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Sifting through the genocide paper trail

Sifting through the genocide paper trail

IN an unmarked, ordinary-looking house on one of Phnom Penh's main streets, staffers

in a quiet office spend every day cataloguing hell.

The Documentation Center of Cambodia, a two-year-old research institute, exists to

preserve and file hundreds of thousands of pages of documents from the Khmer Rouge's

1975-78 "killing fields" regime.

"We are helping Cambodians to preserve the history of genocide," said Youk

Chhang, the center's director.

The Khmer Rouge have been likened to the Nazis in their meticulous documentation

of their own brutality. The gruesome paper trail curated by the Documentation Center

includes confessions extracted at the infamous Toul Sleng torture center and top

secret KR security files.

The center was established in 1995 to gather "raw data and provide it to the

public for a better understanding of the Khmer Rouge", according to Chhang.

However, its work may take on new relevance in the near future, as the UN is making

the first tentative steps toward the establishment of an international body to examine

the crimes of the Khmer Rouge.

Chhang acknowledges that the material would be a legal bonanza. "It's not about

personal opinion or accusations, this is about the truth ... I hope to reach courts

and lawyers [who] will use this information," he said.

The center's holdings are separate from the records at Tuol Sleng and the National

Archives. They comprise four types of information: the over 100,000 pages of security

files, believed to have belonged to KR defense minister Son Sen; petitions signed

by survivors in 1979-80, detailing their personal experiences under the KR, with

over one million signatures and thumbprints; biographies of both KR cadre and victims;

and photographs from Tuol Sleng and from KR personal albums.

The scale of the work is daunting - each piece of documentary material is copied

onto microfilm, filed in a computer database, and placed on the Internet in both

Khmer and English.

"Imagine reading every single page, and cataloguing it by zone, province, location,

source - sometimes it takes one day to do one data entry," Chhang says.

While the center is used by a few scholars now, Chhang hopes to transform it into

a fully public resource center in the next two or three years.

"Every Cambodian can come and read the copies or work on the computers; probably

at that time we will have computer training and show them how to use the Internet."

Asked if he thought opening such a center might pose a danger, since KR leaders are

still at large, Chhang was sanguine: "We are not a court ... if you tell them

this is only about the truth of what happened at that time ... people will see."

However, he admitted that Cambodia's delicate situation obliges him to gauge the

political climate carefully before revealing new information. "I'm very careful

with that ... the language I use, the time I should present certain cases,"

he said, adding, "so far, I think we are doing the right thing."

The center was first established as the field office of the Yale University-based

Cambodian Genocide Program, with US State Department funding. In January 1997 it

became a fully independent Cambodian NGO with a staff of 16.

While the State Department funds running costs, Chhang must solicit other grants

for specific projects. Besides its documentation work, the center also runs a mapping

project, aiming to identify the locations of every mass grave in the country; legal

training projects, to educate Cambodian lawyers, government officials, and human

rights workers on international law and war crimes; and historical research projects

on specific aspects of the KR period.

"We have funding to last at least the next six to seven years, from Norway,

the Dutch, and private foundations," said Chhang.

Future projects include contracting Cambodian scholars to write four reports on the

experiences of children; ethnic Chinese; ethnic Vietnamese; and the northeastern

zone's indigenous peoples.

The depressing nature of the work is far outweighed by its historical importance,

Chhang believes.

"We make known to the public what really happened ... it's original material,

here in the catalog, and you can make your own judgment."

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