Rithy Panh with Christophe Bataille | Translated by John Cullen | The Elimination: A survivor of the Khmer Rouge confronts his past and the commandant of the killing fields | Other Press | February 2013 | 44 minutes (12,355 words)
* * *
Kaing Guek Eav, known as Comrade Duch, was the commandant of Security Prison 21—the S-21 torture and execution center in Phnom Penh, Cambodia—from 1975 to 1979. He chose his nom de guerre, he explains, from a book he remembers reading in his childhood; in the book little Duch was a “good boy.”
At least 12,380 people were tortured in that prison. After the victims confessed, they were executed in the “killing field” of Choeung Ek (also under Duch’s command), about ten miles southeast of Phnom Penh. In S-21 no one escaped torture. No one escaped death.
We’re inside the walls of another prison, the one to which Duch was sentenced in 2010 by the ECCC, the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia, a national court (better known as the Khmer Rouge Tribunal) backed by the United Nations.
He speaks to me in his soft voice, “S-21 was the end of the line. People who got sent there were already corpses. Human or animal? That’s another subject.”
I observe his face, the face of an old man, his large, almost dreamy eyes, his ruined left hand. I envision his younger features and discern the cruelty and madness of his thirties. I understand that he may have had the ability to fascinate, but I’m not afraid. I’m at peace.
* * *
Some years previously, in preparation for my film S21: The Khmer Rouge Killing Machine, I conducted long interviews with guards, torturers, executioners, photographers, nurses, and drivers who had served under Duch’s command. Very few of them have had to face legal proceedings. All of them are now free. Sitting in a former cell in S-21—the torture center has been turned into a museum—one of them blurts out, “The prisoners? They were like pieces of wood.” He laughs nervously.
At the same table, before a picture of Pol Pot, another one explains, “Prisoners have no rights. They’re half human and half corpse. They’re not humans, and they’re not corpses. They’re soulless, like animals. You’re not afraid to hurt them. We weren’t worried about our karma.”
I ask Duch, too, if he has nightmares: from having authorized electrocutions, beatings with cords, the thrusting of needles under fingernails; from having made people eat excrement; from having recorded confessions that were lies; from having given orders to slit the throats of men and women lined up blindfolded at the edge of a ditch and deafened by a roaring generator. He considers for a while and then answers me with lowered eyes: “No.” Later, I film him laughing.
* * *
I don’t like the overused word “trauma.” Today, every individual, every family has its trauma, whether large or small. In my case, it manifests itself as unending desolation; as ineradicable images, gestures no longer possible, silences that pursue me. I ask Duch if he used to dream at night in his cell in the tribunal’s prison. A man who has commanded a place like S-21, and before that M-13, another detention and execution center in the jungle—doesn’t such a man see in nightmares the agonized faces of his victims, calling to him and asking him why? The face, perhaps, of the young and beautiful Bophana, twenty years old, who was savagely tortured for several months?
As for me, ever since the Khmer Rouge were driven from power in 1979, I’ve never stopped thinking about my family. I see my sisters, my big brother and his guitar, my brother-in-law, my parents. All dead. Their faces are talismans. I see my little nephew and niece again—how old are they? five and seven?—starving, breathing with difficulty, staring into space, panting. I remember their last days, their knowing bodies. I remember helplessness. Childish lips closed tight. Duch seems surprised by my question. He thinks for a bit and then says simply, “Dream? No. Never.”
* * *
If I close my eyes, still today, everything comes back to me. The dried-up rice fields. The road that runs through the village, not far from Battambang. Men dressed in black, outlined against the burning horizon. I’m thirteen years old. I’m alone. If I keep my eyes shut, I see the path. I know where the mass grave is, behind Mong hospital; all I have to do is stretch out my hand, and the ditch will be in front of me. But I open my eyes in time. I won’t see that new morning or the freshly dug earth or the yellow cloth we wrapped the bodies in. I’ve seen enough faces. They’re rigid, grimacing. I’ve buried enough men with swollen bellies and open mouths. People say their souls will wander all over the earth.
Now I’m a man in my turn. I’m far away. I’m alive. I no longer remember names or dates: the village boss who used to go horseback riding in the country; the woman who was forced into marriage; the worksites where I slept; the loudspeakers blaring in the morning. I no longer know them. What wounds me has no name.
I’m not looking for objective truth today; I just want words. Especially Duch’s words. I want him to talk and explain himself. To tell his truth, to describe his path, to say what he was, what he wanted or believed himself to be. He has, after all, lived a life; he’s living it now; he’s been a man and even a child. I want this son of an incompetent, debt-ridden businessman, this brilliant student, this mathematics professor so respected by his own students, this revolutionary who still quotes Balzac and Alfred de Vigny, this dialectician, this chief executioner, this master of torture—I want him to answer me, and in so doing to take a step on the road to humanity.
* * *
In 1979 I land in Grenoble, where I’m welcomed by my family. I tell them little or nothing about what I’ve been through. In a short piece written in Khmer, I recount those four years, 1975 to 1979. With the passage of time those old pages will vanish. I’ll never see them again. And talking is difficult.
I start school and begin to discover the country I’ve dreamed about so much, and freedom. The weather’s cold and dark. I can’t read or write or speak French, or so little as makes no difference. I’m elsewhere. I have few friends. What can I say, and to whom? Very quickly I turn to painting. I copy. I sketch. I draw barbed wire and skulls. Men in striped clothes. Metal arches guarded by dogs. Then I take up the guitar and discover woodworking.
One day a huge schoolmate corners me in the corridor and strikes me on the head. This makes his pals laugh. He hits me once, twice, three times. I plead with him to stop because in Cambodia the head is sacred. But he keeps it up. My back’s to the wall, and suddenly everything turns upside down. Incredible strength comes into my hands, I fling myself on him, I strike out in turn. A veil falls. An instant later I open my eyes: the guy’s lying on the ground, curled up, with blood all over his face. I’m being held back; other arms pin my arms. I’m breathing hard. I’m trembling.
In the following months, fearing reprisals, I carried a metal pipe wrapped in newspaper in my schoolbag. Fortunately I never had to use the thing.
And so violence abides. The evil done to me is inside me. Present and powerful. Lying in wait. Many years, many encounters, many tears, and much reading will be necessary for me to overcome it. I don’t like the thought of that bloody morning, and thirty years later I don’t like recounting it either. I’m not ashamed; I’m just reluctant.
Drawing and woodworking were pushing me into silence. I chose film, which shows the world, presents beauty, and also deals in words. I figure it keeps my fists in my pockets.
Ever since that episode I’m wary of violence. I stay away from weapons. And I avoid stairwells, terraces, precipices, unobstructed views, cliffs. Falling is easy. And I’ve already lived so much. If I’m on a balcony, I can’t help myself—I calculate how many seconds I’d fall before hitting the ground. But I don’t give in. And I’m going to meet Duch with my camera and film hundreds of hours of interviews. I need to have him in front of me. Maybe my movie project is nothing but an excuse to get close to him. I want those who perpetrated that evil to call it by its name. I want them to talk.
* * *
I’d never intended to make a film about Duch, but I didn’t like his absence from S21: The Khmer Rouge Killing Machine, which is almost entirely an indictment of the man; everybody accuses him. It was as though my investigation was missing an essential element: Duch’s words.
I review the images that were never included in S21, which required three years to shoot. I wanted to cover the story thoroughly, but also to find the proper distance; not to treat the material as sacred, but not to trivialize it either. First I went to see the torturers in their homes. I spoke to them. I tried to persuade them. Then I filmed them in the very places where their acts had been committed. I often paid someone to take their place in the fields because a shoot could require several days. I gave them room and board. Sometimes they came alone. Sometimes they were accompanied by other “comrade interrogators.” They would talk among themselves, take one another’s measure. Avoid one another. I wanted to make them draw near and feel the truth, to puncture the small lies and refute the big ones. Then they met the painter Vann Nath, one of the few survivors of the center, a calm and just man.
I film their silences, their faces, their gestures. That’s my method. I don’t fabricate the event. I create situations in which former Khmer Rouge can think about what they did. And in which the survivors can tell what they suffered.
I ask the executioners the same questions. Ten times, twenty if necessary. Some details appear. Some contradictions. Some new truths. Their eyes hesitate or evade. One of them remembers having tortured someone at one o’clock in the morning. We meet at that hour in S-21. Artificial light. Whispers. A motorcycle passes. All around us cane toads, rustling sounds in the night, a family of owls.
When I show a torturer from the group known as the “Biters” the photograph of a young girl, his first response is to say he recognizes her. “She confessed. But I never touched her.” An hour later he murmurs, “I took up a guava branch. I lashed her with it twice. She pissed on herself. She rolled on the ground, crying. Then she asked for a pen. Since her writing was too bad, I took the pen and wrote out her confession myself.” She’s accused—she accuses herself—of sabotage: supposedly she injected water into the patients’ drips and contaminated the operating room. Is that really credible? I look at the man’s downcast eyes, listen to the weak drone of his voice. I only partly believe him. He was very violent with that woman: after three days her clothes were torn and her face exhausted. She stayed in S-21 for a month.
The same man explains that he would torture all through the night and sometimes fall asleep with his prisoner. Can you imagine the soiled shackles at the feet of the wooden chairs? The metal mesh springs where the victim writhed in convulsions before he or she finally slept? The pincers, the iron bars, the needles, the vises? The smell of blood? Every twenty minutes Duch or his deputy Mam Nay would telephone to check on the torturer’s progress, and he’d report on how he was doing. Then the torture would resume.
The torturer further explains that over the course of several weeks he obtained almost thirty successive “confessions” from a single prisoner. There must be three copies of every confession; each was about twenty pages long. The most important confession would be typed. Administrative lunacy. Duch would read each confession carefully and return the annotated, underlined text to the torturer with requests for clarification and several new queries. The sessions would resume.
* * *
In my office in Phnom Penh there’s a wall of metal closets. They contain letters, notebooks, sound recordings, archives, distressing statistics, maps. Next door, in a climate-controlled space, I keep various hard disks with photographs, recorded radio broadcasts, Khmer Rouge propaganda films, statements made by witnesses before the tribunal. The entire Cambodian tragedy is here. The Khmer Rouge took the capital city on April 17, 1975. By the time Vietnamese troops drove them from power in January 1979, the tally was 1.7 million dead, or nearly a third of the population of the country.
As in former times a single, long fan blade is paddling the suffocating air. The city comes to me, with its cries, its horns, its children’s laughter, its activity. I open a thick file. I look at the vanished faces. Some of them are dear to me. I know their stories and I’ve read their confessions. Others come and go in my dreams, but I still don’t know their names. What do the dead ask? That we think about them? That we liberate them by bringing the guilty to judgment? Or do they want us to understand what took place?
I’m holding a slightly streaked, slightly out-of-focus photograph. It shows Duch entering a banquet hall and apparently smiling at ten or so persons, seated around a table, who aren’t looking at him. Like all of us at the time he’s wearing a pair of black pants. But he’s chosen a dark gray shirt, as he’s careful to point out to me. What a mystery: how did that calm young man become one of the cruelest torturers and mass murderers of the twentieth century? He looks as though he broke into the banqueting place. But he’s cool and casual. I imagine him in 1943, when he’s one year old. His parents go off to work in the fields. His mother’s an ethnic Cambodian, his father Chinese. He and his sisters grow up in the province of Kampong Thom. A brilliant pupil, he’s singled out and continues his education in the town of Siem Reap before being sent to the prestigious Lycée Sisowath in the capital. In his graduation year he receives the second highest examination scores in the country. He elects to pursue a career as a mathematics teacher and along the way meets Son Sen, a man with a lifelong engagement in revolution and ideology. Son Sen will later be Duch’s superior in the Khmer Rouge hierarchy and a member of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Cambodia.
Duch is assigned to a lycée in a small town in Kampong Cham, not far from Pol Pot’s native province. He’s the deputy director of the school when he’s convicted of having led a riot and serves three years in prison. When he’s released in 1970, he goes underground in the countryside. A year later, he’s appointed head of “security services” in the jungle, in what’s known as the Special Zone. Until 1975 he’s the commandant of the M-13 prison, where it’s certain that thousands of Cambodians were tortured and subsequently executed. In M-13 Duch fine-tunes his organization and develops his method: “In 1973, when I was the head of M-13, I recruited children. I chose them according to their class—middle-class peasants and the poor. I put them to work, and later I brought them with me to S-21. Those children were formed by the movement and by hard work. I made them into guards and interrogators. The youngest of them looked after the rabbits. They learned how to guard and interrogate before they learned their alphabet. Their level of culture was very low, but they were loyal to me. I trusted them.”
At first Duch makes his rounds on a bicycle; later he uses a Honda motorcycle. Some peasants from Amleang tell me, “When we heard the sound of his bicycle chain, we hid ourselves.”
In the foreground of the photograph a woman seems to be suckling an infant. I can see only her straight back, the nape of her neck, her short hair. Duch is categorical: the photo was taken at the banquet given to celebrate the marriage of Comrade Nourn Huy, known as Huy Sre, the head of S-24—an annex of S-21. Later this same comrade would be executed, along with his wife, on Duch’s orders. I replace the photograph. Every biography, even if examined in detail, remains an enigma.
* * *
At the end of the 1990s, during the filming of S21: The Khmer Rouge Killing Machine, we could feel the presence of the Khmer Rouge, watching us. Who can believe for a moment that they’re no longer in the country? One day, while we were shooting an interview with an escapee from Kraing Ta Chan prison, several men arrived carrying machetes and axes. Very angry men. What to do? Resist. I held on to my camera and shouted, “I know who you are and where you worked. I know every one of you. You, you were a torturer in this prison. Don’t deny it. You there, you were a guard. And you were a messenger. You think I arrived here just like that, without preparing myself? You think I don’t know you?” They hesitated. Vann Nath and my film crew stood beside me. The men put down their machetes and talked with us. By the end of that trying day I was able to film the torturer, alone.
My documentaries Bophana and S21 were shown in Cambodia. Like me, the country was able to retrace its memory. I felt that those films had brought an episode in my life to a close.
Then Duch’s trial began. It seemed far away from me. I believed I was at peace. I’d cautioned the tribunal judges, both Cambodian and international, in advance: The images will tell the story, I said; they’ll tell the world what the guilty parties did; they’ll show their arrogance, their rigidity, their lies, their methods, their cunning. Think about the Nuremberg Trials! Remember the leading Nazi who stands up and replies “Nein” before sitting down again; a sequence like that is worth all analyses. Images are educational and universal.
I read the transcripts of the first hearing in Duch’s trial, and they tormented me. I realized I couldn’t maintain my distance.
I didn’t try to understand Duch, nor did I care to judge him; I wanted to give him a chance to explain, in detail, the death process of which he was the organizer-in-chief. So I asked the judges for permission to conduct interviews with him. I met the man in the visiting room and outlined the two basic principles of my project: he wouldn’t be the only person to appear in my film—other witnesses, possibly contradictory, would be used—and every subject would be discussed frankly. Summing up, I said, “I’ll be forthright and frank with you. Be forthright and frank with me.”
He answered me with a sort of sententious tranquility: “Mr. Rithy, both of us are working for the truth.”
* * *
First day of shooting. Duch leaves his cell in an armored vehicle, escorted by about fifteen guards. He meets me in one of the tribunal’s chambers.
Me: “What should I call you? Kaing Guek Eav?”
Duch: “No. Call me Duch.”
Me: “Duch? Your S-21 name? You don’t want to go back to what you were before?”
Duch: “No. Why do you want me to hide? I’m Duch. Everybody knows me by that name, and that’s what they call me. Call me Duch.”
I reeled when he said that.
* * *
He’d seen my documentaries and therefore knew all about my work. He didn’t like S21, because in that film, he’s the subject of some very precise accusations. But in speaking to me about Bophana, which tells the story of a young woman who was tortured because she wrote to her lover in romantic, coded language, Duch said, “If you run into Bophana’s uncle, please ask him to forgive me. I feel sorry for that man—I did him harm. I’m the one responsible. And if you see her husband’s mother, tell her that Duch acknowledges the wrong he did.” Then he added, “I don’t acknowledge everything that’s said in your film, but as commandant of S-21 I take full responsibility.” Duch wants to believe that redemption can be bought with words. He disputes the historical truth, and then he declares that he takes full responsibility. In other words I deny what you affirm, but I’ll bear the burden of your truth.
I answered him, “Mr. Duch, you take on too much. That’s not what we’re asking for. To each his own responsibility; the torturers, for example, have accepted theirs. And they’re recounting what happened. What I want is to understand what went on at S-21 during those years. I want you to explain everything to us: your role, the jargon you used, the organization of the prison, the confession process, the executions.”
After some ten hours of interviews an excited Duch confided in me, “I had a revelation this morning during my prayers. I was overwhelmed. And then I understood: I must talk to you.”
I replied, “That’s all I ask.” And we continued.
* * *
Later he laughed and asked me, “What’s the hourly rate?” I didn’t understand, or rather, I pretended not to understand, because I knew that someone before me had paid a large sum in dollars for an interview. To visit the high executioner himself, the monster, the man . . . what excitement. He repeated his question, pronouncing the words distinctly, “Mr. Rithy, what’s the hourly rate?”
I answered, “I can’t pay you. And I don’t want to. My work is to make the film. You know my conditions. I film you, and I alone am in charge of the editing. You can take it or leave it.”
He didn’t insist. “I was joking,” he said. “You know, journalists are paying one of the photographers from S-21 as much as two hundred dollars for an interview! And he talks a lot of idiotic nonsense!” Duch burst out laughing.
During the course of some months, I questioned him without fear and without hate. In the beginning he would launch into long expositions of Marx’s writings, historical materialism, and dialectical materialism. Then he discoursed upon his career, his method, the Khmer Rouge doctrine. He sidestepped. Contradicted himself. Looking at photographs, he seemed at first to recognize neither his victims nor his comrade torturers. Not even Tuy, notorious for his cruelty, whom Duch trained in M-13 and later brought with him to S-21, Tuy the specialist in “difficult cases.” Little by little, Duch found his voice again, but the only words he had left were lies.
* * *
On the day when I bring him Bophana’s file—the thickest interrogation file to come out of S-21—he finds himself in difficulties. His handwriting is everywhere in the file. You can still perceive, after thirty years, the combativeness, the hatred, the perversity, an excitement that resembles desire. When I’m requesting more precision, more details, his soft voice interrupts me: “Mr. Rithy, I’m grateful to you for having brought me such a complete file. Thank you very much.” Then he rises to go.
Only once do we have a really fierce quarrel. I can feel the tribunal guards behind me, leaning over my shoulders, ready to hold me back. Mechanically lining up his files on the desk so that not a single page is sticking out, Duch keeps repeating, “that’s true, that’s true” with a faraway look in his wide-open eyes.
Suddenly he stops and stares at me: “Mr. Rithy, we have a problem, the two of us—we don’t understand each other.” The quarrel proceeds.
I say, speaking forcefully, “What’s the use of my coming to meet with you if you lie to me?”
“That’s true, that’s true . . .” he says.
A little later, as he’s getting up to go, he laughs and says, “Mr. Rithy, let’s not argue anymore. See you tomorrow.”
After hundreds of hours of filming, the truth became cruelly apparent to me: I had become that man’s instrument. His adviser in some way. His coach. As I’ve written, I was searching not for truth but for knowledge, for consciousness. Let the words come, I thought. But Duch’s words always amounted to the same thing, a game of falsehood. A cruel game. Resulting in a vague saga. With my questions, I’d helped to prepare him for his trial. So: I had survived the Khmer Rouge, I was investigating the human enigma as humanly personified by Duch, and he was using me? I found this idea intolerable.
* * *
The world was wobbling. I nearly suffocated in the plane. I fell several times while walking in the street. In Paris, I avoided the subways and buses. I’d stare at the crowds of people and tremble. Where were they all going? And where had they come from? The slightest noise would make me jump. I held on to metal, to tiling, to wood, to my relatives, to my books, to paper; I held on to the night.
Then a fog of sounds invaded my brain from morning till evening. I’d hear squealing tires. Radio frequencies. Clashing metal. Weird echoes. I remember spending entire nights walking up and down the big boulevard that passes in front of the Royal Palace in Phnom Penh. I was attuned to the rhythm of the traffic. The blood pounded in my temples. I didn’t want to hear anymore. I said to my assistant, “If I don’t show up back here tonight, come look for me in front of the palace. Don’t leave me on the riverbank. Please. Come for me.”
I’d sit on the sidewalk with my head in my hands. No sobs, no thoughts. Around four o’clock in the morning I’d ride through the capital of bad dreams in a motorcycle taxi, with a lump in my throat and the warm wind on my forehead. Small cement buildings. Illuminated pagoda. Vendors’ stalls in the shadows. Twenty years now since the Khmer Rouge fled these broad avenues; but I feel Duch’s hand, reaching for my shoulders and the back of my neck. He gropes. I resist. I turn around, shivering.
On my way I see a child sleeping in a vegetable cart. The sky is pale. We’re saved.
* * *
Duch remembers names, places, dates, faces, trajectories with great precision. He’s a man of memory. Nothing escapes him. He loves method and doctrine. He never stopped refining the slaughter machine—or its language.
Throughout the filming Duch gauges me. I gauge myself too. I can find but little humanity in what he is. Having been saved by a Buddhist monk as a child he’s very familiar with Buddhism, but he’s no pawn of fate. He’s in control of his life from start to finish, all the way to his late conversion to Christianity—he’s presently an evangelical Christian. If it’s not one ideology, it’s another.
On the wholly human scale: I find in myself nothing but sensations. Everything registers as smells, as images, as sounds. I’m alive, but I’m afraid of not being alive anymore. Of not breathing anymore. The bloodbath has drowned part of me.
* * *
I believe the insomnia started in 1997 when my film Rice People was selected to participate in the main competition at the Cannes International Film Festival. My condition has worsened ever since. I made a little money, and a cruel thought stuck fast in my brain: I can’t share this good fortune with my parents. Then, all at once, my childhood surfaced again. I shook. I couldn’t breathe. That money had to be gone through; it absolutely had to be given away. Let it slip from my hands. Let it vanish and take me with it.
After dark I’d walk down the Grands Boulevards, surrounded by prostitutes, petty crooks, tourists, and Parisians adrift in the night. I played various table games—poker, baccarat, chemin de fer—in all the Clichy and République and Bastille casinos and gambling halls. I won fortunes. I remember walking through the streets of Paris with a fortune in my pocket. I lived for those miraculous fifteen minutes—and for this lie: I was rich; I had the world on a string. Then I’d become poor again, thank God. Gamblers lose. I laughed and drank a lot with Arabs, Jews, Armenians, Chinese. We were on the skids. We all knew we were going to lose. Besides that was why we were there. The important thing was to flame out so brightly that nothing was left: no chips, no banknotes, no seven-faced dice, no joyful roulette wheels, no casinos, no gamblers. Nothing. No one.
That life disgusted me. I was foundering in anxiety. I dreamed of Mitterand, suffocating in his coffin. I dreamed I’d been shut up in an oven, beating on the walls and shouting in vain. After some weeks I abandoned the night. Like a good boy I returned to my screenplays, to my films, but sleep wouldn’t come back.
* * *
Me: “The leaders knew the confessions were false?”
Duch: “I know! I know. It bothered me! I wanted to compare them with the truth, starting as far back as M-13. But what could I do?”
Me: “So everyone knew the confessions were false?”
Duch: “Yes, but no one dared to say so! Mr. Rithy, I loved police work, but as a way to get to the truth! I didn’t like working the Khmer Rouge way.”
* * *
So I resisted. I held on. That’s why I find the end of Primo Levi’s life saddening and irritating. Yes, irritating—the word may surprise, but it’s true. The idea that Levi survived deportation to a concentration camp, that he wrote at least one great book, If This Is a Man, not to mention The Truce and The Periodic Table, and that he threw himself down a stairwell fifty years later. . . . It’s as if his tormentors finally succeeded, in spite of love, in spite of his books. Their hands reached across time to complete the work of destruction, which never ends. Primo Levi’s end terrifies me.
* * *
In the interviews we often bring up the works of Karl Marx, which Duch knows and admires.
Me: “Mr. Duch, who are the closest followers of Marxism?”
Duch: “The illiterate.”
People who can’t read are the “closest” followers of Marxism. They’re the ones who are in arms. And, I may add, they’re the ones who obey.
Those who read have access to words, to history, and to the history of words. They know that language shapes, flatters, conceals, enthralls. He who reads reads language itself; he perceives its duplicity, its cruelty, its betrayal. He knows that a slogan is just a slogan. And he’s seen others.
* * *
In 1975, I was thirteen years old and happy. My father had been the chief undersecretary to several ministers of education in succession; now he was retired, and a member of the senate. My mother cared for their nine children. My parents, both of them descended from peasant families, believed in knowledge. More than that: they had a taste for it. We lived in a house in a suburb close to Phnom Penh. Ours was a life of ease, with books, newspapers, a radio, and eventually a black-and-white television. I didn’t know it at the time, but we were destined to be designated—after the Khmer Rouge entered the capital on April 17 of that year—as “new people,” which meant members of the bourgeoisie, intellectuals, landowners. That is, oppressors who were to be reeducated in the countryside—or exterminated.
Overnight I become “new people,” or (according to an even more horrible expression) an “April 17.” Millions of us are so designated. That date becomes my registration number, the date of my birth into the proletarian revolution. The history of my childhood is abolished. Forbidden. From that day on, I, Rithy Panh, thirteen years old, have no more history, no more family, no more emotions, no more thoughts, no more unconscious. Was there a name? Was there an individual? There’s nothing anymore.
What a brilliant idea, to give a hated class a name full of hope: new people. This huge group will be transformed by the revolution. Transmuted. Or wiped out forever. As for the “old people” or “ordinary people” they’re no longer backward and downtrodden, they become the model to follow—men and women working the lands their ancestors worked or bending over machine tools, revolutionaries rooted in practical life. The “old people” are the heirs of the great Khmer Empire. They are ageless. They built Angkor. They threw its stone images into the jungle and into the water. The women stoop in the rice fields. The men build and repair dikes. They fulfill themselves in and by what they do. They’re charged with reeducating us and they have absolute power over us.
The flag of Democratic Kampuchea (the country’s new name) bears not a hammer and sickle but an image of the great temple of Angkor. “For more than two thousand years, the Khmer people have lived in utter destitution and the most complete discouragement. . . . If our people were capable of building Angkor Wat, then they are capable of doing anything.” (Pol Pot, in a speech broadcast on the radio.)
How many people died on the building sites of the twelfth century? Nobody knows. But what they built expressed a spiritual power and elevation utterly absent from the creations of the Khmer Rouge.
* * *
A few days before April 17, 1975, one of my father’s friends came to our house to warn him, “The Khmer Rouge are getting closer. You and your wife and children should leave. There’s still time. We’ll find a solution for you—a plane to Thailand, for example. You must flee.” My imperturbable father refused to budge. He wasn’t afraid. A man devoted to education, he was a servant of the state and had always worked for the general good. Once a month, in his spare time, he’d meet with some friends—professors, school inspectors—and proofread translations of foreign books into the Khmer language. He didn’t want to leave his country. And he didn’t think he was in any danger, even though he’d worked for every government through the years.
Using the sequence of events in China as an example, he assured us he would no doubt be sent to a reeducation camp for a while; such an outcome seemed to him to be practically in the natural order of things. Then conditions would start to improve. He believed in his usefulness to the country, and in social justice. As for my mother and us, the children, the Khmer Rouge wouldn’t consider us important. That, then, was the analysis of an educated, well-informed man, a man with peasant origins to boot. In retrospect it’s easy to see the naïveté in his assessment. His viewpoint was, first and foremost, that of a humanist, a progressive who envisioned a humanistic revolution.
However, my father knew that some acts of violence had already occurred. Around the end of 1971 a schoolteacher had explained to him that teaching in the zones occupied by the Khmer Rouge insurgents was almost impossible. He spoke of extortion, torture, murder. They were pitiless, he said, and most of all there seemed to be nothing in their organization that was either egalitarian or free.
The popular revolution was cruel, but on the other hand Lon Nol’s regime was no better, with its trail of disappearances and arbitrary executions. The peasants would no longer put up with destitution and servitude. Their misery was increased by the American bombardments in the hinterlands. In the towns, too, the ruling power was loathed; in a climate of penury, corruption had reached intolerable levels. It was on this fertile ground of anger that the Khmer Rouge, with their discipline, their ideology, and their dialectics, had prospered.
My father had met Ieng Sary after his return from France in the mid-1950s. Ieng Sary had gone on to become an important Khmer Rouge leader, and then in 1963 he’d disappeared into the jungle with Pol Pot. At that time my father had helped his wife. Their children were in the same school as we were. My father couldn’t imagine this former pupil in the Lycée Condorcet, this student of Marx, this professor of history and geography, participating in an inhuman or criminal enterprise. He figured that the new regime would make educating the masses a priority. Basically he had faith in his own program.
The French protectorate of Cambodia had come to an end in 1953, but true independence is not so easily obtained. Under Lon Nol’s regime propaganda was everywhere. A climate of violence prevailed. Like all boys of my age I was fascinated by the rifles and the uniforms. Whenever a military truck approached our house, I’d station myself outside with a wooden gun. I drew tanks in my notebooks.
When I reflect on the situation, I feel certain that children in the countryside must have shared the same fascination, but the Khmer Rouge took them in hand very early, at eleven or twelve years old. They were given a uniform—black shirt, black pants, a traditional checkered scarf (a krama), a pair of sandals cut from tire rubber—a rifle, and, above all, an ironclad ideal and an iron discipline. What would I have thought if someone had consigned a weapon to me and promised a people’s revolution that would bring equality, fraternity, justice? I would have been happy, as one is when he believes.
* * *
The fighting was getting closer to Phnom Penh. We could feel the earth shaking from the American bombardments: the famous “carpet bombing” strategy already employed in Vietnam. My country cousins had warned me that when the B-52s approached, I shouldn’t throw myself flat on the ground; the vibrations in the earth could give you ear- and nosebleeds, even at a distance of several hundred yards. They also taught me to recognize the whistling of rockets. They couldn’t take being hungry and thirsty and afraid anymore. Because of the air raids, they had to harvest their fields at night. They all died alongside the Khmer Rouge. That’s not hard to explain: the more bombs the American B-52s dropped, the more peasants joined the revolution, and the more territory the Khmer Rouge gained.
The refugees crowded into the capital. They seemed dazed. Rationing became widespread. There were shortages of water, rice, electricity, gasoline. We took in my aunt and her two children and lodged them on the ground floor of our house. We could hear the rockets whistling as they fell on our neighborhood, and then the mournful wailing of the ambulance sirens. My school was located across from a pagoda, so we witnessed, with increasing frequency, the cremations of officers who had died in combat. A general, impalpable atmosphere of anxiety pervaded the city. We were waiting, but for what? Freedom? Revolution? I couldn’t recognize anyone anymore—all faces were closed. It was then that I put away my wooden rifle. The party was over, and I had no ideal to aspire to.
* * *
On April 17 my family, like all the other inhabitants of the capital, converged on the city center. I remember that my sister was driving without a license. They’re coming! They’re coming! We wanted to be there, to see, to understand, to participate. There was already a rumor afoot that we were going to be evacuated. People ran behind the columns of armed men, all of them dressed in black. They were young, old, and in between, and like all peasants, they wore their pants rolled up to their knees.
Many books declare that Phnom Penh joyously celebrated the arrival of the revolutionaries. I recall instead feverishness, disquiet, a sort of anguished fear of the unknown. And I don’t remember any scenes of fraternization. What surprised us was that the revolutionaries didn’t smile. They kept us at a distance, coldly. I quickly noticed the looks in their eyes, their clenched jaws, their fingers on their triggers. I was frightened by that first encounter, by the entire absence of feeling.
* * *
Some years ago I met and filmed a former Khmer Rouge soldier, a member of an elite unit, who confirmed to me that they’d received clear instructions on the eve of the great day: “Don’t touch anyone. No one at all. And if you have no choice, never touch a person with your hand; use your rifle barrel.”
* * *
Annotation in red ink in the register of S-21, across from the names of three young children: “Grind them into dust.” Signature: “Duch.” Duch acknowledges that it’s his handwriting. Yes, he’s the one who wrote that. But he clarifies his statement: he wrote those words at the request of his deputy, Comrade Hor, the head of the security unit, in order to “jolt” Comrade Peng, who seemed to be hesitating.
The pages of that register each contain between twenty and thirty names. Accompanying every name, Duch jotted a note in his own hand—“Destroy.” “Keep.” “Can be destroyed.” “Photograph needed.”—as though he had detailed knowledge of each case. The thoroughness of torture. The thoroughness of the work of torture.
* * *
We went to stay with friends who gave us temporary lodging in the center of the capital. At an intersection jammed with vehicles, soldiers, and a crowd of people, a Khmer Rouge commander riding in a jeep with a pistol at his belt and a cohort of bodyguards around him recognized my father, put his hands together in greeting, and slowly bowed. Who was he? A former pupil? A schoolteacher? A peasant from my father’s native village? A few yards farther on my father said to my sister, “Let’s try over to the right,” but at once he received a violent blow to the temple from a rifle butt. “No! To the left!” a young Khmer Rouge yelled. We obeyed him.
When my older sister’s husband, who was a surgeon, saw what terrible shape the refugees were in, the pregnant women on the roads, the gravely ill abandoned to their fate, he left us and went back to the Khmer-Soviet Friendship Hospital. For days on end he performed operations and provided medical care, and then he was evacuated, together with all the patients. The chaos was indescribable. And there were no longer any means of communication—or rather communication itself was forbidden. My brother-in-law searched in vain for us and then set out alone for his native province. Fifteen years later I learned that he’d been arrested at Taing Kauk. Somebody recognized him and denounced him as a physician. At that time people would make denunciations for a bowl of rice. Or out of revenge. Or jealousy. Or to ingratiate themselves with the new power. A physician? He was executed on the spot.
About a year later his wife, my elder sister, disappeared. Both of them, she and her husband, had worked for Cambodia. What could be better than archaeology and medicine? The body of the past and the living body? My father had hesitated too long to send them to France, even though a grant would have made it possible, and even though he’d already succeeded in sending four of his children abroad. He wanted them to specialize, to make further progress, and then to come back and serve their country. But he gave up the idea.
When I go to the archaeological museum—the National Museum of Cambodia, a complex of red buildings with ornate, soaring roofs, built by the French—I think about my sister, who, despite her young age, was the museum’s deputy director. When I was eight or nine years old, I often went to visit her in her office. I’d climb up on the little brick wall and use a stick to knock down fruit from the big tamarind trees. The ripe tamarinds were delicious. Today I wouldn’t dare do that. Because of my age? Or my memories? The royal palace, with its high walls and its traditions, isn’t far. The world we knew will not return. And you, my sister, I never saw you again. I can still picture your colorful skirt when you would appear at the big, carved wooden door, and your bag filled with documents. I remember our walks together. Your words. And my caprices. I see you smile. You take my childish hand.
* * *
Early on the morning of April 17, a soldier presented himself at our front door: “Take your things! Leave the house! Right away!” We sprang into action. Immediately, without knowing why or how, we obeyed. Did we already feel fear? I don’t think so. It was more like astonishment. One of our neighbors, a handyman who’d become a Khmer Rouge commander, tried to reassure us.
The whole city was in the streets. The men in black told us we’d be back in two or three days. The hunt for traitors and enemies had begun. The purge was hideous but classic in those circumstances. The Khmer Rouge were looking for army officers, senior civil servants, supporters of Lon Nol. According to a spreading rumor, the Americans were going to bomb the capital. The Khmer Rouge leaders had frequently alluded to the possibility of an American bombing, and then certain Western intellectuals had echoed the speculation. The Americans did nothing. Who could have seriously entertained the thought that they would bomb a city of two million people just a few days after withdrawing their personnel and ending their support? I still remember the helicopters evacuating their embassy. You needed a lot of hatred and a good deal of blindness, or some unspeakable other reason, to believe in that fable.
Each of us carried a bag prepared by my mother, with her innate practical sense, and we left in the car. We didn’t get very far. Before long we were lost in the human flood. There were women and children pushing wheelbarrows, men carrying insanely heavy loads, people half-crazed—and everywhere the fifteen-year-old fighters, with their cold eyes, their black uniforms, and the cartridges in their bandoliers.
Historians today think that the revolutionaries drove some 40 percent of Cambodia’s total population into the countryside. In the course of a few days. There was no overall plan. No organization. No dispositions had been made to guide, feed, care for, or lodge those thousands and thousands of people. Gradually we began to see sick people on the roads, old folks, serious invalids, stretchers. We sensed that the evacuation was turning bad. Fear was palpable.
* * *
I question Duch tirelessly. Although he looks the tribunal’s prosecutors, judges, and attorneys in the eye—he has a monitor in front of him and knows when he’s being filmed—he never gazes into my camera. Or hardly ever. Is he afraid it will see inside him?
Duch talks to heaven, which in this case is a white ceiling. He explains his position to me. He makes phrases. I catch him lying. I offer precise information. He hesitates. When in a difficult situation, Duch rubs his face with his damaged hand. He breathes loudly. He massages his forehead and his eyelids, and then he examines the neon lighting.
One day during a dialogue that’s turning into a fight, I see the skin of his cheeks grow blotchy. I stare at his irritated, bristling flesh. Then his calm returns, the soldier’s calm, the calm of the revolutionary who’s had to face so many cruel committees and endure so many self-criticism sessions. Then I stop filming him and say, “Think about it; take your time.”
He smiles and speaks softly to me, “Mr. Rithy, we won’t quarrel tomorrow, will we?” I see clearly that he’d like us to understand each other and laugh together. And he needs to talk to me. To continue the discussion. To win me over. No, he’s no monster, and he’s even less of a demon. He’s a man who searches out and seizes upon the weaknesses of others. A man who stalks his humanity. A disturbing man. I don’t remember that he ever left me without a laugh or a smile.
* * *
We drove several miles and stopped. Should we go on? Where? A soldier walked up and, without a word, signaled that we should get moving again. My father sighed and clenched his fists. The scene was repeated twice more. The Khmer Rouge spoke a rather odd language, using words I knew little or not at all. For example, they used the verb snœur to confiscate our car, which they later left on the side of the road. Theoretically snœur means “to ask politely.” The word was smooth, almost soft, but the look in the eyes was violent. Thirty years later Duch evokes Stalin, “an iron fist in a velvet glove,” and summarizes the Khmer Rouge attitude this way: “courteous but firm.”
This way of speaking made us uneasy. If words lose their meaning, what’s left of us? For the first time, I heard a reference to the Angkar (the “Organization”), which has filled up my life ever since. We set out on foot, and then the sun sank behind the rice fields.
We were beginning to guess, from the tone and looks of the Khmer Rouge, that we wouldn’t be seeing Phnom Penh again anytime soon. And I don’t remember encountering anywhere the force, the joyful excitement, or the freedom of the first sansculottes.
* * *
In M-13, Duch frequently attended interrogations. He reflected upon them. Observed them carefully. “I went so far as to derive a theory from them,” he tells me. I don’t understand this formulation. “Derive a theory from them? What theory? Explain it to me . . .” He replies, “I remained polite but firm.” Then he falls silent.
* * *
The second night, my mother asked my father to go and throw away his neckties. The searches hadn’t started yet, but rumor had it that some young people with long hair had been executed and their heads paraded around on staffs. My father disappeared into the forest, ties in hand, and came back after hiding his former life.
* * *
At dawn on the day after the fall of Phnom Penh, the prisoners inside M-13 prison, in the northern part of the country, received an order to start digging. Under the white-hot sky, sweating and suffering, they excavated a ditch. How many of them were there? Dozens? We’ll never know. They were executed. Nothing remains of those mass graves, some of which may have been immense. As the years passed, the Khmer Rouge planted cassava root and coconut palms, which have since consumed bodies and memory.
Duch reached Phnom Penh with his entire crew: several dozen peasants—a few as young as thirteen or fourteen—whom he’d chosen and then educated in the ways of torture. Duch’s team included Tuy, Tith, Pon, and Mam Nay, known as Chan. Some of these men were also former professors. Mam Nay had been in prison with Duch, his friend, his double. They both spoke French fluently, and they had an almost intuitive mutual understanding.
The new history had begun; the murderers were waiting in the outskirts of the capital. Soon they would occupy the former Ponhea Yat lycée, which would be known as S-21.
Later I show Duch a photograph of Bophana before she was tortured. Black eyes, black hair. She seems impassive. Already elsewhere. He holds the photo a long time. “Looking at this document disturbs me,” he says. He seems moved. Is it compassion? Is it memory? Is it his own emotion that touches him? He’s silent again for a while, and then he concludes, “We’re all under the sky. When it rains, who doesn’t get wet?”
* * *
We adopted the habit of sleeping in the forest, not far from the road. We’d throw a plastic sheet on the ground and lie down on it.
Most necessities were unobtainable: drinking water, milk for the babies, medical assistance, fire. Prices skyrocketed. For my thirteenth birthday on April 18, my mother had bought a ham on the sly and had it caramelized. It must have cost tens of thousands of riels. We shared that dish, but I don’t think any of us smiled during the meal.
After a few days the rumor started going around that our currency wasn’t worth anything anymore, that it was simply going to disappear. Vendors started refusing to take banknotes. The effect was devastating. How could we eat, how could we drink, how could we live without money? Bartering had sprung up again as soon as the evacuation began, and now it was widespread. The rich became poorer; the poor stripped themselves bare. Money’s not merely violence—it also dissolves; it divides. Barter affirms what’s absolutely lacking and renders the fragile more fragile still.
My provident mother had brought away with us a quantity of sheets, which she exchanged for food. Those big pieces of fabric were very useful. My mother was able to obtain some mess tins, some American army spoons, a bucket, a pan, and a boiling kettle so that we could drink, risk-free, water from the Bassak River.
We came to realize that this trend was irreversible.
Years later I looked at some extraordinary archival photographs; they show the Central Bank of Cambodia right after the revolutionaries blew it up. Only the corners of the building remain, sad pieces of metal-reinforced lacework standing over rubble. The message is clear. There’s no treasure; there are no riches that can’t be annihilated. We’ll dynamite our old world, and thus we’ll prove that capitalism is but dust inside four walls.
A lovely program, worth a minute’s consideration. It’s often the case, in every country, that rebels call for a society without currency. Is it the money that disgusts them? Or the desire to consume that it reveals? Exchange is supposed to have unrecognized capabilities. Free exchange, which is the term used for barter. But I’ve never seen a free exchange. A gift is something else. I lived for four years in a society without currency, and I never felt that the absence of money made injustice easier to bear. And I can’t forget that the very idea of value had disappeared. Nothing could be estimated, or esteemed, anymore—not human life or anything else. But to assess something, to evaluate it, doesn’t necessarily mean to have contempt for it or to destroy it.
Nothing could be assessed anymore? Well not exactly nothing, because throughout that whole period, gold never stopped discreetly circulating. It had extraordinary power. With gold you could cause what had disappeared to appear again—penicillin, for example. Rice, sugar, tobacco. The Khmer Rouge were full participants in such trafficking.
Other archival images: the treasury. Nailed wooden crates, discovered in a warehouse. Inside, under sheets of transparent plastic, the official banknotes of the new country. So it seems that Democratic Kampuchea had its currency ready to circulate after all. What happened? Logistical problems? Further doctrinal radicalization? The new currency was never used.
We bartered what we could—in the beginning, exchanges of that sort were tolerated—but very soon, we had nothing left to exchange. Contrary to the popular notion, it’s not true that there’s always “something left” to swap. I’ve seen a country stripped completely bare, where a fork was a possession too precious to give away, where a hammock was a treasure. Nothing’s more real than nothing.
* * *
During our conversation, Duch makes a marvelously inhuman remark, but does he know it? He says, “It’s not me who doesn’t have a mother.” And he laughs.
My family on the road: my parents, my oldest sister, my two unmarried sisters, my three young nephews, and me. Phal, a boy two years my senior who’d been living in our house for several months, accompanied us. He was a poor orphan whom my parents, in accordance with Cambodian tradition, had taken in; they were feeding him, clothing him, and giving him a proper upbringing. Phal did his share of the household chores. We all took turns collecting eggs, feeding the ducks and the dogs, washing the floor, and doing the laundry. This was only to be expected in a house where some fifteen people lived.
We stopped for two days in a pagoda at Koh Thom, not far from an immense automobile graveyard where displaced persons had abandoned their vehicles. We were shut up inside the pagoda, and it was there that the first count was made. (After that the counts never stopped.) How many of us were there? Where did our family come from? What was my father’s profession? The Khmer Rouge were insistent, almost aggressive.
Then—together with our luggage, which seemed to be getting heavier and heavier—we were put on a boat at night, and we approached the Vietnamese frontier. Phnom Penh was far away.
* * *
We disembarked at a pagoda in Koh Tauch. Everything was mysterious. Up until then the idea of Buddhist monks engaged in rice production would have been unthinkable, but bonzes from that pagoda were hard at work in the paddies. Others were being consulted by all sorts of people. We learned that a general was under house arrest. We could barely make out his silhouette. He seemed immobile. Then he disappeared, having been “taken away to study.” It was the first time we’d heard this expression, and we honestly thought it referred to reeducation.
* * *
Every instant is cruel. One evening the Khmer Rouge demand that we unpack our baggage. Without a word we spread out all our things, flat on the ground and spaced well apart. The Khmer Rouge want to know who we are. They find no document, no sign of collaboration with the enemy. There are some pieces of fabric, a few jewels, and some money, which they don’t even take. One of them shrugs his shoulders and barks at us, “This is all over, this stuff.” Money, all over? We’re amazed.
I haven’t forgotten their stares when they came across my sisters’ brassieres. The fifteen-year-old child soldiers were like men. And we were, so to speak, naked.
One of them took apart a little notebook in which my sister had glued various souvenirs and removed an old visiting card. He showed it to us without a word: “Panh Lauv, Chief Undersecretary, Ministry of National Education.” The card even showed his telephone number—much more compromising than a bunch of neckties. We were terrified.
* * *
Then we were turned over to a family of “old people.” An elderly couple took us into their house, which was built on stilts. Two of my sisters, who were above the age of fourteen, left to live in a “youth group.” With Phal, but also with the old couple’s son-in-law, a Khmer Rouge, I discovered peasant life. I didn’t know how to do anything. Nothing at all. I didn’t know how to fish or identify edible roots or unearth a snail. I couldn’t even row. I discovered a harsh world where you had to plunge into cold water bristling with reeds, feel around the muddy bottom, and empty the fish traps. We planted rice, corn, and cassava root.
Phal suffered from terrible attacks of diarrhea, one of which nearly killed him in the course of a few hours. I can still remember my eldest sister washing his soiled pants in the river several times a day. He couldn’t control himself. We were close, the two of us, and I was very sad, but he finally recovered.
Phal was familiar with peasant life, and so he gained a sort of ascendancy. We’d both begun to frequent the evening study groups organized by the Khmer Rouge. Topics of discussion: the class struggle, its procession of injustices, and revolution. In a month Phal changed. He became bitter. His consciousness had been raised. Or was it his resentment? He went to the person in charge of the village and explained that he’d been mistreated, that my parents were slave drivers, that they should be punished. The man jotted down everything in his notebook.
We have to believe that the revolutionary movement wasn’t so radical early on because Phal got himself bawled out by the old man who owned the house we stayed in: “This is the way you treat your family? Look at your sister, who washes your clothes when they’re drenched in shit! And the way everyone takes care of you! You ought to be ashamed of yourself!” Later on talking like that would become inconceivable.
* * *
I watched the countryside being carried off by the gigantic Bassac River. Its flooding waters, muddy and lugubrious, reached the edge of the forest. That river was the center of our existence. The school year was lost, but my father was apparently the only one of us who still gave any thought to that.
* * *
My mother received permission to stay in the house and take care of my young nephew and niece. Because I was only thirteen, I was allowed to remain with my parents. The old man entrusted his oxen to me. Those enormous beasts, which would breathe down my neck and come to sudden stops for no reason at all, made me uncomfortable. I’d speak to them. I’d implore them. They would disregard me like divinities gazing dry-eyed upon the earth. A child told me I should stay behind them and strike them with a stick. When I did so, they’d start to move again, stirring up the air with their dirty tails. They’d plow in the morning, and then around noon, I’d lead them to the low forest, where they could stay cool. In the evening, I’d go back to the cowshed and make a fire of twigs and peat to chase away the mosquitoes. Then I’d collapse on a mat. Still today I can feel my mother’s hand stroking my forehead.
* * *
I also crossed a branch of the gigantic river, suffocated by whirlwinds of mud, with one hand on an ox’s halter and the other on his ear. Then a peasant’s son explained to me the only feasible method: grab a beast’s tail and let myself be pulled along, taking care to avoid being struck by a hoof.
We were in the service of the cooperative, but our lives weren’t entirely communal. I ate my meals, for example, with my family—my parents and my niece and nephew—and no one else. When a pig was slaughtered each family in attendance would be called by name and given a bit of fat. Food distribution always took place in two stages: first came the “new people,” who were quickly provided for, and then the “old people.” The quantity and quality of the meat you got depended on the category you belonged to. Money was still refusing to disappear, and some among us were dreaming of becoming millionaires. “New people” could use jewelry or fabrics to negotiate with “old people.” A kilogram of pork cost hundreds of thousands of riels. Then everything stopped.
The atmosphere of those first months, as I perceived it, was characterized more by distrust than by fear. Everything surprised me. But the revolution hadn’t yet reached its radical phase, or to be more precise, its terror phase.
Around the same time, we received some sacks of hard corn, an official gift from our Chinese comrades. The kernels were huge, pale, and infested by insects. In the old days, such corn was usually fed to pigs, but we picked over those kernels, one by one. A peasant who saw how hungry I was offered me some dog. A man eats a dog, I thought. What an idea.
Two friends and I spotted a peninsula, and I swam out to it. I found fish and shellfish there: a treasure! I tied my catch around my neck and swam back, nearly drowning from sheer fatigue in the process. The river was ferrying along parts of trees, great blocks of earth, exhausted animals . . . Why deny it? It was an adventure. I discovered peasant life in all its harshness and power. I learned to lay traps and to smoke tobacco wrapped in sangker leaves, just as the children of the “old people” did. I said to myself, “Will my friends in Phnom Penh believe me when I tell them about all this? When I describe how I caught fish with my bare hands?” I was already thinking about telling my story. The road has been long, and I doubt that “my friends in Phnom Penh” are still alive.
Soon the prohibitions and vexations began to multiply. Communal living grew harder. The “old people” ate well and spoke harshly to us.
One morning I saw a harrowing sight: a swollen corpse floating on the river. I thought about the famine and all the fighting. Weeks passed. More bodies appeared in the river. Some of them got caught on steel-hard roots near the bank. We went closer. There was no blood, but the bodies had large purple bruises and deep cuts. Those men and women had been executed.
Revolutions are hungry. The prospect of telling my great adventure story began to fade in my mind, as did the hope of returning to my former life.
* * *
We ended up sleeping in the old couple’s house, right beside them. I remember that they prayed to Buddha and their ancestors at night, but they didn’t dare burn incense. Militiamen hid under the bamboo floor to listen in on our conversations. They heard my father wondering about Ieng Sary. Where was he now? Was he aware of the turn the revolution was taking? Would the two of them meet again? That celebrated name petrified the Khmer Rouge, who spared my parents.
The cold season came, heralded by the north wind and the subsidence of the big river. I gazed hungrily upon several kilos of fish in an enormous bomb crater, a souvenir from the B-52 bombardments, but I couldn’t catch any of them. I didn’t have the strength. I went home in tears, trembling with fever and staggering in the clayey mud.
The rice ripened, the cassava matured, and all the plants gave their fruits. But the Angkar decided that we had to leave. So we went on foot from Koh Tauch to where a motor boat was waiting for us, and we were taken to the other bank of the Bassac.
* * *
The Khmer Rouge used many terms I didn’t recognize. Frequently these were invented words based on existing ones; they mixed up sounds and meanings in disconcerting ways. Everything seemed to glide. To slip. Why did they use santebal, not the traditional word nokorbal, to designate the police? Another new word I discovered was kamaphibal. Kamak may be translated as “activity” or “action”—a kamakor is a worker—and phibal means “guard.” Literally a kamaphibal was a “guard of work,” a “guard of action.” The word denoted members of the Khmer Rouge cadres, who were our masters and jailers and had over us the power of life and death.
* * *
One night about twenty trucks appeared. The Khmer Rouge made many families, including mine, climb into these vehicles. The drivers, who were very young, didn’t speak to us. We drove into the suburbs of Phnom Penh. Everything looked empty. But many of the passengers in the trucks rejoiced, thinking they were going to return to their homes and—why not?—their former lives.
The convoy of trucks made a sudden turn. I remember an old man gazing at the stars and murmuring, “We’re going away from the city.” Then we fell silent. We were hungry and thirsty. The truck we rode in rattled along a dirt road that seemed to have no end. It stopped at last in the middle of the rice fields. The trucks discharged their passengers—the air was heavy with dust and gasoline vapors—and the convoy drove off. I tried to make out a village or some kind of shelter, but in vain. Nothing. The old people, the women, and we children sat down on the road. You could hear people murmuring and sighing. Nobody dared to speak. From time to time a Khmer Rouge came out of nowhere, made sure we were all there, and left without a word.
I remember the night was starry. Rustling, hissing, croaking sounds rose up from all around us. The countryside seemed to be in heat. And I couldn’t sleep.
Then the terrible sun began to climb the sky. We still didn’t know what was going on. A soldier brought us some bread and left us there in the middle of the immense rice field. A few days later, we got into some cattle cars in a rail yard. The doors slid closed with a metallic sound, and the train headed north. We were all on our feet and packed in tight. After several silent, exhausting hours I had the impression I could see into the darkness. The train kept stopping for no apparent reason. We’d wait alongside the tracks in the middle of the night. Some people started to cook a little rice, but a man shouted an order, we climbed back into the cars in a panic, and the train set out again.
* * *
The train eventually let us off near Mong, in the northwest part of the country. My mother handed Phal his bag and said simply, “It’s over now. Be on your way.” He begged us to keep him. It was horrible. He became a child again. He implored my mother, wringing his hands, but she remained inflexible. He’d betrayed us at a difficult moment; she couldn’t forgive him. Moreover she sensed that the worst was yet to come. We’d need to trust one another fully. And so he left. I can still see his tearful face, and then his silhouette disappearing into the night.
We climbed into some carts in which we bounced across the rice fields. It was an incredible trip, and at the end of it the Khmer Rouge ordered us out of the carts. It wasn’t possible to go any farther. We sat down in some ditches. When the dawn came we could see a stony, arid plain and an oasis of mango trees with a border of bamboo. We walked to a house, which belonged to the “old people” who would be in charge of us. We had to build everything, or almost everything, together with the few persons who seemed to be living there already. We were forbidden to use the well. The water in the canal was brown, and many of us fell sick.
We searched in vain for rice. The famine was getting worse. The authorities began to distribute bowls of lukewarm broth with green threads floating in it. That was our daily meal.
* * *
Starvation is the premier mass crime, always so difficult to establish with certainty, as if its very causes have been eaten up. Stalin starved his peasants by the millions. He persecuted his elites. His generals, his doctors, his friends, his relations, his family. Massacres are part of revolutions. Those who call for society to be upended know this fact very well and never condemn violence. Their argument is always the same: only new violence can drive out previous violence. The previous violence is hideous and cruel. The new violence is pure and beneficent; it transforms (not to say transfigures). It’s not violence aimed at an individual; it’s a political act. And blood purifies. Angkar’s slogan, which Duch so admired: “The blood debt must be repaid by blood.”
For an identifiable reason or no reason at all, the purges swoop down on some and leave others alone. They’re impossible to stop. The doctrines change, and so do the hands, but there’s always a blade and a guilty throat to cut in the name of justice, in the name of safeguarding the regime, in the name of some name. In the name of “proletarian morale,” Duch says. In the name of nothing: if a throat is slit, that in itself indicates the presence of some fault. Much is attributed to great criminals, and the following extraordinary statement is attributed to Stalin: “No people, no problems.”
* * *
The Khmer Rouge observed us constantly. They noticed my slender fingers. One of them snapped at me, “You’ve got bourgeois fingers. You’ve never held a hoe!” I’m a “new people”; I have a “new people’s” body; my new body, therefore, needs work. But hard labor, injuries, calluses change nothing. My fingers are still too slender. So I move away from the front rows. I learn to hide my hands, to clench my fists, to melt away, to disappear.
* * *
During our interviews, I was amazed to see how relaxed and attentive Duch was. He was an extremely calm man, however inhumane his crimes might have been. One could have imagined he’d forgotten them. Or that he hadn’t committed them. The question today is not to find out whether he’s human or not. He’s human at every instant; that’s the reason why he can be judged and condemned. No one can rightly authorize himself to humanize or dehumanize anyone. But no one can occupy Duch’s place in the human community. No one can duplicate his biographical, intellectual, and psychological trajectory. No one can believe he was a cog among other cogs in the killing machine. There’s a contemporary notion that we’re all potential torturers. This fatalism tinged with smugness exercises literature, film, and certain intellectuals. After all what’s more exciting than a great criminal? No, we’re not all a fraction of an inch, the depth of a sheet of paper, from committing a great crime. For my part I believe in facts and I look at the world. The victims are in their place. The torturers too.
* * *
From the book The Elimination: A survivor of the Khmer Rouge confronts his past and the commandant of the killing fields, published 2013.