When Nicolaus Mesterharm first arrived in Cambodia's capital as a 32-year-old tourist, liberation was in the air. It was the year 2000; two years earlier, the last of the Khmer Rouge had surrendered and their brutal leader Pol Pot had died. 'It was as if the people could finally truly breathe for the first time,' the 53-year-old West Berliner recalls. 'Everyone was smiling at you; people wanted to talk to you.'
Mesterharm was practically electrified by the atmosphere in Phnom Penh. He returned there with a team a few weeks later, established contacts, shot reports for television – including some he's no longer proud of – produced an arte documentary about the country's bleak HIV epidemic. Along the way, he learned to appreciate the culture and the people and decided to settle in the city in 2005.
The journalist and filmmaker known by everyone as Nico now runs the Meta House German-Cambodian cultural centre in Phnom Penh. He quickly puts relationships on a first-name basis. Mesterharm has focused his efforts on dealing with the Khmer Rouge era; talking and, above all, listening are still important parts of his work. In 2019 he began asking people who lived through the events to bear witness for posterity on camera for his 'Virtual Memorial' project. He had toured the country's schools with a play in the years prior to that. 'At the start I was shocked by how little interest many young people showed in the Khmer Rouge period,' he says.
'The victims tell their own story to the young people.'
After operating in the country for decades and governing from 1975 to 1979 following its capture of Phnom Penh, the Khmer Rouge left Cambodia traumatised. Its rule claimed up to 2.2 million lives while the citizens suffered hunger, cruel torture, were displaced en masse, families were separated, and strangers were married. The list of their crimes is long, so any summary of their offences falls short. This is one of the reasons why Mesterharm set out to record as many individual voices of victims as possible with his 'Virtual Memorial'. Many of those affected are still alive today and have a need to talk about what they experienced.
'The victims tell their own stories to the young people,' Mesterharm says, emphasizing that the interviewees are not coaxed or paid. 'The more they talk, the fewer consequences of their trauma they experience.' Mesterharm conducts some interviews himself, but when it requires leaving the city and going into the countryside, a local team takes over. 'It will always be somewhat different when I arrive as a white man and want to talk to people. You remain the foreigner, the German.'
'What would I have done if I'd been there?'
Mesterharm has a turbulent family history himself. His maternal grandparents were slain as Jews by the Nazis – his grandfather, grotesquely, as a fervent supporter of Hitler. The husband of the woman who later adopted his mother had betrayed his grandparents. Mesterharm suspects one motivation for his inquiring mind, one reason he talks about the inhumanity people visit upon one another, lies in his family's history. He wants to understand how this can happen. 'First and foremost,' he says, 'I ask myself the question: What would I have done if I’d been there?'
Part of his work is sifting through and editing eyewitness accounts. Mesterharm now knows Cambodia's recent history in great detail. When a new interview is being done, he checks to see if the story is coherent. 'That's not always easy. The people who are telling the story are not especially well educated. They're from the countryside, in some cases they're old and they don't always remember everything correctly.' What doesn't fit or make sense gets edited out. 'I watch every interview five times or more – far too often to forget it, in any case. It stays in my head and works on me.'
Mesterharm and his Cambodian wife moved in 2005 into a house with a large, very dark room on the ground floor and a beautiful rooftop terrace. 'We got the idea to make it a kind of Berlin salon, showing art exhibitions downstairs and films upstairs.' What started back then among friends is still the program today. Meta House has since moved and become a partner to the Goethe Institute. The dynamism and energy of the cultural centre, and the interaction with young urbanites, is a welcome counterbalance to Mesterharm's memory work. 'It still impresses me deeply today how Cambodians can put aside their frustrations, their poverty, their disappointments in the evening while eating and drinking together,' he says. 'And how even traumatized victims can laugh with all their hearts and be joyful.'
Mesterharm received Germany's Federal Cross of Merit in 2018 for his work. That has prompted him to once again reflect on his role as a German in Cambodia. 'I'm rooted in the way I have been formed,' he says. 'We are fundamentally different but also as one – and my wish is for Cambodians to understand that we Germans have learned from the Hitler era.' He makes it clear that the ultimate goal of the remembrance work is to ensure that history does not repeat itself. Mesterharm also views his own family history in a more nuanced way today. 'I had political differences with my father. Today I would like to hug him and thank him for protecting me from his war traumas.'
About the project
The zivik Funding Programme supports the 'Virtual Memorial' project. The project aims to develop a virtual memory platform, similar to that of the Shoa Foundation. The aim is to contribute to the process of coming to terms with the Khmer Rouge history and especially to address young people. In addition, contemporary witnesses are given a platform to tell their stories.
About the author
Martin Petersen, born in 1978, has headed the editorial team of the Robert Bosch Stiftung magazine since 2017. Before that, from 2010 to 2017, he was editor-in-chief and co-founder of the Hamburg print magazine STADTLICHH. As a freelance journalist, he works for various German media.
The zivik Funding programme supports civil society actors worldwide in preventing crises, transforming conflicts, and creating as well as stabilising peaceful social and political systems. With their commitment, non-governmental organisations (NGOs) complement state actors by providing significant perspectives and activities. The zivik programme is providing funding for international, national or local NGO projects, which are dealing with civil conflict resolution and peacebuilding efforts.