Kchach Poy village, Battambang – The Sangke River meanders through the rice paddies of Kchach Poy, a remote outpost where in 1996, the former chief of the notorious Khmer Rouge detention center S-21 waded into the river to be baptized a Christian.
Kaing Guek Eav, better known as Duch, stood chest-deep before a minister dipped him backward below the murky water, recalls Suon Sito, a former neighbor and friend who witnessed the event.
In a series of interviews last week, friends and neighbors recalled Duch as strict, but fair; friendly, but a loner; an intellectual, and also a Christian evangelist.
Duch’s long-delayed trial begins today, with the 66-year-old accused by the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia of overseeing the deaths of more than 12,000 prisoners who passed through the S-21 detention and torture facility. Duch is not expected to address the court today, but family members and one-time friends and neighbors believe his conversion to Christianity will have an impact on his statements when he finally does take the stand.
Lim Phanny, head of the Battambang Church Association, said Duch has shown a sincerity of faith since his conversion. This sincerity, Lim Phanny said, will prompt Duch to be candid about his role in the Khmer Rouge when questioned at trial by the court’s judges.
During an interview at his small church in Battambang town, Lim Phanny opened his Bible to 1 John 1:9 and read: “If we confess our sins…he [God] will forgive us.” He then looked up and said, “If we are a true Christian, we will confess everything we have done.”
John Ciorciari, a senior legal adviser at the Documentation Center of Cambodia, agrees that Duch’s turn to religion will have an impact on how he speaks of his role in the Democratic Kampuchea regime.
“I can imagine his faith influencing his testimony in a few ways,” Ciorciari wrote in an e-mail from Stanford University in the US. “First, he has indicated that he now serves God, whereas in the past he served communism. Thus, he seems less likely than other defendants to justify the regime’s abuses as necessary but painful steps toward socialism. Second, Duch has indicated that his conversion makes him less afraid to bear the risks of implicating his former colleagues.”
To date, Duch has been the only one of the five suspects held by the ECCC to cooperate with investigators.
Duch’s French lawyer Franois Roux declined to comment on his client’s faith, writing in an e-mail: “It is his private life. Only he will decide what he shall or shall not say about this topic.”
Duch’s path to Christianity began more than a decade after Vietnamese and Cambodian forces ousted the Khmer Rouge from Phnom Penh in 1979. He had fled to the Thai border and lived in refugee camps during the 1980s and, from 1989 to 1991, started selling Thai goods on regular visits to Svey Chek district’s Phkoam commune, in Banteay Meanchey province.
In 1992, Duch’s family, along with a group of former Khmer Rouge cadres, settled in Phkoam, recalled lifelong resident Suon Sito, who lived next door to Duch’s family on the village’s sole, dusty road. Within months of his arrival, Duch visited a local house church that Suon Sito also attended. Duch soon took up Christianity, Suon Sito said, and together the two occasionally attended services at their sponsor church in Battambang town, where Duch would eventually attend a training course in evangelizing-that is, converting others.
Cheam Socheang, the director of Phkoam’s local high school where Duch taught math, physics and chemistry from 1993 to 1995, said Duch once invited him to attend the village church.
“He showed me how to pray,” Cheam Socheang recalled during an interview at his office in the 400-student school. “Duch talked often of God and of the good way. He asked me why I didn’t go to church. He tried to convert me,” he added.
Just as Duch sought for his friends and colleagues to embrace Christianity, Cheam Socheang said Duch also aggressively strove for his students to delve into their curriculum. He was an intimidating teacher, Cheam Socheang said, but he was also intent on everyone understanding his lessons.
“In his work, he was very serious and strict. He always followed the curriculum. If the lesson was scheduled to finish in one hour, he had to finish in one hour,” Cheam Socheang said, adding, “He was very respectful of orders from his superiors.”
In one of Duch’s math classes sat Thuor Ham, who today is a 32-year-old rice farmer in Phkoam. Duch always kept on topic during class and never mentioned his faith or his past, Thuor Ham recalled in an interview outside his home near the school.
“He seemed different from the other teachers. They taught from the book, but he did not. He’d just put the book on the table without opening it,” Thuor Ham recalled. “Most students liked to learn with him. If a student didn’t understand, he would explain it to them until they understood.”
Duch’s education and intelligence soon became known throughout the small village. People called him Kru Ta, or “Grand Teacher,” because he could speak five languages, recalled villager Ny Lath, 32, who also lived near Duch’s simple cottage in the village.
Everybody also knew he could be stern, even volatile. Duch’s thumb had been maimed by a bullet, reportedly fired by his wife during an argument, Ny Lath said. She added that on one occasion Duch drew a circle in the dirt around his mischievous son and threatened to disown him if he moved before proceeding to beat him.
All this time, Duch was living under the name Hang Pin, hiding his identity as chief of S-21, said Ny Lath’s husband Muth Theng. But signs surfaced, he added, that Hang Pin was a former high-ranking Khmer Rouge official.
“He told me that he could not go back to the Khmer Rouge because he’d had a dispute with [former Khmer Rouge foreign minister] Ieng Sary,” Muth Theng said.
Cheam Socheang, the high school director, said he also saw signs that Duch was hiding from his past: When the two attended an education ceremony in the provincial capital and the late education minister Tol Lah arrived, Duch fled in a panic, he said. Later that night, Duch confessed to Cheam Socheang that he had studied with Tol Lah in university and had invited him to join the Khmer Rouge before joining the rebel movement himself.
Duch always seemed wary of an attack on his family and often sent his four children to sleep at Ny Lath’s home, the former neighbor recalled. Duch’s fears were realized one night in November 1995, when robbers broke into his home, fatally stabbing his wife and wounding him.
Duch was thought to be a rich man because he owned the sole motorbike in the village, Ny Lath said. No robberies in Phkoam had occurred before or have occurred since, said Ny Lath, who along with several other villagers agreed that the robbers were likely motivated by greed.
Fearful for his family’s safety, months after the 1995 attack, Duch moved briefly to the Svay Chek district education office and then to Svay Chek High School in Roluos commune’s Stung village, where he became a French teacher, according to retired high school director Hun Smien, 60.
In an interview at the now abandoned schoolhouse where Duch taught until early 1997, Hun Smien pointed to a desk piled with a layer of dust. It was the very desk that Duch used, he said.
Duch occasionally invited other teachers to attend church with him in the provincial capital, Hun Smien said, and for awhile Duch even started a house church near the school.
“He spoke of Jesus Christ and tried to convince other teachers to believe,” Hun Smien said.
Aside from talking about his growing faith, Duch was reserved and spent most of his time reading, usually the Bible, Hun Smien said.
“He was very different from other teachers, who play around and are friendly with each other. If Duch didn’t want to speak, he just read his book…. His characteristics were like a high-ranking official,” Hun Smien said.
Duch left Svay Chek High School after only six months, Hun Smien said, when several teachers from a nearby school identified him from a photo at the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum in Phnom Penh.
With Duch’s past catching up to him, he again moved his family, this time to Battambang province’s Samlot district, where he continued to work in the education system until fighting broke out in Phnom Penh in July 1997 and he fled to Thailand. There, he became involved with the American Refugee Committee before returning to Samlot town with Christian aid agency World Vision to work with Cambodian refugees.
The thin, Bible-toting man told his neighbors about Jesus and spoke of creating a Christian community in Samlot, said Sok Lian, who rented a home on Duch’s property for several months in 1999 and now operates a restaurant in the Samlot town market.
“He told me he wanted to start a church, but he was arrested first,” she added.
Oum Sroh, one of Duch’s neighbors in Samlot, said he doubted the authenticity of Duch’s faith. While impressed by “Hang Pin’s” knowledge of literature, languages and history, he said he had also heard rumors that “Hang Pin” was actually Duch, the head of S-21.
“Duch is fooling people [with his Christianity],” he said. “Even though he is my friend, we cannot help his guilt. He should be executed.”
Leam Sarun, a friend of Duch’s from his teenage years, also doubts Duch’s conversion. In a 1999 interview with the Documentation Center of Cambodia, he called the conversion “a political move.” He recalled Duch saying in his earlier years that “All religions destroy nations” and “Religion is a blood sucking leech!”
At least one Samlot resident believes in the sincerity of Duch’s faith: his eldest child and only daughter, Ky Sievkim, 32, whom he baptized a Christian in 1996.
“I strongly believed at the time in Jesus, and I do now,” she said while nursing her 10-month-old child during an interview at her small home on the outskirts of Samlot, where she and her husband run a small shop. She said she is the only Christian among Duch’s children, though he tried to convert the others as well.
After Duch’s conversion, Ky Sievkim said her father became a more charitable and amiable person, though he always remained an organized, strict man who commanded respect from his daughter and three sons.
“My father told me previously that he had done many wrong things, and that’s why he asked Jesus for forgiveness,” said Ky Sievkim, who last saw her father during a prison visit about one year ago. “He is a much stronger believer than me.”
In May 1999, British photojournalist Nic Dunlop found “Hang Pin” and his whereabouts was publicized in international media. Before the government arrived to take Duch into custody, according to the Dunlop’s book “The Lost Executioner,” Duch told him: “It is God’s will that you are here. Now my future is in God’s hands.”
Dunlop, in a recent telephone interview from Bangkok, said that Duch continues to approach Christianity with the same zeal he showed at S-21, when according to his indictment he systematically interrogated, tortured and executed prisoners. Christianity “provides a way forward for somebody like Duch,” Dunlop said.
Duch has continued to practice his faith for the past decade in prison, said Dunlop, who believes that this will become evident during the trial.
“I am sure it has to,” he said.
“It’s interesting to look at faith in extremes—it can carry people through, it’s given him strength,” Dunlop continued. “When you compare him to the other Khmer Rouge cadres, he alone definitely believes in telling—not the whole truth—not 100 percent, but maybe 60 to 70 percent of it.”