The record of Bou Meng’s suffering is inscribed on his body. A man of stunted stature, his sunken, toothless mouth and mangled ears testify to frequent beatings and torture. Decades-old scars from rattan sticks and whips are etched into his back and shoulders. Although the 68-year-old is animated – his speech is punctuated by broad, frantic gestures – he is equal parts anger and grief, a firestorm of emotion.
Bou Meng is one of only a handful of prisoners to have survived the S-21 detention and torture centre in Phnom Penh. He testified before the Khmer Rouge tribunal in July.
‘I never saw my wife again,’ Bou Meng told judges as his former captor, the chief of S-21, sat just feet away. Kaing Guek Eav went by the revolutionary named ‘Comrade Duch’ and is the first defendant to face trial at the UN-backed court. Khmer Rouge cadres separated Bou Meng and his wife when they arrived at S-21; for months, Bou Meng says, he was accused of conspiring with the CIA and KGB and violently interrogated. He remembers watching blood flow from his body to the ground beneath him and falling unconscious when electrical wires were placed near his genitals. He was only saved from execution when the Khmer Rouge discovered he could paint exact likenesses of ‘Brother Number One’ Pol Pot.
‘I was a victim and the scope of my suffering was incalculable,’ said Bou Meng, who brought a picture of his lost wife to the court hoping to learn more about her fate. ‘I was almost killed. We were treated like animals.’
Among his tormentors, he told judges, was Comrade Him Huy.
‘Cruel Him’ was known to many prisoners as a particularly violent staffer at S-21, though there is some uncertainty about his actual duties. While victims have reported that he was one of the detention center’s chief executioners, he maintains that he killed only a few people and primarily assisted in guarding and transporting prisoners to their deaths.
But when Him Huy himself took the witness stand several weeks after Bou Meng, with his plain, courteous country language and ill-fitting suit jacket, he appeared far from menacing. He told judges that while prisoners and lower-ranking staff may have feared him he was terrified that he would be purged by Duch and believed there was no escape from S-21.
‘Even if I tried to flee S-21, I would have ended up being arrested. Because where would I go?’ he asked. Into enemy Vietnamese territory? Leaving his family behind to perish at the hands of the Khmer Rouge?
‘We are all victims,’ he continued, lamenting the suffering of S-21 staff.
A questionable statement, perhaps. How could a man who killed dozens, possibly hundreds, of people, consider himself a victim? And while co-opting the use of this term may be inappropriate for Him Huy, the time I have spent reporting the Khmer Rouge tribunal has convinced me that casting perpetrators as one-dimensional monsters is not only inaccurate, it obscures the complex nature of culpability for Khmer Rouge atrocities.
Dubbed the ‘Red Khmers’ by King Norodom Sihanouk, the Marxist guerilla movement came to power in 1975 after years of fighting a revolution from the country’s jungles. The Khmer Rouge had recruited heavily from areas devastated by US bombing and many of the troops were young and illiterate and never understood the basics of communist ideology. For the most part, low-ranking Khmer Rouge believed they were fighting to liberate their country, and to protect Cambodia from Vietnamese encroachment.
But in the paranoid and arbitrary government established by the Khmer Rouge, no one was safe, not even the movement’s most loyal followers. The smallest mistake, most remote unsavory relation or slightest perceived lapse in ‘revolutionary consciousness’ could lead to death. The result, according to Rutgers University Professor Alex Hinton, a specialist in the anthropology of mass atrocity, was that ‘today’s perpetrators became tomorrow’s victims’.
While the Khmer Rouge did target certain ethnic groups – such as the Vietnamese, Chinese and Cham Muslims – the vast majority of the 1.7 million people who lost their lives under the regime were fellow Khmers. S-21 is actually a microcosm of this phenomenon. Although the facility was originally used to ‘smash’ foreigners and members of the old regime, it quickly became a vehicle for widespread political purges.
Internal purges are by no means unique to Cambodian communism. But what is particularly tragic about the Cambodian case, claims Hinton, is that such extensive purges were carried out ‘not just among the officials of the regime but also all the way down to the village level.’
In the minds of local leaders desperate to account for the regime’s failings, a lost cow or poor harvest became evidence of ‘hidden enemies’ sabotaging the revolution from within.
It is hard to know what any of us would do under these conditions. A few very brave souls might buck the status quo, but they would most likely pay for resistance with their lives. I believe the majority of people would sacrifice their ideals, to varying extents, in order to survive.
Him Huy, no doubt, is one of those people.
After seeing Him Huy testify, I wanted to talk to him in person, to learn how he copes with his past and whom he blames for the disastrous Khmer Rouge years. Huy Vannak, a reporter with Radio Free Asia, arranged a meeting for me. He began working with Him Huy and other perpetrators a number of years ago as a staffer at the Documentation Center of Cambodia and he has stayed in touch with some of them.
Huy Vannak wouldn’t really consider Him Huy a ‘friend’, he says as we drive the two hours to his house outside of Phnom Penh. But he stops by to visit whenever he is in the area and has brought some books for Him Huy’s nine-year-old son.
‘I’ve known him since he was a baby,’ he explains, ‘and his family is poor.’
Him Huy lives in a typical Cambodian stilt house just off one of the country’s highways. Downstairs are several cows he takes care of for another villager. He is paid for the work and can keep any calves born to the animals.
As we arrive, several of his nine children gather to stare. One, who is wearing an oversized John Cena T-shirt – professional wrestling is hugely popular in Cambodia – shyly accepts the books Huy Vannak has brought for him. Another of Him Huy’s sons is less interested in our presence. Him explains that he has ‘a lung problem’ (most likely asthma) and the boy’s bony chest heaves as he tries to breathe. His mother scrapes his back repeatedly with a jar lid – a folk remedy known as ‘coining’ – leaving long red streaks on his small torso.
Him Huy asks us to come upstairs and we climb a ladder into the house’s only room. As we sit on a new straw mat, he offers us tea and warm corn cakes. Immediately Him Huy strikes me as a charismatic person. He jokes with Huy Vannak about the court-issued jacket he wore to testify and when he laughs, the network of fault lines on his face crinkles into an all-consuming smile.
His demeanour becomes far more somber, however, when we start discussing Duch and S-21. Him Huy says he never wanted to join the Khmer Rouge, but because he came from an area that supported the guerilla movement, he had no choice. He left home to fight when he was around sixteen and tried to run away several times. Like a schoolboy, he says he even faked illness and fabricated family problems because he missed his mom and her homemade Khmer cupcakes.
Although his superiors told him and other young troops they were ‘fighting imperialist forces,’ Him Huy says he never understood Khmer Rouge ideology.
‘I was too young to understand,’ he says. ‘I asked, “What are imperialists? What is capitalism?” And they told us, “They are the groups that make the difference between rich and poor.”’
Him Huy fought with the Khmer Rouge for several years before they took control of the country. He says he does not know why, in 1976, he was assigned to work as a guard at S-21. Despite Bou Meng’s testimony, Him Huy maintains that his role in torture and executions was minimal and that he was only promoted because his superiors were repeatedly purged.
‘I was afraid for my life too,’ he says. ‘My colleagues were arrested and I did not believe they were enemies of the revolution. We ate together, worked together, and they were killed for no reason.’
As we talk, I notice that several of Him Huy’s children have gathered to listen to our conversation, lying on the floor and lingering in the doorway. Does he mind discussing his past so openly? I wonder. Is he worried he or his children will face discrimination from other villagers?
‘My children do not blame me, because they know I had no choice at that time. Even the villagers do not blame me. They feel sympathy for my situation.’
Him Huy does not think Duch would fare as well in his village, however.
‘If the court ever releases him, he would be killed,’ he says, with sudden anger in his voice. ‘I am still furious with Duch. Even in the court, I did not want to look at his face. It brings back too many painful memories of when I was ordered to arrest my comrades.’
When we’ve finished our interview, I ask Him Huy if I can look around his house. Studio portraits of family members cover the walls, many featuring babies posed with colourful fruit and flowers. They look like the pictures I have seen in dozens of other Cambodian houses.
Him Huy walks us down the dirt path back to our car and thanks us for coming. He stands at the highway’s edge, smiling and waving, as we begin the drive back to Phnom Penh. In so many ways, he is completely unremarkable. If he hadn’t been a certain age at a certain time in an area of Cambodia that supported the Khmer Rouge, he probably would have never become a killer.
Our meeting brought to mind my conversations with Theary Seng, a Cambodian-American activist who lost both her parents to the Khmer Rouge. Immigrating to the US as a child after the fall of Democratic Kampuchea, Seng completed her law degree in America before relocating to Cambodia five years ago. She was formerly the executive director of the Center for Social Development, a human rights organization based in Phnom Penh, and has been a vocal advocate for victim’s rights at the tribunal.
‘Is the Khmer Rouge not I, but one degree removed at birth?’ Seng asked during a recent public forum, highlighting the role that chance and circumstance played in the movement’s recruitment. Had she been born in a rural area that supported the Khmer Rouge – and not to an educated Phnom Penh family – Seng herself could have been a young cadre. ‘There is depravity in each of us. We can perpetrate the violence we are denouncing.’
I have known her since I first came to Cambodia in 2004 and Seng has always impressed me as someone with a thorough understanding of the various actors responsible for the Cambodian tragedy – from high-level international powers to low-ranking Khmer Rouge village leaders.
Clearly, only a tiny percentage of those at fault will ever be held accountable legally. The tribunal itself is limited in scope. Its mandate is to try ‘senior leaders’ and ‘those most responsible’ for atrocities committed during the period of Democratic Kampuchea, from 1975 to 1979. What about the hundreds of thousands of Cambodians killed before 1975 in US bombing raids, former Khmer Rouge supporters often ask. Or the Chinese government, which funneled weapons and technical support to Democratic Kampuchea?
It may be a dissatisfying answer, but no, they are not on trial.
‘Justice has always been selective,’ Seng told me, ‘and given the massive scale of these crimes can only be symbolic.’
But organizations like CSD have used the tribunal as a catalyst for outreach and education throughout the country. International actors may be unwilling to step forward and acknowledge their culpability, but Seng says that doesn’t mean average Khmers Rouge shouldn’t take responsibility for their actions. The guilt of others does not absolve you of your crimes.
‘Whatever the international political situation, at the end of the day it was Cambodians killing Cambodians,’ Seng says. Following Seng’s logic, even low-ranking cadres, like Him Huy, should move beyond merely blaming their superiors and claiming they ‘had no choice’. Indeed, they may have been killed if they had disobeyed orders. But they still made a choice, however difficult, and that decision comes with consequences.
I, and others, would probably feel uncomfortable condemning people who are forced to make such horrendous decisions. This is why, as Seng says, we should approach our judgments of former Khmers Rouge with ‘a sense of humility. If we had been in their position, maybe we would have done the same thing.’
In turn, those who committed crimes – even under threat of death – should find ways to reconcile with their pasts, and with those who they have made suffer. Cambodia’s national court system is notoriously corrupt and dysfunctional, so a far-reaching legal solution is not the answer. But there are other, perhaps culturally resonant ways, to achieve a sense of justice and healing.
For example, the mother of Youk Chhang, the head of DC-Cam, was deeply moved by the apology she received from a former Khmer Rouge village chief. The man had overseen the area where several of her relatives disappeared. After the regime fell, he rode his bicycle all the way to Phnom Penh, carrying offerings of meat and bananas, to ask for forgiveness.
‘Her attitude is a very Buddhist one and his act put her heart to rest,’ Chhang wrote in an essay for DC-Cam.
I believe both victims and perpetrators could benefit from such homegrown acts of forgiveness and reconciliation.
After a long day of testimony at the tribunal, during which he said he was too excited and nervous to eat his lunch, Bou Meng praised the court for its work. My ‘chest seems to be lighter’, he told judges, even though he understands that they cannot provide flawless justice.
For him, having a former S-21 staffer tell him where his wife was killed and buried would also bring a good deal of closure. He cannot perform a traditional Cambodian cremation because it would be too difficult to identify her bones. But, Bou Meng told Duch at the tribunal, if he could find out where she spent her final moments, he would ‘go to that location to get the soil from there to pray for her soul’. Both Duch and Him Huy maintain that they do not know exactly what happened to her.
‘Only the spirit of the earth knows where the soul has gone,’ Bou said of his lost wife, ‘or where the bodies are buried’.
He is still waiting for someone to come forward.
Featured photograph by Luca Nebuloni