The Iraqi dentist and father of five stood apart from his delegation and wiped away his tears.
A day after arriving in Cambodia, Abdulkarim Hashim, 49, and nine other representatives from Iraq’s major political parties were brought to the Choeung Ek killing fields where they were confronted by the sight of 8,985 skulls.
Few in the group, who plan to observe Sunday’s commune elections, knew much of Cambodia before arriving Saturday and some could be heard rehearsing the words “Pol Pot” and “Lon Nol.”
But to Abdulkarim Hashim, of the Shia Muslim party Dawa al-Islamiya, which fought a long militant campaign against the late Iraqi president Saddam Hussein and produced Iraq’s current prime minister Nouri al-Maliki, the meaning of the mass graves is clear.
“This is a message for you if you go out of Iraq before a government is built,” he said, grabbing an American reporter by the arm. “What will happen in Iraq will happen much worse than in Cambodia or in other countries,” he said.
Koul Panha, executive director of the Committee for Free and Fair Elections, which is organizing the visit with the US-based International Republican Institute, said the aim of the trip is both to provide monitors for Cambodia and also offer the Iraqi delegates a chance to gain experience as election observers.
Representatives in the group also come from parties such as the prominent Sunni Iraqi Islamic Party, the Assyrian Democratic Movement and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan.
Comfrel and IRI staff are still in the process of discussing where the Iraqis will go on election day.
However, the group is today to receive a briefing on Cambodian politics and will meet with representatives of political parties and NGOs during the week, Koul Panha said.
“Maybe they’ll be deployed to look at difficult parts of the country,” he said, though he declined to name those areas.
Sulaiman Husain Ahmad, 51, the Kurdistan Democratic Party’s representative to Iraq’s elections commission during the country’s elections in 2005, said he looked forward to the commune election day.
“We will watch the ballot box and how the people came to participate,” he said. “It will be a good chance for the Cambodian people to forget the bad things that we have just seen and have a more successful future,” he added.
Walking away from the 129 mass graves identified at Choeung Ek, Abdulkarim Hashim recited a passage from the Koran that he said lamented the slaughter of female children. He was also moved to talk about things he had seen.
Abdulkarim Hashim said membership in Dawa under Saddam had cost him 11 years of prison and torture, eight of them at the Abu Ghraib prison outside Baghdad.
Youk Chhang, director of the Documentation Center of Cambodia, said the visit could help the Iraqis learn they are not alone in their suffering.
Youk Chhang said he has traveled to Iraq once a year since 2003 to work on oral history, digitization and database collection projects in collaboration with the Iraq Memory Foundation, an archive and data collection organization detailing Saddam’s regime.
“I am glad that they are here,” he said of the delegation.
“They need to look beyond their own borders.”
(Additional reporting by Pin Sisovann.)