In 1978, three young men on a gap year strayed into Cambodian waters and were discovered by members of the Khmer Rouge. Holly Baxter retraced the steps of her fellow Geordie, John Dawson Dewhirst, and his tragic companions, to uncover a haunting tale.
It was June 1978 when Hilary received her final letter from her brother John. “He used to write to me on his travels,” she tells me, 40 years later. “They were getting the boat ready and he was going on his final trip before coming home.”
John Dawson Dewhirst was 26 years old, and had spent the year after graduating from his degree (a bachelor of education with English from Loughborough University, which he’d attended on a scholarship) travelling round southeast Asia. He’d always been adventurous, says Hilary, “and outdoorsy. He loved writing – poetry, fictional stuff – he had a very unusual, quirky style.”
He was known by friends to be sensitive, gentle and thoughtful. Much later, family members would find out that he was described by the person who ordered his murder as “a polite young man”.
John set out to Japan and worked briefly as a teacher, and then a contract employee – “a headline writer”, Hilary thinks – for The Japan Times between June 1977 and January 1978.
Hilary knows that after John left Tokyo and The Japan Times, he travelled extensively. “South Korea, Indonesia, Singapore, Malaysia…” He made friends along the way, including two men called Stuart Glass, a Canadian, and Kerry Hamill, a New Zealander. They met in the Malaysian city of Kuala Terengganu, at the time a small harbour town with a tropical climate which faced onto the South China Sea, with a palm-lined beach and traditional stilt houses dotted across the river.
In the summer of 1978, six months after John had left Japan, the three decided to take a trip on Kerry’s yacht, the Foxy Lady, with John acting as a paid charter. They set off on a course towards Bangkok, three experienced sailors on a relatively short hop across the water. John, a keen photographer, took pictures of the deserted islands they passed on the way, splitting his time between navigating and cooking simple food below deck.
Then they vanished without a trace.
At the other side of the world in New Zealand, Kerry Hamill’s brother Rob had also received a final letter in “either June or July of 1978”. Kerry’s girlfriend Gail had been on the boat with the crew fairly consistently throughout the year, but she’d flown out to Hawaii to visit her parents in June and returned to meet up with the boys a few weeks later. When they didn’t show up, she knew something was wrong.
For both the Dewhirsts and the Hamills, periods of no communication from Kerry and John were normal. It was still relatively rare for young people to set out on their own for trips around southeast Asia; the places they visited weren’t well-worn backpacker trails in the way they are now. The internet, of course, was decades off, and mail delivery across continents was slow at the best of times. Spending time on a boat meant you didn’t always have the opportunity to post your letters anyway. But as time went on and no letters arrived, the families began to worry.
The Hamills had had a tradition over the preceding months of sitting round the kitchen table together in New Zealand as their father read out the latest letter from Kerry vividly describing his adventures round the globe; sometimes an item of clothing or a trinket would arrive in a package for his siblings. Weeks without Kerry’s reassuring words went by. Kerry’s mother would stare out to sea whenever anyone expressed anxiety and brightly say: “Don’t you worry. He’ll turn up and surprise us in time for Christmas.”
“It was 16 months before we knew what happened to him,” Rob Hamill tells me from his own boat in New Zealand (like his brother he is a keen adventurer, comfortable on the water, and even won the first Atlantic Rowing Race in 1997 after competing successfully in the Olympics). “My mum and dad were beside themselves; my dad had been contacting every single port in southeast Asia trying to find out something, anything. They had such hope and fear.” He pauses. “I didn’t understand it completely then, but now I have children of my own…”
The first time I came across John Dewhirst was on a trip to Phnom Penh in the rainy season of 2011, running my fingertips along a row of faces and documents in the former Khmer Rouge interrogation centre known as S-21. I’d stopped in front of an unexpected typed confession, one which mentioned the streets, schools and shops of my own childhood in Newcastle.
“My name is John Dawson DEWHIRST,” it read, “British national … I’m a CIA agent. Recently I was disguised as a teacher in Japan. I was born on 2 October 1952, in Newcastle, England … My father was also a CIA agent. He had a legal position as principal of Benton Rov Secondary School… My mother is a secretary in a business store named Fenwick … In 1957, I went to West Jameson Junior School in Newcastle. In 1962, I was transferred to a private school called Royal Grammar School in Newcastle. I moved because my father thought Royal Grammar was a better school than West Jameson.”
To anyone who grew up in Newcastle, these names – Fenwick’s, the misspelt Benton Road, the private school known colloquially as RGS – are as familiar as the river Tyne or the Gateshead quayside. I couldn’t understand how someone who had walked the same streets I had, who had grown up in my neighbourhood, had ended up with their supposed CIA confession and photograph pasted on the wall of a torture centre just outside the Killing Fields of Cambodia in 1978. It just didn’t make any sense.
S-21 is a harrowing place, the iron beds still standing in rooms where torture was carried out regularly, with rusted shackles attached to the frame. Dried pools of blood have made their marks on the walls and floors, and photographs remain of the bodies of prisoners who were left inside the building when the Tuol Sleng interrogators fled during the final days of the regime; some of the implements used to kill and maim them are balanced on the beds. Warped bars remain in the windows, and the numbered concrete cells with their dusty chequered tiles stand just as they did during the height of the Khmer Rouge. This is no sanitised memorial.
Rob Hamill is keen to impress upon me that in situations like this, there is a process, but there is no closure
Thirty minutes away by car is the most prominent of the sites known as the Killing Fields, the Choeung Ek Genocidal Centre. This is where the inmates at S-21 were transported to after their confessions had been written up, rewritten and perfected by the head of the prison, the ruthless Khmer Rouge operative and former maths teacher known as Comrade Duch. At Choeung Ek, visitors nowadays are met with rows and rows of human skulls dug out from the mass graves into which slaughtered people were thrown for crimes that included being able to speak French, wearing spectacles or loving a family member “too much”. The skulls, piled high, stare out from behind polished glass.
Such was the scale of the killing at Choeung Ek that visitors are urged to keep to wooden pathways round the large dips of mass graves. Areas where bodies are yet to be excavated are cordoned off with wooden fences. One of these small cordoned-off sections is known to be the mass grave of more than 100 women and children; another, similarly sized rectangle is labelled “450 victims”. In some areas, visitors are warned by wooden signs in Khmer and English that small fragments of bone and teeth are likely to appear after heavy rain; when I last was there, guests were offered sticks and pieces of material to mark the site of any larger human bones they found while walking round the field so workers could collect them later. The wide tree trunk used to beat children to death is pointed out to you; the music that guards used to cover up the screams of the dying is played out loud. Around the perimeter of the fields, limbless beggars – victims of mines in the war – politely enquire whether you might have any US dollars.
It was here, in this landscape so abundant with suffering, that John Dewhirst and Kerry Hamill are presumed to have been taken after their confessions were meticulously typed up by Comrade Duch. “I was told a story by a guard when I visited there,” says Hilary, “that John was taken out, tied into a tyre and set on fire at S-21. But he didn’t know if it might have been a different westerner.” Rob Hamill heard the same story and wonders whether it might have been Kerry; it was a story that I encountered again and again in my research, until one rare survivor of the prison – a man named Chum Mey – told me that he was detained in the room next door to Kerry Hamill, and that Kerry was the one who met that awful fate. It’s unclear what provoked this particular act of brutality, but it’s plain that the capture of westerners was celebrated by the Khmer Rouge as a particularly significant victory: “proof” that CIA agents were stationed round the country’s shores, determined to topple the regime.
In that 16-month interval when no one knew what had happened to the three young travellers who’d set sail from Malaysia towards Thailand, it seems their boat had been blown off course in the sort of fast-descending tropical storm common in the area in the summer months, straying inadvertently into Cambodian waters. It was just at this time that the killing frenzies at S-21 and Choeung Ek are believed to have been at their peak. Paranoia in the regime was rife and there was great pressure on the torturers at the interrogation centres – of which S-21 was just one of around 200, although it remains the most notorious – to extract confessions from victims which would implicate other family members, friends or associates. An additional effort to exterminate the Vietnamese people living in Cambodia was in full swing, and the Gulf of Siam was being patrolled by navy commander Meas Muth in an effort to attack and capture vessels with escaping Vietnamese on board.
Meas Muth is presumed to have been in charge of capturing the Foxy Lady off the tiny, idyllic island of Koh Tang, which at that point – unbeknownst to the sailors – housed a Khmer Rouge military base. Canadian Stuart Glass was reportedly shot on sight and left to drown during the ensuing struggle. John Dewhirst and Kerry Hamill were taken ashore at Sihanoukville with their captors and then transported overland to S-21. The world then had little idea about the torture centres, the Killing Fields, the exterminations and the crimes against humanity. Most journalists had either fled or been murdered in the early days of the Khmer Rouge. The country was closed to tourists and visitors, its borders heavily policed, its airports inoperative apart from a once-weekly flight to Beijing. “It was almost exactly like North Korea today,” I’m told by a senior UN worker who asked to remain anonymous.
John and Kerry had been travelling along what they called the “hippie trail”, happily ignorant of the politics of the region they skirted around on their boat. When they arrived in Cambodia in the hands of their captors, they had no idea what to expect.
Kerry Hamill’s family discovered his fate when their neighbours rang up and told them to get the local newspaper. Rob, in his documentary Brother Number One, describes going down to the local store and immediately seeing the front page news: his brother was presumed tortured to death by the Khmer Rouge, after photojournalists had entered the country after the regime’s collapse and found evidence of genocide at S-21.
The family never recovered. Rob’s older brother, who had been particularly close to Kerry and was separated from him in age by just over a year, took his own life months after hearing the details. Their mother, Esther, excused herself every Christmas Day for the rest of her life – “just to go to the shops” – to sit quietly alone at Kerry’s gravestone, the one they had erected in his home village in New Zealand though they were never able to recover any of his remains from Cambodia. Trauma wraps its cold fingers around its victims and squeezes.
“I did a lot of pretty wacky things [to try to process the grief],” Rob Hamill tells me. “I took some soil and water from a river and some from the sea near where we grew up, and I took it to Cambodia and had it blessed by a monk at Tuol Sleng and sprinkled it there.” He poured the rest of the water at the spot where he’d been told a westerner had been set on fire. He describes the process of grief as “beautiful, if done in the right way”. But there have been times when it threatened to fell him.
When he started his successful row across the Atlantic in 1997 he had a breakdown in the middle of the ocean. “I was a mess. This was 20 years after the fact but every day, around the same time, I wept like I’d just heard the news.” Suddenly, out on the water, away from his family and friends and far from the shores of New Zealand, he got the sense of how Kerry must have felt in the final hours before he was captured by the Khmer Rouge. He is keen to impress upon me that in situations like this, there is a process, but there is no closure.
“I’ve not been able to process it and I don’t want to,” says John Dewhirst’s sister Hilary Holland. “I didn’t want to feel better – it would make me feel disloyal, in a funny way. It’s the manner of his death – not that I know exactly how he was finally killed – but the days and weeks of torture, the total inhumanity of it, I can’t process that to make it comfortable or right. It’s not death itself – I believe that once you’re gone, that’s it, you’re no longer there, and I’ve known other people who have died [and made my peace with it] – but it’s what happened to him. I find that impossible to reconcile with any human feelings. It doesn’t seem right to be able to put it away in a box… How can it not be terrible today when it was so terrible then? Multiply that by all the millions who were killed by the Khmer Rouge. I don’t even want to sit comfortably with that.”
Rob and Hilary met each other when Rob was researching his brother’s life and death for his documentary (“He was on quest,” says Hilary, “but I was destroyed”). In 2009, 31 years after the fall of the Khmer Rouge, yet at a time when none of the members of Angkar – the governing party – had been held to account for the mass torture and killings which they ordered, Case 001 opened at the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia. It was a hybrid court, with a number of foreign judges from the UN sitting alongside Cambodian counterparts, and its first case was brought against the man who ran S-21 and ordered the murder of thousands. This man – Comrade Duch – was the one who had remembered John Dewhirst and described him as “polite” to the photojournalist Nic Dunlop when they encountered each other in 1999
Duch, it is said, “went into hiding” after the collapse of the Khmer Rouge – but, according to Dunlop, he seemed fairly unconcerned about the idea that he might be prosecuted for his role in the regime when they met. He had converted to Christianity at that point and started working for a charity. He thought that his past was behind him, and his future could be different.
Nic Dunlop remembers Duch as a man living in the jungle who “knew how to swim with the sharks, knew how to manipulate… He was a classic survivor. The survivors [of these sorts of regimes] are the thieves, crooks, the murderers… I’ve met many people like this and they’re quite ordinary. We don’t like to admit that we all have that potential within us. We are all violent.”
When it was announced that Duch would be the subject of Case 001, Rob was invited to travel to Cambodia and give a victim impact statement, and he asked Hilary to join him. “I couldn’t have done it,” she says: it would have been too hard. “I wrote something to him before he gave evidence. They were very clear, very strict about not allowing people to say anything on behalf of anyone else, so he incorporated my words into his own statement.”
The email that Hilary sent to Rob then, which she forwarded to me after our interview, makes for difficult reading.
“It is 31 years since our brothers were murdered. Why does my grief and pain feel undiminished by the passage of time? … When I first heard of my brother’s death and for a long time, I felt that if it was possible to die as a result of emotional pain then I would. I couldn’t see how my heart could continue to pump and my lungs to breathe. The physical pain was so intense and that pain was continuous… The part of my brain that should have developed and retained the memories of John’s life has been taken over by the fact that his humanity was taken from him. That means that there was nothing of him, no soul, no self for me to keep.
“At his death his body was destroyed, before his life ended his humanity was taken – forever. It feels that there is simply nothing of him. Nothing for me to share with my family and nothing for me except almost unendurable pain… You might think that I’m emotionally fragile but I’m not. I am very, very robust – usually the emotional rock for everyone around me. Please take that strength with you to Cambodia. You can make a difference and you will.”
Men, women and children were indiscriminately executed by the cadres of the Khmer Rouge (Getty)
Video footage still exists of Rob’s testimony in the courtroom. He sits opposite Duch, the small and unassuming man who took the lives of so many, and looks directly into his eyes as he addresses him.
“At times I have imagined you shackled, starved, whipped and clubbed viciously – viciously,” he says, with obvious emotion, before going on to detail some of the methods of torture known to be used in S-21. “I have imagined your scrotum electrified, being forced to eat your own faeces, being nearly drowned and having your own throat cut… Today in this courtroom I am giving you all the crushing weight of emotion; the anger, the grief and the sorrow.”
Duch promised that, as part of his penance, he would meet with any victims’ families who requested it. Rob put in a request after appearing at the trial, but it was turned down. He has never been given an explanation as to why.
“What everyone wanted was for him to break down in tears,” says Nic Dunlop. “He did that very adeptly and who knows if he was serious – does it matter?” That was one of the most unexpected parts of Duch’s trial: he did shed tears, most bitterly when confronted by a Cambodian man who wanted to know where his wife had been executed, and he did express remorse. Nobody had expected that reaction.
The media, the judges and the families of victims were prepared to face an unfeeling psychopath. They steeled themselves to sit opposite a man who would gaze impassively at them as they gave their testimonies, perhaps even laugh. After all, Duch had met and appointed the murderers at S-21, had detailed the methods of torture, had often sat at a typewriter or a desk with a pencil and perfected confessions of the dying prisoners until they were exactly as he wanted, before dispatching the subjects to the Killing Fields for extermination. (When you look at the confessions today lining the walls of S-21 or at the Documentation Centre of Cambodia, you can still see his edits in the margins.) Few believed he could have a shred of empathy left.
By the end of the trial, however, even Rob believed he’d seen “moments of sincerity” from Duch. “I didn’t know what to expect or hope from the man who oversaw the torture and murder of my brother,” he says. “He didn’t answer my questions about where I could find Kerry’s remains or where he was killed. And he knew – he knows what happened to those westerners, they were prize prisoners. At that point what did he have to fear?” Perhaps even Duch was too ashamed to share the worst details of his sadistic excesses to a family member standing before him.
Andrew Cayley stood as the international co-prosecutor of the Khmer Rouge Tribunal between 2009 and 2013 with the UN. “It was the toughest job I’ve ever done,” he says, which is more notable coming from someone who worked on serious violations of international humanitarian law in Darfur and Srebrenica.
Cayley tells me that he remembered Duch as “an extremely complex character. He was very intelligent… I could never work him out. At the end of the appeal, he said, ‘I want to go home.’ It was like he’d misunderstood the process, or was so mentally damaged himself – he had admitted he’d done all these things, the killings and so on, and now he thought he could just go home.” Duch repeatedly used the now well-worn and discredited excuse that he was “just following orders” in an effort not to be sent to prison. By all accounts, he was genuinely shocked that nobody took that to be a legitimate defence. The walls of S-21 are still lined with pictures of murdered children, women with toddlers and parents holding newborn babies, photographed before interrogation and extermination. Duch was careful to oversee every single one of their violent deaths. He apparently remains convinced that, because he assumes he would have been killed himself if he hadn’t continued the work of Angkar, he cannot be held responsible.
Of course Duch didn’t personally carry out each murder and round of torture: he employed children to do that for him. Groups of teenagers and young adolescents known as cadres were responsible for beating or shooting people at the Killing Fields, and torturing confessions out of the inhabitants of interrogation centres. Some were taken from their families to do the work of Angkar, others from orphanages.
It’s because the cadres were so young and so numerous that there is little appetite in Cambodia to prosecute more members of the Khmer Rouge
“It can be easy to make youngsters cold-blooded,” says Cayley, “to get rid of their humanity and empathy… One of my interpreters while I was in Cambodia had survived torture under the Khmer Rouge and he was terribly scarred, there were big scars around his wrists and ankles from the manacles to prove it. He was very bright but he’d had to leave university [when the Khmer Rouge came in]. He spoke French because he’d had a good education. He was on one of the communal farms he’d had to join, working the fields, and somebody spoke to him in French and he replied in French. That was it. He was arrested and sent off to a prison camp – not S-21, but somewhere similar – and he was being held by one of these groups of young captors, they were aged between 10 and 15 years old. He identified one of the children as the leader and he used to tell this boy Aesop’s Fables. And every time there was a movement of prisoners for executions, he would make sure to tell him a tale – and the boy would let him live.”
It’s because the cadres were so young and so numerous that there is little appetite in Cambodia to prosecute more members of the Khmer Rouge. Many of the former members of these adolescent groups now live in jungle communities or isolated villages around the edges of the country, alongside older members of Angkar who directed them; others live openly in society and will talk about what happened to them.
Survivors themselves often say that they bear no ill will towards the children who participated in their torture because they realise they had no choice and were brainwashed: in a country where it’s estimated every single family lost at least one member to violence, people are still painstakingly building their own paths back to normality. Twelve years after the UN-backed Khmer Rouge Tribunal began, only three people have been prosecuted for their part in perpetrating crimes against humanity – Duch, Pol Pot’s right-hand man Nuon Chea (known as Brother Number Two) and Khieu Samphan, the chief of state. Members of the present Cambodian government have said in the past that further prosecutions would “risk civil war”.
The increasingly brutal demands of the Khmer regime are, admittedly, even more difficult to imagine when juxtaposed with the youthfulness of the people who carried them out. One of the stories that Andrew Cayley says stayed with him long after he stopped working on the trial in Phnom Penh was that of a woman called Bophana. “She had fallen in love and was engaged, and she and her fiancé were split to different parts of the country when the Khmer Rouge got in. They kept in touch by sending love letters, and she was caught, sent to S-21 and tortured and killed. Her crime was actually written down as being in love. The regime saw love between people as worthless.”
To kill someone for the crime of love seems particularly inhuman, almost incomprehensibly cruel. But those who murdered Bophana were probably teens who had been sent to brutal re-education centres or whose parents had been slaughtered in front of them. What chance did they have?
Youk Chhang is the executive director of the Documentation Centre of Cambodia and winner of the Ramon Magsaysay Award, otherwise known as “Asia’s Nobel Prize”. He has been bringing together documents relating to the Khmer Rouge since 1995, carefully making notes of everything he is told by former members of the regime and keeping vast records of confessions and interrogations so that if a family member comes searching, they’ll be ready and accessible. He tells me that he gladly takes donations and funding from universities (the centre was originally founded as part of Yale University’s Cambodian Genocide Programme) for most of the work he does, but he won’t take any payment for the long hours he spends helping relatives find out about the fates of their loved ones. “I want to do it from the heart.”
Chhang is a survivor of the Killing Fields himself, and lost nearly 60 family members during the Khmer Rouge years, including his father and five of his siblings. He tells me that he ran the documentation project primarily “to take revenge against the Khmer Rouge who made my relatives suffer” but also says that former members of Angkar were the first people he spoke to.
“None have refused to speak to me. So it was a great help from them.” It was mainly members of the cadres who were most open with him, probably because, he thinks, “they do not want to be [held solely] responsible for the crimes ordered by their superiors”. The information is vitally important because many in Cambodia can’t bring themselves to talk about what happened under the regime, and internationally the genocide isn’t as widely known as other, similarly horrific massacres such as the Holocaust. As time goes on, people like Chhang are understandably concerned about what could happen if the world is allowed collectively to forget.
I speak to a young Cambodian journalist called Naren Kuch about her impression of the cadres, and she has a similar outlook to Youk Chhang. When she was younger, she says, she didn’t believe in the Khmer Rouge genocides – her mother refused to talk about them, and the most she’d heard about the regime before the establishment of the UN tribunal were radio snippets from her childhood, when “I thought Khmer Rouge meant people with red-colour skin”.
She has since spent most of her career speaking to former members of the cadres. “I met with them in Pailin and Kampot provinces [the isolated areas where many were known to have fled after the regime’s fall in 1979]. They said they got killed if they refused to do what Angkar told them to do. I’ve travelled very often to meet former cadres and former ordinary Khmer Rouge soldiers. I felt sometimes sympathy for them after speaking to them, because the majority of them were so young at that time when they were used to commit murders and torture and many were orphans. For me, I put blame on the former top leaders of Khmer Rouge regime, not former ordinary cadres.”
It was through Naren that I was able to interview two former S-21 inmates, one of whom – the aforementioned Chum Mey – was detained next door to Kerry Hamill and subjected to the same methods of torture. He told me that S-21 was “hell”, where he was repeatedly shocked with electricity (using “220 volts of electricity from the wall”) and had his toes removed.
Pressed for details about his supposed CIA commanders, Kerry Hamill gave their names as Colonel Sanders and Captain Pepper. Another he gave as Major Ruse
Another survivor, whose name is Bou Meng, detailed how he was arrested by Khmer Rouge cadres who “cheated me by saying that they would take me to train young people to paint artwork at the Royal University of Fine Art. But I and my wife were instead taken to S-21.” Like John and Kerry, Bou Meng was told to admit to joining the CIA and to produce a detailed account of how he was recruited, probably because he was identified as a counter-revolutionary intellectual due to his education. His wife died either during interrogation or not long afterwards. He remembered seeing Kerry Hamill and John Dewhirst during his time at S-21, at one point eating watery porridge with the other prisoners and at another point wearing only their underwear and sleeping “directly on the floor”.
When you spend months researching the Khmer Rouge, their methods start to seem almost like pantomime horror, so creative in their monstrosity as to be surely dreamed up in a uniquely twisted imagination. The idea that anything approaching normal could have happened in the country while such terrible crimes were being carried out seems almost offensive. I bridled when Youk Chhang mentions offhandedly during our interview that he sometimes misses the days of the Khmer Rouge; what on earth could he, whose family were exterminated and who works with traumatised survivors every day, mean by that, I ask?
“I do have some good memories about the kids in the village where I lived,” he replies (like all city-dwellers under the regime, he was forced to move out to the countryside when Angkar took control of the country). “They taught me how to swim so that I can steal the mangoes across the river to eat; they taught me how to steal potatoes in the farms or how to dive into the flooded fields so that I can cut the sugar canes to eat. They showed me how to fight with the snakes and eat the snakes! They showed me how to trick the unit chief so that I can escape from the worksite to visit my mother. They never talked to me and I never talked to them, but we were bound as kids.”
Down a dusty side street in Siem Reap, I hear a similar story from a man who had been forced into work on a communal farm. He was one of the lucky ones: a university-educated man – an architect, no less – who had been able to disguise himself and take to the agricultural life. Before the Khmer Rouge he had been involved in discovering and restoring the majestic Angkor Wat temples which sit just outside Siem Reap and have brought a massive influx of recent tourism to the area.
When I first visited the town, it had a smattering of hostels; by 2017, and after the introduction of an airport, the main street, known (slightly bizarrely) as Pub Street, is ablaze with neon lights, and luxury hotels with American-style air conditioning and swimming pools line the roads leading up to the temples. Nevertheless, Siem Reap remains a beautiful and vibrant place, the slightly more laidback little sister of the much larger and harsher feeling Phnom Penh. Here I find the unassuming entrance to a surprising outdoor museum owned by Dy Proeung, who is happy to talk about his experiences under the Khmer Rouge regime.
When Angkar came to power, Dy Proeung buried the books of sketches he’d made detailing the architectural features of the temples of Angkor Wat deep underground, and only retrieved them after the regime had fallen. He is now a thin, elderly man with wisps of white hair who has built a garden of miniature Angkor Wat replicas and statues (as well as keeping a menagerie of exotic animals), which he charges a $1 fee for tourists to view. He became a successful farm worker during the years of the regime, eventually heading up his section, and came to love agricultural life so much that he has never left the village he was forced to move to. He now commutes daily from his village to Siem Reap in order to showcase his miniatures; he speaks with fondness about his days in the countryside, even as he diligently continues to ensure that the work he would have been slaughtered for doing under the Khmer Rouge is seen.
Hilary Holland eventually did travel to Cambodia herself, even though she didn’t make Duch’s trial. When she arrived, she headed straight for Youk Chhang’s Documentation Centre after visiting S-21, where she was presented with a file of her brother’s confessions: one in handwritten English which was identical to the typed confession pasted onto the wall at the interrogation centre (next to a photograph which, somewhat mysteriously, she said, isn’t actually of John at all “and neither is it Kerry” – it may be a French or American diplomat whose documents were mixed up with that of another westerner) – and two handwritten confessions in Khmer which she has never been able to decipher.
What was particularly intriguing was that the “official” confession which appears under John’s name in S-21 is dated 5 September 1978, whereas the two Khmer documents in the same file were dated 17 September and 13 October 1978. Why did Duch or the cadres deem it necessary to continue recording information about John over a month after they’d put together a confession which was “satisfactory” enough to be typed up and marked with his fingerprint? Does this suggest he was kept alive for longer than expected? To fully understand John’s time in Cambodia I went in search of a Khmer translator.
What we know of Kerry Hamill’s English language confession is heartbreaking in its inspiration and humour. Pressed for details about his supposed CIA commanders, he gave their names as Colonel Sanders and Captain Pepper (the latter presumed to be either a modified reference to Dr Pepper or The Beatles’ Sergeant Pepper). Another he gave as Major Ruse. He used his parents’ friends’ names as fellow officers and his home telephone number as his CIA operative number, as well as emphasising the importance of a commander who taught public speaking named S Tarr; his mother’s name, of course, was Esther, and she was known for her public speaking talents.
Rob Hamill believes that Kerry did this in order to send “a message of love and hope” to his family. Perhaps he also hoped that his parents would find out what had happened to him through the future publication of these details, rather than living out their lives without any knowledge of why their eldest son disappeared. Kerry couldn’t have known that the Khmer Rouge would fall just a year after his capture, but he clearly believed that an opportunity would come for someone to find out about his fate. Sadly, it seems he already realised his chances of emerging alive from S-21 were extremely slim.
Reading Kerry and John’s official, typed confessions give a vivid impression of what each man was like. Kerry describes his “CIA training” as centring around survival skills, three-week camping trips taken on Great Barrier Island where the “recruits” learnt “the arts of spear-fishing, making and using fish traps and animal traps, recognition of edible grubs, roots, fruits and berries and the proper preparation of these foods”. He talks about constructing shelters in national parks and taking another “practical session in survival” in the Southern Alps on New Zealand’s South Island, where he learnt “the techniques of rock- and ice-climbing, how to use rope, that is, knots, splices and slings”, as well as “how to set up and use a flying fox” wingsuit.
He mentions an expedition along the Wanganui river on New Zealand’s North Island where he did “boat handling” and “target practice”. The controversies between fictional CIA officers that he mentions are actually political scandals in Australia which were widely publicised in the 1970s. One can well imagine, when reading the words he told his Khmer Rouge torturers, the outdoorsy childhood Rob Hamill speaks of, replete with hikes, exploration, camping trips and adventures on the river and the sea.
John’s official confession speaks of cultural institutions, detailing the titles of books about socialism and politics which he had recently read, interspersed with references to international current affairs. He speaks of educating “communist youths” at the student union in Loughborough, and conjures up a secret CIA building down the road from his college campus which he says is hidden behind the sign “Loughborough Town Council Highways Department of Surveyors Office”. He describes methods of map-drawing and navigation – something we know he was talented at, since he was the Foxy Lady’s paid charter – and mentions the name of his sister Hilary and the pub she ran at the time. By the end of the “confession”, you have an impression of a well-read, contemplative young man with a love of debate, photography and creative writing.
I expected the additional two Khmer documents which Hilary sent to me from John’s file at Youk Chhang’s Documentation Centre to be nearly identical to his official confession, perhaps later workings of what he had said which were abandoned but kept by the Khmer Rouge cadres as background information. I was surprised when my translator, a former reporter for The Cambodia Daily called Soumy Phan, sent back 30 pages of information which no journalist nor any of John’s family had heard about before.
Soumy had attached a note at the end: “Having worked through these documents, I find it so interesting. I hadn’t heard about the disappearance of these foreigners before. If this confession is authentic, I would have to say that I learned a lot of new things about the Cambodian genocide … I never thought such documents could exist.”
In their paranoid urges to keep track of every single person who made it through their doors, the ‘brothers’ of the Khmer Rouge ensured their own downfall
The first set of documents, dated 17 September – 12 days after John’s official, typed and fingerprinted confession papers are dated – comprise 30 pages describing “CIA techniques” around the world. They speak of the Cambodian standoffs with Vietnam and predict a Vietnamese invasion in 1979 (as it turned out, Vietnam invaded Cambodia at the end of 1978 and toppled the Khmer Rouge a week into the new year). There are long reams of text which discuss the situation in Taiwan, how Maoist communism differs from Cambodian communism, why the Soviet Union is gaining ground in Europe, how the CIA operates internationally in communist countries in the same way that the KGB operates in capitalist countries.
It speaks of the Moro National Liberation Front in the Philippines, trade relationships with Thailand, the possibility of the Indian subcontinent providing fertile ground for communist revolution in the future. “I don’t believe these are the words of my brother,” says Hilary when I show them to her. “The one thing that does jump out, however, is the reference to being given a new assignment on 21 March 1978: my birthday.” Perhaps John was only asked to confirm theories of Duch or senior cadres at this point and, given little freedom to provide meaningful input, inserted a date which he knew would speak to whoever came across the papers in future.
The final document, dated 13 October 1978, has much more evidence of John in it. At the top, “American” is scribbled out and replaced with “Anglais” and his name, originally written as “John Dalson Youferk” is replaced in a different hand with “John Dawson Dewhirst”. It is a lengthened version of the official confession, incorporating some of the notes about the global spread of communism from the 17 September papers. Long paragraphs are dedicated to various political controversies and groups in Japan, as well as Tokyo coffee houses where intellectuals would meet, clearly referencing his time there working for The Japan Times.
He names the best types of cameras to take photographs “for the CIA” and the lighting that would be needed to do it; particularly arresting turns of phrase stand out, such as when he says that capitalism is “like a culture [in Britain]” that has been passed down the generations, “like a tradition”. Hilary recognised a name of a school friend in a list of invented fellow CIA operatives. I recognised the name Michael Lebowitz – supposedly John’s main CIA commander, mentioned right at the top of his longest “confession” in this context – who is now a well-respected economist and professor at Simon Fraser University in Canada. Back in the late 1970s he was a fledgling socialist writer and fringe speaker, so maybe it was just coincidence.
I contacted Simon Fraser University to ask whether Lebowitz might have travelled at that time and met John in person. Remarkably, he got back to me directly, telling me that he had never travelled to Asia in that period but that he’d looked into the case and realised that he had spoken in the Canadian hometown of John’s fellow traveller, Stuart Glass, in the early Seventies. “It is possible that I may have been an influence on Stuart,” says Michael, “who then shared ideas on long sailing trips (what else do you do?)”.
Elsewhere in the confession, the nature of John and Kerry’s arrest is described: John says that he was shot in the left hand and that he and Kerry used the sides of the Foxy Lady as a shield and “hid in the sea” when they were first approached by Cambodian sailors (Stuart Glass was fatally shot at this point). He mentions “CIA meeting places” which are clearly destinations he visited or had intended to visit once the boat came to shore in Thailand: the Viengtai Hotel on Khao San Road in Bangkok which still stands; a Menlyn Hotel in Seoul which doesn’t; five days spent on the beach in Koh Samui.
Some of what he was forced to confess is so clearly absurd – at one point, he details being recruited for the CIA as a primary-age child in Newcastle by his father, and his father taking his salary of £500 a year because he was too young to receive one legally himself – that it seems ridiculous; but then you remember that the Khmer Rouge was busy indoctrinating children of the same age in revolutionary education centres. Other sentences seem like they have been inserted by someone else, so specific are they to the paranoid fantasies of senior members of the regime at the time, such as the tales about meeting with nefarious Thai and Vietnamese refugees fleeing Cambodia alongside American CIA agents to plot the downfall of Angkar.
“The Khmer Rouge were assiduous about documentation,” Andrew Cayley tells me. “They were very much like the Nazis in that way. We were able to build strong cases against individuals like Nuon Chea, the deputy to Pol Pot, because he implicated himself in the documents we recovered. He was given lists of prisoners at S-21 and he would write on the lists what to do with those prisoners, he would make notes in the margins, often giving instructions to kill.”
In their paranoid urges to keep track of every single person who made it through their doors, the “brothers” of the Khmer Rouge ensured their own downfall.
The confessions of tortured prisoners aren’t the only documents that made their way out of S-21. The liberators of Tuol Sleng also found a pamphlet written in French and English called the “Regulation of Security Agents”, which Hilary draws my attention to. This pamphlet was specifically given to foreign prisoners at the interrogation centre; although they were otherwise treated the same as their Cambodian counterparts – sleeping on identical concrete cell floors with their clothes stripped off and eating only a couple of spoonfuls of watery porridge a day – they were additionally expected to read and adhere to this set of rules. Most of the rules are unsurprising – “Don’t try to escape”, “Do sit down quietly and wait for orders”, “If I ask you to do something, you must immediately do it without protesting” – but some are devastating in their succinct cruelty. “The one that lives with me daily,” says Hilary, “is ‘During the bastino [whipping] or electrisation, you must not cry loudly’.”
John Dawson Dewhirst and Kerry Hamill were just two people in a genocide which took the lives of over 2 million, but they were people I feel I got to know as I researched their stories. I thought of them constantly as I contacted people they’d known and places they’d worked, tracking their likely routes through Asia on a map – fearless, vibrant Kerry whose childhood was spent on the idyllic shores of New Zealand; and gentle, creative John who was born a few streets down from me in Newcastle: both of them in love with travel and adventure. I often woke in the night thinking about the weeks they spent behind bars at the S-21, the beaches we had all walked upon in Cambodia and the city streets we’d been transported along in vastly different circumstances.
Cambodia remains a country crippled by the actions of a violent few against an unsuspecting populace
“I did think about the idea of forgiveness,” says Hilary, “but I felt it was impossible. I keep going back in my head to ‘inhuman acts’ – the sorts of things that were done to John can’t be forgiven by a human being.”
Rob tells me he has tried to find solace by researching the rituals of grief in cultures across the world. He takes great comfort in the messages left for his family in Kerry’s confession: “The sense of loneliness he must have been feeling and then to write a document of such dignity… It was an inspiring act.
When I enquire about John’s employment at The Japan Times, just one former employee, now only a sporadic contributor, is left at the publication who can recall what happened. Through Toshie Yamashita, I find out that John had boarded a yacht to Hong Kong before he made his way to Malaysia and that he asked his friend David Kawakami to keep his belongings because he planned to return to Tokyo a few weeks later “after having some fun”. I ask Hilary if she knows that some of John’s belongings had been kept there.
“Oh yes, they actually sent the belongings back to me. It was mainly cameras, photographs.” I say I can imagine the moment of opening the package being very poignant. “Yes. And I ended up using the photographs in an Oxfam campaign. There was a technical college in Phnom Penh which had fallen into disrepair during the regime. Oxfam renovated it and I used the photos to raise money [to pay for poor students to get an education].”
A letter Hilary kept from 1998 details the work done by Oxfam in the region as a result of the donated photographs taken by John: “The appeal fund which was set up in your brother’s name was used to fund student placements for pupils who could not afford to pay tuition fees. The fund was initially intended to pay for 10 student placements. However, the appeal was a big success and raised double the amount expected, so it actually paid for 20. These placements were given to young people from very poor families whose prospects for the future would have been very bleak. A place on the training course would provide them with skills which are very much in demand and would almost certainly lead to a job which would supply much-needed income for themselves and their families.” Hilary may have insisted that she couldn’t forgive, but she quietly works to make sure John has a positive legacy in Cambodia; her grief was never bitter, and in fact became a powerful force for good.
The last time I speak to Rob Hamill, he’s about to set sail with his wife Rachel and three children Finn, Declan and Ivan to Fiji, via Minerva Reef. They plan to travel around the world together this year, cataloguing their journey on a YouTube channel called The Cruising Kiwis, and are considering taking their yacht through southeast Asia to Koh Tang island off Cambodia, mirroring Kerry’s journey in his final days before being abducted by the Khmer Rouge.
“I see this is a way to acknowledge my brother and the suffering that the people of Cambodia incurred, and to create learnings for my kids and those who follow us,” he writes in an email before the family set sail from Whangarei.
Both Rob and Hilary are keen to stress their belief that the Pol Pot regime and its authoritarian communist “Year Zero” experiment isn’t discussed enough internationally or taught properly in western schools (“No one talks about it,” says Hilary). Though many who live there are resilient and optimistic, Cambodia remains a country crippled by the actions of a violent few against an unsuspecting populace. The work of government and the judicial system are even now feeling the ramifications of the Khmer’s massacre of professionals.
A barrister from the UK who worked in Phnom Penh tells me that court cases remain difficult to conduct, because so many people with an education in the law were killed that there were few left to teach a new generation of lawyers. Literacy rates were hit hard – and remain low – because the regime arrested and exterminated people for the crime of being able to read and write. Cambodia’s most recent election, in July of this year, was criticised as anti-democratic by the UN after the Cambodian People’s Party won all 125 parliamentary seats; the opposition leader Kem Sokha remains under house arrest on charges of treason. There is much work left to do.
John Dawson’s death feels somehow symbolic of the Khmer Rouge’s pointless brutality
“The scale of the crimes was staggering compared to other cases I’d worked on … It was on the scale of the Holocaust,” Andrew Cayley tells me when discussing his work on Case 001. There’s no denying that the Holocaust is far better known, even though Pol Pot’s crimes against humanity are far more recent. Indeed it is hard to stomach that, just 30 years after the Holocaust, millions could again be wiped out so quickly, so violently and in such an industrial manner.
In many ways, the absurd confessions and the pointless deaths of John Dewhirst and Kerry Hamill epitomise the regime’s time in power: brutal, nonsensical, enduringly traumatic. Rob tells me that those who grieve always want to say their relatives should be remembered “so this never happens again”; but that, he added, “is a lofty goal. Really, all of this is just a personal experience.”
And perhaps it is best to keep it that way, because John and Kerry were not political figures. To the paranoid regime, to Comrade Duch and his cadres, they may have been “CIA agents”, prize prisoners, spies from another world hell-bent on eliminating communism. But to the people who really knew them they were a friend with a box of photographs and a boyfriend due back for another trip along the hippie trail; a poetic soul who roamed the Cumbrian hills on weekends and a fellow yachtsman with a wicked sense of humour; an aspiring novelist who liked to watch the sun rise across the water and a beloved son, just beyond the horizon, who would surely be home by Christmas.