Nic Dunlop: The Lost Executioner

Chris Mitchell

The Lost Executioner is my Book of the Year. Like my pick for last year, Emma Larkin’s Secret Histories: Finding George Orwell in A Burmese Teashop, The Lost Executioner is a personal travelogue into a country that tries to understand its recent, disastrous politics.

Where Secret Histories documents Burma’s slide into a real-life Orwellian nightmare, The Lost Executioner chronicles photographer Nic Dunlop’s obsessive hunt for Comrade Duch, the man who presided over the deaths of thousands as the commandant of Tuol Sleng, Cambodia’s notorious interrogation centre, during the genocidal regime of the Khmer Rouge.

Between 1975 when the Khmer Rouge came to power in Cambodia until 1979 when they were displaced by the invading Vietnamese, the ultra-leftist party instituted a Year Zero policy which was even more extreme than China’s Cultural Revolution and resulted in the murder of an estimated two million people – a quarter of the country’s population.

Duch, like every other major figure in the Khmer Rouge regime, successfully disappeared into Cambodia’s jungles when the Vietnamese arrived and, like the rest of the regime’s leaders, successfully avoided prosecution. To date, twenty five years after Cambodia’s auto-genocide, none of the key proponents have been brought to trial. Pol Pot, the Khmer Rouge’s leader, died of old age in 1998.

For Dunlop, seeing a photo of Comrade Duch set something off inside him that made him want to find the former commandant. This search provides the engine for his book, fusing the detective work necessary to finding Duch with the travelogue of exploring modern day Cambodia. Dunlop interweaves details of Cambodia’s awful recent history within his journey, providing a powerful narrative that avoids the dryness of traditional historical analysis but does not hold back on dealing with the vast complexities of how the Khmer Rouge came to power and the fallout of their overthrow. Both John Pilger and David Chandler, Cambodia’s pre-eminent Western historian, are given major credit in the Acknowledgements for helping Dunlop refine the historical accuracy of his text and this, for me, is vital as a demonstration of Dunlop’s attempt to write more than a simple, observational travel book.

Instead, Dunlop gives an account of his own, personal journey, not just through the cities and countryside of Cambodia but through the country’s history and how his own history has intertwined with it. The reader, then, accompanies Dunlop as he tries to come to grips with understanding Cambodia as a foreigner, as his learning and perceptions of the country he is fascinated by shift and change over time – and as he questions his own opinions and perspectives about prosecuting the Khmer Rouge commanders, and the very nature of how justice can be achieved and carried out. Integral to this journey – and a vital part of this book – are the personal testimonies of those Dunlop meets who were both victim and perpetrators of the Khmer Rouge’s atrocities.

It is these conversations that transform the historical narrative by placing those momentous events in the context of their impact on individuals, where they stop being lost in history, if only for a moment, and become real people again. For all the citing of numbers and statistics to measure and somehow quantify the vastness of Cambodia’s nightmare, reading these accounts are what provide the true expression of the murderous insanity that befell the country.

The Lost Executioner, then, is a complex book, both in its attempt to avoid simplifying the recent history of Cambodia and in Dunlop’s own acknowledgement of the flux of his own thoughts about it. But, perhaps because Dunlop’s profession is as a photographer, there is never a sense of getting lost within his narrative. His prose has a real composure to it – it’s extremely simple without being simplistic, and there is not one verbose word or overwrought sentence here. The understated tone of Dunlop’s journalism allows the appalling facts of his narrative to speak for themselves far more clearly.

Without wanting to sound flippant, the search for Comrade Duch does also have a bit of Boy’s Own adventure to it – and, to be frank, a somewhat suicidal one too. Dunlop has worked in South East Asia for several years and is well versed in Asian protocol to be sure, but to decide to go looking for one of the Khmer Rouge’s key figures would seem to be asking for trouble. Cambodia is safe for tourists these days, but outside of the cities it is still easy for people to disappear. I’ll refrain from writing anymore about the outcome of his search for fear of creating a spoiler; I’ll only say that it is a truly remarkable story.

A section in the middle of The Lost Executioner is the abiding – and troubling – memory I retain of reading it. Within the rarefied confines of New York’s Museum Of Modern Art, an exhibition of photos taken at Tuol Sleng was commissioned, with an accompanying coffee table book. The photos have become iconic – black and white, each individual in the black loose clothes of the Khmer Rouge against a white wall. They are the photos that were taken on admission at Tuol Sleng – and the taking of those photos were effectively the signing of their death warrant. Only seven people survived their admission to Tuol Sleng.

During its exhibition, MOMA provided no captions with the photographs, no names, no details of who each individual was, no mention of how or why they’d died. For MOMA’s purposes, these photos had stopped being individual records of genocide but had become mere portraiture. They were nice photos, nothing more. There were no indications that each of these people had died at the hands of torturers. There were no calls for justice.

Dunlop writes movingly of his own frustration with the limits of photography – that without words, images are lost without context, turned into disinterested aesthetic objects, mere decoration. The Lost Executioner is clearly the product of Dunlop’s frustration with his own profession, and photography’s loss is writing’s gain. In telling his story of going in search of Comrade Duch, Dunlop also tells the story of Cambodia going in search of answers to its own auto-genocide and the still-ongoing quest for some sort of justice. For all the grimness of its subject matter, The Lost Executioner is a vital book and one that deserves to reach a huge audience.

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