“They all had to be eliminated.”
A stunning and macabre tour of the Cambodian killing fields took place this week when one of Pol Pot’s chief executioners and author of the above quote re-enacted his crimes for the United Nations-backed tribunal judges currently trying five former Khmer Rouge leaders for their crimes against humanity.
Almost two million people perished in a communist holocaust of class hatred in Cambodia between 1975 and 1979, under one of the most savage regimes of the last century.
Kang Khek Ieu, 66, also known by his revolutionary name of "Duch" (pronounced Doik), oversaw the torture and murder of an estimated 17,000 people as head of the notorious Tuol Sleng prison in Phnom Penh, Cambodia’s capital.
This week, the former math teacher, who also headed Pol Pot’s secret police, led about eighty judges, witnesses and court officials back to the Cheong Ek killing field outside of Phnom Penh where the helpless and terrorized victims of S-21 (Tuol Sleng’s code name) were sadistically executed at night after being tortured. During their executions, Doik would sit on a mat and calmly smoke cigarettes. The kneeling prisoners were clubbed to death at the edge of mass graves to save bullets.
According to one report, Duch, whom American missionaries later converted to Christianity, wept twice in guilt and remorse for his victims at the Cheong Ek execution site. Cheong Ek, like Auschwitz, has been turned into a memorial visited by tourists. During the four-hour tour the former Khmer Rouge executioner, who was accompanied by four former S-21 guards, knelt and prayed before a tree, against the trunk of which, Duch explained, babies’ heads were bashed. Duch prayed once more before a large, glass-walled stupa (a round, Buddhist shrine) containing the skulls dug out of the Cheong Ek killing field.
Only six people slipped through Duch’s hands and escaped the pure terror and evil of S-21 alive. Many of its 17,000 victims were members of Cambodia’s educated class, whom the Khmer Rouge were determined to exterminate to bring about their radical, agrarian, Marxist revolution that saw Cambodia isolated from the world, all her towns and cities emptied of their inhabitants overnight, and a brutal, killing, slave labor system institutionalized for the former city dwellers. Other victims were party members caught up in purges. S-21, a former high school whose classes were turned into torture chambers, is now a museum and memorial, obscene proof to the world what the Khmer Rouge communists were.
“There was a widespread and tacit understanding…No answer could avoid death,” Duch said in a recent interview. “Nobody who came to us had any chance of saving himself.”
On trial with Duch are former Khmer Rouge president Khieu Samphan, former foreign minister Ieng Sary and his wife, former minister of social affairs Ieng Thirith, and the Khmer Rouge’s chief ideologist, Nuon Chea. Pol Pot died under house arrest in 1998. Ieng Sary and Pol Pot both met their wives when students in France where they were radicalized and became communists.
It was these privileged and educated madmen, and women, who were to cause so much murder, devastation and tears back in their own country, leaving behind a desolate and shattered land that is still unhealed today. However, unlike the repentant Duch, the other four defendants either deny any knowledge of the horrifying genocide they perpetrated or that it ever happened.
Incredibly, Ieng Sary, a close confidant of Pol Pot and whose sister-in-law was Pol Pot’s wife, denied any knowledge of the horror he helped create. His wife and fellow defendant, Ieng Thirith, went even further, having once denounced Cambodia’s chief genocide investigator, calling his findings nothing “but lies and defamation.” Nuon Chea, whom many believe was the architect of the Killing Fields, even had the nerve to appeal his detention, calling it an “illegal act.”
Nuon Chea, known as Brother No 2 thirty years ago, also denied his involvement in the atrocities, even telling a Cambodian-American survivor, Theary Seng, that he was not a “cruel” man. Seng, whose parents were murdered in the communist cataclysm, was the first former victim ever to confront a Khmer Rouge leader in a courtroom. The American lawyer and author testified that at age seven she and her four-year-old brother were “shackled and held under inhuman conditions in a Khmer Rouge prison,” adding “the graveyard was our playground.” The former child prisoner asked Chea who was responsible for that “hellish regime” if he wasn’t.
Even the contrite Duch qualified his participation in the Khmer Rouge’s genocidal nightmare when he said in the interview he had no choice but to carry out the monstrosities of S-21, portraying himself as a helpless cog in the Khmer Rouge killing machine, worried for himself and his family if he should dissent. The former communist secret police chief said he was only obeying orders and, according to one report, plans to plead not guilty when his trial properly starts this summer.
The truth, however, is that in the “liberated zones”, during the war against Cambodia’s pre-revolutionary government, Duch was already committing crimes against humanity years before the Khmer Rouge’s assumption of power. It was during this time that, as author Elizabeth Becker wrote in her book When The War Was Over: The Voices Of Cambodia’s Revolution And Its People, the Khmer Rouge’s chosen head executioner perfected “the excessively secret purge system of the Khmer Rouge.” Becker further claims that S-21 under a Duch became “the nerve center for the system of terror.” Showing the exactness of a former math teacher, Becker writes Duch oversaw “a precise department of death” and chronicled some of its hideous details:
“His (Duch’s) guards dutifully photographed the prisoners upon arrival and photographed 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…Duch even set aside specific days for killing various types of prisoners: one day the wives of the “enemies”; another day the children; a different day, factory workers.”
And it was these hundreds of haunting photos of S-21’s frightened and helpless victims, taken upon their arrival, which symbolized for many the savage insanity of the Khmer Rouge. The judges will view the photos, which now line S-21’s walls, as Duch will also take them there. One of those unfortunates the court officials will see was Duch’s close cousin, whom he did not save, although the S-21 commander was, according to Becker, one of the six most powerful Khmer Rouge leaders, taking orders directly from Pol Pot.
“Pol Pot, the No. 1 Brother, said you always had to be suspicious, to fear something,” said Duch in the interview. “And thus the usual request came: interrogate them again, interrogate them better." What Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge were so fearful of Duch never explained. The former communist only said the revolutionary leadership saw enemies everywhere.
Negotiations to try the Khmer Rouge leaders began in 1998 between the United Nations and the Cambodian government, whose leader is a former Khmer Rouge member. After years of wrangling, only in 2006 were the judges for the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia, the tribunal’s official name, sworn in. The five Khmer Rouge defendants were taken into custody only last year and are detained in a luxury villa for the duration of the trial.
Some Cambodians are angry that the defendants were not put on trial years earlier, while others are offended at the comfortable conditions of their incarceration where one prisoner even demanded that a western-style toilet be installed for his personal use. Still other Cambodians believe their government is dragging out proceedings in order to get more buildings built and more money for the tribunal from the international community. Already a demand has been made for another $110 million to keep the proceedings going until 2011.
Despite the valid complaints concerning the trial, Theary Sary says the legal proceedings are nevertheless worth it, since they are giving her a chance to honor her parents. Sary had also asked the tribunal not to grant Nuon Chea his appeal and free him from detention, saying she and her brother had no rights when they were arbitrarily arrested, while Nuon Chea enjoys legal protections in both domestic and international law and is defended by both Cambodian and foreign lawyers.
“As victims we have been waiting for 30 years for justice,” she said. “There is a risk the accused will fail to appear in court, and without his presence we will suffer a great loss.” To that, the ghosts of the Cheong Ek killing field would only nod their silent assent.