When the Khmer Rouge took control of the capital in 1975, they issued an announcement to Phnom Penh residents to vacate the city for three days. Mak Remissa, who was 7 at that time, remembers his family denying the orders and hiding in their house to wait it out. He recalls peeping out through a hole in the wall, seeing soldiers and chaos outside. Scared of repercussions, his family eventually left the city, heading down south to his father’s home village.
We cannot keep the memory of it everyday, but we also cannot forget.
“They told us that we were only supposed to be away for three days, but of course, they lied,” says Remissa. The situation quickly deteriorated, and his family was split up – his father was sent to prison, his mother was sent off to a women’s camp and his elder sister was sent to work. Remissa, whose mother had given to another family in the village to look away, was safe and remained in their care.
When the regime ended in 1979, information on the whereabouts of families was scarce. Remissa’s reunion with his mother and sister was largely coincidental. He never saw his father again.
“We don’t know what happened to him. One aunt told us that she saw him being led away by a solider. He had told her to relay a message to my mother that he was okay. Another relative said that he was caught trying to dig a tunnel out of the prison. I think he was killed, and yet I still keep some hope in my heart that he is alive because I don’t know,” says Remissa.
A photojournalist with EPA with an art background, Remissa works on personal projects that have a lot of symbolic meaning pertaining to his country. Left Three Days is his project in commemoration of the 40th anniversary of the fall of Phnom Penh. “The story of the Khmer Rouge is very big, so I try to do only a small part of it based on my own memories,” he says.
Cambodia is moving on from the atrocities of its past, but the scars remain and the country’s artists are confronting these painful memories. Doing this project brought up a lot of raw feelings, which Remissa poured into his photographs. Often overwhelmed and in tears, he wasn’t sure he could complete the project and it took 5 months to finish. When he showed the work to his mother, she started to cry. Remissa tried to explain that it is just a piece of paper, but she couldn’t stop.
Remissa is sanguine about it, “We cannot keep the memory of it everyday, but we also cannot forget. I think this is my country’s story, and if everyone forgets, we lose our story.”
The Left Three Days exhibition opening is on tonight at King’s Road Angkor, starting from 6pm.