Traveling beyond the dryness of statistics

Ba Chuc, Vietnam

Ba Chuc, a Vietnamese community in the Mekong Delta, sits just across the border from Cambodia. In April 1978, Khmer Rouge soldiers entered the village from Cambodia and massacred 3,157 men, women, and children—almost the entire population. Today the skulls of the victims are on display in an outdoor memorial.

Statistics, when referring to numbers of dead, fall flat in their attempts to convey the humanity of what has been lost. This is because emotions are connected to people, not numbers. Try, for example, to process this excerpt from Chris Hedges’ book War is a Force that Gives Us Meaning (2002):

Look just at the 1990s: 2 million dead in Afghanistan; 1.5 million dead in the Sudan; some 800,000 butchered in ninety days in Rwanda; a half-million dead in Angola; a quarter of a million dead in Bosnia; 200,000 dead in Guatemala; 150,000 dead in Liberia; a quarter of a million dead in Burundi; 75,000 dead in Algeria; and untold tens of thousands lost in the border conflict between Ethiopia and Eritrea,….

Travel helps make real the abstract. In Ba Chuc, I spent a good amount of time before these skulls, imagining the life that had once animated the now hollow bones. I heard the laughter, the conversations, the sneezes, the crying, and then the sudden ending of it all. The victims in this photo were almost all females in their late teens—girls in the process of becoming women—and more than a few of them died only after being horrifically raped (an adjacent room offered the most nauseating pictures of sexual violence I had ever seen). And in standing on this ground and looking into these skulls, I felt neither the sterility of statistics nor a mere twinge of sadness; I felt a palpable, riveting absence.


Posted by | Comments (4)  | June 28, 2011
Category: Asia, Images from the road

4 Responses to “Traveling beyond the dryness of statistics”

  1. Marc Says:

    Great article. Powerful stuff, with the message tenderly conveyed.

    The latter part of the final sentence is masterfully constructed.

  2. blackberrywhite Says:

    I’ve been there – it was cool

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  4. Thomas Dembie Says:

    As someone who has visited the Killing Fields and done a lot of research on the subject, it’s still shocking to read stories and see things like this. I’m looking forward to seeing the new documentary Enemies of the People, which won many awards in 2010, when it comes out on DVD in October 2011.