Mr. Nhem’s Genocide Camera
Mr. Nhem’s gold-plated watch glinted under the fluorescent light. He clasped his hands and smiled at me over his knuckles.
“I can help you,” Samithy translated. “I can make you famous.”
This was my opportunity to become an investor in Mr. Nhem’s museum, and thus a permanent partner. He had everything—the land, the government permits, approval for the development of fourteen identified points of interest. Mr. Nhem raised a collection of papers in a plastic book-report cover and flipped through them. He pointed to their stamped official seals. I was in a portable office in a dirt lot in northern Cambodia, and a former Khmer Rouge cadre was offering to make me a partner in the Khmer Rouge Museum.
Mr. Nhem had all the artifacts: over three hundred photos from the Khmer Rouge era and the post–Khmer Rouge fighting. He had a pair of Pol Pot’s shoes, and part of a statue that was once displayed in Anlong Veng, the town we were in. He even had the camera he’d used when he’d worked as a photographer at the S-21 prison, the infamous detention and torture center where he’d aided in documenting the fourteen thousand people who came through the facility, only seven of whom survived. He’d dubbed the relic “the Genocide Camera.”
All he needed was investors, he told me. This was my opportunity, he said. They could advertise me as “the American partner Lauren”; I could display my nation’s flag, along with a sign that said I had cooperated to support the museum. I asked how much he was looking for. An animated exchange sparked between Mr. Nhem and Samithy, the translator and tour guide who’d brought me to Anlong Veng, who’d tracked down Mr. Nhem and scored me this meeting in his mildewed office.
Samithy wrote down a figure and slid the piece of paper my way: $120,000.
Mr. Nhem had clearly mistaken me for someone other than a preschool teacher living on eight hundred dollars a month in Phnom Penh. But I decided it was better not to say this.
Anlong Veng is a dusty, sweaty slab of no-man’s-land in northern Cambodia. It’s one of those towns you’d pass through on a bus to somewhere better, and nothing about its battered storefronts, rubbled roads, or shabby markets squatting beneath beach umbrellas would make you think it was anything special.
The region had been the last stronghold of the Khmer Rouge, the genocidal regime under which nearly a quarter of the Cambodian population perished between 1975 and 1979. For almost thirty years after the official fall of the Khmer Rouge to Vietnamese forces, the regime remained active in the countryside, attracting devotees and plotting a resurgence that never materialized. The Khmer Rouge had been siphoned into smaller and more isolated parts of the country until, at last, all the die-hards holed up in an isolated wedge of land along the Thai border, getting rich off logging and living in relative impunity.
The Khmer Rouge’s leader, Pol Pot, was among these men. He spent his final years languishing, bored, inside a mosquito net in Anlong Veng, under a house arrest ordered by a former comrade, Ta Mok. Here, journalist Nate Thayer conducted the famous last interview with Pol Pot, in which the old man with crushed-silk skin declared that his conscience was clear. And here Pol Pot finally died, old and of natural causes; his body was burned beneath a pile of tires.
I’d read in the local newspapers about plans to turn Anlong Veng into a new stop on the temples-and-genocide tour-bus circuit. One article detailed plans to train the area’s large number of former Khmer Rouge cadre to become tour guides. Another claimed Nhem En, the spearhead behind the tourism development, had tried to raise money by selling Pol Pot’s toilet seat for half a million dollars. (There’d been no takers.)
In the common Cambodian lexicon, the Khmer Rouge era is known as “Pol Pot time,” a linguistic reflection of the way in which all the regime’s atrocities have become concentrated on one man. It’s a way for the living to deflect responsibility, and an important distinction to maintain: while the UN-backed Tribunals are painstakingly under way, the current government is composed largely of former Khmer Rouge, including the iron-fisted Prime Minister Hun Sen—men who could, should the Tribunals continue, be tried for their role in war crimes. But beyond that, Khmer Rouge isn’t a cut-and-dried term. Aside from the well-to-do urbanites at the top, the regime was mostly composed of uneducated rural peasants, many of whom were coerced to join as children, under threat of death. Today, former victims and perpetrators of Khmer Rouge violence display similar levels of trauma, often living side by side.
Nhem En is one of the former Khmer Rouge occupying this expansive gray area. He isn’t one of the big names: he isn’t a Brother Number One (Pol Pot) or a Brother Number Two (Nuon Chea), or even any brother, really. He’s one of the former mid-level cadres who always have someone above them to point to: “just following orders”; “kill or be killed.” He’s one of the many who’ve been folded back into society uneventfully, the way a body most often reabsorbs a blood clot. But while Nhem En’s name may not be famous, the work he produced under the Khmer Rouge is. The silent faces in Mr. Nhem’s photos from S-21 have become one of the most emblematic relics of the regime. His photographs are prominently displayed at the former prison site in Phnom Penh, now the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, one of the top tourist attractions in Cambodia.
Genocide sites are Cambodia’s second-ranking tourist attractions, after the temples of Angkor Wat. Foreign tourists seem to have a fascination with the genocide that Cambodians largely don’t share. Most often, the only Cambodians one sees at Tuol Sleng or the Killing Fields site are the tuk-tuk drivers and acid-burn victims clustered outside the gates, hoping for runoff from the tourist dollars.
The guidebooks and placards inside don’t tell you that these sites were created more to influence international opinion than to memorialize the dead. Both were set up by the Vietnamese during their post–Khmer Rouge occupation of Cambodia as a way to justify their occupation and prove that they had not committed the war crimes, as the remaining Khmer Rouge claimed. I’d heard conflicting reports about Cambodians’ initial interaction with these sites: expats said that Cambodians were not allowed to visit Tuol Sleng in its first years, but an acquaintance told me of being forced by the Vietnamese to visit Tuol Sleng in the early postwar days—the smell of the blood, she’d said, was awful. What was true was that both of these sites initially featured displays of victims’ bones. In fact, the Killing Fields still does—a bone pagoda, a supposed memorial to the victims whose bones lie inside it, is in complete opposition to the Cambodian tradition of cremation. In 2004, the former king Norodom Sihanouk went so far as to claim that the purpose of such a display was “to punish the victims, humiliate them, dishonor them.”
Also absent from mention is that the Cambodian government has allowed the Killing Fields to be privatized, selling a thirty-year concession to operate the site to the Japanese company JC Royal, which has since raised ticket prices and introduced three-dollar audio tours that have eliminated the need for local Cambodian tour guides. While Tuol Sleng still employs Cambodian guides, concrete information about who owns and operates the site appears intentionally murky. Thus the only Cambodians one can be sure are engaging with and benefitting from these genocide tourism sites are the tuk-tuk drivers and beggars outside the gates.
While genocide tourism is not distinct to Cambodia—Tusafiri Africa Tours and Travels offers a six-day “Rwanda History Will Tell! Safari” for two thousand dollars—the privatization of and profiting from genocide memorials appears to be. Founded by the Polish parliament, Auschwitz-Birkenau Museum is operated by the nonprofit Auschwitz-Birkenau Foundation, whose website offers structural and financial transparency. Rwanda’s Kigali Memorial Centre is operated by the local city council, in partnership with United Kingdom–based AEGIS Trust, and maintained by goodwill donations left by its visitors. The Armenian Genocide Museum-Institute, in Yerevan, is a subdivision of the National Academy of the Republic of Armenia, and has a similarly donation-based entrance. Bill Clinton headed the founding and fund-raising for the Srebrenica-Potočari Memorial and Cemetery to Genocide Victims, in Bosnia, garnering support from private groups and governments alike. Cambodia’s sites, however, are shrouded in opacity, and it is only through careful digging that one can discern who is running and profiting from these sites.
“Pol Pot time” isn’t often discussed in Cambodian daily life—with so many former Khmer Rouge still in the country, ruling the country, how would the conversation begin? In fact, war history has only recently begun to be taught in the schools, and the silence is so thick that it is not uncommon for youth to believe that the Khmer Rouge didn’t actually happen. In high-school-level English classes I’d taught, my students could wearily recite the length of the Khmer Rouge occupation of the country—“three years, eight months, and twenty days”—but they couldn’t tell you the difference between Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge as a whole.
Nhem En was quoted in one of the articles I had read in the local English-language media as wanting to build a museum to preserve the war history for the next generation. It sounded good. But I wondered if a genocide-tourism site developed by a former Khmer Rouge cadre would actually benefit Cambodians and help to end the silence, or if it would be just another exploitation of foreigners’ fascination.
The first thing Samithy said to me when I got into the van on our way to Anlong Veng was that both of his parents had died in the Khmer Rouge. His brother and sister, too. I’d been in Cambodia long enough to understand the silence surrounding the war, and to grow suspect of such intensely personal divulgences. It was rarely coworkers, friends, or acquaintances who shared the impact of the Khmer Rouge on their families, I’d noticed, but rather the tuk-tuk drivers, shopkeepers, tour guides, and beggars—people with whom my interactions were transactional.
Samithy picked me up from my guesthouse in Siem Reap, the tourist town closest to the Angkor Wat temple complex and the closest accessible city from which to travel to Anlong Veng. I listened to him talk as the van glided through the small city center, its roads lined with the morning bustle of markets and street vendors. Foreigners in sun hats were climbing into tuk-tuks, armed with water bottles for a long day spent temple-hopping. Before the Khmer Rouge, Samithy told me, he’d lived in Phnom Penh. His parents had been “high-class people.” He’d been separated from them early on in the regime. As a teenager, he’d been sent to a youth camp where he’d slept outside for the first year, even during the monsoon season, working eighteen-hour days and living on watery gruel. It’s a story with which one becomes familiar, living in Cambodia, and one I’d learned well before moving there, growing up with the children of Khmer Rouge survivors in Oakland, California. The majority of these refugees had fled Cambodia by escaping to Thailand following the Khmer Rouge fall to Vietnam. During the actual “Pol Pot time,” the country had been on lockdown, with virtually no foreigners coming in or Cambodians going out.
Earlier, on the phone, Samithy had laughed dismissively when I’d asked him about his familiarity with Anlong Veng’s history. “I work for the UN for fifteen year. Anything you want to know, I tell you.”
“I’m not a big man,” he told me now, looking out over the steering wheel. “I don’t want a big position. I want to live peaceful in my country. I want to help the people in my country. I want to tell tourists about Cambodia to help my country. In Cambodia, there is no neutrality. The police and military are corrupt. So who will help the people?” He raised his open palm as if offering the landscape to me. We stopped at a security checkpoint; Samithy rolled down the window and exchanged words with the guards. They laughed and waved him through.
“They all know me,” he said with a smile. “Because I was a number one tour guide here. But the government raised the bribe fees to be a tour guide and I could not pay. Now I’m just a taxi driver.” He waved his hand and repeated, “I don’t want to be a big man.”
We passed the Angkor Wat temples, surrounded by tour buses and tuk-tuks, saggy-eyed elephants waiting to give rides to tourists. The morning light cut across the crumbly spires. Samithy kept repeating how he didn’t want to be a “big man”—so often that it was hard to believe him. We left the temple area, the roadside fruit stands petering out into long, hot expanses of grass and dirt as we moved at a crawl.
We’d been driving for about two hours before Samithy started talking about Anlong Veng. “The people in Anlong Veng—these days they are very isolated, powerless. All the big men from Anlong Veng, the former Khmer Rouge, they are now in Phnom Penh. In 2008, Hun Sen, the prime minister, he said to the big men, ‘Come to the government.’ And they did.” He shrugged. “Now they sit in air-conditioned rooms to make strategy to stop the Tribunals.”
I asked him what people in Anlong Veng thought about the Khmer Rouge. Samithy was quiet a moment. “In Anlong Veng, they are old people.” “Old people” was a term used for rural people during the Khmer Rouge, people seen as loyal to the revolution, whereas “new people” were urban, educated, upper-class, enemies and imperialists—what Samithy’s parents had been, and what my California friends’ parents had been. “They don’t think Pol Pot was so bad, but not so good either. They think maybe so-so; they live with it but they don’t support it.” He paused. “They were captured by their leader.”
I tried to imagine how the Khmer Rouge would have “captured” the people—through poverty, fear of reprisal, fear of a return to the work camps and violence. Even still, Samithy’s casting seemed in direct opposition to my research: I’d read reports of people worshipping Pol Pot in Anlong Veng. I’d seen photos of women burning incense at his cremation site, praying for lucky lottery numbers. “It’s like they don’t see Pol Pot as a genocidal killer,” one former aid worker had told me, “but as a nationalist hero that said ‘fuck you’ to imperialism.” The two depictions of Anlong Veng seemed too polarized to both be true.
“What do the people think now?” I asked.
“Now they are painful,” Samithy told me. “When they see Pol Pot die of natural causes, not punishment—they think not good. When they hear the Tribunal is slow, they think not good. They don’t understand why some people get tried and others don’t.”
We fell into silence. I looked out the window, the fields giving way to charred stumps and scorched earth: logging territory. During their years in Anlong Veng, the Khmer Rouge’s leaders had turned to other means of supporting themselves, namely logging. Ta Mok, a.k.a. “Brother Number Five,” a.k.a. “the Butcher,” had amassed a small fortune in the semi-legal timber industry. By charitably allowing a trickle of the funds to reach the destitute residents of Anlong Veng, Ta Mok had inspired their loyalty and gratitude. Ta Mok remained in Anlong Veng until 1999, when he was brought to Phnom Penh, where he’d die awaiting trial for crimes against humanity. When he left, so did the remaining wealth. Trucks full of logs rumbled past, motorbikes manned by razor-thin boys weaving between them. Women in electric-colored pajama suits covered their heads with krama scarves; their black eyes blazed out at us.
We traversed a dusty orbit of bikes and markets and heat, through the center of town and toward a mountain. Ahead of us, a truck heaved forward. I watched a small puppy gallop into the road and disappear beneath the truck bed.
At the top of the mountain just before the Thai border, we followed a hand-painted blue sign that read pol pot creamation. We pulled off the highway and onto a pitted dirt road. At the entrance a few meters down, a man lay beneath a tin roof, napping in a hammock. His hand absently clutched the end of a rope strung across the road. We paid him two dollars, which he slipped into his breast pocket as we pulled into the site. The area was tidy and landscaped, but unelaborate. There were no signs to explain anything, nothing but a simple printed pol pot cremated here to commemorate the man who’d altered the nation’s history and facilitated the deaths of a quarter of its population. There was an altar, but it looked abandoned, bowls empty and ashed incense sticks curled like long fingernails.
We stood in the muggy silence.
Samithy told me how Pol Pot had been cremated under a pile of tires—what the New York Times had likened to “a bonfire of garbage.”
“Most Cambodians, they’re burned beneath wood,” Samithy explained. “So this was a punishment.” He smiled a little at the words. A few meters off, a group of young men sat in the shade beneath a tree. One sprawled out in a hammock. They craned their necks, regarding me with lethargic half interest. Samithy motioned to the young men. “They live here. They’re construction workers; they build the casino across the road.” He pointed to a mammoth gray slab encased in wooden scaffolding.
“Right there,” he pointed to the shacks just behind the men, “is their bathroom.” He smiled to himself, seeming to take particular pleasure in pointing that out. “See, Pol Pot is behind the bathroom.” He chuckled softly.
I asked him if he thought people here wanted tourism. Samithy shrugged. “Maybe it will bring money. But I think mostly they want to forget. You see,” he gestured around, “it’s not a big or important place. UNESCO wants to preserve, but most people think to forget.”
Was it UNESCO or Nhem En that wanted to develop the site, to memorialize and remember? It was another contradiction. I glanced over at the men in the shade, still watching me. The site was gray and drab. Maybe my research into Anlong Veng’s Pol Pot–worshipping had been wrong and maybe Samithy was right—maybe people in Anlong Veng did just want to forget. We continued on to the town’s second-biggest tourist attraction, Ta Mok’s house: several stilted wooden structures clustered in brown earth, swept immaculately clean. With childlike murals and thick tree trunks as doorposts, it wasn’t a poor person’s house. At an altar near the entrance, bowls brimmed with fruit, stalks of bananas fanned open, and incense smoldered.
“Who brings that here?” I asked.
Samithy gave a shrug. “Maybe his family.
“It’s very nice.” Samithy nodded. “He lived here, in this big nice house”—he swept his arm across the empty room—“free.”
We roamed the grounds for another few moments, more because I felt like I should than out of any real interest. What were tourists supposed to do in Anlong Veng, with the barren grounds and minimal sign markings, with hot wind, dust, and abandoned buildings? We got into the van and pulled away from the grounds, past a lonesome vendor and a bored security guard. Samithy took out his cell phone and called Nhem En.
In his fusty office, Nhem En placed two warm water bottles in front of us. He took three cell phones out of his various pockets and lined them up on the desk in front of him. He spent a good minute arranging them to his liking. Then he folded his hands and smiled at me.
“Who is the museum’s audience?” I asked.
As I waited for Samithy’s translation, I watched Mr. Nhem’s face—dark, pocked skin, smooth comb-over. He looked a little like a frog, and his voice was high-pitched.
“Of the 2.8 million visitors to Angkor Wat,” Samithy said, “maybe thirty to fifty percent will come to the Genocide Museum.” Mr. Nhem’s number was off by nearly a million; there’d been only two million visitors to Angkor Wat the previous year. I asked what he’d based this figure on.
“There are two main objectives of tourists to Cambodia: to see temples and to know the genocide history. Last year, people from one hundred and ninety-two countries came to Angkor Wat. And now we have the new road to Anlong Veng. So they will come.”
I asked him if there had been any research into the level of interest, surveys, even, but the question seemed to get muddled in translation. I took a sip of my warm water. Mr. Nhem got more animated as he spoke, focusing on the stats of the proposed museum: he had thirteen hectares of land on which to build the museum; there were currently five hundred hotel rooms for tourists; there were “many” restaurants. There was “ninety-percent security safety” in the area.
All the numbers Mr. Nhem were giving me differed from those he’d reported to the Phnom Penh Post. To them, he’d claimed possession of thousands of photographs, not hundreds, and access to over three times the amount of land. It occurred to me that I was in a place where facts were fluid, malleable, open to inflation depending upon who was asking.
In addition to the memorabilia and photographs, Mr. Nhem was also in possession of over two hundred Khmer Rouge propaganda songs (to the Phnom Penh Post, he’d claimed to have thousands), the kind that would crackle over loudspeakers in the fields as people worked eighteen-hour days. Would I like to hear one? Before my translated response could reach him, Mr. Nhem lifted one of the cell phones and began pushing buttons. A tinny song blared out, a nasal voice distorted through the small speaker.
Mr. Nhem closed his eyes and listened. A smile spread across his face.
“This song,” Samithy said, “would play in the morning.”
The comment wasn’t a translation.
Of course, there were more artifacts for the museum, Mr. Nhem told me, but he could not discuss further plans with anyone other than his partners.
“I have a great objective,” Samithy continued, translating Mr. Nhem’s words. “To make a museum for the history. And if you can cooperate as an international partner, it will benefit not only you and your family but the Cambodian people.” A pause. “And world history.” Another pause. “And it will help develop Anlong Veng.”
Samithy shifted slightly in his chair. “And you can meet with an international lawyer to discuss the long-term financial benefits.
“But there is one thing.” Mr. Nhem picked his teeth with a toothpick and smacked his lips. “There are many people who have criticisms of the museum plan. They say I have a small heart, that it will preserve a bad history. I know this, but I want to preserve the history for the new generation.” Samithy’s voice wavered a bit. “I want to keep it for the young people, so they won’t follow in my way.”
Mr. Nhem placed the toothpick on the table and folded his hands. “So I need a partner who will not listen to that criticism.”
We sat there, all three of us quiet.
Mr. Nhem broke the silence by turning on his digital camera. He started showing me pictures of other “potential investors”: scruffy-looking white guys wearing cargo shorts and bemused expressions, like they weren’t really sure how they’d wandered into the picture. Mr. Nhem continued to scroll through. There were photos from the American War Museum in Ho Chi Minh City—old uniforms and re-created war scenes, an army hammock. This was where he’d gotten the idea for the museum, he told me. Maybe if I became a partner, we could go to Ho Chi Minh together to look at the museum.
Mr. Nhem was getting nowhere with me. Finally, he changed tactics and decided that maybe people who weren’t investors could see the future museum’s artifacts after all—did I want to come to his house to take a look? He put his three cell phones in various pockets and we headed back into the heat. Mr. Nhem hopped onto his motorbike while I followed Samithy to the van. I wanted to ask Samithy if this guy was for real: if he really thought I had $120,000; if he really thought I’d give it to him if I did; if this museum was as much of a scam as it seemed. But before I could ask, Samithy looked at me and said, “He has a very great idea.”
Samithy stared over the steering wheel. “He is not a big man. Like I say, all the big men are in Phnom Penh now. But he has a great objective.” He looked over at me and nodded. “He would be a good business partner. This is a great opportunity for you.”
Mr. Nhem’s house was a stifling wooden structure with a makeshift market out front. The air sagged around the boxes piled up—bottles of water and flip-flops and tissues and cell-phone cards, things he sold from beneath the desolate and unmanned beach umbrella. He introduced me to his wife. She pressed her palms together and bowed. By country standards, it was a rich person’s house—it had two full stories and furniture. Framed photographs lined the walls, hanging from haphazard nails. Some were Barbie-esque wedding photos; others resembled mug shots of startled-looking relatives, now deceased. There were many photos of Mr. Nhem, posed with various Westerners, standing before podiums and microphones in shabby conference rooms. “This is the old US ambassador.”
He pointed my attention to a different photo, an old one of him. He looked young and fresh-faced; he was wearing all black. His cheeks were round and his skin had a healthy glow—not someone suffering from malnutrition or overwork. If it hadn’t been for the black pajamas and krama scarf, he could have been an upright, eager young peasant from anywhere. In the photo, he held a camera in his hand.
“This is from 1976, when I went to study in China.” Samithy’s eyes slinked across me as he translated, discreetly scanning my face for some kind of recognition. I knew the significance of the statement. The year 1976 was the middle of the Khmer Rouge reign; no one was going off to study in China unless the regime had sent him there, and unless he’d been deemed valuable. I decided not to reveal that I understood the importance of this. In the home of a former Khmer Rouge cadre in a town without foreigners, with a tour guide who contradicted most of what I’d learned, I instead gave a half smile and nodded.
“The museum will show many photos like this,” Samithy translated.
We followed Mr. Nhem upstairs and sat on metal folding chairs. Mr. Nhem fished out a big reel of keys and jangled through them. He cranked open a metal cupboard where objects in large ziplock bags lined the shelves. He took them out, one at a time, tenderly displaying them for me:
“Here are Pol Pot’s shoes.” They were a pair of rubber sandals not as weathered as they ought to have been.
“Here is the Genocide Camera.” It was a vintage-looking box camera.
“Here’s Pol Pot’s cap.” Mr. Nhem flopped it onto his head and smiled.
“Do you want to try on Pol Pot’s hat?” Mr. Nhem took it off his head and extended it toward me.
I waved it away: no, thank you; I would not like to try on Pol Pot’s hat.
There were other artifacts: Mr. Nhem’s notebook from his trip to China, and a rusted old hand-crank radio once used to connect with China. Mr. Nhem wanted me to know that he could certify the authenticity of these artifacts, and it was only when he said that that it occurred to me that there was really no way to prove these artifacts were real.
Then he began to take out photos, plastic sheets without their album covers: freeze-frame glimpses of jungles and soldiers and wooden meeting rooms.
Here was one of Pol Pot’s wives, now withered with dementia and awaiting trial in Phnom Penh.
Here was the man who had killed Son Sen, another higher-up.
And here was Pol Pot.
He looked elegant in a crisp linen suit. It must have been tailored, the way it hung so perfectly. He was leaning slightly on a railing, a green vista spread out behind him. His salt-and-pepper hair was combed back. His eyes had delicate lines around them. He looked like an aging Hollywood star; he looked like someone’s wealthy Asian grandpa. It was the kind of photo that belonged on a mantle.
As I stared, Mr. Nhem interrupted. “He wants to take a picture of you,” Samithy told me.
I looked up at Mr. Nhem and something in me buzzed. I thought of all the faces he’d photographed, the thousands of people tortured and executed, their bones later laid out in tourist displays. The former photographer of S-21 wants to take your picture, I thought. I’m not sure if I said anything or if I just sat there, shaking my head no. Samithy encouraged me, though, so I dragged myself up and stood by the metal cabinet with Mr. Nhem, sweaty and stiff. I winced a smile. The camera flashed. Mr. Nhem grinned and took the camera from Samithy, examining the viewfinder. He showed it to me—I looked like a strange, ghostly version of myself, wearing the same expression as those other white faces, the other “potential donors” Mr. Nhem had showed me earlier. I considered the fact that I would likely become another face he showed to another foreigner who traipsed through.
I sat back down, now itching to leave, every instinct in my body now screaming that it was now time to go, to get out of this house and this town, to get as far away as possible.
Mr. Nhem pulled out a big bound book and flipped to a bookmarked page. It was a list of donors, a hand-drawn chart with their names, nationalities, and the amounts they’d given. Was this different than leaving donations at a Rwandan or Armenian museum? Was this all just a scrappier version of Bill Clinton raising millions of dollars to open a Bosnian memorial? I didn’t know. All I knew was that there was no way to verify where the money was actually going, and no way I was getting out of this, but in that moment I didn’t care. I just hoped it would get me out of there faster. I fished five dollars out of my purse and handed it to him, hoping it’d help me leave sooner. I tried not to look at Samithy as I did this, but I couldn’t help it—I could feel him watching me. But then Samithy took the book from me and began writing his name down. He opened his own wallet and took out ten dollars.
I got up, began to inch my way down the stairs. Mr. Nhem kept wanting to show me things, kept wanting to thank me; he wanted my phone number. His wife gave me another warm bottle of water. I was sick to my stomach. I just wanted to get into the van; I just wanted the air-conditioning to come on; I just wanted to go home. As I climbed into the van, Mr. Nhem called out to me. “He says that maybe you can find a millionaire from your country to become an investor,” Samithy told me. “Since there are many there.”
Samithy and I were silent for the first part of the ride back. He stared forward at the highway. “That man,” he said at last, “he is one of the ones who killed my family.
“Maybe not him,” Samithy continued after a pause. “Maybe he didn’t do the killing, but someone like him.” He paused again. “Maybe he photographed my parents before they died.”
“Were your parents at S-21?” I asked at last.
Samithy shrugged. “I don’t know,” he answered. “We were separated very early on. My parents, they were high-class people. They were the kind of people they killed at S-21. So maybe he met them there.”
The silence hummed. I felt the heat blazing in. “He went to China in 1976,” Samithy said, scanning my face the way he had back at Mr. Nhem’s house.
“I know,” I said, looking at my hands.
I asked Samithy if he thought Mr. Nhem was a bad man. He nodded. “Yes, I think he is a bad man. He helped kill many people.”
“Then why,” I cleared my throat, croaked the words out, “why did you give him money?” Why did you want me to become an investor? I wanted to ask.
“I give him because I must forgive.” He paused then added, “I am a Buddhist.”
“Yes, but aren’t you angry? To see that man, like that? Because I’d—” I stopped myself. I was going to say I’d be angry, but I realized that wasn’t quite true. I shook my head, corrected myself, “Because I’m angry.”
“But how can I live if I am angry?” Samithy answered. “How can I work? How can I take care of my family? It’s very painful; he is a bad man who did many bad things and he is free. He is not just free; he live a good life. He has a good position and a nice house. Me, I am taxi driver. For me, this is painful.”
The sky ahead of us was heavy, the heat pushing against the sealed windows.
“I think the museum is a good idea. I think he should build it, because it is important. I think maybe he use the money I give for drink, for girls.” He shrugged. “But I give anyway.”
“I don’t get it,” I finally said, slumping against the seat, my nose twitching with the sting of tears.
“It’s because I’m Buddhist.”
I shook my head. “I understand that. I understand you’re Buddhist. But I’m not. I’m American and I… I’m just angry.”
“For me,” Samithy said, “it’s just painful.”
We fell into another silence. I considered the fact that after a day of contradictions, this was the first time it felt like Samithy was being truly up front with me. How was someone, anyone, supposed to move on in a country where the trauma was still so palpable? Where all the same men were still there; where the remnants of the war were that easy to touch and sit next to and give money to? If the wound was still that open, how could tourism do anything but scrape against it?
We fell into another silence. The ruggedly logged landscape passed outside the window. The heat was a hand pushing in on us. Finally it burst and the rain started. It was a real rain, one of those Southeast Asian ones you can’t hide from. Umbrellas, ponchos—they don’t do anything. There’s no fighting it; you just have to surrender.
And that’s what people did. Outside the window, I watched the young boys on motorbikes not bothering to cover themselves; I saw women walking slowly alongside the road, their clothes stuck to their bodies. Skeletal cattle blinked placidly in the puddles that had suddenly formed in the fields.
No one looked for shelter.