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When clouds fell from the sky

Book excerpt: In the waning hours of the Khmer Rouge regime, a shadowy figure vanishes into the night
When clouds fell from the sky

(Image courtesy Robert Carmichael)

Published: April 17, 2015 02:30 AM GMT
Updated: April 16, 2015 04:24 PM GMT

In 1977, the lives of five people collided to catastrophic effect as Cambodians toiled under Pol Pot’s revolutionary Khmer Rouge regime. Robert Carmichael's newly published bookWhen Clouds Fell from the Sky: A Disappearance, A Daughter's Search and Cambodia's First War Criminal, recounts the lives of these individuals to tell the story of five decades of Cambodia’s turbulent 20th century history.

One of the five people at the center of the book is Comrade Duch, the Khmer Rouge's security chief, who fled the movement's secret prison codenamed S-21 on January 7, 1979 as Pol Pot's regime collapsed. The book opens at S-21 prison on that day.



It is early January, the height of the cool season, and the monsoon rains have ceased. In Cambodia these are traditionally the months of bounty when farmers harvest the last of the season’s crop, and diesel-powered mills strip the rough outer husks from the grain, in the process producing pure, white rice. Brute force to generate a nation’s most basic need.

In the courtyard of an old school in the capital Phnom Penh, the bony fronds on the coconut palms rustle in the breeze. If you and I could soar on this day, we would see below us four school buildings laid out in a half rectangle and, nearby, a wooden office between the entrance gate and these three-storey blocks. Uniformed figures move between them with a sense of urgency.

Inside the compound stands a man who is the very model of efficiency. Little more than a decade ago he was a humble and respected mathematics teacher, but for the past eight years he has inspired only terror, and this former school surrounded by a double-layered fence of corrugated iron fringed with barbed wire is his domain. More than that, this place, the Khmer Rouge’s most secret prison, known by its codename S-21, is largely his creation.

Comrade Duch barks orders.⁠ Thin-hipped, his features are striking: not the rounded Cambodian face seen in the stone colossi of the 800-year-old Bayon temple in the distant north-west, but long, narrow, pale, evidence of his Chinese heritage.

In a photograph taken at this place, Duch, his neatly pressed shirt shorn of insignia, is seen walking into a room. Two pens in his top pocket and the pistol on his belt mark him out as a man of rank, yet although Duch is in absolute control of his surroundings, he seems not entirely comfortable. His smile is awkward, even shy and ingratiating.

Duch usually speaks softly to his staff, yet they are terrified of him. They have good reason. As head of the Khmer Rouge’s secret police, or santebal, Duch wields awesome power. He reports directly to the senior leaders of the Khmer Rouge, and his job is simple: to process those deemed to be enemies of the revolution, so-called traitors who have burrowed into the movement on behalf of the CIA or the KGB or the treacherous Vietnamese; to draw out their complicity through torture; and, once their confessions are written down and approved and their purported accomplices named, to authorize their executions.

This is a battle without end and there have been no half measures. Indeed it has only intensified since Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge forces won the civil war in 1975. To be brought to this machine that Duch has helped build is to be guilty by default since the movement’s faceless leaders — known as Angkar, or the organization — have, in the saying of the time, the eyes of a pineapple. That means Angkar is all seeing and infallible, vested with supernatural powers. As such Angkar is judge and jury, and Duch its executioner.

At least 14,000 men, women and children have been brought to S-21 during its three-and-a-half-year existence, and almost without exception their fate, and that of their families, was execution, preferably once their confessions laid bare their supposedly subversive activities. Most, it should be said, were guilty of no such thing. It made no difference. Those named as accomplices would in turn often be arrested, brought here and processed by means of whips, electrocution and any number of tortures to serve Angkar’s most basic need: the success and purity of the revolution.

This task is straightforward and mechanical, and contains no grey areas. That appeals immensely to Duch, a rigid man who prides himself on logic and efficiency, the virtue of certainties, the acknowledgement of a job well done and the satisfying symmetry of an order received and flawlessly carried out. But for the past few months the pitiless harmony that has characterized Duch’s life for nearly a decade has been undone.

Despite Duch’s best efforts — and they have been extraordinary — the revolution’s foes seem only to have multiplied over the years. First there were the remnants of the Lon Nol regime that Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge overthrew in 1975, and then there were those in the population who did not support the revolution. These two groups were the first to be targeted by the new Khmer Rouge rulers. Yet even before the Khmer Rouge took power it was apparent that other enemies lurked far closer to the movement’s heart. Some of the most senior cadres have been accused of treachery and, since taking power, Duch’s top-secret security prison has elicited confessions that prove these strings of traitors reached the very top.

This messianic fervor to rid the country of its enemies and the twin obsession with secrecy ought to have made the movement invincible and brought order to its rule, yet the opposite holds true. Away from Duch’s domain all is chaos and that tumult has now seeped into his creation. Tens of thousands of Vietnamese troops and thousands of Cambodian rebels who invaded the country a fortnight ago from the east have overwhelmed the Khmer Rouge soldiers. By now they have reached the outskirts of Phnom Penh. The capital is about to fall and the Khmer Rouge’s leaders have begun to flee west.

Days earlier Duch’s boss instructed him to kill the remaining prisoners and leave. And so the Chinese trucks holding the last emaciated inmates, perhaps as many as 500 people, stole out of S-21’s gate at night and clawed their way down rutted roads eight miles south to a place called Chhoeung Ek, a former Chinese cemetery surrounded by rice fields. There, like thousands before them, blindfolded and handcuffed, the condemned were led one by one, stumbling exhausted across the uneven ground. Thin fluorescent tubes leached a pale light across a large pit where they were made to kneel. In a practiced routine, the executioners employed by S-21 smashed a metal bar across the back of each prisoner’s neck. Before they toppled into the grave filled with still-warm corpses, another Khmer Rouge cadre tore a knife across their throat, or thrust it into their stomach. The handcuffs were removed and their clothes were stripped. Then they were kicked, lifeless, into the pit.

One by one they fell, fresh, like tears, and slowly the ground welled up with the bodies of those deemed enemies of the revolution. Then the trucks turned, lighter now and quieter, their diesel engines rumbling, and bumped back up the well-travelled road to the city that would soon empty for the second time in less than four years.

With so much going wrong in these final weeks, Duch has struggled to concentrate. He has become unmotivated, sleeping long hours and reading novels to pass the time. This is out of character, but these are strange, disordered days. Rumors swirl through the ranks of the Party like eddies on the Mekong, the great river that runs past the capital just a mile away. The latest is that the country’s leader Pol Pot, known as Brother Number One, has fled the city.

Tired, unable to focus, sleeping too much: these are classic signs of depression and Duch’s is stoked by the belief that he will soon be arrested and executed, consumed by this monstrous machine he has helped to create and maintain. Already his protector and former boss, the defense minister Son Sen, has been implicated. And just two months ago one of the most senior leaders in the Communist Party of Kampuchea (CPK), Vorn Vet, was brought to S-21 as an enemy and executed. Duch had known Vorn Vet, his former mentor, for years.

So many have been brought here in recent months that Duch is convinced the all-seeing Angkar now has him in its sights. For weeks he has operated in a funk, sometimes passing time in a room where a few fortunate prisoners, temporarily reprieved on account of their artistic skills, paint portraits of Pol Pot. Seated on a chair, Duch has watched these wretched men carefully apply paint to canvas, building up image after image of Brother Number One. This creative process in the midst of so much choreographed destruction soothes the former mathematician. His presence, on the other hand, terrifies these artists who are alive solely because Duch has decided they have something to offer. At any point he could have them executed.

Although Duch has run out of time to finish everything to his satisfaction, and despite his depression, there are numerous efficiencies: prisoners are tortured until these last days — after all, who knows what secrets they are hiding? But as January 6 becomes the early morning of January 7, 1979, the sound of artillery fire draws close. The invading army has reached the outskirts of Phnom Penh, and Duch is out of time.

As the sun tracks higher in the sky, the assurances he received from his boss — Brother Number Two, Nuon Chea — only days earlier that the invaders would be repelled are revealed as worthless. In Building A, once a classroom for eager schoolchildren, the final 14 prisoners in that section are murdered with a bayonet. Their corpses stay shackled to the rusting iron bedsteads, blood congeals on the floor and the green flies settle. Only those two-dozen or so detainees who have been put to work — the artists, the sculptors and the mechanics — are permitted to live for now.

In the frenzy of exit there is no time to load S-21’s copious archive that holds thousands of minutely detailed confessions, numerous administrative documents, and the lists and photographs that are stored here. The regime’s paranoia and its related obsession with secrecy mean even Duch was not told about the evacuation until two days ago.

He cannot take the archive with him, but he does not destroy it either. Perhaps he fears that setting it on fire will draw attention, or maybe he believes this retreat from Phnom Penh is temporary. Or possibly the creative spark within Duch cannot allow him to undo what he has spent so many years laboriously crafting. S-21’s archive is after all the defining work of Duch’s 36 years.

The upstairs holding cells, the former classrooms into which dozens of shackled prisoners at a time were crammed between torture sessions, and the nearby rooms where interrogations were carried out, contain the detritus of oppression and blunt brutality: handcuffs, whips, chains and shackles sit near ammunition boxes of human excrement. In the wooden office building, papers lie scattered, the by-products of excruciating savagery, ruffled now by a gentle breeze.

For nearly three years the screams of prisoners being tortured ruptured the atmosphere day and night. Now the sound of shelling tears the fabric of the morning air. Enemy troops are moving down the nearby boulevards of Phnom Penh, closing in. To stay longer is to risk being captured and killed. Duch, doubtless angered by this sloppy ending to an otherwise meticulous operation, orders his staff and the handful of useful detainees to join the exodus.

Dressed in black and with his pistol strapped to his hip, Duch walks across the dusty compound towards a signboard that hangs above the entrance. Yellow letters on a red background exhort cadres to: “Fortify the spirit of the revolution! Be on your guard against the strategy and tactics of the enemy so as to defend the country, the people and the Party.”

But the country is beyond defending, the revolution has imploded, and the believers are fleeing. Despite his vigilance against the enemy’s strategies and tactics, and all the support given to him by the leaders, Duch, the key person tasked with security, has failed to protect the revolution.

With that on his shoulders, the commandant and his charges pass through the main gate of S-21. The few surviving prisoners, who have spent months in a state of unending fear, are ordered to walk in single file, and told they will be shot should they put one foot wrong.

This motley group slips like thieves through deserted backstreets, the midday sun beating down, south towards the killing field of Chhoeung Ek. Before dusk they have escaped the city, and S-21 recedes, a scatter of leprous buildings on a quiet back street where corpses draw the flies and papers ghost across a dusty courtyard.

As the sun dips below the horizon, the evening’s rich colors dull to grey. Then the night’s cloak is laid across the skin of this fraught land and Comrade Duch vanishes into its protective folds.

Robert Carmichael has worked as a journalist in Cambodia for eight years. From 2001-03 he was the managing editor of the Phnom Penh Post, Cambodia’s oldest English-language newspaper. He left Cambodia in 2003, returning in 2009 to cover the trial of Comrade Duch, the former head of the Khmer Rouge’s torture center S-21. From 2009-13 he worked as the Cambodia correspondent for the German Press Agency dpa, and has reported extensively for print, radio and television outlets on numerous subjects including the Khmer Rouge tribunal, development, the environment, education, politics and health.

When Clouds Fell from the Sky: A Disappearance, A Daughter's Search and Cambodia's First War Criminal is his first book.

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