Photographer Lee Karen Stow was recently in Cambodia, conducting fieldwork for the continuation of ‘Poppies: Women, War, Peace’. She reports on remembrance and memorialisation of the genocide under the Khmer Rouge.
Cambodia, a land of temples and mausoleums to gods, kings and ancient cultures, has become dotted with memorials to the Cambodians murdered in one of the 20th Century’s worst mass killings. In three years and eight months, from 1975 to 1979, the genocide orchestrated by the Khmer Rouge claimed two million lives out of a population of eight million, or one in four people.
Since 1979 more than 310 killing fields have been discovered across Cambodia and 81 have been established as official memorial sites. Many more are believed to exist, some lost to the jungle or surrounded by land mines and therefore inaccessible. In 2006 the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC) was established to try surviving senior leaders of the Khmer Rouge. Victims at the trials requested reparations from the regime which included an official Day of Remembrance (May 20) and public memorial sites be erected at places of mass torture and murder, to serve as places of remembrance and healing as well as centres for learning about the massacre and how it was allowed to happen.
The Khmer Rouge ruled as the ‘Democratic Kampuchea’ with their own perverted form of extreme communism. The regime was controlled by the dictator known as Pol Pot. His fanatical vision was for a classless society, starting from ‘year zero’, through agricultural reform to make Cambodia self-sufficient especially in rice production. By recruiting illiterate young peasants and deluding them into thinking they were fighting for a just cause, the poor against the corrupt rich for instance, the dictator sought to erase from society city people. Intellectuals and professionals such as teachers and doctors, were exterminated, as well as artists, followers of religion and the whole family structure of Cambodian society. Anyone with lighter skin, smooth unworked hands, who wore spectacles or who could speak a foreign language was removed. If not immediately executed, city people were driven into the countryside to work on communal farms, while uneducated peasant farmers were put in charge of management.
The plan was a failure, causing mass starvation and creating 200,000 orphans. Pol Pot soon succumbed to increasing paranoia and began murdering his own cadres and party members until the regime imploded and was overthrown by its own defectors and the Vietnamese. Pol Pot fled. In 1997 he was denounced by his former comrades in a show trial and sentenced to house arrest in his jungle home but died a year later, aged 73, having never facing justice. Many of his victims never reached the age of two.
Today, the genocide memorial sites exist for Cambodians in search of loved ones, relatives and answers, and as quiet places to grieve. Visitors and tourists are encouraged to visit as the Cambodians believe that learning of what happened here might serve as an international effort to prevent such crimes happening again, here and on other soil.
I’m here to meet with women survivors of the Khmer Rouge period and so it was imperative that I first visit the country’s two main memorial sites, both of which are located in the capital Phnom Penh. I researched beforehand but nothing can prepare a visitor for the graphic and highly distressing evidence shown here, or the stories told by the survivors themselves.
Tuol Sleng (S-21) now the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum
Tuol Sleng was once a high school of play, laughter and learning. Its name means ‘on the hill of the wild mango’. A courtyard of frangipani blossoms, mango trees, jackfruit and tall coconut palms still grow in what became S-21, believed to be the largest secret security prison run by the Khmer Rouge. An estimated 14,000 to 20,000 people were imprisoned and tortured here before being driven in trucks for execution at nearby Choeung Ek, the largest of what became known as the ‘killing fields’. Often a whole family was imprisoned and murdered under Pol Pot’s orders as he feared revenge and reprisals.
In 1980 the prison became a genocide museum and memorial site. On arrival prisoners were dehumanised by being given numbers, and the name ‘it’. They were photographed and ordered to write their biographies which could reveal their backgrounds. Their faces, grim expressions and eyes fearful or defiant, exist permanently within the prison walls as stark photographic evidence. Prisoners were tortured in order to sign false confessions proving they were an enemy of the regime, and also to show that the regime was fulfilling its target of exterminations. Bloodstain fingerprints remain on cell walls, as do the iron beds where rotting corpses of prisoners were found still shackled in irons, days after the regime fell.
In the centre of the courtyard is the memorial dedicated to the victims of S-21. It bears the words which translate as ‘never will we forget the crimes committed during the Democratic Kampuchea Regime’. Surrounding the memorial are black marble panels bearing the names of more than 12,000 prisoners etched in gold. Overlooking this scene, in former prisoner block D, is the White Lotus Meditation Room for visitors to meditate, reflect and take time out from the horror on show here. The white lotus is a symbol of peace, its flower growing tall on a long stem rising up from swamps and muddy waters.
The memorial is the final stop on the audio tour, spoken by Khmer Rouge survivors. Its parting words are to remind visitors that a regime which uses an ideology and political system that ignores human dignity cannot destroy the roots of the people. It urges you to be a keeper of the memory of S-21, and to tell others around the world.
Choeung Ek (The Killing Fields) Genocidal Center
Once a Chinese burial ground and orchard for growing fruit trees, Choeunk Ek became the execution ground for prisoners from S-21. A number of foreigners including British, Canadians, Americans, Australians were also killed here. Prisoners were brought here in trucks and dragged to the edge of deep pits. Under floodlighting, to the background tune of propaganda Khymer Rouge music (and to drown out sounds of slaughter which might arouse the neighbourhood) the prisoners were bludgeoned using farming tools as bullets were noisy and costly. They were then pushed into the pits where their throats were cut using knives or hard tree leaves with serrated edges.
In 1979 after the fall of the Khmer Rouge, 129 mass graves were found, including one containing women, children and babies. The largest mass grave contained 450 bodies. Of these 86 were excavated and 8,985 bodies exhumed. Some graves were dug quickly and therefore shallow. During the rainy season, skulls and sometimes whole skeletons surface, as well as rags of clothing and strips of cloth which served as blindfolds. These are sympathetically collected and preserved. Visitors who come across bones are kindly asked not to touch them but to inform a member of the site’s staff.
Built in 1988 and rising 62 metres high, this is the biggest memorial in Cambodia to remember the victims of the genocide. The memorial takes the shape of a Buddhist stupa; in Buddhism a stupa is traditionally a shelter for relics and a place for meditation. It was built on the site of a tool shed once used to store tools for agriculture including axes, hammers and bamboo poles. The Khmer Rouge commandeered these tools as their choice of weapons for the killings and they are displayed within the stupa.
Both Buddhist and Hindu symbols have been used to decorate the roof and for symbolic meaning. At each corner is Garuda, a mythical bird creature who represents birth and heaven. Above Garuda is Nāga, often portrayed as a seven-headed serpent or snake, which symbolises the Khmer culture. Its tail winds up around the top of the stupa. Nāga is the traditional enemy of Garuda but when these enemies come together it symbolises peace.
Inside the stupa, stacked neatly behind acrylic glass, are 17 levels of scientifically examined skulls and bones unearthed from the mass graves. On the first level are 9000 skulls arranged in order of method of murder, for example a hole made from the blow of a machete, or an iron rod or a hammer. A blue dot on the skull denotes a female, a red dot a male. The upper levels are lined with major bones of the bodies. Smaller bones, ribs and pelvic bones have been left in the graves as there is not enough space.
Visitors who are asked to take off their shoes first can enter the stupa to see the remains. For a nominal donation you can buy incense to light or chrysanthemum flowers to place in a vase. You are welcome to pray for the souls and for the peace of the victims.
Dr Lee Karen Stow is Honorary Research Fellow at the University of Hull’s Wilberforce Institute for the study of Slavery and Emancipation. In December 2015 she visited Sierra Leone as a Research Assistant on the Remember Me Diaspora case study directed by Dr Nicholas Evans.
Her exhibition ‘Poppies: Women, War, Peace’ is currently being exhibited in York following a successful run at the University of Hull. Her exhibition will be travelling to the US in 2018 where a reconfigured version, incorporating photographs from her current fieldwork in Vietnam, will be displayed at the University of Georgia.
Lee has previously contributed to our blog, and you can read her earlier entries:
- Remembering Vietnam in Ho Chi Minh City.
- Remembering…Poppies: Women, War, Peace
- Surveying Memorialisation in Freetown