Cambodia’s Holocaust

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Year Zero

After five years of bloody civil war, the Khmer Rouge marched into Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia, on 17 April 1975. There was no resistance from the forces of the toppled republican government and the whole city, its population swollen by refugees from the fighting, was relieved that peace had come at last.

That relief was short-lived. On the pretext that they were expecting the USA to bomb Phnom Penh, the Khmer Rouge forced the whole population to evacuate the city on foot. Those who refused were shot, as were hospital patients who were unable to walk. The roads out of the city were clogged with bewildered people, clutching a few belongiongs. Children were separated from their parents; the old and infirm who could not keep up were left to die at the roadside.

The same thing happened in all the cities and towns, and the whole country was effectively turned into a vast forced labour camp. Pol Pot, leader of the Khmer Rouge, was achieving his dream of Year Zero, the return of Cambodia to a peasant economy in which there would be no class divisions, no money, no books, no schools, no hospitals. 'Reactionary religion' was banned in the constitution of January 1976.


Those who had had any connection with the previous regime were eliminated. People who were deemed to have been the lazy elite, in other words the educated and the skilled, were also disposed of. Every vestige of the former corrupt way of life had to be destroyed. Many people tried to conceal their identity or former occupation, but were eventually found out or betrayed. Whole families would be executed. Even babies were killed by smashing their skulls against trees.

Pol Pot summed up the policies of the Khmer Rouge in 1978:

We are building socialism without a model. We do not wish to copy anyone; we shall use the experience gained in the course of the liberation struggle. There are no schools, faculties or universities in the traditional sense, although they did exist in our country prior to liberation, because we wish to do away with all vestiges of the past. There is no money, no commerce, as the state takes care of provisioning all its citizens. The cities have been resettled as this is the way things had to be. Some three million town dwellers and peasants were trying to find refuge in the cities from the depredations of war. We evacuated the cities; we resettled the inhabitants in the rural areas where the living conditions could be provided for this segment of the population of new Cambodia. The countryside should be the focus of attention of our revolution, and the people will decide the fate of the cities.

(Grant Evans and Kelvin Rowley, Red Brotherhood at War, 1984)


In May 1976 the Khmer Rouge established 'Security Office 21' (S-21) in a former high school at Tuol Sleng (meaning hill of the poisonous tree or hill of guilt) in Phnom Penh. The purpose of S-21 was the interrogation and extermination of those opposed to 'Angkar' (the organisation), which is what the Khmer Rouge regime called itself.

Henri Locard, who has studied and visited many of Cambodia's prisons, believes that there may have been as many as 150 other centres at least the size of S-21 where more than 500,000 Cambodians were tortured and executed.

The Tuol Sleng school buildings were enclosed with a double fence of corrugated iron topped with dense, electrified, barbed wire. The classrooms were converted into prison cells and the windows were fitted with bars and barbed wire. The classrooms on the ground floor were divided into small cells, 0.8m x 2m each, designed for single prisoners, who were shackled with chains fixed to the walls or floors. The rooms on the upper floors were used as communal cells. Here prisoners had one or both legs shackled to iron bars.

Before being placed in their cells, prisoners were photographed, all their possessions were removed and they were stripped to their underwear. They slept on the floor without mats, mosquito nets or blankets.

To do anything, even to alter their positions while trying to sleep or to relieve themselves in the buckets provided, prisoners had first to ask permission from the prison guards. Failure to do so incurred a severe beating. Bathing was irregular, and was carried out by playing a hose on to a roomful of prisoners.

Some prisoners were used for surgical study and training while still alive. Blood was also drawn from prisoners' bodies.

Prisoners' babies brought to S-21 with them were killed by having their heads smashed against trees.

Hundreds of children between the ages of 12 and 17 were rounded up from poor families in the countryside to serve as "special and honest security guards" at S-21.

Although the vast majority of prisoners interrogated and executed at S-21 were Cambodians, other victims were of Vietnamese, Laotian, Thai, Indian, Pakistani, British, United States, Canadian, New Zealand and Australian nationalities.

Those who died at S-21 were taken to Choeung Ek, outside Phnom Penh, to be buried in mass graves. Inmates of S-21 who survived interrogation were taken to Choeung Ek for execution. The burial ground is now a memorial to those who perished under the Khmer Rouge.

The number of prisoners passing through S-21 is estimated as:

1976: 2,250 prisoners
1977: 2,330 prisoners
1978: 5,765 prisoners

These figures do not include the number of children killed at S-21, estimated to be 2,000.

Today Tuol Sleng is a museum of genocide, displaying prison cells, torture instruments, photographs taken by the Khmer Rouge of their victims, and paintings of some of the atrocities perpetrated at S-21.

Child victims at S-21

Child victims at S-21

Clothing taken from victims at S-21

Clothing taken from victims at S-21

Mother and baby at S-21

Mother and baby at S-21

The Killing Fields

Evacuees from the cities and towns, described as 'new people', and the peasants, the 'old people', suffered together as virtual slaves, forced to work day and night cultivating rice or working on ill-conceived or abortive irrigation schemes in return for insufficient, communal food rations. Much of the rice that was grown was used to feed the Khmer Rouge; little remained to sustain those who had cultivated it. Deprived of adequate nourishment and health care, and forced to work to the point of exhaustion, hundreds of thousands died from starvation or disease. Many of those who survived still bear the physical and emotional scars of their suffering.

Executions continued. Those to be eliminated were taken out of their village and were typically killed by a blow from a hoe. Some had to dig their own graves before they were killed; the bodies of others were left where they fell. The term killing fields came into popular usage after the release of the film of the same name, which included scenes depicting these events.

At least 1.7 million perished in this hell on earth.

Following the Vietnamese invasion on 25 December 1978, the Khmer Rouge were forced back into the jungles of the north-west and a new government was installed. In the chaos of 1979, the exhausted population suffered further as the limited stocks of rice were consumed and little was grown to replenish them.

In a television programme made in 1979, Australian journalist John Pilger reported on what he found in Cambodian in the months following the Vietnamese invasion. Watch Year Zero: The Silent Death Of Cambodia on Vimeo.

The Aftermath

After an international relief effort Cambodia was left to attempt to struggle back on to its own feet. The West viewed Vietnam as the aggressor and the Khmer Rouge as Cambodia's legitimate government. The former Soviet Union and its allies gave some assistance, but even this dried up in the late 1980s and early 1990s as communism collapsed in the USSR and Eastern Europe. It was not until after the signing of the Paris Peace Agreement in 1991 that large-scale international development assistance and some business investment began. Only in 1993 was the repatriation of 360,000 Cambodian refugees in Thailand completed.

Pol Pot died in 1998 before he could be arrested and brought to trial.

The trial of Kaing Khek Ieu (also known as Duch), the director of S-21, took place in a joint United Nations-Cambodia tribunal in 2009. During the trial Duch read out an apology, in which he stated, "I would like to clarify the crimes committed at the S-21 prison. I admit my legal responsibility for everything that took place there, especially the torture and killing. I would like to apologise to all surviving victims and their families who were mercilessly killed at S-21. I say that I am sorry now, and I beg all of you to consider this wish. I wish that you would forgive me for the taking of lives, especially women and children, which I know is too serious to be excused. It is my hope, however, that you would at least leave the door open for forgiveness."

While living under an assumed name, Duch became a Christian in 1995. He was tracked down and identified by journalist Nic Dunlop in 1999. "I told Nic Dunlop, 'Christ brought you to meet me,'" Duch said at his trial. "I said, 'Before I used to serve human beings, but now I serve God.'"

After being exposed by Nic Dunlop, Duch turned himself in to police and was held in custody for 11 years before coming to trial.

In July 2010 Duch was sentenced to 35 years in prison for war crimes and crimes against humanity. The sentence was reduced by 11 years in compensation for the time Duch spent in pre-trial detention and five years in recognition of his co-operation with the court, so he will spend 19 years in prison.

Kaing Khek Ieu [Photo: Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia]

The first stage of the trial of three Khmer Rouge leaders, Nuon Chea (‘Brother No. 2′), Khieu Samphan (head of state) and Ieng Sary (foreign minister) began in November 2011. Ieng Sary’s wife Ieng Thirith (social affairs minister) was to have been tried at the same time but was deemed unfit to stand trial as she was suffering from Alzheimer’s disease. Ieng Sary died in March 2013. On 7 August 2014, Nuon Chea and Khieu Samphan were found guilty of crimes against humanity and sentenced to life imprisonment. At the conclusion of the second stage of their trial on 16 November 2018, they were found guilty of genocide and further crimes against humanity and were again sentenced to life imprisonment.

It is thought unlikely that any further trials will take place.