Kampong Thom province
THESE days, life in Chaoyot village, a collection of stilt houses nestled along the banks of the Stoung river, proceeds in much the same way it did 68 years ago, when Kaing Guek Eav, alias Duch, was born to parents of Khmer-Chinese extraction. It was here, in a small concrete home shaded by bamboo groves and mango trees, that Duch spent his childhood years, cycling each day the short distance to the local primary school.
The rustling palms and rutted village track are worlds away from Tuol Sleng, or S-21, the secret Khmer Rouge facility that Duch moulded into an efficient machine of interrogation, torture and death. As head of the prison, Duch is thought to have overseen the torture and killing of as many as 16,000 people, creating a nihilistic whirlwind from which only 14 or so emerged alive.
As the Khmer Rouge tribunal prepares to deliver its verdict against the 68-year old today – perhaps the only one it will ever issue – the proceedings have not gone unnoticed in Chaoyot. But the desire to see justice served means different things to different residents; whereas some are unsure how to relate Duch’s crimes to the abuses they personally endured during the regime, others seem to feel their effects acutely.
More than six decades since his birth, Duch has left only a faint trace in Chaoyot. His neat family home, currently occupied by his nephew Kim Luon, still stands, surrounded by a well-tended yard that abuts the road. Dy Thy, 63, one of Duch’s old neighbours, said she heard nothing from him during the 1975-1979 rule of the Khmer Rouge, and that she found it hard to square the quiet young student she remembers with the horrors of Tuol Sleng.
“I supposed that the Khmer Rouge were people from abroad,” she said. “I didn’t know they were Cambodian people – especially not a person born in this village.”
An exceptional student
Duch lived in Chaoyot until about the age of 14. Residents recall that from his earliest years, the boy who went by the nickname “Kiev” stood out as an exceptional student. Sem Thuon, now 69, regularly shared a table with Duch at Wat Svay Romeat primary school between the first and third grades. “I always copied from him during the exams, and he allowed me to copy,” she said. “I never thought that he would become a strong Khmer Rouge leader.”
In many ways, however, Duch’s intellectual journey epitomised that of the Cambodian communist movement. Like other regime leaders, he was a beneficiary of the sweeping educational reforms Prince Norodom Sihanouk introduced in the late 1950s. Intended to modernise the country and expand opportunities in the countryside, the reforms instead created a class of educated but underemployed young men and women who helped pry apart the country’s centuries-old system of patronage. As the 1960s wore on, Sihanouk – the God-King himself – came under stronger attack from the growing ranks of the left.
After completing the first round of his secondary education in Kampong Thom in 1961, the teenage Duch continued to excel academically. He won a place at the prestigious Lycee Sisowath in Phnom Penh, where he completed his baccalaureate in mathematics.
Three years later, he graduated from the Institut de Pedagogie, a teacher-training college then headed by Son Sen, the future Khmer Rouge Minister of National Security and Defence.
His first teaching post was in Skuon, in Kampong Cham province, where he cultivated radical ideas, reportedly carrying about a copy of Mao Tse-Tung’s “Little Red Book” and openly agitating on behalf of the communist movement. Following the arrest of three of his students during anti-leftist crackdowns in 1967, Duch fled to Chamkar Leu district, then a Khmer Rouge stronghold, where he became a full member of the Communist Party of Kampuchea.
In 1970, following a two-year spell in prison for antigovernment activities, Duch travelled to Omlaing, in Kampong Speu province, where he helped established a prison camp known as M-13. In his book The Gate, the French anthropologist Francois Bizot, who was detained at M-13 following his capture by Khmer Rouge insurgents in 1971, describes Duch as an intelligent but rigid thinker, one who was open to fireside political debates but unyielding in his views.
M-13 was where Duch gathered around him the cadres who would eventually form the trusted core of his team at Tuol Sleng.
‘They will kill him secretly’
At 85, Kong Suon is the oldest resident of Chaoyot village, matching year-for-year the age of his spacious but battered wooden stilt home. Despite his age, he has barely missed a beat of the Duch trial, following the proceedings on both television and radio.
Sitting on his shaded stoop, the withered old man, who lost two sons to the Khmer Rouge regime, described his personal interest in seeing Duch brought to justice. He said he had been enraged during closing statements last November, when the man who had repeatedly apologised and expressed a willingness to accept responsibility for his crimes told judges at the last possible moment that he wished to be acquitted and released.
“I was so angry when I saw Kiev apologise to the court during the TV broadcast and ask for freedom. Why doesn’t he think about the people who were killed at S-21?” he said. “I really miss my two sons. They were students – they didn’t do anything wrong, but Pol Pot’s soldiers killed them.”
His wife, 82-year-old Mar Po, a distant relative of Duch, predicted that the court wouldn’t dare let him go because of the number of people whose lives he scarred. “If he is released, he will not survive because a lot of people are angry at him, so they will kill him secretly,” she said.
But residents also describe a sense of ambivalence towards the proceedings. Sem Thuon said that she pitied her former classmate after she learned of his arrest, and that she hoped he would receive mercy from the court. “I want him to be released from prison because everything has been passed over already,” she said. “I pardon him because I now respect the Buddha’s teachings.”
Mar Po, whose parents and son were killed during the Pol Pot regime, said Duch had already reaped a bitter karmic harvest for his actions. “Now his bad deeds have been returned to him – his wife was killed by a thief in Samlot after the Pol Pot regime,” she said, referring to an attack that took place in the mid-1990s in Battambang province.
From school to prison and back
As Duch became an increasingly committed revolutionary, he gradually grew disconnected from the place of his birth. Shortly after the Khmer Rouge victory of April 1975, he returned home for a single night en route to Phnom Penh, sporting his new nom de guerre and an entourage of black-clad cadres. During the visit, described in photographer Nic Dunlop’s book The Lost Executioner, Duch regaled the village with visions of the new communist society to come. He was soon consumed by his macabre work at Tuol Sleng, and he did not return to the village before the regime’s downfall in 1979.
By the time Duch reached Phnom Penh, his hometown had already been swept up in the maelstrom unleashed by the movement. Many of Chaoyot’s inhabitants were marched to Samlot, in Battambang province, where they were put to work constructing dams and farming communal rice paddies. In their place came evacuated residents of Phnom Penh, or “new people”, who were violently pressed into the service of the revolution.
Residents of Stoung district recall how a school building outside the district town was converted into a prison. A concrete stupa at the nearby Preah Theat pagoda contains the bones of hundreds of victims, including many from Duch’s own village, who succumbed to the horrific working conditions and were disposed of in the surrounding rice fields.
Tim Sath, a 63-year-old Buddhist nun at the pagoda, said that in her Khmer Rouge commune, one tin of rice was shared among five to 10 adult workers. Rations for children were so small they were measured using the remnants of 79mm artillery shells; half a casing’s worth of grain was split three ways.
When asked about the tribunal, Tim Sath said Duch should pay for plunging his homeland into violence and upheaval. “Kiev should be sentenced [to jail] for his whole life,” she said, “because I am scared that if he is released he will connect with his partners to re-establish the Khmer Rouge regime again, and the young generation will suffer like we did.”
‘He does not listen and does not believe’
Although those old enough to remember the Khmer Rouge eagerly await Duch’s verdict, younger residents of Chaoyot seem more removed from the proceedings. “The young generation does not care about the Khmer Rouge, and they do not believe the Khmer Rouge tortured people,” said Ung Kok Henh, who spent 25 days in detention at the Khmer Rouge prison in Stoung, which has since been transformed into Sei Sophaon High School. “Even though my son is 32 years old, I have told him about the Khmer Rouge, but he does not listen and does not believe it because he was born after the regime passed.”
Sitting in a roadside cafe, Khorn Sopheap, 28, said he did not pay much attention to the Khmer Rouge tribunal and knew little of the regime’s history. Unlike his older brother, who went to high school during the 1980s, when the Khmer Rouge period was covered as part of the national school curriculum, he was never taught about it. “Maybe I will watch TV on Monday and maybe not, because I am busy,” he said over the roar of a motorised sugarcane press. “But I want to know about Duch’s verdict. I think he should be sentenced for many years.”
Sipping on a glass of sugarcane juice, 18-year-old Tan Yona, a student at Sei Sophaon High School, also said he knew little about the court. “I have not paid much attention to the Khmer Rouge, but I heard people say that they did cruel things during that time,” he said. Asked what Duch’s punishment should be, he said the court should either “sentence him for his whole life or execute him”.
‘It was hard to believe’
Following the fall of Phnom Penh to the Vietnamese army in January 1979, Duch went into hiding. It was not until March 1999 that he resurfaced in Samlot district, where he was living under an assumed name and working for a Christian NGO. Dunlop discovered Duch after recognising him from an undated photo from the Khmer Rouge years that showed the grinning prison chief addressing a party meeting.
“As I stood before Comrade Duch, I did my best to avoid singling him out from the others,” Dunlop wrote in The Lost Executioner. “It was hard to believe that this small, disarming man in front of me had been the commandant of Tuol Sleng.”
Duch was arrested not long after his whereabouts were reported in the media. Throughout his trial, he seemed to have come to terms with his actions, as well as the need to pay for them in full. But the last-minute bid for acquittal has set the stage for an uncertain conclusion today.
Whatever the outcome, villagers in Chaoyot are as far off as anyone from coming to grips with the mania that drove the Khmer Rouge killing machine.
“Until today I still think and wonder why Pol Pot tortured and killed Cambodian people,” Ung Kok Henh said. “I still have not yet found the reason.”