On 17 April 1975, Pol Pot and his Khmer Rouge rolled into Phnom Penh and changed Cambodia forever. At first the people rejoiced waving white flags in the hopes that the civil war was over. Unfortunately these dreams were shattered as families were dragged from their homes and separated into cooperatives to work in the fields. Pol Pot envisioned his country as an agricultural cooperative, setting rice quotas that he thought would make Cambodia self-sustaining. However, the quotas were impossibly high, and the rice yielded was exported to China leaving little for the people. Nearly 2 million people died in his four years of power, mostly from starvation and malnutrition.

To squelch any sort of dissent, the Khmer Rouge rounded up the educated and their extended families for interrogation followed by execution. Brutally taking their lives, the Khmer Rouge used mass graves, also known as the killing fields, to dispose of their bodies. While in Phnom Penh, we visited the killing fields of Choeung Ek. More than 9,000 skulls fill the stupa at Choeung Ek with even more still residing in the surrounding fields and lake. Debris from the bodies such as clothing and bones still surfaces during the rainy season. We walked among these remnants, and felt the sorrow that haunts these fields.

Most of the prisoners that were executed at Choeung Ek were first tortured at Tuol Svay Prey High School (security prison 21). Doctors, professors, musicians, the educated, and their families were held in bleak rooms shackled to each other. They were tortured for names of their acquaintances and family members. Pol Pot wanted to ensure his new society was illiterate. In the early days of the prison, each detainee was photographed. In most of the eyes, I saw bewilderment but in some I saw fear. One photograph of a girl caught my attention; defiance blazed in her eyes. The saddest of all though were those that truly didn’t understand, those that smiled in their photos. I took photos of some of the people that caught my attention, but not the smiling ones—those were just too hard to look at for long.

It is estimated nearly 300 killing fields exist in Cambodia. An ongoing mapping project is working toward documenting them all. Pol Pot died before ever facing trial. A few of his regime are still alive, but uncertainty exists whether justice will ever be served.

As usual, our most recent photos can be found on Chris’ and Jodi’s flickr pages.

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