New Photos of Tuol Sleng Prisoners Uncovered

Written on the back of a passport-sized photo of a man wearing a singlet are the words “Kuy Chea. Radio broadcaster.” There is a photo of Ly Yet, with a scrawl on the back that reads simply, “Wife of Ahmed.” Then there is Am Chandara, a young girl with cropped hair who is described as “daughter of a civil servant.”

Every single person in the 1,242 photographs donated yesterday to the Documentation Center of Cambodia (DC-Cam) wore a numbered tag around their neck.

Youk Chhang, the DC-Cam’s director, said the tags were likely there to document the prisoners being processed into S-21, the notorious Khmer Rouge prison, known as Tuol Sleng, which is now a museum dedicated to showing the depredations of the Pol Pot regime.

Mr. Chhang said the photographs were donated by a woman who, after the Khmer Rouge regime was overthrown, worked with the communist governments of the People’s Republic of Kampuchea (PRK) in the 1980s and the State of Cambodia (SOC) in the early 1990s.

Before the U.N.’s arrival in Cambodia in 1992 to organize elections after the signing of the Paris Peace Agreement, all government ministries were ordered to destroy records of the Khmer Rouge regime, supposedly, the civil servants were told at the time, so that the U.N.-backed electoral process would not be disrupted.

Many former members of the Khmer Rouge, however, had assumed senior positions within the PRK and SOC governments.

The donor of the photographs, who has requested anonymity, was one of the lower staff members ordered to bring the photographs, along with other Khmer Rouge documents, to be burned following the government order to destroy such material.

“But she saw the photographs and she did not want to burn them,” Mr. Chhang said yesterday of the reason the photos have remained hidden for 20 years.

“She felt like it was heartbreaking because she had lost her father, mother, sister and brother and she was hoping to identify [them] in the photographs,” he said. “She felt that it was like burning a living person…so she hid them and kept them to herself.”

While an estimated 14,000 prisoners were sent to S-21, only about 5,000 photos of the prisoners have survived. This new cache of images, which have notes scribbled on the back about each person’s identity, is the largest compilation of data about the prison’s occupants that DC-Cam has ever encountered, Mr. Chhang said.

Some of the photos are marked with dates, which were likely recorded when the subject was arrested.

Tep Suy Bopha, a short-haired woman wearing a T-shirt with footsteps printed on it, was the deputy general of the National Bank of Cambodia, and she was arrested on Jan. 9, 1976.

Vuon Sieng, described only as the wife of Kem Sapho, has Nov. 8, 1976, scribbled behind her photo.

There are other familiar names, such as Soeung Phoeuk Thor, the editor of local newspaper Maet-to-Phum, or Motherland. Mr. Chhang recognized the journalist’s name immediately as one of the Cambodian reporters who was declared missing after the Khmer Rouge’s rise to power in April 1975.

According to data on casualties suffered by members of the media during the Cambodian civil war, which was compiled by DC-Cam and the Associated Press, Soeung Phoeuk Thor was believed to have been arrested by the Khmer Rouge, tortured and executed at Tuol Sleng prison between 1976 and 1978. The newly uncovered photograph shows him as a man in his 50s with his white hair in a crew cut.

There is also Va Ven Seila, described as a student and the sister-in-law of Tek To, who confessed to Duch in 1976 that he worked for the CIA.

Mr. Chhang translated Tek To’s confession in 2001 and remembered the case clearly. Va Ven Seila looked like a young teenager in the photo and was dressed in a black collared T-shirt.

“She was just a student. If you are linked to anybody then you are suspicious and will be targeted,” said Mr. Chhang, adding that the majority of the women photographed were identified as someone’s sister, mother or wife—which would be a death sentence in itself.

Once DC-Cam has catalogued the photographs and all the information contained in their annotations, DC-Cam will digitize them and display a set at the Tuol Sleng museum.

Mr. Chhang said he wants to put out a list of the 1,242 names on the photographs as soon as possible, as he is certain that it can help Cambodians find their missing relatives and friends.

“It is a puzzle, the Khmer Rouge history. Each photograph has a story and it makes it come alive,” he said. “Maybe this can help bring families…some closure to them [so that they can] put this behind and move on.”

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