"It is my duty," wrote the correspondent
of the Times at the liberation of Belsen, "to describe something beyond the
imagination of mankind." That was how I felt in the summer of 1979, arriving
in Cambodia in the wake of Pol Pot's genocidal regime.
In the silent, gray humidity, Phnom Penh, the size of Manchester,
was like a city that had sustained a nuclear cataclysm which had spared only
the buildings. Houses, flats, offices, schools, hotels stood empty and open,
as if vacated that day. Personal possessions lay trampled on a path; traffic
lights were jammed on red. There was almost no power, and no water to drink.
At the railway station, trains stood empty at various stages of interrupted
departure. Several carriages had been set on fire and contained bodies on top
of each other.
When the afternoon monsoon broke, the gutters were suddenly awash
with paper; but this was money. The streets ran with money, much of it new and
unused banknotes whose source, the National Bank of Cambodia, had been blown
up by the Khmer Rouge as they retreated before the Vietnamese army. Inside,
a pair of broken spectacles rested on an open ledger; I slipped and fell hard
on a floor brittle with coins. Money was everywhere. In an abandoned Esso station,
an old woman and three emaciated children squatted around a pot containing a
mixture of roots and leaves, which bubbled over a fire fueled with paper money:
thousands of snapping, crackling riel, brand-new from the De La Rue company
With tiny swifts rising and falling almost to the ground the only
movement, I walked along a narrow dirt road at the end of which was a former
primary school called Tuol Sleng. During the Pol Pot years it was run by a kind
of Gestapo, "S21," which divided the classrooms into a "torture unit" and
an "interrogation unit." I found blood and tufts of hair still on the floor,
where people had been mutilated on iron beds. Some 17,000 inmates had died a
kind of slow death here: a fact not difficult to confirm because the killers
photographed their victims before and after they tortured and killed them at
mass graves on the edge of the city. Names and ages, height and weight were
recorded. One room was filled to the ceiling with victims' clothes and shoes,
including those of many children.
Unlike Belsen or Auschwitz, Tuol Sleng was primarily a political
death center. Leading members of the Khmer Rouge movement, including those who
formed an early resistance to Pol Pot, were murdered here, usually after "confessing"
that they had worked for the CIA, the KGB, Hanoi: anything that would satisfy
the residing paranoia. Whole families were confined in small cells, fettered
to a single iron bar. Some slept naked on the stone floor. On a school blackboard
- Speaking is absolutely forbidden.
- Before doing something, the authorization of the warden must be obtained.
"Doing something" might mean only changing position in the cell,
and the transgressor would receive 20 to 30 strokes with a whip. Latrines were
small ammunition boxes labeled "Made in USA." For upsetting a box of excrement
the punishment was licking the floor with your tongue, torture or death, or
This is described, perhaps as never before, in a remarkable documentary,
S21: The Khmer Rouge Killing Machine, by Tuol Sleng's few survivors. The work
of the Paris-based Khmer director Rithy Panh, the film has such power that,
more than anything I have seen on Cambodia since I was there almost 25 years
ago, it moved me deeply, evoking the dread and incredulity that was a presence
then. Panh, whose parents died in Pol Pot's terror, succeeded in bringing together
victims and torturers and murderers at Tuol Sleng, now a genocide museum.
Van Nath, a painter, is the principal survivor. He is gray-haired
now; I cannot be sure, but I may have met him at the camp in 1979; certainly,
a survivor told me his life had been saved when it was found he was a sculptor
and he was put to work making busts of Pol Pot. The courage, dignity and patience
of this man when, in the film, he confronts former torturers, "the ordinary
and obscure journeymen of the genocide," as Panh calls them, is unforgettable.
The film has a singular aim: a confrontation, in the best sense,
between the courage and determination of those like Nath, who want to understand,
and the jailers, whose catharsis is barely beginning. There is Houy the deputy
head of security, Khan the torturer, Thi who kept the registers, who all seem
detached as they recall, almost wistfully, Khmer Rouge ideology; and there is
Poeuv, indoctrinated as a guard at the age of 12 or 13. In one spellbinding
sequence, he becomes robotic, as if seized by his memory and transported back.
He shows us, with moronic precision, how he intimidated prisoners, fastened
their handcuffs and shackles, gave or denied them food, ordered them to piss,
threatening to beat them with "the club" if a drop fell on the floor. His actions
confront all of us with the truth about human "cogs" in machines whose inventors
and senior managers politely disclaim responsibility, like the still untried
Khmer Rouge leaders and their foreign sponsors.
Panh, whose film-making is itself an act of courage, sees something
positive in the mere act of bearing witness and, speaking of the prisoners,
in "the resistance [that is] a form of dignity that is profoundly human."
He refers to the "little things, these insubstantial details, so slight and
fragile, which make us what we are. You can never entirely 'destroy' a human
being. A trace always remains, even years later ... a refusal to accept humiliation
can sometimes be conveyed by a look of defiance, a chin slightly raised, a refusal
to capitulate under blows ... The photographs of certain prisoners and the confessions
conserved at Tuol Sleng are there to remind us of it."
It seems almost disrespectful to take issue at this point; but
one must. For too long Pol Pot and his gang have been an iconic horror show
in the west, stripped of the reasons why. And this extraordinary film, it has
to be said, adds little to the why. When Pol Pot died in his bed a few years
ago, I was asked by a features editor to write about him. I said I would, but
that the role of "civilized" governments in bringing him to power, sustaining
his movement and rejuvenating it was a critical component. He wasn't interested.
The genocide in Cambodia did not begin on April 17 1975, "Year
Zero." It began more than five years earlier when American bombers killed
an estimated 600,000 Cambodians. Phosphorous and cluster bombs, napalm and dump
bombs that left vast craters were dropped on a neutral country of peasant people
and straw huts. In one six-month period in 1973, more tons of American bombs
were dropped on Cambodia than were dropped on Japan during the second world
war: the equivalent of five Hiroshimas. The regime of Richard Nixon and Henry
Kissinger did this, secretly and illegally.
Unclassified CIA files leave little doubt that the bombing was
the catalyst for Pol Pot's fanatics, who, before the inferno, had only minority
support. Now, a stricken people rallied to them. In Panh's film, a torturer
refers to the bombing as his reason for joining "the maquis": the Khmer Rouge.
What Nixon and Kissinger began, Pol Pot completed. And having been driven out
by the Vietnamese, who came from the wrong side of the cold war, the Khmer Rouge
were restored in Thailand by the Reagan administration, assisted by the Thatcher
government, who invented a "coalition" to provide the cover for America's continuing
war against Vietnam.
Thank you, Rithy Panh, for your brave film; what is needed now
is a work as honest, which confronts "us" and relieves our amnesia about the
part played by our respectable leaders in Cambodia's epic tragedy.