La Esencial Heterogeneidad del Ser

Our first full day in Cambodia, we visited the Choeung Ek Memorial and the Tuol Sleng Museum of Genocide. Choeung Ek is the most notorious of The Killing Fields. Mass graves containing 8,895 bodies were discovered there after the fall of the Khmer Rouge regime. Rainfall unearths bone fragments, teeth, and scraps of clothing at Choeung Ek to this very day.  Tuol Sleng is the high school the Khmer Rouge turned into one of its 150+ detention and torture centers. As many as 30,000 prisoners were detained and tortured at there. Most of these prisoners were then sent to Cheoung Ek to be executed.

Copyright Tuol Sleng Museum of Genocide

Copyright Tuol Sleng Museum of Genocide

I was somewhat prepared for the cells, shackles, skulls, and empty mass graves at Choeung Ek and Tuol Sleng. I wasn’t prepared for the thousands of photos of victims, meticulously captured by the Khmer Rouge at the beginning of the detention process.

Copyright Tuol Sleng Museum of Genocide

Copyright Tuol Sleng Museum of Genocide

 

I would have expected the faces of these victims to be uniformly despondent or vacant. But in making that assumption, I unconsciously dehumanized the Cambodian people as the Khmer Rouge did.

Copyright Tuol Sleng Museum of Genocide

Copyright Tuol Sleng Museum of Genocide

 

 

Each expression captured by the detention center photographer is unique. Defiance, anger, pride, resignation, agony, despair, hope, and confusion are all present. Some victims smiled. More seemed to implore the photographer to help them; now they entreat the viewer to remember.

Photo by Wendy Webber

Photo by Wendy Webber

The Khmer Rouge killed two million people from 1975 to 1979, but the evidence of Pol Pot’s failure is in the very photographs the Khmer Rouge took. The faces of the victims reflect the kaleidoscope of human existence. They refuse to reduce themselves to any dehumanized sameness.

Picture by Wendy Webber

Photo by Wendy Webber

As Antonio Machado said:

“Lo otro no existe: tal es la fe racional, la incurable creencia de la razón humana. Identidad = realidad, como si, a fin de cuentas, todo hubiera de ser, absoluta y necesariamente, uno y lo mismo. Pero lo otro no se deja eliminar; subsiste, persiste; es el hueso duro de roer en que la razón se deja los dientes. Abel Martín, con fe poética, no menos humana que la fe racional, creía en lo otro, en ‘La esencial Heterogeneidad del ser,’ como si dijéramos en la incurable otredad que padece lo uno.”

Cambodia-Tuol-Sleng-genoc-001

Photo by Tang Chhin AFP/Getty Images

The shared trait of humanity is not really a trait at all, because the shared trait of humanity is difference. We are all the same because we are all different. It sounds much better in Spanish, but there it is.

4 comments

  1. Dale McGowan says:

    “the shared trait of humanity is difference.” That’s golden.

  2. Leah Randolph says:

    Conor, your ability to write so beautifully about a such atrocities takes my breath away. “Some victims smiled. More seemed to implore the photographer to help them; now they entreat the viewer to remember…
    the evidence of Pol Pot’s failure is in the very photographs the Khmer Rouge took. The faces of the victims reflect the kaleidoscope of human existence. They refuse to reduce themselves to any dehumanized sameness.” You truly have a gift with the spoken and written language. I am so very proud of you.

  3. it takes courage to be witness to the magnitude of death and torture and then look into the faces when they were still so alive. Gratitude to you for being there and giving us a window so we too can see.

  4. I did what I could on my end. Check your inbox for a subscription approval email!

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