hands of other people.

The thing is, God makes good people.  Right this minute 250 babies are being born worldwide. Each one is hand-crafted and carrying so much potential. And each one is deeply loved and cherished by the artist who created it.  But over the course of their lives—if they were a microcosm of Rwanda and Cambodia combined— some portion of 200 of those babies will turn around and kill 50 of their counterparts.

What a painful experience for the guy who designed and created them.

I can only relate it to how it would feel if my best friend and my husband hated each other. My best friend is my favorite. My husband is my favorite. Together, we’re the three best friends anyone could ever have.


They find value in each other because I find value in each of them. When Jeff is funny and Sprinky laughs, I’m in heaven. When Sprink refers to Jeff as her best-friend-in-law, my heart soars.

I think this is how God must feel when relationships are forged between each of us. We are his favorites— all of us. When we find value in each other, when cultural differences are celebrated and cherished, when we share and encourage and love one another, he must be delighted.

And by the same token, how awful it must feel when one bullies or intimidates another one. When one crashes a plane into three-thousand other ones. When one shoots another one with skittles in his pocket. When one sets off a bomb at a marathon and kills another one. When a group of ones are owned by another group of ones. When three million ones are tortured by a few other ones. When one entire race wipes out another entire race.

It’s a double loss. His favorite destroyed his other favorite.

In Cambodia, about two million people were killed—that’s one in four—during the four years of the Pol Pot regime. Two million of God’s favorite creations. When the Khmer Rouge took over, schools and factories were closed within 48 hours. Phnom Penh was empty. Everyone was forced out of the cities and into collective farms and labor camps in the countryside.

People were targeted on the basis of their intellect. Provincial living was valued, and education was despised, so anyone who was a teacher, artist, lawyer, doctor, or intellect in any capacity, who could speak a foreign language, who had glasses (because it was assumed this person could read), who had soft hands (because it was assumed this person held a white-collar job and therefore was educated) was captured, tortured and killed at one of the 300 killing fields throughout the country.

One of God’s favorite creations used his skills and passions to build a field in order to kill another one of God’s favorite creations because of his skills and passions.  Wait, what?!

I remember the first time I heard about this. It was a few years ago when a friend of mine was traveling the world for six months and kept an entertaining blog.  I had totally forgotten all about Cambodia and that blog until I was with my writing group a few months ago, and we got out the manuscript of Jackie’s posts. Erin flipped to the Cambodia section and found a comment I’d left, which I’ll share in a second.

Before the comment was found, I had been telling the group how weeks before we were preparing the interns for this Cambodia trip, and how we were all assigned different sections of Cambodia’s history to present to the group. My section was post-Khmer Rouge, and a good chunk of it was the fall of the Khmer Rouge leaders through the UN-backed tribunals. Because I only had 2 minutes to present forty years of history, and I wanted to keep the group entertained, I assigned nicknames to all key players, like Prince Nordy and Prince Randy and Hunny for Prince Norodom, Prince Ranariddh and Hun Sen.

For Duch, I simply added an “e” at the end and pronounced his name Doosh, seemingly appropriate for the man responsible for the torturous deaths of 12,000 people at S-21, and who was given a 35-year sentence, appealed it, and was re-sentenced by the UN for life. Yeah! The group said, feeling both silly and justified. I thought it was pretty funny. This usually happens before I bite it, socially.

When the presentation was over, one of the interns said, “It’s actually pronounced Duke.”

What are the chances that her parents went to the church of the Cambodian pastor whose parents, brother and sister died in the regime, who met Duch at a Christian Leadership course, led him to Christ, baptized him, stood with him at the killing fields as he confessed to his crimes and asked for forgiveness, and is now advocating for his release?!


It was too late to take back that little “e”.  The irony is yet to come. As I had forgotten all about Jackie’s blog, and as I was telling the group this story about how it turns out God can redeem killers and I shouldn’t call people douches, and as Erin was flipping through the book, she said, “Hey! This comment is from you a couple of years ago:”

April 11, 2011: Wow! Prayers for you two and Cambodia. I had no idea that happened. It’s hard to comprehend God knew and loved each person in that cave and mass grave, and he knew and loved every killer. So strange and hard to understand.

Mercy for my current situation from my past self before my past self knew I would need it.

This one’s a hard one to get out: God loves killers. They are his favorite. And He has the ability to redeem anyone, sometimes even using the pastor whose family the regime killed… Sound familiar?!

Duch is the only regime leader to date who confessed to his crimes. Before his arrest, he went back to his village to start a house church with 14 families. He is still serving his life sentence.  Here is an unbelievable article from TIME called The Killer and the Pastor about Pastor LaPel and Duch.

When I left Rwanda, I wished I could take the banner from the memorial site and wrap the entire globe in it: If you knew me and you really knew yourself, you would not have killed me.  Yes, Cambodia. You too.

And as I leave Cambodia in the next couple of weeks, I’m left with this from Frederick Buechner: “Here is the world. Beautiful and terrible things will happen. Don’t be afraid.”  Pastor LaPel and Duch exemplify the entire spectrum.

A few pictures of the Killing Fields memorial are here.

Bracelets at the memorial
Bracelets at the memorial