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The Man Who Got Duch, sort of...(Pt 1)

By: Aaron Leverton Posted: January-01-2006 in
Aaron Leverton

With the appeal of Tuol Sleng chief Comrade Duch against his pre-trial detention the ECCC is underway, which meant Phnom Penh was again home, very temporarily, to some of the world's media. The Associated Press (AP) was in town, supplying satellite feeds to news channels such as Al Jazeera, and CNN flew Australian reporter Hugh Rimington in to report from the courthouse and interview Tuol Sleng torture centre survivor Chim Mey.

But a reporter with a slightly closer connection to the case, photographer Nic Dunlop, was also at the ECCC to see Kaing Kek Iev, aka Duch's first day in court. Nic Dunlop was the first western reporter to speak to Duch and subsequently wrote a book about his experiences.

As boys-own investigative journalism, Dunlop's story is highly disappointing, as he is quick to admit, but it isn't the story of finding Duch in Samlot, but the possibility of finding Duch in all of us that he told in The Lost Executioner.

Finding Duch was absurdly easy.

"In 1998 the Khmer Rouge started to completely collapse and I took it upon myself to carry around the photograph that you see on the front cover of the book, because I thought that if there was one person that could explain what had happened during the Khmer Rouge it was Duch, if, indeed, he was still alive" Dunlop says.

Dunlop's method of enquiry was distinctly unscientific. As a foreigner in Cambodia, without language or culture to get him by, Dunlop's options were limited.

"So I began to carry around this photograph and showed it to various people in different parts of the country whenever I travelled, to see if anybody knew or recognised him; nobody had."

But when you're not on a deadline, that's not exactly a dead-end.

"Then towards the beginning of 1999 I was sent on assignment to Battambang and the mine-clearing organisation I was working with were going to Samlot, which I'd never been to and always wanted to visit, and whilst they were having a meeting with the former Khmer Rouge in that area to work out how they were going to begin clearing the landmines, a small man wearing a white t-shirt walked up to me and introduced himself as Hang Pin."

Search over. As the world now knows, Hang Pin was the last alias Kaing Kek Iev used.

"As simple as that," Dunlop laughs at the serendipitous kismet of his quarry finding him.

When asked if he still carries the photo as a momento, Dunlop says there's no further need, dashing any hopes that he has a streak of manic obsession.

"I've replayed this moment time and time again in my mind and it's a little bit fuzzy. It's been almost ten years now, nearly nine years."

"We talked in general. I knew immediately who this man was, he's very striking, I asked him various general questions and also more pointed questions as to where he was from, what he used to do, what he was doing now, most of which he answered truthfully; he said he was originally from Phnom Penh, which is not true."

It seems that although he may not have heard the dictums "hide in plain sight" or "the best lies are based on the truth", Duch could probably explain them quite well in Khmer.

"He'd come from Phnom Penh after the Khmer Rouge had collapsed under the weight of the Vietnamese invasion," Dunlop points out. "He told me he'd been a mathematics teacher, which I knew to be the case. He talked generally, we talked generally; I didn't want to arouse his suspicions because I didn't know the situation."

Cambodia was no longer a war-zone, for the first time in decades, but that didn't mean it was suddenly the Riviera.

"Samlot had literally just opened up in a matter of weeks, there'd been a lot of fighting there, it'd been very confusing, so the situation was still tense and I didn't know what kind of position of authority he held in that district at that time. For all I knew at that moment he was still the head of the Santebal, or at least somebody who could wield influence and potentially, I suppose, pose a physical threat, perhaps. I just didn't know and I wasn't going to take a risk."

There was another reason for not pushing his luck.

"Plus I was with an organisation and this was something separate to my reasons for being there."

As people who've followed the story know, Dunlop returned to Samlot with Nate Thayer, who had earlier interviewed Pol Pot and documented his "trial" at the hands of his former followers.

"I'm not a news journalist," Dunlop explains. "I've always been interested in feature work, which is more in-depth, giving the complexities of a story more space, and so, to some extent, I knew I was out of my depth, hence working with Nate."

Given that focus on the complexity of the story, it is perhaps not surprising Dunlop is not focussed on the headline-generating fact of Duch's discovery alive and well and living freely, but rather the potential answers the man had.

"What was so compelling and important, I think, about Duch's discovery was that he talked."

"And he talked openly, admitting freely his own guilt as well as pointing the finger to other Khmer Rouge leaders and the chain of command, and I thought that's what made it so compelling. Particularly the human aspect of it."

"Here was a man who appeared to be sorry for what he had been involved in. Now, whether it's genuine or not, I don't know, but that's what made it compelling. Most of the other interviews were not interesting in the same way; most denied their guilt, denied their role, denied their responsibility in what had occurred."

"Duch was completely different. Plus, Duch is not a leader."

- The Lost Executioner by Nic Dunlop is available at Monument Books on Norodom Boulevard. Monument also has other outlets. Call +855 23 217 617 for more info.

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