She is a girl of about 12, and she faces the camera with the calm composure of an innocent. Behind her is a blank wall or perhaps a sheet tacked up as a makeshift backdrop. Nothing in the picture suggests that the child is an enemy of the state, or that she will shortly be executed for her crimes.
Last week, I found myself returning over and over to this haunting image, one of several thousand prison mug shots taken by unknown government photographers during the Khmer Rouge’s brutal four-year reign in Cambodia.
The Museum of Modern Art in New York has organized about 30 of the pictures into a show titled “The Killing Fields,” which will run through the end of August. The exhibition documents a pivotal institution of Pol Pot’s genocidal regime: S-21, the interrogation and torture center outside Phnom Penh for Cambodian “counter-revolutionaries.”
About 14,000 men, women and children were brought to S-21 between 1975 and 1979. At any one time, the camp probably held several hundred people, and the prisoners’ stays there lasted anywhere from a few days to a few months. All but seven known survivors were put to death.
The prisoners photographed at S-21 represent only a small fraction of the 200,000 people executed as enemies of state by the Khmer Rouge. The human costs of Pol Pot’s revolution were staggering. In addition to the political prisoners, possibly another million and a half people died from starvation, disease or overwork. As many as one in six Cambodians perished during those years.
To gaze on the face of a 12-year-old victim is to be struck dumb by the horror that lies just outside the picture frame.
The mind comprehends this child is no more, but heart and eye rebel at the notion. In vain one searches that open countenance for evidence of high treason. “What did you do, little girl, to deserve torture and death?”
And her eyes reply: “I did nothing. I am innocent.”
A woman with a number pinned to her jacket and a toddler on her knee regards the camera steadily. Is she the child’s mother, an older sister, an aunt? The picture has an odd formality to it, a portrait of the Madonna on death row. The child’s expression is flat and accusatory.
Here is a young woman in her 20s. She gazes into the lens with the earnest intensity of a teacher or a social worker. What is she doing here? Further on sits a middle-aged man with a vigorous shock of gray hair. Even the humiliation of prison hasn’t erased a certain thoughtfulness in his expression. Perhaps that was his death warrant.
The Khmer Rouge executed virtually all the country’s educated people. It executed teachers, doctors, administrative workers, priests and practically anyone else who could read or write. It even executed people who wore glasses for no other reason than that they looked as if they might be “intellectuals.”
The government executed people associated with the preceding, non-Communist government of Lon Nol, then it executed their families so that they could not plot revenge.
Later, the government executed “traitors” and “spies” within its own ranks, and the families of the traitors and spies so they could not plot revenge, either.
When no more traitors and spies could be found, soldiers executed the executioners who were trying to “wreck” the revolution. Then the soldiers executed the families of the “wreckers,” and when they were done, other soldiers executed them to keep them from plotting against the regime that had forced them to do such barbarous things.
In this way, there was never any end to the killing.
The photographs of S-21 bear witness to this catastrophe even though they document only one tiny corner of the charnel house that was Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge. In the book that accompanies the exhibition, David Chandler writes that, in terms of Cambodia’s total population, the scale of destruction was almost unimaginable.
The numbers are comparable to those of the Holocaust in World War II, Stalin’s forced collectivization in the 1930s and the massacres in Rwanda in 1994.
“Catastrophes of this kind resemble earthquakes, hurricanes or floods,” Chandler writes. “It may be easier to bear witness to the victims and to understand the killers, as we must, if we concentrate on fewer, palpable examples.
“The people photographed at S-21 were important and unique, their photographs heartbreaking cries for recognition. Frozen by the lens, nearly 20 years later they are also regarding us. Their expressions ask their captors: ‘Who are you? Why am here?’ - and ask us: ‘Why did this happen? Why have we been killed?’ “Some of them look angry. A few of them try to smile. Others are wide-eyed with terror. In one photograph a woman poses forlornly with her sleeping child. Staring at the camera, the mother weeps. Mute, imploring, irrefutable, these witnesses indict Pol Pot, his paranoia and the demented utopian policies of his regime.”
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