Out of the abyss

s21Kaing Guek Eav was an educated man and, according to his students, a fine math teacher with a keen mind. He grew up poor in a rural Cambodian village and had a reputation for bookishness. He trained to be a teacher. College friends remember him taking up collections to help poor students with their medical expenses; one of his students called him “gentle and kind.”

Disgusted by rampant corruption, the young teacher was drawn to the writings of China’s Mao Zedong. This was 1965. Viet Nam was an inferno and the Viet Cong were pushing secret supply routes through the hills of neutral Cambodia. Four years later, President Lyndon Johnson responded with a campaign of aerial bombing against those supply lines, killing tens of thousands of civilians and turning Cambodia hard against the West.

Seeing their opportunity, the Khmer Rouge communist insurgency seized power in 1975, promising Cambodians prosperity and reform. Kaing Guek Eav eagerly joined the revolution and was put in charge, ironically, of the converted Tuol Sleng high school in Phnom Penh.

The revolution had no use for math teachers. Renamed Comrade Duch, Kaing became warden of Tuol Sleng, better known as S21, the Khmer Rouge’s most terrifying prison. In classrooms converted into cells and torture chambers, Duch’s job was to bleed every drop of useful information from political prisoners. Once they had nothing more to give, Duch ordered them away to the killing fields for execution.

In four years as head of the prison, Duch oversaw the most horrible treatment imaginable for some 17,000 men, women and children. Only a dozen are known to have come out of S21 alive.

According to the BBC:

Prisoners were told to write detailed confessions setting out their disloyalty. They were told to admit they were spies and implicate friends and family. Refusing to confess was not an option, and those that tried were brutally tortured. Many were tortured anyway.

Top-ranking prisoners were kept alive for months to ensure that their confessions — in some cases methodically checked and annotated by Duch — were complete. Less important inmates were processed in a shorter time. Either way, the final journey was the same.

Prisoners were taken to the “killing fields” at Choeung Ek, a few kilometres outside Phnom Penh. There they were killed, sometimes after digging their own graves. — Duch: Symbol of Khmer Rouge horror

Secular ideologies have snuffed out more lives in a shorter period than any other cause in human history. The Khmer Rouge killed upwards of 1.7 million people — one-quarter of Cambodia’s population. Hitler exterminated 6 million Jews, and his war of conquest ultimately killed nearly 70 million. Stalin’s Soviet reign of terror may have killed 20-60 million through the combined effects of famine, forced labor, imprisonment, torture and executions.

Joseph Stalin, like the Khmer Rouge’s Pol Pot and China’s Mao, realized that the radical communist transformation of society required the ruthless and unrelenting exercise of raw power against every form of resistance. The Khmer Rouge forcibly relocated city dwellers to the countryside to work in the fields, imprisoning and executing those who resisted. Communism’s secular world view rejects the notion of individual human dignity; Stalin and his comrades saw people as mere interchangeable parts in a collective engine that powered the goals of the state.

In a review of Jonathan Brent’s new book Inside the Stalin Archives, Gary Morson notes that Stalin was able to wield such power because there was no law to check him. Stalin himself was the law.

The Great Purges have puzzled scholars because they seemed to be directed at no particular group; local officials were given arrest quotas to fill as they saw fit. But precisely because of their senselessness, the Purges served the function of letting everyone know that no law would ever protect them. One usually thinks of a repressive regime as one that deals ruthlessly with dissenters, but in Soviet Russia no one was ever safe. — The lingering stench: airing Stalin’s archives, Gary Saul Morson, The New Criterion, March 2009

Enthralled by communism’s promise of a secular utopia, Kaing Guek Eav abandoned every particle of the mercy, gentleness and kindness he once had valued. In service to a godless ideology, Kaing became a monster.

Through a chance encounter in 1999 with journalist Nic Dunlop, the story of Duch’s role in Cambodia’s terrors came to light.

“[During his years in hiding] his life had taken a surprising turn: He had become an evangelical Christian and was working with international aid organizations that were unaware of his background,” according to the AP’s Grant Peck in the Minneapolis Star Tribune.

Comrade Duch is the first Khmer Rouge leader to be brought to trial, and the first to confess to the crimes he has been accused of. In a statement given in open court, Duch said,

“May I be permitted to apologize to the survivors of the regime and also the loved ones of those who died brutally during the regime. My current plea is that I would like you to please leave me an open window to seek forgiveness.” …

“I would like to emphasize that I am responsible for the crimes committed at S21, especially the torture and execution of people there.” — Khmer Rouge prison chief asks for forgiveness

It is possible that Duch’s statement is a self-serving attempt to gain leniency. These trials have broad popular support (the public wants justice) but have been resisted by the government, undoubtedly because so many former Khmer Rouge leaders are still in positions of influence.

If Comrade Duch has finally rejected the anti-human Communist ideology of raw power and state-sponsored terror, and exchanged it for the redemptive, love-centered work of Jesus Christ, it proves that the power of love is infinitely greater than the power of coercion.

In [Christ] the world was reconciled with God. The world is overcome not through destruction, but through reconciliation. Not ideals, nor programs, nor conscience, nor duty, nor responsibility, nor virtue, but only God’s perfect love can counter reality and overcome it. … No abyss of evil can hide from him through whom the world is reconciled with God. But the abyss of God’s love encompasses even the most abysmal godlessness of the world. — “Ecce Homo”, Meditations on the Cross, Dietrich Bonhoeffer

If the abyss of God’s love has drained the swamp of evil that once filled Comrade Duch’s heart, there is hope for us all.

Update: I had been unable to find much about Duch’s conversion before posting this, but a friend sent this link from Time Asia that provides the background story.

Photo credit: Flickr, S21 prison cell

Thanks to John Mark Reynolds for The New Criterion article.

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  1. I’m a little cynical about his public statement after he was arrested. He wasn’t so regretful that he fronted up and put things right beforehand…

  2. On the other hand if his life has really turned around that’s good. (Been thinking about this..)

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