Photographer Amanda Mustard followed a long chain of contacts and helpers to arrive at her project on the survivors of the Nanjing Massacre. It started with her high school history teacher, who led her to read The Rape of Nanking by the late Iris Chang, whose mother would later help Mustard break down barriers and locate a handful of the last survivors of one of the most brutal chapters of World War II.

This Friday marks the 76th anniversary of the day Japan captured the then-capital of China and put its people to the sword. Some 300,000 people in the city died—most of them during the first six weeks of the occupation—according to Chinese estimates. There were international as well as Chinese witnesses to the unhinged grotesquerie of rape, lawlessness and murder, but to this day, Japan refuses to formally apologize. This intransigence has become a constant rallying cry for Chinese nationalists and an ongoing point of friction between two wary powers.

A crime on the scale of Nanjing is, at root, a constellation of individual tragedies. Which is why Mustard’s project, shot during the 75th anniversary last year, has such appeal. By the time Mustard flew from Cairo to Nanjing for this this work, only 200 survivors were still alive. It falls to them to keep the memory real, but in their old age, many face other challenges. They have been lauded as ‘war heroes’ by the Chinese government, which is keen to use them as reminders of Japan’s perfidy. But then there are stories like that of Cheng Yun, who is photographed below. His service as a Chinese solider in occupied Nanjing is celebrated at memorial events, but he has also been denied military pension benefits because he had been deemed anti-Communist earlier in life. At 93, he now survives by recycling bottles in a Nanjing slum, and is provided daily meals and care by his nephew. And so his story, like China’s, is still evolving, reminders not just of a terrible past, but also of a contemporary China that still struggles to provide dignity and freedom to all its people. The survivors of Nanjing have suffered too much to deserve anything less.

Only three of the Chinese military troops who survived the Japanese occupation of Nanjing are still alive. Li Gaoshan is one of them.
Cheng Yun’s ID shows that he graduated from Whampao Military Academy. But due to his anti-Communist past, Cheng, 92, is now classified as a farmer and not a soldier, so that he receives no pension.
In December 1937, Japanese forces first entered the city at Zhongshan Gate, the strongest point of defense in the old city walls of Nanjing.
Cao Zhikun barely escaped death with his family during Japanese occupation, and struggled for decades with both physical and mental scars.
Approximately 15,100 Chinese civilians and soliders were buried under a section of Xiuqui Park.
People’s Liberation Army and Navy troops stand with civilians at Nanjing’s Memorial Hall to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the Nanjing Massacre.
Survivor Cao Zhikun holds a portrait of his family taken two weeks before the massacre began.
Citizens cross the Yangtze River via ferry from the Zhongshan Wharf. An estimated 150,000 bodies were dumped in this stretch of river and embankment during the massacre.
The images of hundreds of survivors are illuminated at the Memorial Hall in Nanjing. As of 2012, less than 200 survivors remained.
Cheng Yun, a soldier who lived through the Japanese occupation, stands outside his home in Nanjing.
A rabbit in a Nanjing slum that was, before the Japanese invasion, a wealthy district.
Survivor Li Jun, his family, and 600 others took refuge in the yard of John Rabe, a German executive for Siemens and Nazi party member, who established the International Safety Zone in Nanjing, saving the lives of over 250,000 Chinese.
A statue in Memorial Hall of the late Iris Chang, a Chinese-American researcher and activist who wrote the seminal book “The Rape of Nanjing: The Forgotten Genocide of World War II”.