Recalling Pol Pot's Terror, But Forgetting His Backers

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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.

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

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 in London.

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.

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 was written:

  1. Speaking
    is absolutely forbidden.
  2. Before
    doing something, the authorization of the warden must be obtained.

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 all three.

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

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.

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.

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.”

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.

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.

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.

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.

31, 2004

was born and educated in Sydney, Australia. He has been
a war correspondent, filmmaker and playwright. Based in London,
he has written from many countries and has twice won British journalism’s
highest award, that of "Journalist of the Year," for his
work in Vietnam and Cambodia.

John Pilger 2004


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