The Last Prisoners of Khmer Rouge, 1979

On 10th January 1979, the invading Vietnamese Army arrived at the gates of Tuol Svay Prey High School in the outskirts of the Cambodian capital, Phnom Penh. The stench was overwhelming — for previous three years, the school, renamed “Security Prison 21″ (S-21) was the makeshift jail for the political prisoners where estimated 18,000 people were tortured, interrogated and killed, including some of the highest members of the murderous Khmer Rouge itself.

The prison had been abandoned a few days earlier, with the guards fleeing the invading Vietnamese army, but the guards had left in such a hurry that they had neither destroyed the documents nor cleared up the last remaining prisoners and the remains of those who had perished days earlier. The Vietnamese found corpses shackled at the legs of iron bed posts and worms infested prison cells. Ho Van Tay, a military combat photographer was sent by Ho Chi Minh City Television to document the war against the Khmer Rouge, and accompanying a three-man patrol from the Vietnam Peo­ple’s Army, 4th Division, 7th Brig­ade, he and journalist Dinh Phong became the first reporters to see the death camp.

Between 1.5 to 2 million people — a quarter of Cambodia’s population — died between 1975 to 1979 from direct execution, starvation, exhaustion from overwork in agarian fields, or disease. Average life expectancy dropped from 42 years to 20 years. S-21 and the Killing Fields outside Phnom Penh were just two of hundreds of sites devoted to interrogation and extermination of ‘class enemies’. The last 14 victims whose bodies were discovered by Ho Van Tay in S-21 (and not yet buried into a mass grave) were buried in individually on the grounds of the prison.

Despite their shared Communist ideology, the relations between Khmer Rouge and Vietnamese Communist Party quickly broke down after the former came to power in 1975. The nationalist Khmer Rouge claimed the Mekong Delta in Vietnam as Kampuchea Krom and frequently launched border skirmishes to occupy towns and islands there. Notoriously paranoid, xenophobic and purge-loving ruling establishment of Khmer Rouge (the “Angkar”) also deeply distrusted the Vietnamese; pro-Vietnamese or Vietnamese trained cadres were purged in 1976. A series of short skirmishes and battles followed, with Vietnam invading Cambodia in late 1977 and withdrawing a few months later. A year later, the Vietnamese would be back, and that time, they would occupy Cambodia for years.


Ho Van Tay’s photos were now on display at the museum now established at the Tuol Svay Prey High School. The site is now better known as Tuŏl Slêng, the Hill of the Poisonous Trees. The more gruesome photos had the faces of the victims covered up with sheets of paper (more photos here).

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