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Saturday, October 13, 2007

Survivor recounts horror of Khmer Rouge

Youk Chhang was 13 when he was beaten by members of the brutal Khmer Rouge for picking mushrooms and offering them to his pregnant, starving sister.

Even his mother, who was in the crowd of onlookers, couldn't react or both of them would have been executed.

Years later, filled with revenge, Chhang returned to Cambodia to confront the perpetrator.

"He didn't even remember me," Chhang said in an interview today at a three-day conference on the prevention of genocide. "That was the most heartbreaking thing and I realized revenge was not the answer."

For the past 10 years, Chhang has been collecting evidence that will be used at the recently established tribunal in Cambodia to prosecute the leaders of the regime responsible for the deaths of about 2 million people, including many of Chhang's family members.

In July, two of the leaders behind the notorious "killing fields" between 1975 and 1979 were arrested and Chhang said three more will be picked up in the coming weeks. Now aged between 64 and 82, they've been living openly in Cambodia, close to the Thai border.

When the first trial begins next year - three decades after the killings - it will be the first ever to address one of the world's biggest mass murders.

About a quarter of the country's population was either murdered or died of torture, exhaustion, illness or starvation during the insane social-engineering experiment in which urban residents were forced at gunpoint into the countryside.

Chhang's Documentation Centre of Cambodia in Phnom Penh has amassed 1.5 million pages of documents, uncovered 28,000 mass graves, and discovered 189 prisons and photographs.

They also spoke to 10,000 perpetrators, who, says Chhang, were very open when speaking about their actions.

"All of them had been indoctrinated to believe that it wasn't his responsibility, that it was the responsibility of someone above him," he said. "Some of the killers were just farmers, being indoctrinated to believe his action was for the good of the nation."

Canadian Robert Petit, who worked in Montreal as a criminal prosecutor for eight years before heading to the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, is acting as co-prosecutor with a Cambodian. The Canadian government has provided $2 million of the $56-million budget for the tribunal, which has a three-year time limit.

But it comes about 10 years too late to get Pol Pot, the leader of the Khmer Rouge guerrilla force that set in motion the killings. He died in a jungle hideout in 1998.

Last year, one of the top Khmer Rouge leaders, Ta Mok, died at age 80.

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Global conference on genocide opens in Montreal

MONTREAL (AFP) — Survivors of mass murder in Rwanda and Cambodia joined human rights experts, diplomats and legislators in Montreal at a global conference aimed at exploring ways of preventing genocidal violence.

The conference, sponsored by McGill University's law faculty, comes amid continuing atrocities against civilians in Sudan's Darfur region -- a conflict described as 'genocide in slow motion.'

"It seems that for the most part the vow of 'never again' was not taken seriously by the international community. Since 1948 (the signing of the genocide convention), it is more like 'ever again' that we have had, from Cambodia to Bosnia, to Rwanda and now today in Darfur, a repeated failure to intervene against what is considered the ultimate crime," Payam Akhavan, the conference chair, told AFP.

Participants were due to discuss the crisis in Darfur where at least 200,000 people have died and two million others displaced since the Sudanese government enlisted a militia to put down an ethnic minority revolt that broke out in 2003.

The Arab militia has been accused of widespread rape, murder and the destruction of rebel villages. The United Nations, which had been unable or unwilling to stop the killing, now plans to deploy 26,000 peacekeepers to the region to replace a poorly equipped force of 7,000 sent by the African Union.

Among the speakers at the three-day event which opened Thursday were Romeo Dallaire, former commander of the UN peacekeeping mission in Rwanda during the 1994 genocide, Nobel Laureate and Nigerian political critic Wole Soyinka, human rights researcher Alison Des Forges, and Francis Deng, a former Sudanese diplomat who is now advisor to the UN Secretary General on the prevention of genocide.

The Montreal meeting opened with painful accounts of survivors of the Jewish and Roma holocausts, and the Cambodian and Rwandan genocides.

Esther Mujawayo, a Rwandan woman who lost her mother, father and husband in the genocide said her experience had made her a skeptic.

"Don't tell me you didn't know. The world did know. The world looked away. You knew but did not have the will," said Mujawayo, who managed to escape the country with her three daughters.

She said foreign nationals and their pets were saved during the genocide, while the Rwandans were abandoned.

"When the people were evacuating, the French, the Belgians, the Americans, all the expatriates, they even evacuated their dogs and their cats. I can't forget that image.

"A Belgian dog is better off than my child, and this is sad."

Dallaire, who tried and failed to get UN approval to stop the Rwandan slaughter, asked: "What will give the political structures of our nations the warm fuzzy feeling they need (...) to protect and possibly ultimately prevent other human beings who are just as human as we are from falling victims to slaughter and mass destruction?

"What is that instrument, what is that magic formula that will give those politicians the will to intervene? Ladies and gentlemen, that's the crux of this whole exercise."

Mujawayo accused the international community of abandoning Rwandan victims again now, citing the lack of compensation for women raped during the genocide and infected with AIDS. She said the United Nations preferred to give AIDS drugs to Rwandan defendants in Arusha accused of masterminding and carrying out the genocide than to victims.

Panelists were expected to discuss how to predict genocide and fight the political and bureaucratic inertia that impedes UN intervention in genocidal conflicts. The role of governments and business in sustaining genocide or slapping economic sanctions onto guilty regimes was also on the agenda.

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