|Photo: Reaksa Chuon poses with a photograph of his father (Claire Slattery)|
|Youk Chhang, Documentation Centre of Cambodia Director (Claire Slattery)|
|Photographs of Khmer Rouge victims (Claire Slatterly)|
31 August 2012
Claire Slattery Phnom Penh for Connect Asia
Australia Network News
For thousands of Cambodians, the fate of their loved ones under the Khmer Rouge regime of the 1970s remains a mystery, and the focus sometimes of a life-long search for answers.
DC-Cam, the Documentation Centre of Cambodia, is an organisation dedicated to collecting and researching documents from the Khmer Rouge period. From time-to-time, new documents and photographs emerge that provide people with information about how their friends and family members died but, a recent donation to DC-Cam has done just that.
Chuon Reaksa was eight-years-old when he last saw his father in 1976. For 36 years, Mr Reaksa has searched for answers about what happened to his father after he disappeared from Cambodia's Battambang Province during the Khmer Rouge Regime.
Now, he's has come face-to-face with his father again, in a photo.
"They sent him by train to Pronet Preah around my family, the whole family, only three days in Pronet Preah and he go, he leave family. So at that time, the information is finished until now I found him in picture. I'm very sorry," he said choking back tears.
The passport-sized, black-and-white photograph is one of almost 1,500 recently donated to the Documentation Centre of Cambodia. Since 1995, DC-Cam has been collecting and researching documents from the Khmer Rouge era.
DC-Cam Director Youk Chhang says the latest donation is the largest ever collection from the Khmer Rouge's highest-level security prison, Tuol Sleng, also known as S-21. A former government employee had been harbouring the pictures in her home for more than 20 years.
"But I think that for so long she felt guilty, that perhaps others might benefit from these photographs, because she had heard that people looking for name, handwritings, pictures, so that she can put to rest, so she decided to give to us without revealing her identity," he said.
It's estimated between 1.7 and three million people died during the Khmer Rouge era from 1975 to 1979.
Many perished from starvation and disease, but others were murdered at the hands of the paranoid and oppressive Communist regime. An estimated 14-thousand people, most accused of being enemies of the state, were sent to Tuol Sleng. There they were brutally tortured, interrogated and kept in desperate conditions, before being sent to be executed on the Killing Fields.
The regime kept extensive records during its time in power, and on arrival at Tuol Sleng, prisoners were photographed and made to give their biographies.
Only about 5,000 of these photographic portraits are known to have survived, but Chhang Youk says from time-to-time, people come forward with more.
"I think it's very Cambodian. When you live through the Khmer Rouge seeing people from that period you feel like they are a living person, even now if you asked me to burn a piece of photograph, I cannot do it. It's a matter of culture or respect and that someone might be related to you. I think she saved because of that, not because she understood the significance of the photograph at all, (but) because the photographs speak to her, you know they're living people, when you look at this person, and you can relate to it because you're from the same generation," he said.
Youk Chhang says the latest donation comprises 1,427 photographic portraits of Tuol Sleng prisoners, including Khmer Rouge officers, Vietnamese soldiers, two unidentified Westerners, and more than 1000 Cambodians.
"I knew a lot of people in the photographs, we found some Vietnamese, we found people who worked for the UN, we found people who worked for the USAID, we found the former editor of the newspaper, we found the in-law of someone I knew of, we found teachers, I found diplomats, I found people who returned from Paris to help rebuild the country also here," he said.
He says the photos reveal the extent of the regime's paranoia and ruthlessness.
"Look at this woman - they even call her grandma, but they kill her, you know in the name tag it's called Grandma Som, they even address to her as a grandma, they even kill their own grandma and this is horrible I mean had I one of her grandchild looking at this photograph I could get very emotional. How could she be a CIA? She's 78-years-old," he said.
Hundreds of children and the elderly were imprisoned at Tuol Sleng, as well as many of Cambodia's educated and professional classes, including Chuon Reaksa's father, a doctor.
"I very sorry with my father that injustice for him, very injustice for him. He is the medical doctor, not in politics, why he killed? This is my disappointment with the Pol Pot time," he said.
Photo: Tourists at the Tuol Sleng museum in Phnom Penh (Claire Slattery )
He said he didn't know what had happened to his father until earlier this year, when an old family friend revealed that he had been sent to Tuol Sleng prison.
However, Reaksa was misled because his father's name was incorrectly listed on prison records; he was only able to piece together the puzzle when a photograph was discovered in the latest donation.
Details handwritten on the back of the portrait reveal Mr Reaksa's father Chuon Heng was arrested on the 21st of February 1976, and killed on the 22nd of May that year. He was 37-years-old.
"I feel very sorry and very glad when I see his face again, because his face, his picture, nothing, in my family. I have only a small picture card. And he was younger than me," he said.
Youk Chhang said the photos will help provide answers to some of the thousands of Cambodians who regularly contact DC-Cam looking for information about their loved ones.
"We get very frustrated because most of the photographs have no name and we cannot tell, and when they give us name especially people living in the village we have no ability to identify people in the photograph. So it's a huge help, at least a thousand of families- grandchildren of those who have died, to put this behind and move on with their lives. It's a huge, you know, this brought a new life to those who've been searching for the loss of the loved one for 30 years," he said.
For Chuon Reaksa, his almost life-long search is now over.
"Finally I am happy receive it, very happy and my heart happy and everything release, because the secret problem now clear, that I keep in my heart, noone know," he said.