Is it okay to take photographs of a mass grave? Is it morally acceptable for a tourist to record images of human remains? Does it demonstrate a lack of respect? These are questions we needed to ask ourselves today as we visited two of the most significant sites in the history of Cambodia: Tuol Seng Prison and the Killing Fields of Choueng Ek.
Less than thirty-five years ago, the tyrannical Pol Pot presided over a period of torture, oppression and genocide which decimated the population of Cambodia. Unthinkable horrors were perpetrated against anyone who opposed or were considered to be a threat to Pot's Khmer Rouge regime. At least 1.8 million people (a quarter of the population) were simply exterminated. Yet somehow, against the background of the Vietnam War, the situation in Cambodia has largely escaped the notice of the Western world. The name of Pol Pot may be familiar to many back home, but the real story of the Khmer Rouge is less so.
And so to answer my initial questions: yes, I think it's perfectly acceptable to take images away from these sites which can be shared with friends, family and anyone else who has any interest in humanity. I'll publish the photographs I took on here and on Facebook and I sincerely hope that those of you who see them will recoil in horror, cry in sympathy and maybe even do something to help.
Due to a shared border, Cambodia was sucked into the Vietnam conflict in the late sixties. US troops carpet-bombed areas of the country in an effort to flush out Viet Cong who were hiding there and eventually invaded Cambodia (along with Southern Vietnamese troops). This effort failed, and Cambodian communists joined forces with their Vietnamese allies. Fierce fighting ensued, and only ended when Cambodia's capital, Phnom Penh, fell to Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge on April 17th 1975.
What followed was one of the world's most brutal and bloody revolutions. Declaring a new 'Year Zero', Pot abolished money, forced the people to abandon the cities in favour of the countryside, declared war on religion and free-thinking and attempted to set up a whole new system of oppressive rule centred around farming and 'co-operation'.
In order to achieve this end, the vast majority of Cambodia's educated people were systematically eradicated. Those who wore glasses were killed. Schoolteachers and academics were massacred. Those whose hands were not calloused by manual labour were murdered.
A truly stomach-churning visit to Tuol Seng prison emphasised exactly how bad the suffering had been. Formerly a school, the site was transformed into a hell on earth where humans were kept in battery-hen conditions. Systematic torture was commonplace, with all variety of implements used to inflict pain and suffering still on display. Water torture, drowning and beatings were commonplace and at one point an average of a hundred people died each day within the prison walls. Some cells remain untouched - rusty iron beds covered in shackles are a poignant reminder of the hurt inflicted. Darkened patches on the floor show where blood was spilled. Harrowing black and white images of prison 'mug-shots' give way to images of bleeding and starving inmates. When these photos are replaced by pictures of disfigured corpses it is difficult not to feel squeamish.
Only a small proportion of the prison's inmates died in detention. The vast majority - thought to be around 17,000 - were transferred to the Killing Field at Chuoeng Ek. Here they were slaughtered and buried in mass graves. I don't think I've ever seen anything which affected me so much. Around half of the graves have been excavated and the bodies they contained preserved and encased in a white stupa. This tower contains approximately nine-thousand skulls and other bones. It's possible to see the cause of death on most of them - rather than wasting valuable bullets the Khmer Rouge usually used blunt instruments, axes or knives to inflict fatal head wounds.
A walk around the site is even more harrowing. Each crater in the ground used to be full of corpses: some headless, some filled with women. As you move between these unmarked graves, items of clothing and even bones can be seen poking up through the ground - as the rain washes away the topsoil more and more human remains are revealed. Definitely the most upsetting sight is that of a tree which the Khmer Rouge used to commit infanticide: children and babies were swung head first by their legs into the trunk of the tree until their bodies fell limp. They were then thrown in a nearby grave. Close by was another tree which used to have a speaker dangling from it so that music could be played to drown out the sounds of murder and torture.
Everyone in Cambodia has been affected in some way: most people directly. Our tuk-tuk driver told us how his family were 'disappeared' for 'further education' never to be seen again. A whole generation of teachers, academics and scholars has only just begun to be replaced. The spectre of the Khmer Rouge looms large - justice has yet to be served on those behind the atrocities. Pol Pot died before he ever went to trial: a source of bitter and understandable resentment. But the Cambodians are resolute and good humoured - it's testament to them that less than forty years on they are capable of being such gracious, smiling people.