One million Seven hundred thousand – 1,700,000.
Two million one hundred thousand – 2,100,000.
Those are the low and high estimates for the number of Cambodians killed during the brutal reign of the Khmer Rouge. It’s a mind-boggling figure, something I don’t like to think much about because I find it so disturbing. One of our team members said, “How could they do that to their own people?” I responded, “How could we (America) abort millions of babies?” Evil masks itself in many different ways.
The Cambodia people are a soft-spoken, well-manned, and compliant group based on our medical team experiences of the past two weeks. They were more orderly and reserved than the Vietnamese we serve, less boisterous, more disciplined. There was an air of acceptance, almost a patient understanding, that they would be seen when it was their time. No sweat. Nothing like the desperation we see in the Vietnamese patients who are always moving forward, pressing, cutting to the front of the line fearful that they won’t be seen or get theirs. Perhaps it has something to do with their form of governance, I don’t know.
Speaking of evil again.
When the communist took over Cambodia in April 1973, they cleared all the people out of the cities including the capital of Phnom Penh. In just four days the city was empty. Imagine, if where you live, every single human being was chased out of town into the countryside. When the Vietnamese “liberated” Phnom Penh four years later, they encountered empty ransacked buildings. There was overgrown grass and weeds everywhere, piles of cars, refrigerators, televisions, and other modern conveniences stacked-up in huge mounds. Then they arrived at the high school, to their horror.
The Vietnamese, no stranger to brutality themselves, were taken aback by what they saw at S-21. Thousands of skulls, bones, and persons in obvious stages of torture were in the building and on the grounds. It was revolting and sickening. The odor of death permeated everything.
Meet Comrade Duch, a communist and high-ranking member of the Khmer Rouge, who was the official that ran S-21. S-21 was the name given to the former high school where 20,000 plus Cambodians were sent for interrogation, to “confess their crimes against the people,” and then killed. He personally signed all their executions papers – Adults, children, even babies. How can a baby be guilty of “crimes against the people?” Only 7 people are known to have survived out of that 20,000+ between 1975 and 1979. What evil existed in the heart of this man, the Khmer Ruge’s chief jailer, interrogator and butcher, a darkness that could never see the light. Really?
As a Buddhist, Comrade Duch was well aware that his sins could never be forgiven or cancelled out this so-called bad karma. In other words, little or no hope of immediate salvation from committed sins. Then Comrade Duch met fellow countryman, Pastor Lapel.
He survived the Khmer Rouge, fled Cambodia through Thailand, and made it to America. He became a Christian in a refugee camp. Later on in life he decided to return to Cambodia and begin the process of reconciliation for all concerned – the people, the Khmer Rouge, and the country all based on God’s Word. Comrade Duch had changed his name by the time he met Pastor Lapel. To make a long story short, Duch accepted Christ as his Lord and Savior, and asked for forgiveness. It was a liberating moment for him when he realized all the bad things, the sins he had committed including the atrocities and genocide, were forgiven. While he was absolved of the penalty of his sins, he understood the consequences of his sin were another matter.
Comrade Duch became a new person. Everyone noticed it. He was “different,” and soon he was working for a Christian NGO. He helped hundreds, if not thousands of his people, to a better life. He helped the poor, clothed people, fed children, impacted community development, improved public health, etc., and so on. He loved his people and that love was displayed in a tangible way.
His spiritual walk was genuine. If the church doors were open, he was there. Soon his family became believers, he a church leader, and eventually Duch was ordained a lay pastor. Dozens of his family members came to know Christ. He wanted everyone to know Jesus, to do good things, to be a changed person. A “Light” had pierced his heart of darkness!
We all know God’s Word teaches that our sin will find us out, to paraphrase it, and Duch was found out. When an investigative reporter finally located and confronted him with his past, he owned up to it. He eventually turned himself in and spent several years in prison waiting for the inevitable trial. Those several years turned into a decade and just a few weeks ago, Comrade Duch was sentenced to 35 years in prison, commuted to about half of that for his crimes against humanity in the genocide that wiped out three or four generations of Cambodians.
Why was he not put to death? In an attempt to move on and make something good out of a horrid past, reconciliation is more than a buzz word in Cambodia. The country knows they have to reconcile with one another to be able to move on to a bright future, a new day.
Comrade Duch’s actions proved he had become the “real deal” in terms of a follower of Christ. He was, indeed, a changed man after meeting Jesus. It makes one wonder what would have happened if he had met Christ in the early 70’s instead of twenty-five years later? This page of Cambodian history may have never been written.
Reconciliation between man and God, between man and country, and between one another is only possible through Christ. It’s the founding scriptural admonition for VWAM – II Corinthians 5:18 – the Ministry of Reconciliation.
And Comrade Duch is proof evil is overcome by good, the goodness of the Gospel, and “Amazing grace” is amazing indeed.
Chuck Ward, Executive Director, Vets With A Mission – July 6, 2011.