Masters of Cambodia's killing fields face justice at last - by Anne Barrowclough
Him Huy, a seasoned executioner at Tuol Sleng, studied the list of names of people he would kill that night. When the silent, terrified prisoners had been lifted on to his lorry he drove them out to the pretty orchard on the outskirts of Phnom Penh. There, he took them one by one to the ditches that had been freshly dug, forced them to kneel and clubbed them to death with an iron bar. “Sometimes it took just one blow, sometimes two,” he told The Times. “After I clubbed them someone else would slit their throats. But every time I clubbed someone to death I would think, tomorrow, this might be me kneeling here, with one of the other guards killing me.”
In the orgy of cruelty unleashed on Cambodia during the insane years of Pol Pot's rule, Tuol Sleng, formerly a high school, was to become a symbol of the apocalyptic state the Khmer Rouge created. Enveloped in secrecy and identified only by the code name S-21, it existed solely to interrogate and kill the men and women incarcerated behind its walls, the vast majority of whom would never leave it alive. From 1976, until Vietnamese troops took over Phnom Penh in January 1979, as many as 17,000 men, women and children were taken to S-21 to be interrogated for counter-revolutionary crimes, and then killed. Only 14 are known to have survived, although recent evidence suggests that five child prisoners may have escaped and still be alive today. Thousands of innocents died here - but so too did members of Pol Pot's own circle, Khmer Rouge soldiers and the prison's own guards. “Out of my interrogation unit of 12, only I survived,” said Prak Khan, a soldier who became a torturer at the prison. The man who presided over the atrocities of Tuol Sleng with fanatical devotion was Kang Kek Ieu, also known as Comrade Duch, who was posted to S-21 in 1976. He goes to trial this week, accused of crimes against humanity.
Today Cambodia is, on the surface, a peaceful country with a thriving tourist industry. Casual conversations with Cambodians reveal nothing of the horrors of the Khmer Rouge years. But behind the superficial serenity, the people are still traumatised by their memories. In interviews with The Times, the prison survivors, guards and even those who carried out the worst atrocities described Duch as a man of almost sub-human cruelty, who instilled terror into prisoners and guards. Bou Meng, an artist who was taken to S-21 in 1977, remembers how Duch would visit the room where he and dozens of other prisoners were shackled to the floor. “He ordered me to beat the man beside me with a bamboo cane while he watched,” he said. “Then Duch ordered the man to beat me. You could see the pleasure in his face.” Duch was a frequent visitor to the torture rooms, where he drove the interrogation units to ever-harsher techniques as they worked through the day and night in four-hour shifts. “The sound of screaming was all around us all the time,” said Vann Nath, a former prisoner and now a renowned artist.
Duch brought the orderly mind of a dedicated teacher to S-21. He kept a meticulous record of the prison's workings and read every confession. Often, he would send them back with corrections marked in red pen, as if they were the test papers of a reluctant student. “Sometimes the confessions came back saying, ‘must get more from the prisoner',” said Prak Khan. The prisoners were deemed guilty simply because they had been accused - and it was the interrogators' duty to force them to admit that guilt. Many admitted to crimes they did not even understand. “I had not even heard of the CIA,” said Bou Meng. “But they beat me with bamboo rods and electric cables until I confessed that I worked for the CIA and the KGB.”
“We kept torturing them until they confessed,” said Prak Khan. “If they didn't, the torture got worse. We pulled out their finger and toenails and gave them electric shocks. Sometimes we would tie a bag over their head so they suffocated. We'd take it off just as they were about to fall unconscious. If they still didn't confess, they'd be killed.” Some inmates were sent to a clinic to “donate” blood to the army hospitals. Prak Khan, whose interrogation room was adjacent to the doctors' clinic, said: “They would bring the prisoners blindfolded and tie them to the beds with their legs and arms spread out. They attached lines to their arms. The tubes led to a bottle on the floor. They pumped all the blood out until the bodies were limp. Then they threw the bodies into pits outside.”
The routine was always the same for the prisoners taken to S-21. Told they were being taken from their homes to work as teachers, doctors or mechanics, they were handcuffed on arrival, photographed and forced into cells, often 60 at a time, where they were shackled by the ankle. They were banned from speaking to guards or each other. At night they were not allowed even to turn over without permission. “If the guards heard our shackles they would beat us,” said Chum Mey, a mechanic. He spent his first two weeks being tortured day and night. “They pulled out my fingernails and toenails. Then they put electric wires in my ears. I heard the generator and then I felt the fire coming out of my eyes. After 12 days and 12 nights I signed their confession and they took me to a big room with other prisoners. Every night we waited to hear the trucks come. If midnight arrived and they hadn't come we knew we would live another 24 hours.”
The guards lived through their own hell. Him Huy, known to the prisoners as “Cruel Him”, said: “One day I would be guarding prisoners with another soldier and that afternoon the other soldier would be arrested. You always expected to be arrested.” Prak Khan often recognised old friends among the people taken into S-21. “When I heard the names of people I knew, I pretended I didn't know them,” he said. “If I showed I recognised them I would be killed too.” After the Vietnamese invaded Cambodia in 1979, Duch disappeared into the jungle. In 1996 he met a group of American missionaries and converted to Christianity. A journalist discovered him working as a medical orderly in 1999 and he was arrested, at last, by the Cambodian police. On Tuesday Bou Meng, Chum Mey and the S-21 guards will be among the scores of Cambodians who will crowd into a courtroom to see their tormentor brought to trial. Duch has since apologised to the survivors of S-21 but it is not enough. “He asked my forgiveness,” said Bou Meng. “I could not give it to him.”