The discovery of more than 1,200 photographs of former prisoners at a notorious Khmer Rouge torture jail has raised hopes that more Cambodians could learn their relatives' fate, researchers said Thursday.
The collection of passport-sized images contains previously unseen portraits of inmates held at S-21 prison in Phnom Penh, said Youk Chhang, director of the Documentation Centre of Cambodia (DC-CAM), which researches atrocities committed by the hardline communist regime in the late 1970s.
"We believe this is new data that can help survivors locate lost relatives," Youk Chhang told AFP at his office, describing the batch of pictures as an "extremely important" find.
Only a handful of the 15,000 inmates survived S-21, also known as Tuol Sleng, now a genocide museum where hundreds of black-and-white photos of people awaiting certain death are on display.
Unlike the pictures that are already known, most of the newly discovered head shots contain handwritten information on the back, such as the person's name and details of their arrest.
"Each photo speaks," Youk Chhang said, pointing out a picture of an elderly monk, and another of a terrified-looking young boy apparently found hiding in the jungle.
Youk Chhang said a woman, who did not wish to be identified, donated the photos to his organisation after hearing this week of a newly uncovered mass grave in northwest Cambodia thought to contain the remains of hundreds of Khmer Rouge victims.
The images have been in her possession since 1992 when, according to Youk Chhang, she took them from her government office as the country was preparing for UN-backed elections because she feared officials would destroy Khmer Rouge archives in the name of peace and reconciliation.
She was also hoping to find her own missing father among the photos, though Youk Chhang said she had not had the courage to look through all of them.
"She thought if she couldn't find her own father, the pictures could help others," he said.
The Khmer Rouge wiped out up to two million people through starvation, overwork or execution in a bid to forge a communist utopia.
Hundreds of thousands of families were torn apart and it is not uncommon for survivors to still be looking for missing loved ones.
The DC-CAM plans to scan the newly found images and post them online as well as donate a set to the S-21 museum, Youk Chhang said.
The names of those identified will also be added to a book the DC-CAM is compiling listing people confirmed to have died under the regime. It has collected nearly a million names already.