The Cambodian genocide of 1975-1979, in which approximately 1.7 million people lost their lives (21% of the country's population), was one of the worst human tragedies of the last century. The Khmer Rouge, headed by Pol Pot, combined extremist ideology, ethnic animosity, and a disregard for human life to produce murder on a massive scale.
I took the photographs at the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. The site is a former high school which was used as the notorious Security Prison 21 (S-21) by the Khmer Rouge regime from its rise to power in 1975 to its fall in 1979.
I visited S-21 on multiple occasions. It is a macabre memorial to mass murder. When I walked through the buildings, I could feel the pain. The eyes of the victims tell the story. It was an emotionally moving experience for me. My rendition of the photographs tell the story.
Formerly the Tuol Svay Prey High School, the five buildings of the complex were converted in August 1975, four months after the Khmer Rouge won the civil war, into a prison and interrogation center. The Khmer Rouge renamed the complex "Security Prison 21" (S-21) and construction began to adapt the prison to the inmates: the buildings were enclosed in electrified barbed wire, the classrooms converted into tiny prison and torture chambers, and all windows were covered with iron bars and barbed wire to prevent escapes.
From 1975 to 1979, an estimated 17,000 people were imprisoned at the prison. At any one time, the prison held between 1,000-1,500 prisoners. They were repeatedly tortured and coerced into naming family members and close associates, who were in turn arrested, tortured and killed. In the early months of S-21's existence, most of the victims were from the previous Lon Nol regime and included soldiers, government officials, as well as academics, doctors, teachers, students, factory workers, monks, engineers, etc. Later, the party leadership's paranoia turned on its own ranks and purges throughout the country saw thousands of party activists and their families brought to Tuol Sleng and liquidated. Those arrested included some of the highest ranking communist politicians such as Khoy Thoun, Vorn Vet and Hu Nim. Although the official reason for their arrest was "espionage," these men may have been viewed by Khmer Rouge leader Pol Pot as potential leaders of a coup against him. Prisoners' families were often brought en masse to be interrogated and later murdered at the Choeung Ek extermination centre.
Even though the vast majority of the victims were Cambodian, foreigners were also imprisoned, including Vietnamese, Laotians, Indians, Pakistanis, Britons, Americans, New Zealanders and Australians.
Most non-Cambodians had been evacuated or expelled from the country and those who remained were seen as a security risk. A number of Western prisoners passed through S-21 between April 1976 and December 1978.
In 1979, the prison was uncovered by the invading Vietnamese army. In 1980, the prison was reopened as a historical museum memorializing the actions of the Khmer Rouge regime.
The Khmer Rouge perpetrators have yet to pay for the crimes they committed...
Khmer Rouge soldier.
Khmer Rouge soldier.