The recent sentencing of Kaing Guek Eav, better known as Comrade Duch, to life imprisonment for crimes he committed during the regime of the Khmer Rouge in
, is a reminder
of this sickening era of human history and the foul nature that some men can
inflict on their fellow brothers. Cambodia
From 1976 to 1979, the Khmer Rouge, lead by Pol Pot, forced Cambodians out of the cities and into the fields to live a virtual subsistence existence, while decimating nearly a quarter of the country’s population through starvation, overwork and execution. Kaing Guek Eav was sentenced for crimes against humanity, war crimes, and over the torture and deaths of thousands of people at the notorious S-21 prison. Al Jazeera's Stephanie Scawen, reporting from outside the court in
described some of the atrocities committed: "Bloodletting was quite
common... Others had their hands tied behind their backs and were strung up on
exercise bars. When they went unconscious they would be dunked in water, and
the process was started again. It was a horrendous regime.” Phnom Penh
While it’s unfathomable to imagine the full extent of the circumstances suffered by the population, it’s not hard to find documentation and evidence of the disregard and contempt that people like Pol Pot, Duch and others, such as Nuon Chea, Khieu Samphan and Ieng Sary had for their fellow citizens.
One day, if you take a trip to
you’ll be confronted by the history of that country’s “Killing Fields”. A 1984
British film of the same name is one of the best known movies that depicts the
story of two journalists, Cambodian Dith Pran and American Sydney
Schanberg who were working in Cambodia at the time. Historical and biographical as it
is, it is truly a horror film. The role of Dith Pran was played by a survivor of
the regime, a doctor named Haing S Ngor. His own account of those years was
penned in his book “Surviving the Killing Fields”, a compelling read. In it he
describes how he pretended to be a taxi driver when the Khmer Rouge swept to
power after a civil war, as being an educated man made him an enemy of the
state. Having won an Oscar for his portrayal of Dith Pran, his first acting
role, I met Haing a number of times during his promotional visits to Phnom
Ironically, after surviving the Killing Fields, he was shot dead in Australia by a street
gang. I was gutted to learn of his death. Los Angeles
Beyond the violation committed against the population at the time, a number of foreigners also underwent torture and death, sometimes for merely being in the wrong place at the wrong time. New Zealander Kerry Hamill was a yachtsman sailing in the Gulf of Thailand in 1978, along with buddies Canadian Stuart Glass and Englishman John Dewhirst,
They anchored at Koh Tang Island to shelter from a storm (Kerry’s girlfriend Gail had recently left the yacht to visit family in Hawai’i). Unbeknownst to them they had entered ‘Kampuchean’ waters. Neither did they know of the horror story that was unfolding on the mainland.
Along with John Dewhirst, Kerry was seized and tortured for two months at S-21. After signing confessions taken under duress that “admitted” CIA affiliations, they were executed on Comrade Duch’s orders. Their third companion, Stuart Glass was shot and killed when the boat was initially captured.
Kerry’s younger brother, Rob Hamill, an Olympic and Trans-Atlantic champion rower, has travelled to
and elsewhere to retrace the steps taken by his brother and John Dewhirst,
speaking to eyewitnesses, perpetrators and survivors. His documentary, Brother Number One, is a retrospectively haunting tale that tells the story from
another deeply personal perspective, made no less incisive by the passing of
After the genocide of Jews attempted by the German Nazis in World War II, it’s staggering to consider how something so similar could occur a mere 30 years later. But then, occurring again with the conflict in
1992 – 1995, and in
in 1994, where another similar fate befell 800,000 souls. Rwanda
It’s a lesson that never seems to be learnt.
If only it were true that history never repeats.