"We were victims too:" A Khmer Rouge Executioner Looks Back

ANLONG SAN, Cambodia, March 9, 2009 : “We were victims, too,” said Him Huy, the head of the guard detail at the Tuol Sleng torture house, who took part in the executions of thousands of people at a Khmer Rouge killing field.

As the prisoners knelt at the edges of mass graves with their hands tied behind them, executioners swung iron bars at the backs of their heads, twice if necessary, before they toppled forward into the pits.

“I had no choice,” Mr. Him Huy, 53, said. “If I hadn’t killed them, I would have been killed myself.”

As the trials of five senior Khmer Rouge figures get under way near Phnom Penh, the capital, they raise questions about the guilt or victimhood of lower-ranking cadres like Mr. Him Huy, the people who carried out the arrests, killings and torture, who are unlikely to be tried.

As guard and executioner at Cambodia’s most prominent torture house, Mr. Him Huy personifies the horror of the Khmer Rouge years, from 1975 to 1979, when two million people died of starvation and overwork as well as torture and execution.

But in the severe and paranoid world of the Khmer Rouge prison, guards and torturers themselves worked under threat of death, and Mr. Him Huy saw a number of his colleagues kneel at the edges of their graves for that blow to the back of the neck.


Photo by Seth Mydans

“I used an iron bar about that long,” he said, spreading his hands wide as he told his story late last month, “and about as thick as my big toe.”

At night, sometimes two or three times a week, Mr. Him Huy said, he drove trucks full of prisoners to the Choeung Ek killing field, where he logged them in 20 or 30 or 80 at a time and then confirmed that they had been killed.

He asserted that he had personally killed only five people, as demonstrations of loyalty to his superiors.

At least 14,000 people were arrested and interrogated at Tuol Sleng prison, which was officially known as S-21 and is now a museum. Only a handful survived.

Mr. Him Huy is back home in this village 50 miles south of Phnom Penh. A farmer and the father of nine, he is optimistic, hard-working and quick to smile, seemingly comfortable to be who he is and at ease with his memories. Neighbors seem to like him.

“Even the young people, when they have a party they always invite him,” said his wife, Put Peng Aun. “If there’s a party, he’s got to be there.”

Asked to describe himself, Mr. Him Huy said: “I’m not a bad person. I’m a good man. I never argue with anyone. I never fight with anyone. I have good intentions as a human being.”

But some of those who knew him at the prison remember him harshly. One survivor, Bou Meng, said Mr. Him Huy beat and tortured him, poking at his wounds with a stick. “His face was so mean,” Mr. Bou Meng told the Documentation Center of Cambodia, a private research center. “Today he looks gentle.”

Two of Mr. Him Huy’s co-workers at Tuol Sleng, quoted by the historian David Chandler in his book on the prison, “Voices From S-21,” remembered him as “a seasoned killer, an important figure at the prison and a key participant in the execution process.”


Tuol Sleng guards. Him Huy is fourth from left. : Photo by S-21

Mr. Him Huy is evasive about the extent of his duties at the prison. But what he did there, he said, he did on pain of death.

“I am a victim of the Khmer Rouge,” he said without hesitation. “I did not volunteer to work at S-21.

“We were all prisoners, those who killed and those who were killed,” he said. “And in fact, for a lot of the staff there, the day came when they were killed, too. In the daytime we’d be eating together, and in the evening some were arrested and killed.”

In a 2001 book about the prison staff called “Victims and Perpetrators?” the Documentation Center calculates that at least 563 members of Tuol Sleng’s staff, about one-third of the total, were executed while working there.

In a way, Tuol Sleng was a microcosm of the nation, where half-starved and overworked people lived in constant fear of being arrested and killed, often for reasons they never learned.

The first defendant in the United Nations-backed tribunal is Mr. Him Huy’s former boss, the prison commandant, a tough, sharp-eyed man named Kaing Guek Eav and generally known as Duch. His trial began last month.

It was Duch who signed execution orders for both prisoners and errant staff members. Indeed, Mr. Him Huy rose to become fifth or sixth in the chain of command after his superiors were pulled from their jobs and killed.

“Yes, I did kill people,” he said. “I did transport people to Choeung Ek. I did verify lists of people at Choeung Ek. But Duch ordered me to do all of that.”

Many Cambodians appear to accept this common defense among former Khmer Rouge cadres: that they had no choice but to be cruel, fearing for their own lives. It is a defense Duch himself has offered in the past.

Chum Mey, another survivor of Tuol Sleng, described 12 days and nights of torture and terror, but without bitterness toward his abusers. “My thought is not to put the blame on Him Huy because I don’t know what I would have done in his place,” he said. “I don’t think I would have been able to disobey.”

Like most other guards and torturers at the prison, Mr. Him Huy was recruited young — easily molded, brutalized and indoctrinated into the paranoia and extremism of this closed world.

The son of a clerk at a fishing company, he joined the Khmer Rouge insurgency at the age of 12 and was transferred to work in the prison when he was 18.

After the fall of the Khmer Rouge, he spent a year in a local jail as punishment for his role in the regime, as many former Khmer Rouge cadres did.

Thirty years have passed since the Khmer Rouge were ousted by Vietnam. Mr. Him Huy is no different from his neighbors, raising a big family and tending to his beans and corn and rice.

At the end of a long interview, he headed back to his bean field, filling a canister with pesticide and marching down the rows of long yellow beans, swinging a hose from left to right.

He made sure, he said, to walk with the wind behind him so that none of the pesticide would blow back in his face.

Copyright The New York Times