It’s pitch black, but you can feel that your moving. Where are you? Are there other people in there with you? You try to remember what you were doing before and your head immediately fills with pain. When you put your hand to your forehead, you feel something wet, or slimy. You can’t tell what it is, but you can feel that it is all over you.
You remember that you were out looking for food. You hadn’t eaten in several days, but you knew that soldiers were looking for people trying to gather food. You went anyway and found food, but before you could eat you heard shouting, and by the time you turned around, you awoke in the darkness. The moving stops and the yelling begins. The door opens and the light is blinding, you can’t see. You realized that you don’t need to see to know where you are. You arrived at Tuol Sleng and you have heard enough stories to know your not going home ever again.
The high school turned torture compound imprisoned thousands of Khmer during 1975 and 1979. All of the people that had been imprisoned at Tuol Sleng were interrogated. They were routinely beaten and tortured in various ways. Some were shocked several times a day, while others were chained to bed frames and seared with hot metal. Every detail about the person was recorded, photographed and the prisoner would have to sign at the end of the confession. After, the prisoners were taken to Choeung Ek, (Killing Fields) and were executed and thrown into other mass graves with hundreds of thousands of people.
The chief of S-21 was Khang Khek lue, widely known as Comrade Dutch. Today we visited the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia where he and several other former Khmer Rouge leaders await trial.
Knowing what he did, could you imagine ever feeling remorse for him? How do you mentally digest a thought like that? How do you justify his actions for torture and killing of innocent people? How would you talk to someone about this? These were many questions that I had to ask myself. Towards the end of our trip, after our visit to the ECCC, I felt sincere remorse for Duch and actually admitted it to our group during a routine meeting.
Earlier in the trip we had learned about more about the leaders and what they did during the Khmer Rouge and what they did after it fell. It was interesting to learn that some leaders from the Khmer Rouge lived completely opposite lives after the Khmer Rouge fell in 1979. One leader in particular, Khang Khek lue caught my attention. He became a Director of Education and converted to Christianity. In 1996 he fled to Thailand with his family due to the fighting that broke out. In the refugee camp, Duch assumed the role as the Community Health Supervisor. Once the fighting stopped, he returned to Cambodia and worked closely with the international Christian relief and development organization, World Vision. He continued to promote human rights and assist in the development of rural Cambodia until he was tracked down in 1999. Soon after, he surrendered to the authorities and remains in prison.
Duch was the first suspect indicted in the tribunal. Duch will be the first to be tried at the tribunal because he admitted full guilt for what he did during the late 1970s. Should this change anything? Does it change anything? He still assisted in the torture and killing of Khmer people by receiving and giving the orders to do so. Most people will say no. However, I personally feel that he should not be tried the same as the other leaders awaiting trial. Many people in our group commented and hit it home that justice is imperfect. I know this, I understand this but that doesn’t mean that I have to agree with it. I can understand people not fully understanding how I can feel remorse for someone like Duch. I am not Khmer and never experienced what millions of people went through. However, I am a human being and I believe that feeling remorse is natural and can be felt or anything or anyone.
Ashley and I grappled with this thought for a long time. I remembering when we were getting ready for bed I looked at her and told that what I was about to say may sound crazy and I that make no sense, but I feel bad for Duch. I tried to read her face and was ready to respond and defend my statement. She looked at me and told me she felt the same way. We really couldn’t explain what we felt for him. What he did was wrong and anyone else who did/does that is/was wrong. We discussed that topic for a while and we both came to a similar conclusion. It’s human nature to feel remorse and anyone can feel remorse about anyone, or anything.
I don’t believe or think what he did was right. I do not feel the same way about any of the other former leaders awaiting trial. I just know that feeling something this deep and believing in it is going with my gut feeling, and I can live with that.