An Interview with a Khmer Rouge Torturer and Murderer.
Above Photo: Perpetrators AND Victims? Guard detail at Tuol Sleng prison. Him Huy, who was a prison guard at the time, is fourth from left.
Researching my novel, BACK, I had to read some terrible accounts of survivors of Khmer Rouge torture, not just those who survived in its main torture centre at Tuol Sleng, but elsewhere in vicious prisons run by sadistic murderers up and down the country.
The below is an edited version of an article that appeared in the New York Times in 2009. It is an interview with Him Huy, who was a guard at Tuol Sleng torture centre and prison, in Phnom Penh, Cambodia.
I have added photos for illustration.
“We were victims, too,” said Him Huy, the head of the guard detail at notorious Tuol Sleng prison, who took part in the executions of thousands of people at the Khmer Rouge’s killing fields.
As the prisoners knelt at the edges of mass graves with their hands tied behind them, executioners swung iron bars at the backs of their heads, twice if necessary, before they toppled forward into the pits.
“I had no choice,” Mr. Him Huy, 53, said. “If I hadn’t killed them, I would have been killed myself.”
As the trials senior Khmer Rouge figures continue in Phnom Penh, they raise questions about the guilt — or victimhood — of lower-ranking cadres like Mr. Him Huy, the people who carried out the arrests, killings and torture, who are unlikely ever to be tried.
As guard and executioner at Cambodia’s most prominent torture house, Mr. Him Huy personifies the horror of the Khmer Rouge years, from 1975 to 1979, when at least 1.7 million people died of starvation and overwork as well as torture and execution.
But in the severe and paranoid world of the Khmer Rouge prison, guards and torturers themselves worked under threat of death, and Mr. Him Huy saw a number of his colleagues kneel at the edges of their graves for that blow to the back of the neck.
“I used an iron bar about that long,” he said, spreading his hands wide as he told his story late last month, “and about as thick as my big toe.”
At night, sometimes two or three times a week, Mr. Him Huy said, he drove trucks full of prisoners to the Choeung Ek killing field, where he logged them in 20 or 30 or 80 at a time and then confirmed that they had been killed.
He asserted that he had personally killed only five people, as demonstrations of loyalty to his superiors.
At least 14,000 people were arrested and interrogated at Tuol Sleng prison, which was officially known as S-21 and is now a museum. Only a handful survived.
“Even the young people, when they have a party they always invite him,” said his wife, Put Peng Aun. “If there’s a party, he’s got to be there.”
Asked to describe himself, Mr. Him Huy said: “I’m not a bad person. I’m a good man. I never argue with anyone. I never fight with anyone. I have good intentions as a human being.”
But some of those who knew him at the prison remember him harshly. One survivor, Bou Meng, said Mr. Him Huy beat and tortured him, poking at his wounds with a stick. “His face was so mean,” Mr. Bou Meng told the Documentation Center of Cambodia, a private research center. “Today he looks gentle.”
Two of Mr. Him Huy’s co-workers at Tuol Sleng, quoted by the historian David Chandler in his book on the prison, “Voices From S-21,” remembered him as “a seasoned killer, an important figure at the prison and a key participant in the execution process.”
Mr. Him Huy is evasive about the extent of his duties at the prison. But what he did there, he said, he did on pain of death.
“I am a victim of the Khmer Rouge,” he said without hesitation. “I did not volunteer to work at S-21. “
“We were all prisoners, those who killed and those who were killed,” he said. “And in fact, for a lot of the staff there, the day came when they were killed, too. In the daytime we’d be eating together, and in the evening some were arrested and killed.”
In a 2001 book about the prison staff called “Victims and Perpetrators?” the Documentation Center calculates that at least 563 members of Tuol Sleng’s staff, about one-third of the total, were executed while working there.
In a way, Tuol Sleng was a microcosm of the nation, where half-starved and overworked people lived in constant fear of being arrested and killed, often for reasons they never learned.
The first defendant in the United Nations-backed tribunal was Mr. Him Huy’s former boss, the prison commandant, a tough, sharp-eyed man named Kaing Guek Eav and generally known as Duch.
It was Duch who signed execution orders for both prisoners and errant staff members. Indeed, Mr. Him Huy rose to become fifth or sixth in the chain of command after his superiors were pulled from their jobs and killed.
“Yes, I did kill people,” he said. “I did transport people to Choeung Ek. I did verify lists of people at Choeung Ek. But Duch ordered me to do all of that.”
Many Cambodians appear to accept this common defense among former Khmer Rouge cadres: that they had no choice but to be cruel, fearing for their own lives. It is a defense Duch himself has offered in the past.
Chum Mey, another survivor of Tuol Sleng, described 12 days and nights of torture and terror, but without bitterness toward his abusers. “My thought is not to put the blame on Him Huy because I don’t know what I would have done in his place,” he said. “I don’t think I would have been able to disobey.”
Like most other guards and torturers at the prison, Mr. Him Huy was recruited young — easily molded, brutalized and indoctrinated into the paranoia and extremism of this closed world.
The son of a clerk at a fishing company, he joined the Khmer Rouge insurgency at the age of 12 and was transferred to work in the prison when he was 18.
After the fall of the Khmer Rouge, he spent a year in a local jail as punishment for his role in the regime, as many former Khmer Rouge cadres did.
Thirty years have passed since the Khmer Rouge were ousted by Vietnam. Mr. Him Huy is no different from his neighbors, raising a big family and tending to his beans and corn and rice.
At the end of a long interview, he headed back to his bean field, filling a canister with pesticide and marching down the rows of long yellow beans, swinging a hose from left to right.
He made sure, he said, to walk with the wind behind him so that none of the pesticide would blow back in his face.
For a modern-day take on the Vietnam War and Adventure Backpacking into the jungles of Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia, see: http://peteralanlloyd.com/back-part-2/backpackers-meet-the-vietnam-war-back-screenplay-finally-finished/
For POWs left behind in Laos, see also:
Peter Alan Lloyd
BACK Parts 1 and 2
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