The Master of Confessions by Thierry Cruvellier

Books Reviews
The Master of Confessions by Thierry Cruvellier

Amid the horror that engulfed Southeast Asia in the wartime 1960s and ‘70s, an even more hideous atrocity eventually revealed itself in Cambodia.

The killing fields.

Between 1975 and 1979, the Khmer Rouge regime of Pol Pot and a secretive, paranoid Communist revolutionary cadre starved to death, worked to death or slaughtered more expeditiously through torture and execution an estimated 2 million men, women and children—roughly a quarter of Cambodia’s entire population.

As Cambodia immersed itself in genocide, one institution stood out for exemplary competence and meticulous recordkeeping in the administration of death: the S-21 prison in Phnom Penh. Its faithful party functionary superintendent, responsible for the torture and execution of 12,000 people or more, went by the name Duch.

We have here his strange and appalling story—math teacher turned revolutionary, turned death camp administrator, turned born-again Christian, turned defendant before an international tribunal.

Through the lens of Duch’s trial, Thierry Cruvellier tells of the man’s crimes against humanity. The proceeding began formally in February 2009 and concluded with a guilty verdict the following year. Cruvellier, a friend of this reviewer, has covered every international trial on war crimes and crimes against humanity in recent history: Rwanda, Sierra Leone, Bosnia and Cambodia. As the only journalist to have done so, he holds a unique position for understanding and describing the operation of such courts, from the groundwork laid by impassioned, idealistic human rights activists to the multinational political expediency that inevitably compromises their judicial scope.

Cruvellier’s book examines a microcosm—the specific evidence presented against one man during one trial. We do not see a panoramic view of Cambodian history or even the segment of history consumed by the killing fields. Like the court, Cruvellier concerns himself only with Duch. How does a teacher, an educated man dedicated to the instruction of children, willingly morph into a merciless interrogator? A man who penned this order to his subordinates?

Did not confess. Torture him!
Hit him in the face
We must apply pressure absolutely
Beat them all to death
Smash them to pieces

A mass murderer, particularly one who murders with the blessing of the state, confounds the human capacity to respond. He presents a temptation as well: to categorize him as a “monster,” set apart from other humans. One who willingly does the things Duch did—or runs the gas chamber for the Nazis or facilitates the Great Purge for Stalin or hacks his Rwandan neighbors to death with a machete—must somehow be fundamentally different from the rest of us.

Yet Cruvellier encounters a disturbing truth, revealed repeatedly from Nuremburg on down through the bloody decades: Monstrous things can be done by ordinary people—people much like their victims, much like their judges.

Francois Bizot, a Frenchman who survived imprisonment by Duch in a camp that served as predecessor to S-21, told this to the tribunal:

I feel that these crimes were the crimes of a man, and that in order to understand their horror, we mustn’t transform Duch into some kind of monster, but rather acknowledge his humanity, which is just like ours, and which obviously was not an obstacle, unfortunately, to the massive killings that were perpetrated. I fear that we have a far more terrifying understanding of the executioner when we measure him in human terms.

Duch’s path from the classroom to the killing fields required a reinvention. Born Kaing Guek Eav, he decided as a 22-year-old Communist convert in 1964 to adopt the name of a great Cambodian sculptor, Duch. (Although its English rendering would appear to rhyme with Dutch, it is actually pronounced more like “doik.”) He wanted to become a new man.

Eventually, Duch left his teaching job and joined the Khmer Rouge maquis. In 1971, they assigned him to run a police unit called M-13 in maquis-controlled territory. At M-13, Cruvellier writes, the Khmer Rouge developed the torture and execution techniques that would reach their fullness at S-21. Sometimes moving the camp, as American B-52s bombed the Cambodian countryside, Duch learned the use of whippings, beatings, burnings, suffocations and all manner of “enhanced interrogation” to extract confessions.

On April 17, 1975, the victorious Khmer Rouge entered Phnom Penh and immediately set about radically reinventing their nation, renaming it Kampuchea and forcing entire city populations to relocate en masse to the countryside. Just as immediately, the secrecy-obsessed party leadership began ferreting out suspected spies. S-21, established at a school in the capital city, eventually became the nexus of the party’s self-purge—a central hell where suspected spies were sent for torture, confession and execution. Without fail, each confession yielded a list of accomplices, whether actually culpable or just unlucky enough to have their names blurted out at random by a desperate prisoner. Authorities then arrested the “accomplices,” conducted new tortures and new interrogations. The cycle repeated.

Duch started at S-21 as an assistant, but took charge when his boss fell victim to the purge and was himself executed. His boss’s demise reinforced for Duch a central truth: Eventually he too would be devoured, as the purge led inexorably to a wider and wider network of “accomplices.” Everyone would be ensnared.

Certain that his own date with the executioner lay ahead, Duch nevertheless kept things running smoothly. His staff photographed each inmate and carefully wrote down and preserved his or her confession. The S-21 administration left behind an extraordinary documentary record: thousands of black-and-white portraits of cowering, terrified men and women waiting for executions. More thousands of carefully noted confessions outlined their conspiracy stories, some simply outlandish, fabricated to satisfy the paranoid need to document collusion with the CIA by ill-educated country people, many of whom had no idea what the letters “CIA” even meant.

No prisoner condemned to S-21 was supposed to get out alive. One by one, until they numbered in the thousands, the prisoners endured torture and interrogation. Then Duch’s underlings led them out the prison gate, carefully checking their names off a list. Behind a shed, the captors killed them by blows to the back of the head with an iron bar or pickaxe handle and slit their throats to ensure death. Disgraced party leaders might be disemboweled for good measure, their mutilated corpses photographed as proof of death to reassure their high-ranking former colleagues. At times the killing went on all night.

Duch’s career at S-21 ended in 1979 when Vietnamese troops, former allies of the Khmer Rouge, invaded and took charge of Cambodia. As the world began to learn what had transpired there, Duch reinvented himself once more.

Fleeing northeast into the countryside, he returned to teaching. He changed his name again, now to Hang Pin. In 1996, under the influence of an evangelical missionary, Hang Pin converted to Christianity—from homo sovieticus to born-again Christian, as Cruvellier writes. Immediately, he set about evangelizing on his own, establishing churches. In that labor he might have continued the rest of his days, had not a freelance journalist recognized him. The secret revealed, authorities arrested Duch in 1999.

Ironically, Duch’s own efficiency helped ensure his prosecution. Lacking the foresight or maybe the willingness or time to destroy the records his staff had so carefully compiled, Duch left intact an enormous body of evidence.

Throughout The Master of Confessions, Cruvellier scrupulously reports a mountain of facts that emerged from the archives of S-21. The mundane details convey sick horror. When the medical unit needed blood, the S-21 captors simply drained selected prisoners until they died. They forced water up prisoners’ noses, and administered beatings, whippings and electric shocks. They pulled out fingernails and forced prisoners to eat spoonfuls of shit, drink urine and undergo other bizarre humiliations.

Cruvellier also relates the stories of two prisoners who survived to testify against Duch. Artists Bou Meng and Van Nath had been pulled aside from their fellow prisoners and ordered to paint a portrait of Pol Pot. This kept them alive. Apparently, Duch simply forgot to have them killed as he fled the Vietnamese.

In the face of the evidence, Duch did something that no other accused war criminal, in Cruvellier’s experience, has ever done: The master of confessions confessed.

Whether because of his late-life religious conversion or his own peculiar psychology, Duch put himself at the mercy of the court, asking the U.N.-backed tribunal to judge him as it saw fit. Yet his confession had its limits. He would admit only to acts in the documentary record. He insisted he had killed no one with his own hands. He asserted, with reason, that had he resisted or evaded, he too would have been killed and another would have taken his place. His demeanor in court—at times confident and manipulative, at times sunken and depressed—occupies a considerable amount of Cruvellier’s attention. Like spectators at any trial, he and the other observers wondered if Duch would “break”—not only admit his crimes, but do so with demonstrable passion and remorse. He never did. And in a jarring about-face at the trial’s conclusion, Duch’s Cambodian legal co-counsel asked for a not-guilty verdict.

The court found otherwise and sentenced Duch to 30 years. Duch appealed the sentence, but his appeal proved ill-considered. The court extended sentence to life in prison.

That’s where Cruvellier abruptly ends his report.

One wishes here for Cruvellier’s own closing arguments, his judgment on the evidence, on Duch, on the tribunal, on Cambodia itself and on how a nation wracked by such monstrous horror confronts the daunting challenge of reconciliation.

Cruvellier offers no such a neat summary, but he does scatter his judgments throughout the sprawling narrative. In a tale with no heroes, Cruvellier finds reason to admire one of Duch’s attorneys, a Frenchman named Francois Roux. He alone among the court officials seems to have tried to fashion Duch’s trial into a vessel for some measure of healing for the Cambodian people. He hoped Duch’s contrition would spark a dialogue to help both victims and victimizer find some kind of “redemptive reconciliation.” But Roux found himself betrayed when Duch and his co-counsel undermined his entire case by making the surprise plea for acquittal.

The witnesses, including many whose loved ones perished under Duch’s authority, still raise a simple, searing question decades later: Why did this happen?

While the answer, if there is one, lies inside the paranoia of the Khmer Rouge leadership, Cruvellier attempts at least to place that suffering in layers of context, including a political one.

Some on the left have been inclined to view the Khmer Rouge as idealists who went astray—and Pol Pot himself once told an interviewer, “My conscience is clear.” Cruvellier, though, suggests Communism itself, where the individual dissolves into the mass, the human will surrendered altogether, should be examined at the bar of judgment.

“Of course (that) political philosophy … led to some of the twentieth century’s worst totalitarian regimes, and many intellectuals who embraced it then now squirm when confronted with its history,” he writes.

Ultimate judgment, unfortunately, lies outside the jurisdiction of a tribunal. As do judgments against the vast majority of former Khmer Rouge, many of whom remain in power in Cambodia today.

The trial of Duch—a mid-level functionary, not a high-ranking party leader—may serve more as a symbol of justice than as justice itself. As one witness told the tribunal, “We are dealing with only one germ. We all have all the other germs in our bodies.”

Despite its horror, S-21 was just one of many Khmer Rouge death camps. Though well documented, it may not have been the worst or most significant element in the broader nightmare of the Cambodian genocide. Yet to date, Duch is the only former Khmer Rouge official convicted of crimes against humanity.

Four other Khmer Rouge leaders have been charged. One has died since then and another declared incapacitated. Trial began for the remaining two in 2011. A verdict is expected this year.

Don Schanche Jr. is a journalist living in Georgia.

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