Stilled Lives – Photographs from the Cambodian Genocide

Posted on by Dermot Sheehan
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“Now I see the white ants ate it; this must mean it is the end of his story.” In this unforgiving tropical climate, with its pitiless cycles of heat and humidity, it is hard to imagine anything fragile lasting long, especially a photograph. While some of the pictures in this remarkable book look as fresh as the day they were taken, many others barely retain an image, a testament to years spent secreted in some damp wall or hidden away in the ground.

Around the time the Taliban fell in Afghanistan, some pictures were published. They showed not fierce looking fighters, but raw looking young men wearing kohl posing in photo studios with alpine backdrops. In this book we see young people, in the first flush of life, dressed in their finest trendy clothes, hats posed at jaunty angles, next to their friends, looking confident and ready for almost anything, but with little idea of what fate has in store for them.

While it is easier to imagine them as red-eyed fiends, what we often forget when we think about the Khmer Rouge, is how they had their own families and private lives, and their own hopes and dreams. This book does not attempt to analyze their political or moral behavior, but through the recollections of surviving family members, paints a picture of all too ordinary and human people. The majority had joined voluntarily, for various reasons, some being converts to the cause, others in support of Sihanouk’s pleas for Cambodians to fight Lon Nol.

The civil war had disrupted most educational and work opportunities, so joining had offered a chance to learn a trade or just to escape the tedium of everyday life. Many were forced to join too, and others would have volunteered to prevent any possible later retribution. What almost all the subjects here have in common though, is that few survived the revolution, so most of their tales are told by surviving relatives. Through these people’s stories, we learn of a life that seems at odds with what we perceive of life in Democratic Kampuchea.

Phnom Penh for example, far from being a ghost town during the reign, had about 40,000 inhabitants, mainly cadres and combatants, and also a fair proportion of the 15,000 Chinese technical advisers in Cambodia at the time. There were hospitals operating in the capital which seem to have been far better run than some of the primitive facilities often described in other areas. There was also education for Khmer Rouge and their families, which included such seemingly unlikely subjects as music and art.

Some of the pictures are quite astonishing ,one for example showing Khmer Rouge standing around Olympic stadium with a banquet of Pepsi-cola about to begin. Another shows some security personnel at Central market, with two gleaming Mercedes behind them, oblivious to how at odds this was to a supposedly classless agrarian society. What seems common to all the stories here, is the sense of loss, displacement and general lack of information that they and everyone else in Cambodia suffered. Although by many considered lucky, it seems the families of these people were under more scrutiny than many, and they suffered inordinately as a consequence.

For many of the families portrayed here, it wasn’t until the DCCAM came around to interview them that they finally realized the fate of their relatives. Many had spent years visiting fortune-tellers trying in vain to find lost family members. Some had eventually been told by friends about their relative’s photos presence on the walls of Tuol Sleng, which could only have meant one thing, but probably kept some hope that these people were mistaken. The teams researching this book often brought families a biography or confession from S21, and this was the usually first proof they had ever received of their loved ones fate. The quote at the top is from one such person.

Dermot Sheehan

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