A single photograph led me to the "technician" of Cambodia's holocaustby Nic Dunlop / August 20, 2002 / Leave a comment
He looks directly ahead, his eyes betraying nothing. He may be smiling, but it’s hard to say. He sits behind a microphone addressing a meeting of Khmer Rouge cadre. I look at the picture and wonder what he’s talking about; whether he’s lecturing his staff on the purity of the revolution or perhaps instructing them how to extract confessions.
The photograph is of Comrade Duch, commandant of Tuol Sleng prison. During the Khmer Rouge regime, from 1975 to 1979, more than 2m people died from starvation, overwork, disease and execution. As head of the special branch, Duch was personally responsible for the extermination of 20,000 men, women and children. He was the principal link between Khmer Rouge strategy and the mechanics of mass murder. He was Pol Pot’s chief executioner.
Tuol Sleng, a former high school, sits in the heart of the capital, Phnom Penh. The prison is now a museum where the mugshots of Comrade Duch’s victims are displayed in the same rooms in which they were interrogated. The museum contains thousands of documents in which Duch orders executions and details gruesome methods of torture. One memo asks him what to do with nine children held at the prison. Duch has scrawled across it, “kill them all.”
I first went to Cambodia in 1989 and spent the next ten years crossing the country, taking photographs. Every time I went to Phnom Penh, I visited Tuol Sleng. I would pore over the photographs of Duch’s victims. I would look at the faces and try to make the connection with what had happened to them. Then I would travel to a new part of the country, visit the local killing ground, and take my own pictures.
I had been familiar with the photograph of Duch since my school days in England. Crudely reproduced and blown up so that the mid-tones had been obliterated, it seemed to belong to a long forgotten history. There was a time when I shuddered to look at it. Then I began to carry it everywhere I went in Cambodia.
With the civil war ending in 1998 and new parts of the country opening up, I thought I’d show his photo to Cambodians I met and see if anyone recognised him. Even if by chance someone did, I knew they would be reluctant to speak. He was a terrifying figure. As a fighting force, the Khmer Rouge no longer existed, but former members were everywhere-working as government officials, army officers, village leaders. As one local official said to me: “They are all around us; we live among the tigers.”
There were many rumours about Duch, including that he had been killed or was working under a pseudonym for an aid agency. Then, in early 1999, on assignment in western Cambodia, I hitched a ride into the former Khmer Rouge region of Samlot with members of a landmine removal squad. As they sat down to a meeting with local leaders, I wandered over to a group of people in hammocks beside the district office.
I was talking to an amputee Khmer Rouge soldier when a short, wiry man appeared, wearing a white T-shirt emblazoned with the initials ARC (American Refugee Committee). Shaking my hand, he politely introduced himself in perfect English as Hang Pin. He was a born-again Christian who had been working for American aid organisations since 1997. He took a keen interest in my Leica, asking me how much it cost. Using this opportunity to photograph the people in the group, I caught him in the frame. Large ears, bad teeth, cropped hair-he had aged a little, but the likeness to the photograph tucked in my back pocket was unmistakeable. Hang Pin was Comrade Duch.
It was a photographer who had first exposed Tuol Sleng prison to the world. On 7th January 1979, arriving with the Vietnamese army hours after the Khmer Rouge had fled, Ho Van Tay took his cameras into the deserted city of Phnom Penh. Wandering across Monivong bridge, Van Tay smelt what he described as “a formidable stench.”
For three and a half years, Phnom Penh had been a ghost town. The Khmer Rouge entered the city in 1975 and declared “Year Zero,” evacuating the entire population. When Van Tay arrived, the back streets were strewn with the debris of looted buildings. Traffic lights were jammed on red. Cars were swept into huge piles. Dishwashers, fridges and other “reactionary” appliances lay strewn through the empty streets. In the central bank, a cheque lay on the counter, undisturbed since its owner had fled. Made out to “cash,” it was dated 17th April, 1975.
Van Tay followed the stench and came to a former school house. Above the entrance hung a sign in Khmer that read: “Fortify the Spirit of the Revolution!” He was at the gates of Tuol Sleng. Peering through windows, he saw the source of the stench. Corpses in varying stages of decomposition were chained to iron bedsteads. Documents were scattered about, amid tufts of hair and inch-deep pools of semi-dried blood. Whips, saws and axes lay on the tables. In another building, he found busts of Pol Pot. He picked his way past the bodies, taking pictures as he went.
When I first arrived at Tuol Sleng, ten years after Ho Van Tay, it was empty save for a few guides who waved me in at the entrance. I went to the first building that Van Tay had approached in 1979 and, like him, peered inside. There in the room was one of the same beds. Above it was a Van Tay photograph-a corpse stiff with rigor mortis, its hand outstretched.
Under the guidance of the occupying Vietnamese, the prison had been turned into a museum and had opened to the public in 1980. The ground floor of the first building, building “A,” was where most of the interrogations had taken place and where high-ranking prisoners were confined. The ground floors of buildings “B” and “C” were where other prisoners were held. Here, the photographs were displayed. To the Khmer Rouge inner circle, Tuol Sleng was referred to merely as “S-21,” and prisoners were neak thos or “guilty persons.” To workers in the Tuol Sleng district, S-21 was known as konlaenh choul min dael chenh: the place where people go in but never come out.
Thousands of faces now adorned the walls-men, women, children, Muslims, Christians and foreigners. In some pictures, the prisoners had attempted to smile, as if the photographer might somehow take pity and spare them. Others had received blows, their faces bloodied and swollen. One shirtless boy had his number pinned onto the skin of his chest.
Returning over the years I would flick through the original negatives in the archives. These were the only lasting traces that these people had left, before being “smashed to bits” (as one guard reported to Duch). I realised I was seeing the world according to the faceless Angka-“the organisation”-as the Khmer Rouge leadership called itself. When the victims looked ahead, they were looking at their tormentors. I began to take photographs of the photographs.
Comrade Duch was born Kaing Guek Eav in Kompong Thom province in 1942. He was the eldest and only son of a family of five. Eav’s family lived in the kind of poverty from which most of the Khmer Rouge were recruited. Kompong Thom was also the home of Pol Pot, “the Original Khmer” as he called himself. It was this heartland of Cambodia that, from 1969 to 1973, was devastated by B-52s sent on the secret orders of Nixon and Kissinger to bomb North Vietnamese troops-a calamity that the Khmer Rouge exploited to attract recruits.
At the age of 15, the bright young Eav left home to study at the college in Kompong Thom town and from there he made his way to university in Phnom Penh. A thin, intense figure, Eav was quickly marked out as a leader. He “fixated on studying almost to the point of sickness,” one contemporary recalled. In 1960, Eav went on to the prestigious Lycee Sisowath in Phnom Penh, where he continued to excel. He came second in the entire country in his maths exams.
By 1963, he was studying for his teaching certificate at the Pedagogical Institute, a cradle of activism. It was here that Eav was introduced to the Communist Party of Cambodia-later known as the Khmer Rouge-by a man named Chhay Kim Hour. They became close friends. About 15 years later, Chhay Kim Hour arrived blindfolded at the gates of Tuol Sleng. He was taken in by his former protege and executed.
Posted as a maths teacher to a college in Kompong Cham province in the early 1960s, Eav came of age in an increasingly unstable Cambodia. The country’s leader, Prince Sihanouk, tried to juggle the interests of the communist bloc and the US, playing one against the other in an attempt to keep Cambodia from being dragged into the escalating conflict in neighbouring Vietnam. Much to US anger, he had secretly allowed the North Vietnamese to ferry supplies down the Ho Chi Minh trail, which ran through Cambodia. It proved a disastrous gamble.
Eav despised the feudal rule of Prince Sihanouk. Nevertheless, he was a beneficiary of Sihanouk’s reform of the education system, which had been neglected under French rule. More students were created than the country could use, producing an educated generation whose prospects were bleak. The youths who left their villages to attend college became detached from the traditional Cambodia of their parents. They became a breeding ground for revolution.
Eav used his teacher’s salary to help his poorer pupils. “Everyone respected him,” said a former student, who remembered Eav as “very patient and gentle.” When a peasant uprising in Samlot was brutally crushed by Sihanouk in 1967, Eav found himself on the frontline. More than 1,000 people were killed. Human heads were mounted on stakes outside Battambang city as a warning to others who dared defy the state. By now Eav’s support for the Khmer Rouge was fanatical and he sent a group of his students to agitate in Kompong Cham town in 1967. Three of the students were arrested and jailed before Eav himself was tracked down and arrested.
Early last year, I sought out Duch’s mother and sisters, still living in Kompong Thom, to ask them what had happened to him in prison. I didn’t tell them I had recently been responsible for tracking him down. The old woman, her hair shaven in the traditional Khmer manner, scrutinised the picture I had taken of Duch. She recalled how he had once fallen sick as a child, while life was particularly hard. “I was frightened,” she said. “He was my only son.”
“Was he tortured in prison?” I asked.
“I did not dare ask,” she replied.
“But if you looked at him, his face, his expression, do you think he was angry?”
The conversation was clumsy and went nowhere. Eav’s incarceration 37 years ago was a memory that his family had long stored away. But was the torturer tortured? I put the question to a former Khmer Rouge commander. “Of course,” he said.
Eav was released in 1970, after Marshal Lon Nol overthrew Sihanouk in a CIA-sponsored coup. The war against the Khmer Rouge and the North Vietnamese now began in earnest. Lon Nol announced a general amnesty for hundreds of political prisoners in an attempt to counter hostility to his takeover. Eav was one of them. He returned to visit his mother in Kompong Thom, now devastated by American bombs, and then left to work in Phnom Penh; or so his family thought. “Then the fighting started and no one could get in or out,” said his sister. That was the last time the family saw Kaing Guek Eav. Five years later he would return as Comrade Duch.
In late 1991, after saving up to buy new camera equipment, I returned to Phnom Penh to find an air of frenzied optimism. I was there to witness the triumphant return of Prince Sihanouk after 13 years of exile, an event that augured peace for many older Cambodians. The US-led embargo had been lifted. People were talking excitedly about the end of the war and the arrival of the UN peacekeepers. Having been liberated from the Khmer Rouge by the Vietnamese in 1979, Cambodia had found itself under occupation. Throughout the 1980s, from bases in Thailand, the Khmer Rouge fought back until the Vietnamese withdrawal in 1989 and the signing of the 1991 Paris Peace Accords. The ensuing UN peace would finally culminate in elections and an end to the war. I set out to record the peace process from the viewpoint of the poor in the countryside, the communities where the Khmer Rouge had come from.
Phnom Penh was booming. Shops burst onto the streets. Cambodians again embraced the free market. Expatriates returned eager to invest. Cars appeared on the streets and construction sites emerged in dilapidated corners of the city. The Australians installed a telephone system and I made my first call to London from the central post office. Aid agencies were everywhere. With the influx of money, Cambodia’s endemic corruption took on a new lease of life.
In the countryside, however, nothing much had changed and the ceasefire was not holding. It was at this time that the Khmer Rouge attacked villages near Kompong Thom, causing 11,000 people to flee.
Returning to Tuol Sleng, I noticed a change. Guides sat in the shade waiting for visitors to pay a $5 fee (previously it had been free). The main office had been turned into a gift shop selling Cambodian scarves, Coke, pirated copies of the film The Killing Fields and Khmer Rouge money (which they had printed but never issued). Amputees guarded the prison entrance, begging from tourists as they came in.
Tuol Sleng was already an important stop for travellers on their way to the temples of Angkor. Later, it would be in all the guidebooks. Tours would make a day of visiting the horrors of “Pol Pot time.” You would be dropped at the museum and afterwards you could lunch at a nearby Spanish restaurant that had once been used for holding prisoners between torture sessions. Your bus would then take you out to the killing ground of Choeung Ek and back for a buffet dinner on the river front.
I wandered through the empty rooms and scanned the faces. One photograph in particular had always struck me. It is of a mother cradling her baby. Expressionless, she sits in front of the lens, resigned to her fate. Her hair is cut in a Khmer Rouge bob, her shirt the standard black. Her eyes are swollen from crying. A placard with Khmer writing hangs around her neck. She was Chan Kim Srun, wife of the Khmer Rouge deputy minister of foreign affairs.
It is difficult to think of the prisoners of Tuol Sleng as anything but innocent victims. In fact, S-21 was created for rooting out enemies from within the party. The majority of prisoners were from their own ranks-a fact that now adds an unwelcome moral complication. Among the photographs are interrogators from the prison itself, their roles drastically reversed in one of the many purges. Divisions between the guilty and the innocent break down.
During the Khmer Rouge time, one man was responsible for both the photographs in Tuol Sleng and the few pictures taken of Duch himself. In the mid-1990s, a thick-set Khmer Rouge fighter called Nhem Ein emerged from the jungles of north-western Cambodia to surrender to government forces. Over one shoulder he carried a rifle and backpack; over the other, a battered camera. Ein told reporters that he had travelled to Shanghai to train as a photographer in 1976. But he didn’t tell them why. Ein had worked for Duch in S-21 and stuck with the Khmer Rouge almost until the end. “Ein is a terrible, terrible man,” said my fixer, Sok Sin, as we sped around Siem Reap in early 2001. “Charul kluon do howie,” he added. “Old Khmer Rouge cannot turn back.”
The son of a poor farmer from Kompong Chhnang, Ein joined the revolution in 1970 at the age of ten. It was his photographs of prisoners from Tuol Sleng that came to symbolise the Cambodian holocaust. The Khmer Rouge made him a photographer and his portraits of the condemned made me one too, in recoil from the uses to which photography could be put. There was no artistry in his work. It was an extension of torture, nothing more.
When, in 1997, his pictures were exhibited in New York’s Museum of Modern Art, accompanied by a book, The Killing Fields, I wondered whether their meaning was lost. In a gallery, they become aesthetic studies first and evidence of mass murder second. In Tuol Sleng, most of the images were taken with a white sheet as a backdrop which left them without context, as though in a void between life and death. More than 20 years after the horror, this allows us to view them simply as portraiture. The violent images (of which there are only a few) were not included in the Moma exhibition-a man whose head had been smashed by a shovel; or a series of pictures of a man dying in a room scattered with papers and files, his face a mess of semi-congealed blood.
Nhem Ein was short and tough. His obsequious grin sparkled gold as he grabbed my hand. He knew the prospect of money when he saw it. Ein’s pictures have been reproduced in books and shown in galleries worldwide. He has been published in the New York Times, the Telegraph and many magazines. He wore a white shirt, two pens in his pocket (a sign of rank in the Khmer Rouge) and baggy trousers. He asked me for $300 for an hour of his time. I bargained it down to $50. When I photographed him, he looked intensely into the lens. Only then could I imagine him in his black Khmer uniform and Mao hat.
Nhem Ein first met Duch in 1976. “He looked like a humble person,” Ein recalled, “but I knew that he was a right-hand man of Pol Pot.” Six months later, after training in China, Ein returned to work in Tuol Sleng. Here in the deserted capital, looting by the party was sanctioned. “We just took chemicals and paper and film from the shops,” he grinned.
When the prisoners arrived, they were registered by a clerk and their vital statistics recorded. Ein then photographed them. Some were pictured in the slow process of dying. In one series, a shackled man tries to crawl away from his tormentors, sliding in a pool of his blood. One day Ein’s own cousin appeared in front of his lens; there was, Ein said, nothing he could do.
Duch regarded Ein as a favourite. “I had a problem when I printed a photograph I had taken of Pol Pot. It had a black mark on it. I was afraid I would be taken away.” People were often killed for far lesser crimes. It was likely that Duch intervened.
“I would go to Duch’s house at his command and photograph him with his daughter. He would hold her and kiss her and, although he was strict, he was very good with her. When I took the pictures I was scared,” he said. Duch would have made sure that the photographs of him and his daughter were destroyed. Some 6,000 negatives have survived from the prison but there are only two of Duch, the one that I had and another where he is overseeing a prison meal.
Ein had given up photography and was now running for governor in the former Khmer Rouge stronghold of Anlong Veng. He must have known that if there was a trial of Khmer Rouge leaders he would be a witness. His photographic archive is likely to be primary evidence, a thought that doesn’t seem to bother him. He showed me his own mugshot from Tuol Sleng that he kept in his wallet. Then I gave him the money. With a grin, he asked for more. I gave him an extra five dollars. I felt like washing my hands.
As I stood before Comrade Duch early in 1999 and took my own photograph of him, I avoided singling him out. I didn’t know what kind of influence he wielded in the district and had no intention of confronting him at the time.
A week later, back in Bangkok, I called Nate Thayer, the last western journalist to have met Pol Pot before his death in 1998, and told him my story. It was clear that I had to go back and question Duch, and give him the opportunity to defend himself. Nate asked me if he could come along. Reluctant to return to Samlot alone, and apprehensive about confronting Duch, I agreed.
We found Duch chatting with a man in Khmer Rouge uniform. Giving me a toothy grin, Duch stood up, shook my hand and asked after my health. We asked him general questions about life in the district and he told us of his conversion to Christianity. He produced two laminated certificates from seminars at American evangelical churches which applauded his “deepening commitment to Jesus Christ.”
He went on to tell us of his life in another part of the country where there was a bandit problem. There, in 1995, his wife had been bayoneted to death. Suffering minor injuries, he returned to Samlot. He was a teacher again, and had become head of education for the district. He had plans to build a school and, one day, a church.
Then Nate said: “I believe that you also worked with the security services during the Khmer Rouge period.” Duch replied that he worked with the ministry of education translating children’s textbooks. Twice again Nate confronted him and Duch deflected. Then he glanced at Nate’s business card. A concentrated expression appeared on his face and he turned to me. “I believe, Nic, that your friend has interviewed Monsieur Ta Mok and Monsieur Pol Pot?”
“Yes,” I replied. “That’s right.”
There was a long pause. Then Duch exhaled deeply. “It is God’s will that you are here,” he said.
For the first time, Kaing Guek Eav, alias Comrade Duch, began to speak about his role in one of the bloodiest revolutions of the 20th century. “I have done very bad things in my life. Now it is time to bear the consequences of my actions. The first half of my life I will remember forever. Then I thought that God was very bad. I did not serve God, I served communism. I feel very sorry about the killings and the past.” He took off his glasses and looked up. “I did not get any pleasure from my work.”
We presented him with copies of confessions from the prison and he ran his finger over a handwritten sentence that read, “Use the hot method. Even if it kills him, it is OK.” Duch acknowledged that he wrote it. He spoke casually, as though this conversation were a continuation of the last. It occurred to me that Duch had been expecting this, that he had rehearsed for it.
In 1979, Duch was the last Khmer Rouge to leave Phnom Penh, departing an hour after the Vietnamese arrived. He had spent the previous night destroying much of the incriminating evidence from Tuol Sleng, burning thousands of documents and photographs. He personally executed the remaining prisoners. Then, passing Vietnamese tanks on the outskirts of the capital, he headed to the forested mountains and the Thai border. He ended up in Borai refugee camp in Thailand, which was controlled by the Khmer Rouge with limited access to outsiders. Here, he says, he worked closely with the UN Border Relief Operation and taught himself English.
Duch says he later became a health worker for an aid agency, the American Refugee Committee, which provided healthcare and training for refugees. He received a small salary as well as UN food. “We are in shock,” said an ARC official, on learning of Duch’s past. “He was our best worker, highly respected in the community, clearly very intelligent and dedicated to helping the refugees.” He had been instrumental in stemming a typhoid outbreak in the camp.
As commandant of Tuol Sleng, Duch had overseen the executions of several foreigners (one Briton, along with Canadians, Americans and Australians). Duch now openly acknowledge that their bodies had been burned so that no bones were left. “I remember well the Englishman,” he recalled. “He was very polite.”
This was John Dewhurst, a 25-year-old teacher from Newcastle who was captured by the Khmer Rouge in 1978 while on holiday in the Gulf of Thailand. His handwritten confession survived and reads, “I am a CIA agent who officially works as a teacher in Japan. I was born in Newcastle-on-Tyne on October 2nd 1952. My father was a CIA agent whose cover was headmaster of Benton Road secondary school.” He was held for a month and subjected to torture by electric wires by the chief interrogator, Mam Nay, who now lives in seclusion in western Cambodia.
As Duch reflected on his role, he described himself as “a technician for the communist party.” We asked him about how confessions were extracted. “I knew from experience that if they were only tortured they wouldn’t say anything. So torture had to be accompanied by psychological tactics. I told them that they would be released if they talked. This was a lie, but it worked. We had instructions from the party on how to kill them. Usually we slit their throats.” He looked down, murmuring. “We killed them like chickens.”
“After my experience, I decided that I must give my spirit to God,” Duch told us. “For the future I want three things: schools for the children, for my stomach to be full and to finish my life praying to God. I guess I will go to jail now, but it is OK. The killings must be understood. The truth should be known.”
He then revealed something that had never been formally established before: the Khmer Rouge’s policy of mass murder. “Whoever was arrested had to die. It was the rule of our party,” he told us. This had been implemented early in the revolution, before Pol Pot took power. He named names, establishing a chain of command and responsibility for the killings. “I want to explain clearly. It was the decision of the central committee. I followed the orders of my superiors. But I have great difficulty in my life, thinking that the people who died did nothing wrong.” His attitude contrasted sharply with the arrogance and grudging apologies offered by other former Khmer Rouge leaders. Possibly, it contained genuine remorse.
At one point, Duch lowered his voice to a whisper. “Does anyone know of this? That you are here? That you know who I am?” We replied that only we knew. “You must leave now,” he told us. This was either a command or a caution. I began to ponder the wisdom of telling him that we were alone, when a UN LandCruiser pulled up opposite us. We said an abrupt goodbye. As the car pulled away, I saw him remove his ARC T-shirt as he disappeared into his shack.
When the news finally broke that he had been discovered, Duch disappeared. For two days there was speculation about his whereabouts. Rumour spread that he had been assassinated by someone on the orders of the leaders in “retirement.” Then Duch gave himself up. He was flown to a high security prison in Phnom Phen to be formally charged and await trial.
In February this year, the UN withdrew from negotiations with Cambodia over a trial of the Khmer Rouge because Cambodian law did not guarantee sufficient impartiality for a fair trial. Many believe that a chance for justice for the victims of the genocide is slipping away. It is almost certain that Duch and Ta Mok (the only other Khmer Rouge leader to be held) will never be freed. But it is still just possible they will face trial. In early July, Hun Sen, the prime minister, signalled that he would be prepared to allow UN participation in a trial.
It is said that Duch now feels resentment over his arrest when so many other Khmer Rouge walk free. Since his incarceration, his lawyer has said that Duch was simply following orders, under pain of his own death. I can’t be sure, but it sounds like his conversion wasn’t as sincere as I wanted to believe. Christianity may merely have provided him with a framework to help him face his past. But I don’t believe he would have confessed without it, and I fear that an opportunity for a more detailed confession has been lost.
My sense of purpose in visiting, and revisiting, Tuol Sleng has given way to inertia, a sense of helplessness at the enormity of what took place in Cambodia. It has been 23 years since the Khmer Rouge genocide was made known to the world. Would a full account from Duch’s lips make any difference?
At my home in Bangkok, there is a framed print of Chan Kim Srun and her baby as they arrived at Tuol Sleng in 1978. It was this picture that haunted me as a teenager and, again, as I set foot in the prison in 1989. The pictures I took of Duch are in a drawer. If I look closely at them, I can just make out the reflection of my silhouette in his eyes. I look at Kim Srun’s eyes as she looks back at her tormentors, and I see nothing.