The Insoluble Question

S21: The Khmer Rouge Killing Machine

a film by Rithy Panh

Duch: Master of the Forges of Hell

a film by Rithy Panh
John Vink/Magnum Photos
A scene from Rithy Panh’s film S21: The Khmer Rouge Killing Machine showing the painter Vann Nath, one of the survivors of the Tuol Sleng prison

Sometime early in the reign of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia between 1975 and 1979, Rithy Panh, who was thirteen years old, was digging a ditch on one of the regime’s brutal collective farms when he hit his foot with a pick-ax. His wound didn’t seem very serious at first, but “what with the damp earth, the dust, the perspiration, the mud, the stagnant water, and the lack of food and sleep,” it became badly infected. A dose of penicillin would have cured him, but there was no penicillin, and eventually, with his wound suppurating and malodorous, he was sent to a hospital that had been installed in the former prayer hall of a pagoda.

There was another boy there, also wounded, in his case by a blow to the knee, and he became a kind of double, Panh writes, two wounded boys alone, trapped in the nightmarish dystopia of Democratic Kampuchea. Eventually a nurse applied a “black poultice devised by the ‘revolutionary’ laboratories” to their respective wounds. “It was a mixture of leaves, resin, and to tell the truth I don’t know what else,” Panh writes in The Elimination, his unsettling, probing, morally urgent reflection on the Khmer Rouge years. A day later, he scraped the substance away with his fingernails. “It was a mass of glue from hell, a kind of tar under which my injury had grown worse.”

Soon, the other boy was dead, one of the 1.7 million Cambodians, one fifth of the country’s population, who are estimated to have died by execution, hunger, disease, or some other affliction brought on by the homicidal radicalism of the Khmer Rouge, but Panh was able to get to the village where his mother had been ordered to live. She had managed to hoard a small amount of gold, which she exchanged for a single tablet of penicillin, and by grinding this tablet into a powder and sprinkling it on Panh’s wound, she cured him. “A real miracle,” Panh writes, looking back from the vantage point of decades later. “The miracle of science: a trite expression for those who don’t need to believe in it.”

The Khmer Rouge of course claimed to believe in it. But for Panh that poultice summed up the sham of it all, the triumph of pure ideology, which in Cambodia was a leap of faith in the infallibility of the Angkar, the Organization, the mostly invisible but all-powerful ruling clique. In his book, Panh tells of witnessing the horrific death in childbirth of a young woman because a Khmer Rouge “doctor” was incompetent to help her and nobody would fetch the real doctor, a representative of the discredited class who lived nearby. “The young…

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