Initial Hearing in the First case of the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia - February 17, 2009Wednesday, February 18th, 2009
More than the piled up and/or systematically arranged skulls one can see at the Choeung Ek extermination Centre - now a memorial to the people who were killed there - it is the high quality photographs of the victims on display at S-21 that to me evokes the real horror of a genocide.
Three of us visited these two sombre reminders of Cambodia’s history under the Khmer Rouge regime. S-21 (short for Security Prison 21) , a former high school, was used as a prison and interrogation centre. Of an estimated 17,000 people who were sent to S-21, there are only 12 known survivors. Many of the prisoners were taken to the Choeung Ek extermination centre, the best known of the killing fields. Mass graves containing 8,895 bodies were discovered there after the fall of the Khmer Rouge regime.
At S-21, we just could not talk. Having started the visit together, we gradually separated and went our separate way, needing to be alone to silently take in what we were seeing.
Several rooms still displayed the iron beds and some of the torture equipment that had been used there, but what made the most impression were the seemingly endless displays of large photographs portraying all those who came to S-21.
I only realized today that by showing real people, alive and systematically arranged by gender, or age group, the photographs made the reality of the genocide a much more vivid one. I don’t think we fully understood at the time the meticulous care with which the victims had been so systematically documented. It is only later that one remembered the quality of the photographs. Sophisticated equipment had been used to ensure the best possible definition.
Even though similar preciseness is displayed in the systematic arrangement of the skulls at Choeung Ek - Male Kampuchean, 30-40 year old, Juvenile Female Kampuchean, from 15 to 20 year old - showing the scale of the elimination, the skulls do not have the same immediacy as the photographs.
The skulls have been arranged to honour and remember the anonymous victims - anonymous in as much as they cannot be readily identified.
The pictures show real people - who sometimes even smiled at the camera and the jail photographer - the very people, with a name, a face, an identity, who the Khmer Rouge regime had identified as those they needed to eliminate. The pictures attest to the cold determination of the Khmer Rouge doctrine, looking to create a new Cambodia, Year One, and eliminating anyone likely to oppose this doctrine. This systematic process of elimination of the opponents falls under the definition of genocide.
While the official memorial, the skull tower, at Choeung Ek is therefore maybe less evocative than S-21, there are still some really morbid details in the killing field. As one walks around the memorial grounds, on paths linking mass graves, it is difficult not to step over pieces of bones, teeth or fragments of fabric that have surfaced up. These may just have resurfaced, after the rain: the burial process was rather hasty. And from these fragments on the ground, or from the collection of clothes that have been found when the mass graves were dug up - which are also on display at Choeung Ek - you may be able to recognize a fabric pattern that you would have noticed in one of the photographs at S-21. It is easy enough to recognize, few of the victims were wearing distinctive clothes, most of them wore uniforms. Recognizing these specific fabric patterns makes the reality of the genocide even more vivid because it is likely you will remember the features of the victims.
On Februrary 17, 2009, the Extraordinary Chambers in the Court of Cambodia held the initial hearing in its first case: Kaing Guek Eav, known as “Duch”, the former S-21 prison chief, faces charges of crimes against humanity.