The Ghosts Of S-21

The black-and-white photograph, stapled to a yellowed document deep in the archives, is evidence of a past that Khieu Ches would rather forget. The picture was taken in 1977, soon after the peasant boy, then 16, arrived at a school called S-21 in Phnom Penh, the Cambodian capital. Hair brushed back under his cap, his uniform neatly buttoned, Khieu stares out with dark, emotionless eyes that seem frozen somewhere between innocence and menace. Along with others from the class of 1977, Khieu was assigned to a third-floor classroom in Building D. Khieu's task was horrifyingly simple: he had to keep his emaciated prisoners shackled to the floor, making sure they stayed alive long enough to be tortured, executed and thrown into the mass graves that would come to be known as the Killing Fields.

Khieu, now 41, has a hard time talking about his role in one of the worst genocides in human history. Standing in a rice field near his home in Kampong Tralach, two hours north of Phnom Penh, the wiry farmer recalls his conflicted feelings as a child soldier: the thrill of joining the Khmer Rouge, the fear of offending his commanders, the shock of returning to a ravaged home. But when the conversation turns to S-21-the nerve center of the Khmer Rouge killing machine-Khieu's mind goes fuzzy and his voice rises in agitation. "If I didn't obey orders, I would've been killed," he says. "I didn't know anything. I was just a child." Of the 14,000 men, women and children imprisoned at S-21, only seven survived--including one who would return, 24 years later, to haunt Khieu's memory.

Like Khieu, Cambodia has never really come to terms with its traumatic history. During Pol Pot's four-year reign of terror, an estimated 1.7 million people died--one fifth of the total population. More than a million fell victim to disease, starvation and forced labor. The rest were executed in cold blood. Pol Pot and his henchmen set the country on its maniacal course. But the executioners themselves were often uneducated child soldiers trained to commit acts of unspeakable cruelty. Today, several hundred thousand of these former cadres, now in their late 30s and early 40s, live in villages across Cambodia. In them, the threads of guilt, denial, horror and memory are difficult to disentangle.

How does a society move toward the future when the past is such a heavy burden? Next week King Norodom Sihanouk is expected to approve a tribunal to try "those most responsible" for the killing. Like the ongoing prosecution of war crimes in Rwanda and Yugoslavia, a tribunal in Cambodia could be a crucial step toward healing a shattered country. But it also pushes these exercises in exorcism into risky new territory. The tribunal, to be jointly run by local and international judges, will be held on Cambodian soil, where the Khmer Rouge still looms large. And that raises more questions: How will it deal with the past without unleashing new demons? How will the judges balance the desire for justice and the need to preserve peace? And how will Cambodia heal its deeper wounds in villages where victims and perpetrators still live side by side?

There are no simple answers, especially when the worst atrocities were carried out, in effect, by heavily indoctrinated youth. Were these kids victims, as well as perpetrators? When Khieu joined the Khmer Rouge in 1975, his mind was a tabula rasa on which the Khmer Rouge could write their revolution: he was young (15), illiterate and filled with anti-imperialist hatred, thanks to American bombing near his village. Initially, Khieu and his friends were proud to be members of the revolutionary vanguard. When they rode on a truck to Phnom Penh in their black uniforms and red scarves, they sang and laughed, unaware that they were being taken to a heart of darkness: the S-21 prison. "We were young," says Phlong Kheng, a former S-21 cadre from Baribo province who joined the revolution at the age of 13. "We didn't know how to be afraid."

They learned about fear in S-21. The Khmer Rouge had 169 prisons around Cambodia, but S-21 was the center of its security operations, run by a merciless former schoolteacher named Kang Kek Ieu. Khieu insists he was not a killer, but he admits that "sometimes I beat prisoners who didn't follow my orders." His own superiors, he says, would do much worse if he disobeyed their commands. In a frenzied purge of Khmer Rouge cadre in 1978, dozens of his S-21 comrades were jailed, tortured and executed. "If you did something wrong, they wouldn't just kill you," says Khieu. "They'd kill four or five of your friends and relatives, too." When Khieu returned home after the Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia in 1979, he found that the Khmer Rouge had killed four members of his family.

Khieu's loss, ironically, helped him gain a measure of acceptance in his devastated village. Over the years, Khieu has built a life on the paddy fields, marrying a local girl, raising five children and slowly becoming a village leader. But the serenity is deceptive. Smoking a crudely rolled cigarette near his thatch-roofed home, Khieu is edgy and evasive. It is midmorning, but his eyes are glassy from a bout of drinking. When asked if he's haunted by memories of S-21, Khieu abruptly stands up and walks away. "I've answered enough questions," he says.

Even now, two decades after the Khmer Rouge fell, Cambodians remain deeply ambivalent about putting them on trial. They worry that a tribunal might endanger the only period of stability they have had in 30 years. With the death of Pol Pot in 1998 and the surrender of other top commanders, there is little threat of a renewed civil war. But Cambodians still fear a spiral of vengeance. "Witnesses may be safe in front of the cameras in Phnom Penh," says opposition leader Sam Rainsy. "But what happens back in their village in the middle of the night?"

Such fears are only exacerbated by widespread doubts about the government's commitment to a rigorous trial. Prime Minister Hun Sen is a former Khmer Rouge member, as are many in his administration. A few years ago Hun Sen advised Cambodians to "dig a hole and bury the past." Now, after receiving $600 million in aid pledges from foreign governments that strongly support a tribunal, he favors a trial. But he insists the United Nations cannot dictate the terms. "I'm displeased with the way they are working," he told Newsweek. Nobody believes the tribunals will be perfect. Even if the United Nations participates--negotiations should conclude in the next few weeks--there will be the question of whether the three Cambodian judges and two foreign judges can agree on international law. But the important thing, says Youk Chhang, Cambodia's top genocide researcher, is to begin the process. "We are a shattered country," he says. "We must rebuild by putting it back together piece by piece, person by person."

Vann Nath was one of the seven survivors from S-21. He remembers Khieu as a young guard who ruled supremely over the antechamber of death. A painter by profession, Vann Nath arrived at S-21 in January 1978. Under Khieu's watch, he was tormented by starvation and a sense of powerlessness. His life was saved by a stroke of luck. About a month after his arrival, shortly before all his roommates were killed, he was ordered to paint heroic portraits of a man he later learned was Pol Pot. "If I didn't know how to paint, I would not be talking to you today," says Vann Nath, now 56, a shock of white hair over his broad features. "I would be just another skull in the Killing Fields."

Vann Nath has no desire for vengeance. But like many Cambodians, he still has a need to understand the genocide, so he also tracked down several of his former tormentors at S-21. A few months ago, when he heard that researchers had located Khieu, he visited Kampong Tralach. Khieu welcomed his former prisoner as if he were an old friend. But he didn't apologize; he tried to explain that he, too, was a victim of the Khmer Rouge. Vann Nath politely objected. "They say they are victims, but I saw them," he said later. "They liked torturing prisoners." For all their differences, the two men realized they had much in common. Neither of them had much control over the forces that had scarred their lives. And here they were, 24 years later, sitting down together in the dirt and talking, civilly, about a horror neither they nor Cambodia can forget.