IN 1999, after a series of trips into the Cambodian countryside, photojournalist Nic Dunlop discovered Tuol Sleng prison chief Kaing Guek Eav living under an assumed name and working for an aid agency in Battambang province’s Samlot district. The two spoke briefly, and Dunlop later returned to Samlot with fellow journalist Nate Thayer to confront the former Khmer Rouge leader, better known as Duch, about his dark past. Duch initially deflected their questions, discussing his work with the Ministry of Education in the district. Eventually, however, he relented: “It is God’s will that you are here. Now my future is in God’s hands,” he told them. Speaking by phone from London, Dunlop talked to the Post about his initial encounter with Duch and all that’s happened since then.
What was going through your mind as you and Nate Thayer spoke with Duch in Samlot?
These photographs of Duch that I took in 1999 in Samlot, he’s actually confessing for the very, very first time to mass murder, to the crimes that he’d committed, expressing what appeared to be genuine remorse. The strange thing was that it was almost as though it was a continuation from the previous conversation of talking about refugees and the problems in the area, and then there’s this extraordinary confession and the whole atmosphere changed.
The thing about Duch is that he never looked at myself or Nate in the eye, or very rarely, because he was aware of his audience – he was very much the teacher giving the lesson about Khmer Rouge history and his role in it. It was a weird experience, because on the one hand, it was extremely ordinary, and yet the content of the conversation was so extraordinary.
What were your thoughts following this conversation, as you had time to reflect on this discovery that you had made?
It was very hard to judge the atmosphere, to judge what was going on, to judge what he meant by it. At one point, towards the end of the interview, he said, “Do people know who you are, and do they know who I am?” and we said that no, only we knew, and he said something like, “They’ll be really angry if they know. You must leave now.” We were trying to push him to guarantee our security if we returned, and he was very evasive.
It was very strange, so you kind of realise that you’re still in a very precarious place. We were still in a Khmer Rouge zone, there were still not-very-friendly people around, hostile towards outsiders, so you realise it was a situation that could change at any moment. Up until that moment, I didn’t know whether he was still an executioner.
What was it about Duch that fascinated you and got you started on this project?
Well for me, as a teenager growing up in sort of a secure environment, what happened under the Khmer Rouge represented something so far removed from anything I understood or so far from my experience that not addressing it, not trying to find out and understand some of it, wasn’t an option. For me, Duch represented the possibility of understanding.
When I went to Tuol Sleng, obviously it has an immediate impact to anybody who sets foot in there, and [to] a 19-year-old, it really did make a very, very strong impression. I remember looking at [Duch’s] photograph as a young photographer in Cambodia, and thinking, you know, if there was one man that I could talk to who could explain something, who actually not only was a senior cadre but also participated in the horror himself, Duch would be the man, assuming he was alive and assuming he wanted to talk. And then, nine years later, I stumbled upon him, or at least he walked up to me.
But it was really a quest for understanding, not so much a quest where I’d ever expect to find Duch, although I carried around his photograph. I wanted to understand where the Khmer Rouge had come from, their context, who they were. So much of the time when we talk about terrorists, when we talk about odious regimes, it’s almost like they’ve sort of dropped in from another planet, that they’ve come out of the jungle and don’t have families and haven’t gone to school – they’re just sort of monsters and that’s it.
Does the Duch who spoke at trial seem like the same person you met back in Samlot?
Yeah, broadly speaking, he’s remained consistent to what he said back then, but of course the politics and the situation have changed dramatically for him. Back then, I think he was under the impression that he was protected, and there was no incentive, really, for him to talk openly as he did then. Of course now, everything has changed, and he’s had what’s been about 10 years since that time in which he’s been able to prepare and think about what he’s going to do. Broadly speaking it remains consistent, but the meaning behind it still remains elusive.
What was your reaction when Duch asked to be acquitted during closing arguments?
I think that what happened raised numerous questions. The first was his sincerity, whether this was all a big show for him. It was completely inconsistent, so I began to wonder about the degree to which he understood the world around him and what was going on. The other thing that the prosecution alluded to and that everyone asked questions about was, was there direct political interference in what had happened? And of course we don’t know, and probably never will. But he looked absurd, and everyone was left sort of a bit speechless, really, after all of this stated contrition.
The other thing that was really strange about Duch in court was he would read his apologies, these prepared statements from pieces of paper. He was saying all the right things, but it bore no relation to what he was apologising for and there was no expression of – or if there were, they were very fleeting indicators – of genuine remorse.
But it’s not really the point, remorse or not, it doesn’t really mater – is he telling the truth, that’s probably a more important question, and I think when you ask the victims, that’s the sort of thing that they come back with – “I don’t believe that he’s telling the truth – he remains a Khmer Rouge.”
Is it surreal for you to observe what’s happening now in Cambodia after having been the one to bring Duch out of anonymity?
No, I wouldn’t overblow my role or what I feel about this. This is a Cambodian story, and I think that’s really important to remember. It was a chance encounter in a village in the west of Cambodia 11 years ago and it led to this, and it led to it largely by accident. Of course this was the ultimate hope, that something like this would happen. If it means something to ordinary Cambodians, then I think it will be useful on some level. What we think of it – I don’t think it really matters.
Interview conducted, condensed and edited by James O’toole