Khmer Rouge’s Killing Fields

1.7 million Cambodians died during those bloody years

For five seemingly endless years, a former school in Phnom Penh codenamed S-21 was death’s antechamber. During the worse excesses of the Khmer Rouge, over 16,000 people were tortured and imprisoned in the rooms of this prison before being carted off to their executions in the nearby killing fields. And most of them passed in front of an expressionless teenager’s camera.

Nhem Ein was just ten when he left the family farm and joined the Khmer Rouge with his four brothers in 1970. In 1975, he was sent to Shanghai to study photography and filmmaking, and was subsequently made chief photographer at S-21. Using looted cameras, he meticulously chronicled life inside Pol Pot’s abattoir (New York Times)

If Brother Number One’s killing machines worked perfectly, it was due to the help of thousands like Nhem Ein who worked tirelessly to keep cogs well-oiled. As he removed their blindfolds and adjusted lights, Nhem Ein would lie to the newly arrived prisoners that “I’m just a photographer; I don’t know anything.” He would photograph hundreds of people a day, processing his film overnight to be attached to individual dossiers, comfortably cocooned from terrible realities of the Killing Fields from inside his isolated darkroom. He was careful not to let screams from torture chambers disturb his sleep, for he had to get up early to photograph the next batch of prisoners, he later recalled. As Arendt said of Eichmann, it was banality of evil personified, and like Eichmann, Nhem Ein had since retreated into bureaucratic doublespeak that he merely did what was asked of him.

That said, life was definitely not easy working for mercurial Pol Pot. When Nhem Ein accidentally damaged during development a negative of Pol Pot’s visit to China — there were spots on the eyes of the leader — he was sent to a prison farm. Only by convincing his interrogators that the film had been damaged before it reached him, Nhem Ein was spared the fate of thousands whose portraits he had taken.

Nhem Ein’s original negatives were left behind inside S-21 after the fall of Khmer Rouge. In 1997, two photographers, Douglas Niven and Chris Riley, discovered some 7,000 of them in S-21 and published 78 of them in a book called ”The Killing Fields.” Identifying them is next to impossible.


9 thoughts on “Khmer Rouge’s Killing Fields

  1. Sadly, even though I was an adult at that time, I was raising little kids and had no idea anything like this was going on. I was very naive, young and stupid. Since then, between 2005 and 2007 I spent some time in Long Beach, California and where I went to church there were many, many Cambodians. I heard many stories of those days more than once and they chilled me to the bone. One man told me the only memory of his father he still had was him holding his father’s hand at age four and running through the jungle. He never saw his father again. These stories were just the saddest thing I have ever heard barring the holocaust. What can possibly be the matter with human beings when we are living on this little dot of a planet in the extreme spaces of the universe and we cannot get along. I truly do not understand it.

  2. Through this post I hope many will feel uncomfortable, looking at those pictures and mentally picturing the events that happened at S-21 and throughout Cambodia under Brother Number One.

    No one ever should feel comfortable or careless about these events as ignoring them is, in a way, accepting them.

    Let’s educate the young and utilize these dramatic events as an opportunity to educate. It must never happen again.

  3. […] Nhem Ein tenia sólo diez años cuando salió de la granja de la familia y se unió a los jemeres rojos, junto con sus cuatro hermanos en 1970. En 1975, fue enviado a Shanghai para estudiar fotografía y cine, y posteriormente se hizo fotógrafo jefe de la S-21. Usando cámaras robadas, describió meticulosamente la crónica de la vida dentro del matadero de Pol Pot. […]

  4. According to Noam Chomksy this was either a big misunderstanding or the fault of the US. More people should hold the degenerate old man accountable for this.

  5. How can two Western journalists be credited with the ‘discovery’ when the photos were in fact already on the walls of the museum (& had been since 1979)?

  6. my parent and anty was in the khmer rouge..lucky they escape oneday….im so grateful to have them in my life!!!!!! even though my dad pass away in 2006… they been through soo much…loveu mom n dad…

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