In a prison known as S-21, more than 12,000 Cambodian men, women and children were tortured and killed, some of the two million people who died under the Khmer Rouge between 1975 to 1979. In S-21, a man named Comrade Duch – Pol Pot’s chief executioner and the former head of the Khmer Rouge secret police – led the killings as the prison’s commandant.
Today, the Khmer Rouge are gone, ousted by Vietnam in 1979 and finally defeated by the Cambodian government in 1999 after years of guerrilla war. The prison has become a museum, its walls adorned with mug shots of arriving prisoners. Though they number in the thousands, they are but a small representation of the many horrors inflicted by the infamous regime; those responsible for the killings had never faced international justice. Now, Duch is gone, too; he died last week, at the age of 77, serving out his life sentence as the first former Khmer Rouge leader to be tried and convicted at the UN-backed court in Cambodia.
For me, as a photographer during the war, Duch – who had disappeared after the fall of the Khmer Rouge – became something of an obsession. By 1998, I began carrying a photograph of Duch, taken from the prison when the Khmer Rouge were in power, and asking people if anyone recognized him. I believed that if there was one man who could shed light on this period, it was Duch. He was a key link between the Khmer Rouge leadership and the killing.