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Searching for lessons Kampuchea's nightmare

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A reporter goes to Kampuchea (Cambodia) partly in the hope of learning more about how and why the reign of terror occurred here from 1975 to 1979.

There must be a few lessons in this for mankind, something that might prevent this from ever happening again.

One of the reasons the Vietnamese-supported government here admits Western reporters to this country is to show them new evidence of the killings, in this case newly discovered mass graves. Few who see these graves could doubt that they are real.

But what happened in Kampuchea has been fairly clear for some time now. Hundreds of thousands of Khmers - not combatants but civilians - perished from executions, overwork, and starvation during the reign of the Khmer Rouge, radical communists headed by then Premier Pol Pot. But even after a reporter has listened to a number of the survivors of this holocaust tell their stories, the ''why'' of it all remains a matter for conjecture. Even some of the survivors themselves seem puzzled as to how Khmers could have done this to their fellow Khmers.

''My two children, my parents, and my husband were killed,'' said a middle-aged woman named Mau near a mass grave to the south of Phnom Penh.

''My husband was a farmer,'' said the woman, almost shouting with anger. ''I never knew what my husband's crime was.''

''They said that my husband was a colonel,'' said another middle-aged woman named Suon Chanthi at a town in the southwest of Kampuchea. She had lost her husband and two of her children. ''But my husband was a teacher, not a colonel.''

''They accused me of working for the CIA and the KGB,'' said Khuy Sien, the mayor of the city of Kampot.

In 1977, the Khmer Rouge had insisted that the official, then a teacher, worked for both the American Central Intelligence Agency and the Soviet intelligence service, the KGB. The accusation didn't make sense. But the man had had enough warning to know that he must run for his life, and he did.

When one asks officials here their view of what happened during Kampuchea's long nightmare, one gets what has apparently become a standard answer: ''The Khmer Rouge were following the example of the Chinese Cultural Revolution.''

But one protests that while the Khmer Rouge may have borrowed ideas from China's frenzied, self-destructive Cultural Revolution of the 1960s, the Chinese radicals never went so far as the Khmer radicals did.

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