Accountability has been long in coming to Cambodia. Thirty-two years after the Khmer Rouge seized power and unleashed horrific slaughter upon the Cambodian people, trials are approaching for several Khmer Rouge leaders, including former foreign minister, Ieng Sary, who was arrested in mid-November. A pretrial hearing was held in late November for Kaing Geuk Eav, who served as commandant of the notorious Tuol Sleng prison.
On April 17, 1975, the corrupt, incompetent, and undemocratic government in Phnom Penh fell. The victorious Khmer Rouge, led by Pol Pot, launched an extraordinary reign of terror.
The new regime forcibly emptied the cities, established rural communes, and eliminated the professional classes. In less than four years, the communist leadership murdered an estimated 1.7 million people, almost one-fourth of the population. As many as 40 percent of Phnom Penh’s residents probably perished.
Murder on such a vast scale numbs the mind. Unintentionally presenting the Khmer Rouge victims as real people was Nhem En, the lead photographer at Tuol Sleng prison, who has been called as a witness in Kaing Geuk Eav’s upcoming trial.
Tuol Sleng was a high school before May 1976, when the Khmer Rouge turned it into Security Office 21, or S-21. It became home to 14,000 enemies of the people, all but six of whom died.
Like the Nazis, the Khmer Rouge kept meticulous files. Tuol Sleng’s managers filed confessions along with arrest and execution records. They numbered and photographed all incoming prisoners. Those photos, taken by Nhem En and his staff, line the walls of what is now a museum.
Nhem En joined the Khmer Rouge as a nine-year-old drummer boy. At age 16 he was sent to China to learn photography. Then he was assigned to S-21.
He was the first person seen by incoming prisoners. He told the New York Times that, “They came in blindfolded, and I had to untie the cloth.” He added: “I was alone in the room, so I am the one they saw. They would say, ‘Why was I brought here? What am I accused of? What did I do wrong?’”
Of course, he had no answer.
Four rooms are filled with Nhem En’s haunting images. No one was exempt. Men and women. Boys and girls. Children. Babies. Even a few foreigners.
To look at these people is to see the living dead. The stares are captivating.
Minds might still calculate, hearts might still beat, blood might still flow, and nerves might still transmit pain. But the eyes are vacant, empty, lifeless. Before arriving at Tuol Sleng the Khmer Rouge had wrung the humanity out of most people. There was nothing left to kill.
In some, however, emotion still flickers. A few seem defiant, their eyes smoldering, filled with hatred. More common is bewilderment and fear. They might have asked Nhem En why they were there, but most seemed to know their fate.
Almost all Tuol Sleng inmates died, but not all died there. S-21 was an interrogation center. Interrogation in the new Kampuchea meant torture. But torture didn’t always mean death.
It did mean pain. On display today are the tools of the trade, so to speak: The wooden slab and metal bed frames to which inmates were shackled and beaten. The wooden and metal tubs in which prisoners were drowned. The metal bar from which victims were hung.The axes, clubs, hammers, knives, and shovels used to hurt and kill. The electrical wires for administering shocks. And the boxes for scorpions, often loosed upon inmates.
For all of Tuol Sleng’s horror, prisoners who died there were arguably lucky. Anyone who lived through torture at S-21 was likely to end up at Choeung Ek, known as the “Killing Fields,” about ten miles outside of Phnom Penh.
Amidst simple homes and a school are fields in which about 20,000 people were buried. There was no reason to waste bullets on counter-revolutionaries.
Instead, Khmer Rouge cadres killed with axes, bamboo poles, hammers, and knives. Even babies were subject to revolutionary “justice,” which consisted of being swung against a tree.
Today the site is commemorated by empty holes, with signs listing the number of bodies originally contained therein. And a monument filled with skulls and clothes from the dead.
It’s hard to blame Nhem En. He was recruited as a child and apparently killed no one. Moreover, his photos help turn the abstract Cambodian holocaust into something much more real and personal. For highlighting evil in its purest and most malevolent form, all of us owe him a debt of gratitude.