Charnel houses are monuments that serve as reminders that the physical world is fleeting, are shrines that honor patriotic sacrifice, places to commune with the dead, or memorialize the atrocities of genocide. The skull map of Cambodia at the Tuol Sleng Museum of Genocide that was made with the skulls of people who were executed by the Khmer Rouge was part of the latter category.
The Khmer Rouge, formally known as the Communist Party of Kampuchea in Cambodia, was the ruling party of Cambodia from 1975 to 1979. Pol Pot was the leader of the Khmer Rouge from 1963 to 1997, and the totalitarian dictator of Cambodia (or Democratic Kampuchea) from 1976 to 1979. The goal of the Khmer Rouge was to create an agrarian utopia through brutal social engineering policies. Party members forcibly evacuated people living in Phom Penh, the capital of Cambodia, and other cities and compelled people to work on farming collectives. The Khmer Rouge arrested, tortured, and executed intellectuals, ethnic minorities, those suspected of being traitors, and anyone accused of having connections to foreign governments. It’s estimated that between 1.4 million and 2.2 million people, about a fifth of the population of Cambodia, died between 1975 and 1979 from starvation, disease, and execution.
In order to interrogate, torture, and execute people, the Khmer Rouge constructed a series of prisons throughout the country-the most notorious of these was S-21. S-21 was a high school that the regime converted into an interrogation and torture center that was operated between 1976 and 1979. As many as 17,000 people were tortured and executed here-only a handful are known to have survived. When the prison ran out of space to bury its victims, guards transported prisoners to the Choeung Ek killing fields to be executed.
S-21 guards so thoroughly documented each captive’s interrogation that by the time the Khmer Rouge fled the country and the prison was discovered in 1979, there were thousands of pages of notes and disturbing photos of prisoners. The site was turned into the Tuol Sleng (translated as “Hill of Poisonous Tree”) Museum of Genocide and the sepia-toned walls of the museum were plastered with black and white pictures of captives who where interrogated and tortured.
In 1979 the workers at the Tuol Sleng Museum of Genocide wired together 300 soil-stained skulls to build a 129-square-foot map of Cambodia. The skull map was part of the museum for 23 years and was meant to be a reminder of the atrocities committed by the Khmer Rouge. The map was taken down in 2002, after a Buddhist ceremony, because the skulls started to decay. The skulls were placed in a glass case at the museum.
The Khmer Rouge survived well into the 1990’s, despite losing power in 1979. Thousands of former guerillas surrendered as part of an amnesty program and are fully integrated into society. Pol Pot formally dissolved the party in 1996 and died in 1998 without ever facing trial for atrocities (!!). The Khmer Rouge Tribunal, officially known as the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC), was established in 1997 as part of an agreement between the Royal Government of Cambodia and the UN to try the most senior members of the Khmer Rouge for crimes against humanity. The ECCC didn’t actually start work until 2006 due to years of disagreements between international donors and Cambodian officials over the court’s power and composition. Only a handful of senior Khmer Rouge officials, one of which was the man who ran S-21, have been charged with any crimes because the process has been so slow and flawed.