Lauren Quinn

Mr. Nhem’s Genocide Camera

In Cambodia, the Khmer Rouge’s Bloody Legacy Begets Tourism and a Once-in-a-lifetime Investment Opportunity

Discussed: A Portable Office, The American Flag, Linguistic Reflections of Atrocity-Concentration, UN-Backed Tribunals, Just Following Orders, Tuk-Tuk Drivers, Bone Pagodas, Bill Clinton, Suspicious Divulgences, Praying for Lucky Lottery Numbers, Electric-Colored Pajama Suits, Warm Water Bottles, Malleable Facts, A Day of Contradictions

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.

We hope you enjoy this excerpt.

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Lauren Quinn is a writer, kindergarten teacher, and contributing editor for Vela. She is currently at work on a novel set in Cambodia. She will always be an Oakland girl at heart.

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