morbid fascination – trial of Khmer rouge leader Comrade Duch

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In part of Phnom Penh that I know quite well, there is an old technical college that in recent years has become a museum. Prior to that it was a prison, known as S-21 where somewhere between 12,000 and 16,000 people lived their final days in agony and terror.

I use it as a navigation point, one of my favourite guest houses is best found by directing moto drivers to ‘Tuol Sleng museum’. Tuol Sleng is the only museum of genocide that I have ever seen.

It stands as a grisly but necessary reminder of Cambodia’s not too distant past, when 1.7 million people met their deaths at the hands of the Khmer Rouge.

Kang Kek Iew, aka Comrade Duch was the head of the KR’s special branch, and as such he headed up the Tuol Sleng prison, where many prisoners were tortured and interrogated, before being taken to nearby killing fields to be executed. Photographs and records kept by Duch and his regime still remain in the museum, along with the remains of many of the dead.

As the guy in charge of the executions, some estimates suggest that Duch is responsible for 12,000 or more deaths.

Right now Duch is on trial, and has just taken part in a reconstruction walk around Tuol Sleng, where he was confronted with the evidence of his heinous crimes, and according to reports, wept and prayed for the souls of the departed.

Duch is a fascinating character study. In the first place, it is recorded that during the 1990s he became a born again Christian, and according to some reports began a prolific church planting ministry. Certainly when Duch was found by journalists, he was working for World Vision, the Christian development and relief agency, based in Battambang, in the North West of the country.

Secondly Duch is the only ex KR leader to have come clean and confessed his part in the atrocities. Pol Pot died years ago, and most of those who are accused hide behind claims that they didnt know what was going on, ‘it was all down to Pol Pot’.

Thirdly an amazing insight into Duch can be gained from the memoir of French anthropologist Francois Bizot, who was himself subject to imprisonment by Duch, in the jungles of Northern Cambodia. When he was released from his captivity, Bizot came to realise that he had Duch to thank for his release. Duch had become convinced of Bizot’s innocence, and such was his zeal for the justice of the revolution, he negotiated his release.

In his book ‘The Gate‘ Bizot writes about Duch: “This terrible man,was not duplicitous. All he had were principles and convictions: he was a pure, fervent idealist.”

It is amazing that this idealist, was the same man who enagaged in systematic torture of thousands, and oversaw the slaughter of many thousands more. The same man who instructed his soldiers to use baskets of spiders and scorpions to extract confessions. The same man who married a hairdresser. The same man who became a born again Christian and pastor. The same man who now defies all the threats against him and his family, in his determination to tell the truth at his trial. The same man who before his career as a toruturer and executioner was a mathematics professor…

“Duch oversaw a precise department of death. His guards dutifully photographed the prisoners upon arrival and photgraphed them at or near death, whether their throats were slit, their bodies otherwise mutilated, or so thin from torture and near starvation that they were beyond recognition. The photographs were part of the files to prove the enemies of the state had been killed. Duch even set aside specific days for killing various types of prisoners: one day the wives of “enemies”; another day the children; a different day, factory workers.” (From: ‘When the War Was Over‘ – by Elizabeth Becker)

That a man can be such a complex mixture of apparently contradictory motivations and behaviours defies explanation. I find it morbidly fascinating, and more than a little sobering.

If you are interested in reading something about Cambodia’s transition from the killing fields, to today’s trials, and the incredibly complex relationships that underpin it all, you could do worse than read this article, which was penned in 2000, but gives a chillingly accurate picture of life in Pailin, one of the last KR strongholds.

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