The ordinary man who became the Khmer Rouge’s jailer

Never forget: the terrifying normality of Comrade Duch -- by the prisoner who survived.

The head of Tuol Sleng, the Khmer Rouge prison where more than 15,000 men, women and children were tortured and killed, has just been sentenced to 35 years in jail (though he is expected to serve just 17).

Kaing Guek Eav, or Comrade Duch, is the first senior Khmer Rouge cadre to be tried and convicted by an international tribunal in the Cambodian capital, Phnom Penh. The case has brought the barbarity and callousness of the Pol Pot regime -- which caused the death of roughly a quarter of the country's population between 1975 and 1979 -- once more to the world's notice.

It would be easy to paint Duch as a monster. At one level, clearly he is. But to lay the blame for the atrocities of the Khmer Rouge at the door of a few "evil" people is too simplistic. Prime Minister Hun Sen (himself ex-Khmer Rouge) would rather the legal proceedings go no further than the current five cases -- which is an acknowledgement that the layers of complicity, whether voluntary or forced, run deep and wide. "If as many as 20 Khmer Rouge are indicted to stand trial and war returns to Cambodia, who will be responsible for that?" he asked last year.

Hun Sen may well be justified in fearing what could be unearthed, both because of the prominence of the politicians who could be fingered and for the effect delving into the past could have on a country that needs to preserve and build on shallow foundations of reconciliation. (It is only 13 years since different armed forces last fought each other in the capital).

But another way of looking at the larger picture lies not in levelling further accusations, but in trying, somehow or other, to understand how so many people could have acted so terribly.

For the good of Cambodia

One man in particular is well placed to comment. François Bizot is a French scholar who worked at the Angkor Conservation Office in the early 1970s. In October 1971 he was captured and, accused of being a CIA spy, held by the Khmer Rouge at Camp M13 in the far north of the country. The overseer of the camp was . . . none other than Comrade Duch.

Bizot wrote a remarkable memoir of his time in the camp and of the subsequent fall of Phnom Penh to the hardline Maoist regime, which he witnessed. "The Gate" was considered to contain such valuable insights that he was the first witness called to testify in Duch's trial when it began in April last year.

Bizot recalled that initially he thought those who commit unspeakable crimes must be "of a different species", but he came to realise that the truth was "much more tragic, much more frightening". Duch was "a man who resembled others", "polite", "a tireless worker", "a Communist-Marxist ready to lose his life if necessary for his country and for the revolution".

"The humanity that is his own," said Bizot, "was obviously not an obstacle to the killings he perpetrated." But "the final goal of his commitment was the good of Cambodia and fighting injustice".

The ambiguity that has haunted Bizot ever since is that he owes his life to this man. It was Duch, the jailer of Tuol Sleng, who wrote the report to his superiors in "Angkar", the party's Big Brother-like organisation, that secured the Frenchman's release. No other westerner is known to have survived imprisonment by the Khmer Rouge.

"Trying to understand is not to forgive," said Bizot. No, not in this case, it isn't. But trying to understand is necessary if we are to remember that "the banality of evil" was not confined to Hitler's Germany. (You can read a comparison of the Khmer Rouge with the Nazis in Der Spiegel here.)

To make a monster of Duch is almost to take away his responsibility. A psychiatric report on him commissioned by the court concluded that the prisoner was medically and mentally normal; he could, in theory at least, one day be reintegrated into society.

It is the fact that Duch, and countless others in Cambodia, were so ordinary which makes their crimes so chilling. That is what we should try to understand. And if we cannot, if the enormity of their wickedness is ultimately beyond comprehension -- then it is certainly what we should remember.

Sholto Byrnes is a Contributing Editor to the New Statesman
Photo: Getty
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We argue over Charlie Gard, but forget those spending whole lives caring for a disabled child

The everyday misery of care work is hidden behind abstract arguments over life and death.

“Sometimes,” says the mother, “I wish we’d let him go. Or that he’d just been allowed to slip away.” The father agrees, sometimes. So too does the child, who is not a child any more.

On good days, nobody thinks this way, but not all days are good. There have been bright spots during the course of the past four decades, occasional moments of real hope, but now everyone is tired, everyone is old and the mundane work of loving takes a ferocious toll.

When we talk about caring for sick children, we usually mean minors. It’s easiest that way. That for some parents, the exhaustion and intensity of those first days with a newborn never, ever ends – that you can be in your fifties, sixties, seventies, caring for a child in their twenties, thirties, forties – is not something the rest of us want to think about.

It’s hard to romanticise devotion strung out over that many hopeless, sleepless nights. Better to imagine the tragic mother holding on to the infant who still fits in her loving arms, not the son who’s now twice her size, himself edging towards middle-age and the cliff edge that comes when mummy’s no longer around.

Writing on the tragic case of Charlie Gard, the Guardian’s Giles Fraser claims that he would “rain fire on the whole world to hold my child for a day longer”. The Gard case, he argues, has “set the cool rational compassion of judicial judgement and clinical expertise against the passion of parental love”: “Which is why those who have never smelled the specific perfume of Charlie’s neck, those who have never held him tight or wept and prayed over his welfare, are deemed better placed to determine how he is to live and die.”

This may be true. It may also be true that right now, countless parents who have smelled their own child’s specific perfume, held them tightly, wept for them, loved them beyond all measure, are wishing only for that child’s suffering to end. What of their love? What of their reluctance to set the world aflame for one day more? And what of their need for a life of their own, away from the fantasies of those who’ll passionately defend a parent’s right to keep their child alive but won’t be there at 5am, night after night, cleaning out feeding tubes and mopping up shit?

Parental – in particular, maternal – devotion is seen as an endlessly renewable resource. A real parent never gets tired of loving. A real parent never wonders whether actually, all things considered, it might have caused less suffering for a child never to have been born at all. Such thoughts are impermissible, not least because they’re dangerous. Everyone’s life matters. Nonetheless, there are parents who have these thoughts, not because they don’t love their children, but because they do.

Reporting on the Gard case reminds me of the sanitised image we have of what constitutes the life of a parent of a sick child. It’s impossible not to feel enormous compassion for Charlie’s parents. As the mother of a toddler, I know that in a similar situation I’d have been torn apart. It’s not difficult to look at photos of Charlie and imagine one’s own child in his place. All babies are small and helpless; all babies cry out to be held.

But attitudes change as children get older. In the case of my own family, I noticed a real dropping away of support for my parents and disabled brother as the latter moved into adulthood. There were people who briefly picked him up as a kind of project and then, upon realising that there would be no schmaltzy ending to the story, dropped him again. Love and compassion don’t conquer all, patience runs out and dignity is clearly best respected from a distance.

All too often, the everyday misery of care work is hidden behind abstract arguments over who gets the right to decide whether an individual lives or dies. I don’t know any parents who truly want that right. Not only would it be morally untenable, it’s also a misrepresentation of what their struggles really are and mean.

What many parents who remain lifelong carers need is adequate respite support, a space in which to talk honestly, and the recognition that actually, sometimes loving is a grim and hopeless pursuit. Those who romanticise parental love – who, like Fraser, wallow in heroic portrayals of “battling, devoted parents” – do nothing to alleviate the suffering of those whose love mingles with resentment, exhaustion and sheer loneliness.

There are parents out there who, just occasionally, would be willing to set the world on fire to have a day’s respite from loving. But regardless of whether your child lives or dies, love never ends. 

Glosswitch is a feminist mother of three who works in publishing.