It was Year Zero. Books were burned, religion outlawed, money abolished, schools closed, and teachers, doctors, and lawyers killed. Wearing glasses or speaking a foreign language was crime enough to merit death. Families were turned out of homes, cities emptied, and a nation was slowly worked to death in the paddy fields. Empty schools were made into prisons and suspected spies tortured in classrooms before being clubbed with shovels, stabbed with bamboo sticks, or kicked to death to save bullets. Infants’ heads were dashed against tree trunks so they could not live to avenge their parents. It was Year Zero; it was 1975.
The Khmer Rouge overthrew the Cambodian government in that year and by the time Vietnam forced the regime from power in 1979, Cambodia’s population had plummeted from seven to just 4.8 million people. Clawing out of this national grave, the Cambodian people found desolation in what the international community called peace- homes and lives destroyed, and families scattered or rotting in muddy killing fields. With the economy shattered and the educated and skilled classes reduced to bones in mass graves, those who survived the genocide inherited only the dirt under their feet. The Khmer Rouge was gone, but Cambodia had to start from scratch.
The Khmer Rouge’s reign of terror has left an indelible scar on Cambodia, and nowhere is it as clearly visible as in the lives of the country’s 5.5 million children. According to UNICEF, 38% of Cambodians are under the age of eighteen and almost half of them are malnourished and show signs of moderate to severe stunting.
One in ten children dies in infancy, with many dying from diarrhea, respiratory infections, and vaccine-preventable diseases. Of those who survive past age five nearly half are engaged in child labor, producing bricks, salt, and rubber, or working in quarries and scavenging refuse.
The International Labor Organization estimates the number of child domestic workers in Phnom Penh alone at 28,000. For girls the situation is even grimmer, with a third of Cambodia’s sex workers under the age of sixteen. The sale of virgin girls continue to be a serious problem, the UNHRC reports, as they are especially prized for supposed rejuvenating properties and lower HIV/AIDS risk. Such children are sold to Cambodian and foreign men (mostly Asian) for anywhere from $800 to $4,000; non-virgins may go for as little as $2 per transaction
Overall, education, health, and economic security remain elusive hopes for Cambodia’s 5.5 million children, while sickness, illiteracy, and exploitation are constant risks in a country where people struggle to survive on annual per capita income of a little over $1,000.
Three decades after the Khmer Rouge was driven from power to Cambodia’s border regions the country is struggling with few resources and severe challenges. These candid photographs show Cambodia’s children as they grow up in the enduring shadow of a national nightmare.
Surviving birth, Cambodian children can expect a life expectancy of only 63 years whereas if they were born in neighboring Vietnam they could expect to live to 75.
Though exact figures are impossible to come by leading human rights organizations estimate that there are as many as 30,000 child sex workers in Cambodia. In 2007 CNN reported on children as young as 6 sold to brothels for as little as $10 and often drugged for clients to ensure compliance.
It is not uncommon for Cambodian girls to be trafficked from poor rural areas to the larger cities of Phnom Penh and Siem Reap to work in brothels. Parents sometimes sell their children into these conditions to pay debts or buy food, other times girls are lured in by the promise of legitimate work like waitressing.
According to the Cambodia Child Labor Survey three-quarters of child laborers work because their family is poor and to supplement household income, but only 25 percent preferred their child to attend school fulltime.
Cambodia remains the world’s second most heavily landmined country with an estimated 10 million mines and buried explosives are found in nearly half of Cambodian villages. One-fifth of Cambodian children injured by landmines die from their wounds. Survivors are often permanently disabled and because children’s bones grow quicker than surrounding tissue landmine injuries frequently require repeated amputations.
ChildSafe International estimates Phnom Penh has 20,000 street children. The very young scavenge, beg, or work as vendors while older street children are frequently involved in hard labor, drug peddling, prostitution, and selling their blood.
Access to clean water remains a struggle for Cambodia’s overwhelmingly rural population. UNICEF estimates only 16 percent of those living in the countryside have access to adequate sanitation and only two of three have safe drinking water.
The future for Cambodia’s children is uncertain as the challenges are many and their few resources are not to be overestimated. Three decades after the Khmer Rouge’s fall Cambodia remains a country in shadows, scarred by a legacy of social engineering and genocide that persists today.