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Friday, March 3, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Book Review

"The Lost Executioner": In Cambodia, a quest to unmask evil

Special to The Seattle Times

"The Lost Executioner: A Journey to the Heart of the Killing Fields"
by Nic Dunlop
Walker, 326 pp., $24

As a young teenager, Nic Dunlop stumbled upon Cambodia's ancient jungle temples and exhumed mass graves while flipping through National Geographic.

"Amid this emerald landscape clothes and skulls were mixed in the chocolate earth, as though the countryside had melted in the midday sun to reveal a terrible secret," the Irish photojournalist writes in "The Lost Executioner," a brilliant and haunting tale of his personal quest to track down Pol Pot's chief executioner, Comrade Duch.

Duch was a math teacher turned communist idealist turned mass murderer who oversaw the torture and killing of 20,000 fellow Cambodians before fleeing and disappearing into the chaos following Vietnam's invasion of Cambodia in 1979.

Two million people perished — horrible deaths — under the Khmer Rouge. Almost three decades later, no one has been held accountable. Pol Pot died of natural causes in 1998; currently, fewer than 10 other former leaders are imprisoned, awaiting trial. One of them is Duch, who might have continued his undercover life as a Baptist lay minister, teacher and aid worker (for the American Refugee Committee) had he not been exposed by Dunlop.

"For me, Cambodia had become shorthand for all that was wrong in the world," says Dunlop, who was born in 1969, the year the U.S. secretly started bombing Cambodia. "I wanted to understand how a movement that laid claim to a vision of a better world could instead turn people into instruments of overwhelming evil ... I wanted to know what it was that had turned a seemingly ordinary man from one of the poorer parts of Cambodia into one of the worst mass murderers of the twentieth century."

During his many years as a photojournalist in Cambodia, Dunlop carried in his pocket a stained black-and-white photograph of Duch. In "The Lost Executioner," Dunlop interweaves his search for Duch with poignant character sketches, intimate interviews and insights about Cambodian folktales, rampant corruption, repressed peasants and frustrated scholars with nowhere to go.

The photographer's writing is clear and often poetic, especially regarding pictures, violence and his own feelings. He doesn't tidy Cambodia's history, which is tangled and raw. He implicates many: "The UN, the Thais, the US, the British, the Singaporeans, the Vietnamese, the Chinese, the Malaysians had all helped the Khmer Rouge at one time or a another."

In the end, Dunlop finds Duch, but there's no happy ending, no justice, no peace. This is not the understanding the photographer had sought.

Instead, we see — through Dunlop's brooding eyes — how close we all are to the edge: "Previously, when Pol Pot had given one of his last interviews, it was not his predictable denials of mass murder that had intrigued me. It had been a tube of Pringles which sat on the table ... The evil that the Khmer Rouge had come to represent in our collective minds was not at the end of some malarial river deep in a dark primordial jungle. Mass murderers enjoy Pringles, too. These details don't bring us closer to them. They bring them closer to us."

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company


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