A Country in Shadows

It is the end of the world. Religion is outlawed, money abolished, schools closed, families torn apart.

Books are burned, doctors are killed, teachers and lawyers are killed, wearing glasses is enough to be killed. Prisoners dig their own graves and clubbed with shovels, stabbed with bamboo sticks, or just kicked to death. Those not killed quickly are killed slowly, worked to death in the rice fields with inadequate food or rest. This is Cambodia and even time has been killed; it is now Year Zero.

Year Zero was declared in 1975 when the Khmer Rouge overthrew the Cambodian government and the country was plunged into genocidal social engineering and ethnic cleansing only to reemerge when Vietnam forced the regime from power in 1979. When Cambodia awakened from this four year national nightmare their population had plummeted from 7 to 4.8 million. Those who survived inherited only the dirt under their feet. Families were broken, the economy shattered, and the educated and skilled class had been systematically executed. For those that survived it was Year Zero again.

Thirty-three years later the Khmer Rouge’s shadow still lies across Cambodia’s schools, hospitals, markets and fields. In 2010 landmines claimed 286 victims of whom 80 were children. Over 25% of the country is illiterate and more than a third of all children are underweight and short for their age. With a life expectancy of 63 years and a per capita GDP of a little over a thousand US dollars, their neighbours in Thailand can expect to live eleven years longer and make over five times their income.

The Cambodian people are a resilient people and have been battered but unbroken, but the challenges ahead are many and their few resources are not to be overestimated. After the fall of the Khmer Rouge the old generation clawed out of the national grave and rebuilt their country. The new generation will have to build upon it but they are fortunate, it is Year 33. These photographs attempt to show the Cambodian people as they are today, still struggling to shed past nightmares in the cold light of a brightening dawn.

All images copyright © Nathan Meyer

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