Witness

Whether it's the stills of Khmer Rouge victims or the portraits of dead American soldiers, we need to witness both sides of death to understand what war has wrought.

Witness

Thousands of stills taken of Khmer Rouge victims at the notorious Tuol Sleng prison collectively document the systematic torture and killing of an estimated 1.7 million men, women and children. Looking into these victims' eyes by examining the morbid, meticulous portraits taken before each and every one was murdered, is probably the most direct connection we will ever have to Cambodia's mass killings between 1975 and 1979.

The head photographer behind these portraits, Nhem Ein, says he shot each individual within hearing range of the prison's torture chambers. The victims were sometimes delivered by the truckload. One by one, he removed their blindfolds and posed them for the camera, forbidden to speak with them or answer their questions about why they had been rounded up or what was about to happen to them.

Today, hundreds of Nhem Ein's photographs line the walls of the former torture house, which is now the Tuol Sleng Museum of Genocide. The majority of these portraits have since been lost or destroyed, as have the identities of many who were photographed, but about 6,000 of the remaining negatives are held in the museum.

And although the collection is incomplete, the photos captured details of Pol Pot's victims – the full lips of a young girl, the sloping shoulders of a thin boy, the fearful, wide-eyed stare of an old man – that add up to some of the most terrifying evidence this world has ever seen.

At the close of many American news programs, we regularly witness some of the most poignant moments provided by television today: the ongoing Honor Roll, which flashes slowly through an unornamented display of portraits showing US soldiers who have fallen in Afghanistan and Iraq.

"And here, in silence, are 18 more," we hear the news anchor solemnly announce.

The fresh, mostly young, mostly proud faces of men and women who've lost their lives march silently into our homes. Some appear upright and in uniform while others are shown in smiling snapshots. Names, ages and hometowns are consistently noted.

And yet these portraits only document one side of the story. The other side – the faces of Iraq's dead – remains invisible. We see images of chaos and bloodshed but very few portraits of fallen Iraqis. We see grainy mug shots of terrorists on the news but no posed stills of the shopkeeper killed by a car bomb or the mother who fell under an errant American missile.

Imagine if every week a televised roll call memorialized Iraq's civilian casualties with individual portraits. If this were possible, we would witness, in full, the staggering human costs of Iraq's occupation on a personal level. The politics of history dictate who is remembered and who is not, and most countries prefer to honor only their own dead. Perhaps, if we were confronted with those we've killed, face-by-face, we could better question the notion of "us and them" and address the abstraction of death that skews our understanding of war.

52 comments on the article “Witness”

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Germando Echovarde

Yes... civilians in Iraq are caught in the middle and some are killed.... but how does the current civilian rate of death compare to the rate of death during the era of Saddam? I have no idea but assume that with the current government and US assistance the death rate of civilians has decreased. America must be commended for offering its sons to keep tyrants like Saddam out of power.

vanderleun

Imagine if every week a televised roll call memorialized Iraqs civilians killed by a still in place Saddam regime because we did nothing with individual portraits. If this were possible, we would witness, in full, the staggering human costs of Iraqs continued state of tyranny and genocide on a personal level. And know the costs of nonintervention. Imagine that all the soldiers that have given their lives so you could exist in comfortable safety could come back from the dead and haunt your dreams. It would shame you, if, indeed, you had any shame at all within you rather than just another colonized mind.

jon

Its hard to believe that people still believe the war in Iraq is justified. I just checked the numbers, and on 9/11, just under 3,000 innocent American's were killed. But since the beginning of the Iraq war, there has been between 80-90,000 documented civilian deaths. Now I support my American troops fully and respect them greatly for putting there lives on the line for mine. But they make that decision, innocent victims do not. I believe it's not a matter of being more concerned with Iraqi's dying, but a matter of being humane, caring for your fellow human.

Germando Echovarde

Yes... civilians in Iraq are caught in the middle and some are killed.... but how does the current civilian rate of death compare to the rate of death during the era of Saddam? I have no idea but assume that with the current government and US assistance the death rate of civilians has decreased. America must be commended for offering its sons to keep tyrants like Saddam out of power.

A moment of silence

The discussion about whose lives are worth more and what this imposed value of life means to geopolitics OUR people died and YOUR people died is actually an insult to humanity. Please stop this. One must take a broader perspective about the value of one county's people and another. There is a poem which has been reinterpreted as a performance piece by Restless Natives and features 9 'breaths' or segments, each a movementbased piece, combining South Asian and other movement styles with narrative and some percussion/music. Moment of Silence is the 5th of these, and, if you'd like, you can view any or all segments online here: http://www.spiritplays.org/nava5.htm
Check it out.
Miguel

liz

I think you make a very good point, and the numbers of Iraqi civilians that have been killed is numbing. Even if there was real acknowledgment, not even memorialization of these deaths. Heck more acknowledgment of our own soldiers that have died. We would all be able to see the real cost of this war.

Nic

I think that those who state this piece is anti-American are missing the point entirely. Nobody is saying we don't recognise and honour the allied soldiers who have lost their lives, just that we also consider the innocents from the other side too and just because the 'other side' didn't televise a roll call for all the innocents lost on the 11th of September does not mean the west should adpot a 'titfor'tat' response. Why not lead by example for a change instead of being far too gungho and over zealous, assuming anyone caught up in it all from over there is the enemy.

I.A.P

In response to the comment bellow. Iraq, as a nation, was not responsible for the attack of 9/11. We, however, are responsible for the violence there now.

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