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…