When Youk Chhang started writing letters to Zaha Hadid, it seemed like a quixotic mission. Chhang was beseeching the world’s most celebrated architect to help him build a genocide museum and research center in a small, wounded country. Eleven years later, books full of Dame Hadid’s designs for the center rest in his Phnom Pehn office, like precious secrets. Chhang has made significant strides in his quest, though the most important step remains.
The fact that Chhang made it to this point—that he even is alive—is a triumph. Like many other Cambodians from his generation, he suffered through horrors during the Khmer Rouge regime: He was tortured for picking mushrooms, and watched as his pregnant sister was cut open and killed under the suspicion that she had stolen rice. The teenager escaped to the Thai border in 1982, as fighting continued, then to the Philippines, and eventually the United States. He finally returned to Cambodia in 1992, where he worked as a UN election observer as the nation began to recover from over 20 years of genocide, brutality, and war.