Photo: Comrade Duch. Samlot, Cambodia. ©1999 STUART ISETT

Comrade Duch

From the Yale Genocide Studies program:

Duch, head of the Tuol Sleng prison complex [S-21], was a former schoolteacher named Kang Kech Eav. Duch oversaw a precise department of death. His guards dutifully photographed the prisoners upon arrival and photographed them at or near death, whether their throats were slit, their bodies otherwise mutilated, or so thin from torture and near starvation that they were beyond recognition. The photographs were part of the files to prove the enemies of the state had been killed. Duch even set aside specific days for killing various types of prisoners: one day the wives of “enemies”; another day the children; a different day, “factory workers.”

–Elizabeth Becker, When the War Was Over

My photograph of Comrade Duch taken in 1999. Duch's real name was Kaing Guek Eav and he served as the Khmer Rouge's chief executioner from 1975 until 1979 at the Tuol Sleng prison, or S-21, before fleeing Phnom Penh and going into hiding after the Vietnamese invasion. When I photographed him he was still living freely under a pseudonym in the Khmer Rouge controlled village of Samlot, in western Cambodia. I was traveling in Pailin Province at the time, working on a story on the Khmer Rouge with my friend, writer and photographer Nic Dunlop. Nic recognized Duch and asked that I travel to the village of Samlot to confirm it was indeed him; Nic was simply couldn't believe his own eyes. It was, and still remains, one of the few times doing my work I truly feared for my life. Duch was surrounded by Khmer Rouge soldiers who no doubt knew who he was, and the secrets he still held, while we sat and had lunch with him.

As someone who had studied Cambodian history and the Khmer Rouge, for over 15 years at that point, it was deeply horrifying meeting one of the key architects of the genocide, especially because meeting Duch failed to answer the question of why. Why would anyone do this. Duch was the third and last Khmer Rouge leader I met - I also met Ieng Sary (photograph below) and Khieu Samphan. To this day, I still do not understand why these men did what they did and meeting them certainly never answered that question.

Duch was subsequently arrested, tried and convicted of crimes against humanity, one of only three Khmer Rouge convicted for the deaths of up to 2 million Cambodians. Nic Dunlop wrote an excellent book about Duch called The Lost Executioner. My work on Duch and the Khmer Rouge was published in Sekai Magazine in Japan (below) later that summer.

One question hovered above the trial: the source of the “evil” — as Duch himself described it — that could have compelled him to scribble on a list of 17 children, “Kill them all.” - Seth Mydans, The New York Times


Khmer Rouge Guerrilla. Cambodia


The Killing Fields and Comrade Duch's victims


Khmer Rouge Guerrilla. Cambodia


Khmer Rouge foreign minister, Ieng Sary


Khmer Rouge Guerrilla. Cambodia


Cambodian Civil War


Khmer Rouge. Pailin, Cambodia

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Cambodian Civil War


Khmer Rouge soldiers


Khmer Rouge soldier. Samlot.


Khmer Rouge occupied Pailin.


Khmer Rouge soldier. Samlot.


Khmer Rouge soldier. Phnom Malai


Khmer Rouge base. Phnom Malai, Cambodia


Khmer Rouge base. Pailin, Cambodia


Dawn. Pailin, Cambodia


Khmer Rouge occupied territory. Phnom Malai, Cambodia


Comrade Duch & the S-21 Prison. Phnom Penh.


Comrade Duch & the S-21 Prison. Phnom Penh.


Defaced Pol Pot bust. Phnom Penh.

Life under the Khmer Rouge. Sekai Magazine (Japan):