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prayers too big for words: images from toul sleng prison and the killing fields at choeung ek

I’ve never posted my images taken from the day, over a year ago, when I visited Toul Sleng prison and the Killing Fields at Choeung Ek in and outside Phnom Penh, Cambodia. It’s was – and continues to be – difficult to wrap my head around. It felt too simple to post such gruesome and heart-breaking images without proper written analysis or without the deepest reverence for those for whom the atrocities of the Khmer Rouge continue to be an echoing nightmare. But I can’t hide them away anymore.

If you’ve never really learned about the Khmer Rouge and the massive genocide that killed one quarter of Cambodia’s population between 1975 and 1979, I’ll encourage you to read up on it before looking more closely at these images. This is an excellent resource. In short, a communist regime arose in post-Vietnam War Cambodia, taking advantage of a period of unrest to promote a return to Cambodia's glory days of Angkor. The regime's leader, Pol Pot, lead a revolution that ordered the execution of all intellectuals, religious leaders, teachers, craftsmen, and marched families back to ancestral homelands to work in an agrarian society for little food and inadequate healthcare.

Some of those intellectuals and old-Cambodia leaders and individuals that rose up against the regime near Phnom Penh were brought to Toul Sleng prison where they were interred and tortured before being brought to the Killing Fields at Choeung Ek where they were clubbed to death and dumped in mass graves. Today, both sites serve as memorials for the victims of the Khmer Rouge, and stark reminders of what unchecked leadership can accomplish if given even the smallest window of opportunity.

They are places that I have best heard described as "holy grounds where the only prayers worth praying are too big for words." Where history and humanity flood oneself beyond comprehension. And yet - this is reality. And while Cambodia brought me many gifts of joy, the world holds corners of immense darkness that are also important to share.

A post from a Singaporean friend living in Phnom Penh prompted me to share these now. On Facebook, he shared the following quote (shared here again with his permission): ‘[T]o forget our sins may be an even greater sin than to commit them. Why? Because what is forgotten cannot be healed and that which cannot be healed easily becomes the cause of greater evil. In his many books about the holocaust, Eli Wiesel does not remind us of Auschwitz, Buchenwald, and Treblinka to torture our consciences with heightened guilt feelings, but to allow our memories to be healed and so to prevent an even worse disaster. An Auschwitz that is forgotten causes a Hiroshima, and a forgotten Hiroshima can cause the destruction of our world. By cutting off the past, we paralyze our future: forgetting the evil behind us, we evoke the evil in front of us. As George Santayanna has said: “He who forgets the past is doomed to repeat it.’ - Henri Nouwen, THE LIVING REMINDER

This is why I share these images now. I have heard things from beloved friends and family members that, while seemingly well-intentioned, forget the legacy that hate and neglect of our neighbors leaves. I turn on the news and see people in power that echo these sentiments, and, with the turn of a pen, have the ability to put policy into place that also forgets our shared history.

Pol Pot was an arrogant leader, whose rise to power was supported by fear of outsiders, whose refusal to listen to voices of dissent crippled a nation, whose desire to return Cambodia to a more idyllic time resulted in the deaths of over two million human lives. Now, I can’t dare equate one of the most despicable turn of events in the world’s history to things that have not yet unfolded. That would be premature and irrational. But I can, I hope, do my small part in stopping them from unfolding at all. And with that, I share these images. Some of these images could be considered graphic to some audiences, and include images of human remains. As you view them, I ask you to do so in reverence and with respect for the lives and stories buried within them.

One of the many buildings that compromise Toul Sleng prison, formerly a school in the heart of Phnom Penh. In the foreground are frameworks of a gallows where prisoners were hung upside down and dunked into pots of water as a form of torture.

Vann Nath, one of seven known survivors of Tuol Sleng prison, was spared because of his artistic abilities. He dedicated his life after the Khmer Rouge regime to painting the atrocities committed during that time period. Pictured is his memory of the exodus of Phnom Penh in 1975, when the entire capital city was evacuated by the Khmer Rouge regime's arrival.

Another of Vann Nath's images, depicting one of the estimated 2 million deaths by the Khmer Rouge soldiers and leadership.

One of the many faces of S-21 prison. Each prisoner was photographed before internment in the prison, a photographic record of all the lives lost after time in these walls. Prisoners were forced to give detailed autobiographies of their lives, and had to include the reason for their arrest (even if the arrest was unwarranted). Leaders were not the only ones interred - family members and children were considered just as guilty.

Over the four years the prison was in operation, 17,000-20,000 individuals passed through its walls. In the early months, most victims were of the previous regime (soldiers, government officials, intellectuals, academics, etc.), but as years wore on, party leadership paranoia resulted in many of the Khmer Rouge's own party activists and families also spending time in the prison.

Old classrooms were converted into mass detention centers, where inmates were shackled together on the floor and inspected daily for weapons that could be used to commit suicide.

Inmates would receive meager rations, and were hosed down once a week.

At any one time, the prison (known then as S-21), held between 1,000 and 1,500 prisoners. Some prisoners were kept in crude cells like this one.

Some were held in cells like these.

Most prisoners at S-21 were held there for two or three months. Torture practices started almost immediately and lasted the duration of a prisoners internment.

Prisoners were beaten, shocked with electricity, seared with hot water and scalding metal. Some were cut or suffocated. Waterboarding was a popular technique, as was rape and sexual abuse. Medical experiments were performed on 100-some individuals, drained of blood or operated on without anesthetic by untrained doctors.

Today, thecompound rises up the green hustle and bustle of the international city, a stark reminder of the country's troubled recent history.

The Cambodian flag now flies over the Killing Fields of Choueng Ek, where prisoners were brought after being tortured at S-21 (Toul Sleng), bludgeoned to death, and buried in mass graves. The site is now a peaceful and haunting memorial to the victims.

Some 8,000 bodies were exhumed from mass graves soon after the Khmer Rouge's fall and eventually placed in a memorial stupa on the grounds. The exhumed graves are marked off today with small fences, where visitors leave bracelets and ribbons in memory of the dead.

However, it is estimated that a few thousand more bodies remain unexhumed in the fields at the site. Current agreements between the government and the facilities dictate that the remaining bodies stay at rest in the fields. Still, it is not uncommon to see fabric or even bone fragments emerge from the earth after rainstorms or in areas that are more heavily trafficked by visitors. Groundskeepers keep a watch out for these fragments and collect them for proper internment.

One of the most haunting images from the grounds - a large tree next to an exhumed grave were decapitated bodies of women and young children were buried. Early visitors to the site report that the tree in this image was still stained with blood and brain matter from the brutal executions that took place at this site.

The fields today are quiet and peaceful, and include an excellent audio guide and reflective materials for visitors that honor the haunting legacy of the site.

But the history of the site is ever present when one looks closer.

5,000 of the earliest exhumed bodies were collected and preserved in a memorial stupa that now sits on the grounds. Visitors are encouraged to enter the stupa and look into the faces of those that sufferd at the hands of the Khme Rouge.

Entering the stupa is harrowing, a four-sided, mulit-storied reminder of the atrocities of war and the oft-innocent victims that get caught in the crossfires of power struggles.

I share these sensitive images now not to be sensational, but to share an honest truth of the history of our world, a history that has been repeated, in various form, far too many times.

The memorial stupa at Choeung Ek. Please, hold these lessons close to your heart. They are our shared legacy.

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