I could see into her iris the camera and the tripod through which her portrait, hers, one of the 103, was taken. I stood back a little to trace the outline of her eyes on her face. I stood back a little bit more to take in her whole face, her downward crescent lips pressed tight. Her eyes, especially her eyes, were looking right at me. If there is any communication between the dead and the living, in fact I think there is. She spoke and I listened. She conveyed and I responded. She stood and had her portrait taken unwillingly and forceably. I stood and looked at her trying my utmost best to photographically have her face imprinted on my mind. I lingered on with each of the portriats. I didn’t hurry strolling past all 103 of them. I stood at one, I starred at one, I took my time with them all. I traced at each of them, not only one’s face, but one’s background. The smear on the wall, the number “1” in Khmer scribbled on the frame of the door, with shoes, without shoes, the chain and the lock around the neck, the ruffled blouse, the smirk, the twinkle in her eyes, the bruised jaw with bandage criss-crossed on his face, a child’s hand tugging at her mom’s sleeve, a baby boy sleeping in his mom’s arms, the blindfold marks around his eyes, the handcuffed hands holding onto each other, the shoulder-bound torso, the fear, the matted hair, the unshaven face … In one breath, I could list all 17 of them without an ounce of effort … there are many more of these traces of horror which I could not detect let alone fathom. The depth and heights of torture were unseen and unknown to me after their portraits were taken.
Paul kept murmurring a few feet away, “I remember this one, I have seen this one when I was there.” I was hardly able to move my eyes away from the one portrait I was spending time in observing, let alone wanting to move my feet away as I intended to spend time with the broken-hearted, to stand with the prisoners, to convey my sorrow, to communicate with one as we intentionally go there to sit with the mournful, to listen to their silent cries through their eyes. I drank them in, I cupped theirs in my palms and let it spilled through my fingers. I have learnt much of their fates all narrowed down to only one – death – a blow by the hoe at the back of the neck, or a swing of their heads against the beating tree, or a slow and painful one drenched in hunger and untended wounds.
The span of 2 hours felt like attending a mass funeral of a collective. The audio recording of monks chanting at the back made it more so. Maybe the not frequented space in that part of the museum cultivated a sense of quietness and solemness that required visitors to whisper and not giggle, to not make a loud comment and if ever you have any comment at all, if ever your feeble mind could understand the scope and depth and width of such atrocity on millions of human lives 37 years ago, from then it dragged on from April 17, 1975 – January 8, 1979, a total of 3 years, 8 months and 21 days.
The pain crawled on my skin and I felt a surge of guilt rising up in me when we realized we had to leave the “funeral”. I could sit there for hours, tracing the faces again, going back to the history boards again. Yet one thing was unbalancedly missing – the HOPE that sprung out of such atrocities. We all know the ugly evil side of a genocide for a nation and many generations thereafter to cope and bear, yet not a whole lot of others know nor understand the HOPE that shoot out of evil and even death. Hope of His Church rose and multiplied in numbers, in 1,000 folds, both pre- and post-Khmer Rouge. This one marvelous writer puts it wisely and I quote,
“The battle wasn’t against flesh and blood -or it was, but only obliquely, at a slant. It was a battle against death and its cruel devices, the twisting and breeding of cells, the vandalism of a body turned in on itself. It was a battle against – death – in the lowercase; resisting death’s plundering, inch by inch. But it was just as much a battle against DEATH, all in the UPPERCASE, standing down, like that lone man who stopped, for mere seconds, the convoys of tanks in Tiananmen Square in 1989. The body count of nature is genocidal. It’s rigged to win, by hook or by crook.
Yet both spring and resurrection are a kind of insurrection against death’s domain. Both are vivid objects lessons of death being swallowed up by victory: put a dead thing in the ground — a seed, a bulb, or someone who just passed away — and just wait. Each spring reminds us that death doesn’t have the last word.
Apostle Paul calls death the last enemy. With quiet confidence, he announces its defeat at the hands of Jesus. “Death,” he asks, rhetorically, tauntingly, “where is your sting? where is your victory?” 1 Corinthians 15:55
The enemy casts a shadow, big and dark and menacing. But there’s no substance behind it. It has a stinger, but it’s lost its venom. It has a bark, but no bite.
We’ll all suffer death in lowercase. But by Christ’s good graces, no one need to suffer DEATH in the UPPERCASE.
Death at that scale has been undone.
Death still has battalions on the ground, pitching battle making havoc, quibbling and collaborating among themselves. But the empire backing them has collapsed.
Jesus is wounded – hands, feet, side – but they are clearly the wounds of a war he has won, and they are not slowing Him down any. His expression is candid, serene, assured. It is as though he is saying – “Told you so.” He holds in His right hand a flag emblazoned with the cross.” He is Winning!!
This is the HOPE that I hold onto for Cambodia, for its people, for generations to come until I am able to stand before my King, and their King, touching His nail-pierced hands and feet, His wounded side, overwhelmed by His glory forever and ever.