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To look at these people is to see the living dead. Technically alive when the photos were taken, but practically dead.
The stares are captivating. There is no there there. 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 rung the humanity out of most people. There was nothing left to kill.
In some, however, emotion shows. 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. One man appeared to be crying, overwhelmed by his 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. And torture didn’t always mean death.
But it did mean pain. On display 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.
Although the prisoners’ fates were never in doubt, the Khmer Rouge was determined to decide when and where inmates died. Barbed wire was wound around S-21’s cellblocks to prevent any suicide jumps. The party controlled death as well as life.
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. In this rustic territory set amidst simple homes and a school are fields on which about 20,000 people were killed and in which they 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 white 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, the murder of individuals, of people, of children. Years after he worked in the notorious Khmer Rouge prison, his work continues to highlight evil in its purest and most malevolent form. For that service all of us owe him a debt of gratitude.
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