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My brother's killer

By: The Advisor Posted: September-25-2012 in
The Advisor

‘On the afternoon of the 13th, we thought we could hear a boat engine at intervals throughout the afternoon but we couldn’t be sure. Suddenly, a boat came in closer. I was about to go up on deck when the boat opened fire and sent some shots over our mast.’ – Kerry Hamill’s journal, August 13 1978.

The end, when it finally came, was as unforeseeable as it was barbaric. Foxy Lady, a 28ft traditional Malaysian perahu bedar, was just a few months into what was meant to be the trip of a lifetime. From Darwin harbour on Australia’s rugged northern coast, the tiny yacht had nosed her way through the crystalline waters of the Pacific Ocean, past Timor and Flores, then on to Bali and Singapore, heading up the Straits of Malacca and around the tip of the Malaysian peninsula. On board, a trio of tanned young adventurers passed for captain and crew.

Kerry Hamill was 27 when he wrote his last journal entry from Foxy Lady in August 1978. The eldest son of a tight-knit New Zealand family, he – along with fellow travellers Stuart Glass, a Canadian, and John Dewhirst from England – would within weeks become one of only nine foreigners ever executed by the Khmer Rouge.

At the time, few people outside Cambodia knew of the atrocities being committed. Before Foxy Lady’s course was forever altered, Kerry had sent countless letters back home, regaling his family with breathless tales they’d read aloud by a blazing fire in the coastal wilds of Whakatane. Suddenly, the letters stopped. The silence was deafening. It would be a further 18 months before the Hamills finally discovered what awful fate had befallen their son.

“I remember my mum looking out to sea approaching Christmas time and saying ‘Kerry’s going to come over the horizon and surprise us with tales of his adventures,’” says his little brother Rob, today an Olympic and Trans-Atlantic rowing champion. Their parents, Esther and Miles, fretted about what to do; who to contact. Kerry’s father wrote letters of his own, bashing away furiously at an antiquated typewriter stuffed with carbon sheaves. The theorising began: pirates; maybe a shipwreck. Perhaps their son had just decided to go silent for a while.

Sixteen months later, the phone finally rang – only the voice at the other end wasn’t Kerry’s, but that of a neighbour: ‘Get the local paper.’ John, the second eldest, went to a nearby dairy. There it was, in bold type face on the front page: his brother’s torture and execution at the hands of the Khmer Rouge. A few months later, John – also 27 – walked to the edge of a cliff and jumped. Rob, then 14, sought solace in the numbing arms of alcohol.

Today, asked what he remembers of Kerry, Rob is silent for a moment. Eventually, slowly and deeply, he exhales. Each word is carefully weighed before being spoken. “He was outgoing; his own man. He wasn’t overly demonstrative. He was really calm and just a lovely guy. One of his acquaintances said he was ‘a gorgeous, beautiful man’ and that phrase has stuck with me forever. He was a very able, helpful, loving guy.” [His voice breaks] “I can’t say much more…”

More than 30 years have passed since Foxy Lady was blown off course in a storm, straying into waters controlled by Democratic Kampuchea’s out-of-control Marxist machine. Stuart was shot dead immediately; Kerry and John were taken for interrogation at S-21. John was executed weeks later; two months of torture followed for Kerry. At best, he was blindfolded, taken to a pre-dug trench, made to kneel down beside it, hit over the head with a metal bar, his throat slit, and then buried. At worst, he was dragged into the street and burned alive.

Not knowing why, or even how, has haunted Rob ever since. In 1997, rowing across the Atlantic Ocean with the late Phil Stubbs, his anguish loomed like a tidal wave. “I was grief stricken, even though it had been 20-plus years,” he says from his New Zealand home. “Whether it was through exhaustion, or sleep deprivation, or the connection with the ocean – Kerry had a strong connection with water – every day on the boat, when I was rowing or when I was in the cabin while my teammate was out rowing, he didn’t know but at some point every day I grieved for my brother. It was at that point that I knew I had to do something to pay tribute to his life and to what happened.”

They won the race by a full eight days, but more than a decade passed before the invitation to testify at the Khmer Rouge Tribunal finally came. “When the court case came up, I knew that was the time I was going to go to Cambodia, whether it was just to try to find out more about what happened, or just to honour him. Soon after that, I was contacted by a film producer called James Bellamy to see if I wanted to tell the whole story.”

Thirty-one years to the day that Kerry had first set foot on Cambodian soil, on 13 August 2009 Rob Hamill landed at Phnom Penh International Airport to confront his brother’s torturers. “It was incredibly poignant. The first day I arrived at the airport was very traumatic. When I came through customs I remember the first guy I saw looked like a commander in the Khmer Rouge, with the big hat and the medals. I don’t think I’d ever had my photograph taken at an airport before. They took my passport and then took my photo. I was horrified; really angry. I felt like I was going through the same process my brother had gone through 31 years prior at S-21.

“I got through that and calmed down a bit, then went to get my bags and my mind was going. I saw all these bags coming out on the carousel and they became metaphoric corpses. I went from anger to being quite emotional, suddenly feeling for all the lives that had been affected by the Khmer Rouge. It was a bizarre moment for me. I hadn’t prepared myself for that at all.”

Within the clinical white walls of the Extraordinary Chambers of the Courts of Cambodia, Rob delivered one of the tribunal’s most incendiary testimonies. That time, he was better prepared. As S-21 prison chief Kaing Guek Eav, alias Duch, took the stand, their eyes locked. “He challenged me: it was more than a feeling. The judges came in, we stood up and I looked across the courtroom and he was just staring at me. We stared at each other for about ten seconds. I felt that was quite a challenging thing to do, for someone who was supposedly remorseful and seeking forgiveness. It intrigued me. For me, trying to forgive, it didn’t bode well.”

Reading his victim impact statement out to the court, Rob said: “Duch, at times I have wanted to ‘smash’ you, to use your words, in the same way that you smashed so many others. At times I have imagined you shackled, starved, whipped and clubbed viciously. I have imagined your scrotum electrified, being forced to eat your own faeces, being nearly drowned and having your throat cut. I have wanted that to be your experience, your reality.”

Duch, who admitted overseeing the deaths of at least four of the nine foreigners, told the judges that he couldn’t remember Kerry. “My interpretation of that,” says Rob, “is that it’s a lot worse than I ever could have imagined, so he tried not to even go there because it wouldn’t have made him look any better. I haven’t read every word that was written or that he said in the court, but my general feeling is that there are parts of his testimony that are genuine and heart-felt and really remorseful; the problem is it’s been very inconsistent and contradictory.”

In February 2012, Duch’s 30-year sentence was extended to life imprisonment for his crimes during the murderous rule of the Khmer Rouge. But does Rob believe justice been served? “Having someone be brought to trial and shown up for who they are is important, but justice is bigger than that. It’s more of an overall bigger picture: getting people talking about the issue, about what happened; the trauma inflicted on all the families that were affected by this.”

It’s to this end that Rob agreed to the filming of Brother Number One, an award-winning documentary by Annie Goldson, James Bellamy and Peter Gilbert that follows his journey to the ECCC and is screening at Meta House this week. Along the way, he visits Tuol Sleng, where his brother was tortured; meets three S-21 survivors; and penetrates a Khmer Rouge stronghold to find the Navy officer in charge when Kerry’s yacht was attacked. It is, above all, the story of an innocent man brought to his knees and killed in the prime of his life, and the impact his death had on just one family.

“Here in New Zealand, having this film made and people being able to watch it, and creating this conversation afterwards. I know people have seen the film and have gone away for days, weeks, contemplating it and talking about the ramifications of what happened at that time – and hopefully learning from it. That’s what the court has helped facilitate: books being written; conversations overheard in a cafe. It’s infinite, and that’s where the court has played a bigger role than having one person brought up in front of the world. It’s created a dialogue and that’s incredibly powerful.

“Whether Case 003 goes ahead or not, there’s an opportunity now to start up a Truth and Reconciliation Commission – the South African version of seeking justice. Could something be created in Cambodia to say ‘We 100% guarantee no one else is going to be brought to trial, but you’re probably feeling a lot of guilt about what you did, so come forward, talk about it and let’s get it out there.’?”

As for reconciling his own loss, Rob – whose request for a meeting with Duch has twice been refused – is more circumspect, but says the process of confronting the past for Brother Number One has been “very, very positive”. “If I think deeply about it the emotion starts coming up, which suggests there are issues still there and reinforces that the process of grieving never ends. I still want to meet with Duch. I’d like to find out more about what he was thinking; why he was thinking the way he was thinking and why he did the things that he did; the motives behind it.” [His voice breaks] “I can’t say too much…”

Reproduced with the kind permission of The Advisor
The Advisor is Phnom Penh’s leading arts and entertainment newspaper. Published weekly and delivered to almost 600 locations throughout the capital, The Advisor covers and uncovers art, music, theatre, books, food and drink with style, grace and attitude.

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