Visit to Khmer Rouge Tribunal sparks old memories

Kaing Guek Eav, also known as Duch, testifies at the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia yesterday. ECCC

Convicted of crimes against humanity, Kaing Guek Eav, also known as Duch, testifies at the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia in June. Source: ECCC/Phnom Penh Post.

The idea was not so much to report on testimony given at what is officially named the Extraordinary Chambers of the Courts in Cambodia, or ECCC, a U.N. funded organization that otherwise is known as the Khmer Rouge Tribunal.  It was a sense of obligation.

The courts’ multi-million-dollar mission since its creation in 2006 has been to prosecute ultimately just a few of the individuals involved in the genocide of more than 1.7 million Cambodians in the 1970s.  That the government is filled with former adherents of the Khmer Rouge has resulted in years of negotiations, stalling and the resulting freedom from trial of thousands and thousands of killers.

Prime Minister Hun Sen, who has held onto his position for 31 years, acknowledges that he once was a relatively senior member of the Khmer Rouge before he changed sides.

Having already borne witness to the atrocities committed by Cambodians against Cambodians at a high school that became the notorious S-21 prison — referred to as Toul Sleng — and the killing fields, I decided it was high time that I observe the trial taking place 16 kilometers (10 miles) from downtown Phnom Penh.  My goal was less to recount testimony but more to share with readers how it felt to get and be there.

It was an unexpectedly chilling experience because I had waited until the man known as Duch reappeared as a witness after a four-year absence from the proceedings.  His presence last month followed his conviction and lost appeal in connection with crimes that I, and undoubtedly you, find incomprehensible.

Duch (sort of rhymes with “took”) ran Toul Sleng, overseeing the torture of prisoners and the execution of men, women and children.  At the Tribunal, he responded to questions firmly and often gestured to underscore his answers.

ECCC wide view

Visitors sit facing a glass wall between them and the proceedings. First to enter the auditorium, I was directed to a seat at the center far left, where I had a fine view of what transpired.  Simultaneous translation was provided via earphones.  (All Khmer Rouge Tribunal photos supplied by ECCC)

Describing the ECCC site as inconvenient is like calling a root canal annoying.  I haven’t been able to discover in a cursory internet search why it is at such a remove, four kilometers past the airport.  Was the choice of location somehow politically motivated?

To get there in time, I climbed onto the rear of a motor scooter at 7:15 a.m. and arrived through teeming traffic at 8:30 a.m.  My lower back had begun to twinge by then, my nose had started to itch persistently from the dust and the too-small helmet my motodop had loaned me caused a headache.

The worst of it was having to travel in both directions part of the way beside what amounts to a fetid open sewer clogged with all manner of detritus, little of it seeming to be biodegradable.

The thoroughfare -- where trucks, autos, bicycles, pedestrians and motos compete with each other -- is on the left. Restaurants (!) line the other side of the water.

Returning from the Tribunal, I snapped this photo.  The thoroughfare — where trucks, autos, bicycles, pedestrians and motos compete with each other — is on the left. Restaurants (!) line the other side of the canal, and they are visible toward the top center of the photo, a sight not unlike another malodorous canal near Toul Sleng, which is a 15-minute stroll from my apartment.

A long dirt road leads to the Tribunal from the thoroughfare, and I dismounted close to the reception area.  There, I displayed my passport as a required means of identifying myself, entered its number and signed in.

Given a green paper pass with a paper clip to attach the slip to my shirt, I walked around the corner to security, where I went through a metal detector, had my little plastic bag containing a notebook and sunscreen x-rayed, and surrendered my cellphone, as the excellent ECCC site had forewarned me would be mandatory.  (The site also said that proper dress was required, meaning that my standard attire of shorts and t-shirt would have been inappropriate.)

At the entrance to the building, a security guard gestured to an expansive tin-roofed shed, where a blur of just under 200 blue-uniformed students of apparently high school age sat around tables waiting to be ushered inside for the 9 a.m. opening.  There was a misting system plus free cooled water, amenities that struck me as thoughtful, if atypical, for this part of the world.

ECCC Building 2

The ECCC building, which is an inconvenient distance from the center of Phnom Penh.

Managing to beat the students to the door when I sensed that it was time to enter, I was first in line.  Once again, I had to pass through a metal detector and have my little bag inspected. Passing into the curved visitor’s gallery, which had the ambiance of a nicely air-conditioned theater, I was handed headphones to hear translations and was directed to the last row of blue-cushioned seats at dead center.

Five other Westerners ultimately sat near me, leaving me to wonder why they were so far off the conventional tourist track and surmising that perhaps they were new to the country as volunteers or paid workers.  I also noticed the absence of any Cambodians who were not evidently students, a number of whom eventually looked variously restless or sleepy, thereby attracting the attention of one of the three security guards in the room.

In front me was a glass wall, but a white curtain on the other side temporarily masked the chamber on the other side.

The curtain is what gave me my first of three chills.  

It rekindled memories of the time that I reported on an execution in San Quentin’s gas chamber when I was a fledgling reporter, then for Time magazine.  Observers waited trepidatiously in a dim room around the pea-green round chamber with, at least in my case, mounting anxiety as a shroud of sorts parted to make visible to us witnesses the interior of the capsule where a murderer was half dragged to die. (Whether there actually was some kind of curtain may not be accurate, but such is the image burned into my brain.)

Given the deaths that cast their collective black shadow over the Tribunal’s proceedings, perhaps you can imagine how eery the scene felt to me when the curtains there also were drawn as a bell rang to announce the start time.

What I saw then gave me my second chill.

It was, as I had suspected before TV images provided a view of his face, the back of Duch’s head, visible just above the back of his chair.  His pate glistened; it now lacked the hair he had at the time of his last appearance years ago, when he learned that the judges had rejected the appeal of his conviction of crimes against humanity.

ECCC hearing room

Wall-mounted cameras broadcast live and record the proceedings, easing the burdens of press coverage. Bottom right, one of four TV monitors in the visitors’ gallery.  Wood paneling enhances the facility’s texture of formality.  You also can spot tall white air conditioners in the chamber.

I am unable (and do not want) to forget the Nuremberg trials or the more recent ones condemning the world’s despots, so seeing Duch was akin to seeing uncompromisingly cruel dictators incarnate.  Certainly, he must be considered evil incarnate, though admittedly  his power was nothing like Hitler’s or any other irredeemably heartless head of state living or dead.

There are banks and banks of lawyers, some in ceremonial garb. Facing the auditorium against the far wall are the seven judges.  To the visitors’ right side sit defense attorneys; to the left are the prosecutors.  Their number amazes me.

As one of the prosecutors began his questioning of Duch, talking slowly doubtless to help the translators, the minutia he sought to elucidate was excruciatingly boring to me.  But then he zeroed in on who ordered the killings at Toul Sleng.

That line of questioning was the cause of my third chill.

The prosecutor wanted to know whether defendant Nuon Chea, who elected to be present remotely, had ordered Duch to eliminate not only the men in the prison but their wives and children.  Why, the Toul Sleng warden was asked in reference to a word he had used in previous testimony, did they have to be “smashed?”  Smashed!

Defendant Nuon Chea

Defendant Nuon Chea, 90

His former commander, Nuon Chea, ordered the executions, Duch said, in order to forestall revenge.  I was surprised by how vigorous Duch, 73, sounded in all of his testimony, though he is only a year older than me and probably I should have expected otherwise.

After little more than an hour, I decided that enough was enough.

When I finally returned from the Khmer Rouge Tribunal, I asked four much younger Khmer acquaintances whether they, too, had visited the court.  Two of them are the offspring of privilege, their class having been the regime’s prime targets.

Their answers did not much surprise me.

One who has had to drop out of college to work devours world history and current events with the passion of football (soccer) fans in this part of the world.  He would like to attend, said Sameth, but he doesn’t have time.  I believe him.

The second one frowned and declared he did not want to dredge up the past.  Having lost a grandfather to the Khmer Rouge, he allowed, it makes him too sad to contemplate.

A third friend grimaced when I queried him.  It is too much, he confessed, he already had confronted the past.

The fourth acquaintance told me he has been too busy to go, but him I do not believe.  He hasn’t had one day in a decade to get to the site?  I pressed him gently, and it became clear to me that he just couldn’t bring himself to head to the ECCC.

I have no way of knowing whether my sample is representative of the younger generation in Cambodia, all of those to whom I spoke having been born after the Khmer Rouge fell in January of 1979 after four horrific years.  Yet I suspect that most of those born after the Pol Pot years seek to look ahead rather than behind.

What worries me is the essential truth — at least around the world if not in Cambodia — in what the much quoted Edmund Burke said: “Those who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it.”

I have to concede that perhaps Cambodians feel the searing pain of a history in which more than 1.7 million of them — a generation of artists, intellectuals, working stiffs and other folks like you and me — were starved, worked, tortured or literally smashed to death, often a combination of such atrocities.

I am constantly reminded of the effects of the genocide here.  It cannot be ignored.  With whole families wiped out and buried in unmarked mass graves, certainly we understand that many Cambodians have been hurt quite enough to minimize how much they choose to remember on top of the horrors that cannot be erased from memory.

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