Looking for Camp 32: a personal journey into Cambodia’s dark past

By Samaya Argüello

Camp 32 | Hom Chhorn

Known colloquially as the Land of Smiles, Cambodia is a place deeply affected by its dark past. Hidden behind the friendly facade are generations struggling to come to terms with the atrocities that the Khmer Rouge committed indiscriminately against its own population.

During the late 1970s, the Khmer Rouge party rose to power. Looking to create a communist utopia called Democratic Kampuchea where the population worked to sustain the Party and its principles of a shared agricultural economy, the Khmer Rouge set up forced labour camps where almost two to three million people lost their lives. These camps existed all over Cambodia and culminated in one of the world’s worst genocide acts, yet little is known about these camps and many are not officially documented.

Camp 32  is one man’s harrowing personal story of survival from 32, a labour camp deep in the Battambang province where the majority of the land is covered by jungle and mountainous ranges.

At just six years old, Hom Chhorn was imprisoned at Camp 32 and this experience shaped not only his life, but the life of his family who lost their father and brothers, murdered by the Khmer Rouge.

Setting out to understand his past so that it informs his future, Hom decides to locate Camp 32, a journey which is advised against by both his ailing mother and sister who remember only too well the violations that befell not only their family, but thousands of other families before and after them.

Hom is driven in part by the need to tell the story of the forgotten camp on behalf of his elderly mother before she passes, but also because he needs to seek answers to his own questions, especially given his young age and vulnerability when he was removed from the family and sent to the children’s labour section of the camp.

Camp 32 is as much a film about the personal quest of Hom in putting together stories and memories of his past as it is about the collective remembering of the abominations that were committed during the brutal reign of the Khmer Rouge.

Hom’s difficulty in locating official documentation from the Cambodian National Archives, the Library and even the United Nations about 32 highlights the inherent difficulties that survivors encounter when looking for information about a dark period in time that profoundly shaped their lives.

Hom’s desire to return to a place that was the source of such brutality and sadness in order to tell the story of his family, and indeed many other forgotten victims, is memorable and laudable.

Collective memory is often relied upon due to a lack of documentation, official or otherwise. The team behind the film are currently in the process of having Camp 32 officially recognised, something that will go some way toward acknowledging the horror of what occurred throughout the whole of Cambodia.

Unspeakable acts, horrific accounts of torture, and death of family members under the Khmer Rouge often make it difficult for survivors to vocalise their experiences, so Hom is considered extremely lucky when he is unexpectedly reunited with some of the children of 32.

The reunited friends provide further insight into life under the Khmer Rouge and it’s clear that there will always be an unbreakable bond between them due to their shared experiences as children trying to survive the horror of a totalitarian dictatorship that killed their families and friends.

Interspersed with footage of contemporary Cambodia and Hom’s family’s deeply personal accounts of life in the camp, the film captures the ever present dichotomy between good and evil, and a country of people that cannot move forward without understanding how its past contributes to their future.

Hom’s desire to return to a place that was the source of such brutality and sadness in order to tell the story of his family, and indeed many other forgotten victims, is memorable and laudable.

Given the brutality of the Khmer Rouge and the systematic genocide it committed, Camp 32 is unmissable viewing as it tells the tale of survivors, and in turn gives a voice to those victims who should not be forgotten or overlooked.


Find out more about Camp 32 here.