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Cambodia: Remembering the Victims of the Khmer Rouge

February 5th, 2007

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Exhausted would be a good word. Travel fatigue: accumulated late nights, early mornings, dehydration, walking, and too much weight in my camera bag. But I am not tired; the experience is too wonderful.

I have spent the last few days as a tourist. The morning after my arrival I made my phone calls and emails to NGO’s I hoped to meet. One was a total shot in the dark but the next day I had a response; from the founder. The day after we agreed to meet and the day after that I was shooting. I’ll tell you more, later, but as a primer read up on them: AFESIP.org. If you want to see passion, look no further. (at left: founder Somaly Mam introducing her girls to the Spanish delegation)

But that is now and I am talking about the yesterdays, for that is what I was doing, seeing the yesterdays of Cambodia.

In the 70’s the Khmer Rouge wrested control of the country to impose their idea of a utopian agrarian society. Urban centers were emptied as massive public works were undertaken: roads, irrigation, farming. As key figures promoted themselves into leadership roles they began to purge the educated. It soon moved on to others, including the Rouge’s own ranks, as paranoia seized the regime. (at right: a bed and restraints)

Toul Sleng was converted from a school to a prison, interrogation, and torture center. Thousands died, many having given up all hope and confessing to anything to stop the torture. (at left: the old school building of Toul Sleng)

Set in the heart of an impoverished residential neighborhood, the site looks much as it was: like a school. Inside are displays of torture implements from water tanks to electric whips and a child’s swing set used to hoist victims. Preserved holding cells and photographic displays fill the buildings.

The Rouge photographed all inmates and this display, for me, had the most impact. Board after board of mug shots filled the school rooms. Children, mothers, old men stare from behind glass. Some are clearly terrified, others angry and contemptuous and still others gaze with hopeless despair, full with the knowledge of their fate: death. (at right: one of many portraits made by the Khmer Rouge)

However death often came slowly; after extensive self-incriminating interrogations, if they were still alive victims were bound and blind folded for a truck ride to Choung Ek, a farm on the outskirts of Phnom Penh. There killers waited with bludgeons, machette and mass graves. DDT was spread on corpses to keep the stench down and to kill any survivors in the open pits. Some 20, 000 were killed here and of the corpses exhumed from 129 mass graves, 8000 were interred in a memorial. Some 80 mass graves remain. (at left: at Choung Ek a memorial to the victims of the Khmer Rouge)

Choung Ek drew its victims from throughout the region, not just Toul Sleng, and at times the executioners could not keep up with the killing of 300+ new arrivals.

In all an estimated 1.5 million people died through execution or starvation under the rule of the Khmer Rouge; their leaders denied knowledge of the killing fields and many, including Pol Pot, lived to a ripe old age.

I think there is a balance in recalling these yesterdays. Undoubtedly they are tourist attractions marketed to foreign visitors, of which I am one. They are also preserved in honor of the victims, that their deaths not be forgotten. The thought is, as written at Choung Ek, as described at Auschwitz, as remembered the internees of the Japanese-Americans during WWII: if we forget it will happen again. (at right: excavated mass graves dimple the ground at Choung Ek)

I would like to believe the interpretive boards at the memorials, that if we remember the yesterdays they will not be perpetrated in the tomorrows. But I think our humanity fails us when our community is global. Just look at Darfur in Sudan. We stand by as genocide is committed yet again. Do I do anything about it? No…I stand guilty with the much of the world. But I believe my awareness matters. And here, in Phnom Penh as a tourist, maybe this is all I can do; be aware, honor, and remember. Though for today’s suffering I know it is not enough. (at left: 8000 victims’ skulls are interred at Choung Ek)

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