As a child, my grandmother's stories of the Ukrainian Holodomor - "death by hunger" - had a profound effect on me. Decades after coming to the United States as a refugee, she could still recount, in vivid detail, the horrors she witnessed during the great famine of 1932-33.
Joseph Stalin had launched an aggressive program of collectivization against a resistant peasantry, and the death toll mounted. Some scholars today describe the "man-made" famine as an act of genocide against the Ukrainian people; others believe it was a miscalculation on the part of the Soviet government. Either way, millions of Ukrainians died.
A teenager at the time, my grandmother said she saw "corpses that were still breathing, walking, crawling," streaming into Kiev from the barren countryside.
They died on sidewalks, in public gardens. Every morning, she said, "the streets of Kiev were alive with big, covered trucks that went along the streets and parks and picked up dead bodies."
When I was young, such images generally invoked a simple response: Why didn't anyone do anything? The same question has been asked countless times in relation to other tragedies: the Holocaust, the Rwandan genocide, the Khmer Rouge era.
As an adult, I realize that international political considerations are a key (though not necessarily sufficient) explanation.
However, ignorance is a lethal helpmate. Both the Soviet and Khmer Rouge governments succeeded in cutting off their people from the rest of the world, stifling information that could have moved the international community to action. During and immediately after the famine, the Soviet government restricted the travel of foreign journalists throughout Ukraine, barring them from stricken areas. Though a few journalists made it into prohibited regions - and reported what they saw - others, such as New York Times Moscow bureau chief Walter Duranty, repeatedly denied any reports of famine. Scholars have since charged Duranty with deliberately misrepresenting the situation in Ukraine, and critics launched an unsuccessful campaign to posthumously revoke his Pulitzer Prize.
Suppression of information was even more extreme in Democratic Kampuchea. Under the Khmer Rouge, there was no viable press. The regime expelled most foreign journalists from the country and, like the Soviets, generally granted access solely to those sympathetic to their cause. Within Cambodia, only Angkar-run radio and magazines were permitted. When reports of Democratic Kampuchea's nature did filter out, they were easy for Khmer Rouge supporters to discredit given the overall lack of information.
Enforced silence is a dangerous proposition. Hearing stories of the famine and Walter Duranty, ironically, fueled my desire to become a journalist. I wanted to be the anti-Duranty, someone who highlighted issues that had gone underreported or deliberately ignored. No one can undo the negligence of the past. Nor is there any guarantee that alerting others to injustice will spur them to act. However, we can inform. As I see it, members of the international community have an obligation to closely monitor the progress of countries in turmoil -- and those recovering from tumultuous histories.
This blog is part of that effort. After graduating from Brown University in 2004, I spent a year working for The Phnom Penh Post as a Henry Luce Scholar. Though I returned to the United States when my fellowship term ended, I thought of Cambodia often and knew I wanted to come back for the Khmer Rouge Tribunal. Luckily, a Fulbright grant has made that possible.
As part of my project, I will keep a regular blog for the Post with news, features and analysis involving the tribunal. Much of the information will come from my own reporting. Some will be collected from the various media outlets covering the court. Along with relaying courtroom developments, I hope to explore other themes and topics that can serve as discussion points as the tribunal moves forward.
In that spirit, please feel free to email me anytime with story ideas (ELesley@alumni.brown.edu). I will do my best to pursue your tips and publish a wide range of viewpoints.
With your help and input, I hope to make this blog a vital information source -- both in Cambodia and abroad.
* Pictured above is my grandmother, Helene Stavrakis, shortly before the Ukrainian famine.