God’s Grace at work in the Land of the Killing Fields

I have just come back from a 9 day trip to Cambodia. As I reflect on my various experiences on this trip, I can see God at work here in the midst of extreme poverty and human brokenness that has come, at least in part, due to the ravages of the war and Khmer Rouge occupation. Whilst visiting the Choeung Ek Genocidal Centre (one of the Khmer Rouge Killing Fields) and the Tuoul Sleng Genocide Museum (a former High School used as the notorious Security Prison 21 or S-21 by the Khmer Rouge), I was overwhelmed at the cruelty and evil of the Cambodian genocide. Over 1.7 million of Cambodia’s 8 million inhabitants perished from disease, starvation, overwork, or outright execution because of the profoundly destructive policies of Angkar, the organisational hierarchy of the Khmer Rouge. One of the propaganda statements of Angkar was “To keep you is no gain and to destroy you is no loss.”

Visiting the sites made me realise how evil the Cambodian genocide was. One man that I read about in the sites I visited was Kang Kek Lew or, as he became better known, Comrade Duch. He was the head of the government’s dreaded special branch, the “Santebal”. As the head of Santebal, Duch was in charge of internal security and the running of prison camps including the S-21 prison camp where fourteen thousand prisoners were held for interrogation and torture and from which there are only 14 known survivors. He was the first Khmer Rouge leader to be tried by the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia and was convicted for war crimes and crimes against humanity and sentenced to 30 years’ imprisonment. He appealed the sentence, lost and had his sentence extended to life imprisonment.

Duch was extremely efficient and kept records of every person who came to S-21 detailing every torture session and every murder. His subordinates would hang prisoners upside down with their heads in a bucket of urine and faeces. Throats were slit, heads were bashed with a shovel, necks were broken with a hoe. Babies were killed by swinging them by the legs and smashing their heads against a tree. However, what got me interested in this man was the way he seemed to have changed from being a very viciously cruel man, to one who admitted his faults including those of his subordinates.

As I started reading up on Duch, I realised that the story of Duch’s transformation must start with another man, Christopher LaPel, who later became the founder of Hope for Cambodia.

LaPel was born a Buddhist. His father worked in the palace of King Sihanouk and, as a boy, LaPel spent a lot time there. One day, while exploring the palace he met an engraver working in the basement and asked the engraver if he could make him a cross. Without knowing what it meant, LaPel had seen this icon on top of churches and was drawn to it.

In 1975, when LaPel was in his late teens, the Khmer Rouge came to power. They forced people out of Phnom Penh, and sent them on forced marches to rural work camps. What was meant to be a three-day evacuation of Phnom Penh became a three-year ordeal with most of the population enduring extreme hardship and during which a quarter of the population lost their lives. LaPel’s parents and sister died working 14-16 hours a day in forced labour and his brother was executed by the regime.

LaPel worked in the fields with other young people. Eventually, as his body got weaker due to the workload, he couldn’t get up to work and ended up missing work for three days. Usually if a person missed work for three days, they were killed. So, on the third night he received a call to report to the Khmer Rouge army headquarters. At the headquarters, they yelled at him to get on his knees and he was questioned vigorously. Almost delirious with fever he struggled to remain kneeling and wobbled around. While he was trying to stay on his feet, his cross fell off from around his neck and he grabbed it. At that point, one officer said that he truly looked sick and allowed him to rest at a hospital. LaPel was amazed and believed the cross had given him a measure of grace that saved him from a desperate situation.

Shortly after that that incident, Vietnam invaded Cambodia. LaPel fled across the border into Thailand and arrived at a refugee centre run by the U.N. where he was chosen to be a translator because he spoke Cambodian and a little bit of English and French. One day at a feeding centre, he met a missionary and she shared the gospel with him. For the first time, he understood the meaning of the cross and realised this was the truth he was waiting for. He became a follower of Jesus and experienced God’s forgiveness and saving grace. He also met a young Christian woman and they got married. Through some remarkable circumstances, he and his wife immigrated to America where he studied and later became a pastor.

In 1992, he returned back to Cambodia where he ministered at refugee camps. He also tried to find his family and discovered the horrible outcome of his parents and brother and sister. Fortunately, four of his brothers and sisters were still alive and he brought them to America where they all became followers of Christ.
Later, he returned back to Cambodia and planted a small fellowship in Battambang. This fellowship grew to 5 and then 27, then 56. Today there are 150 churches that grew from that one fellowship with an average Sunday attendance of 7,500 people.

In 1995 a man named Hang Pin started coming to LaPel’s training meetings. He was a frail and heavily burdened 55-year-old. LaPel led him to Christ and baptised him. There was an immediate transformation in that person as if a heavy burden had lifted. Over the next two weeks, this man attended every meeting that LaPel taught at taking extensive notes. He couldn’t get enough of that teachings about Jesus. He took on a new lease of life and began telling everyone about Jesus, the cross and the power of forgiveness. After the two weeks training, Hang Pin went back to his hometown and started a small thriving church and worked with World Vision. LaPel also led Hang Pin’s sister to Christ.

In late 1998, or early 1999, LaPel received a letter from Hang Pin asking for prayer. He planned to turn himself over to government authorities. Then, in 1999, LaPel got a phone call from 2 American reporters that shook him. The reporters had proof that Pastor Hang Pin was really Comrade Duch.  When the reporters told LaPel that they had confronted Pin with their suspicions he confessed that it was true. LaPel could barely speak. This man he led to Christ was one of the key leaders of the Khmer Rouge and responsible for killing his parents, his brother and sister and thousands of his fellow Cambodians.

In 2007, Duch was formally charged with war crimes and crimes against humanity by the UN backed court in Cambodia. In 2008, LaPel came face-to-face with Duch in his prison cell, LaPel’s first words to Duch were “I love you as a brother in Christ. I forgive you for what you did to my family.” LaPel said he could not receive forgiveness from Jesus for his own sins and refuse to forgive Duch for what he did to his family no matter how evil and cruel he was. During the trial, Duch was taken to S-21. Overwhelmed by the horrible memories and God’s transformative power in his life he said to the people present, “I ask for your forgiveness. I know that you cannot forgive me, but I ask you to leave me the hope that you might.”

LaPel testified at Duch’s trial. For an hour and a half, he spoke about the power of Christ to lead a person to repentance and of God’s grace. He talked about Christ’s ability to transform and rebuild a life. He did not ask for leniency for Duch, but he did speak about the reality of his remarkable change. International lawyers, judges, and 500 spectators listened in rapt attention.

Today Duch is still in prison. LaPel meets with Duch every time he is in Cambodia where they pray, share and have communion together. “We are all guilty sinners,” LaPel notes. “Jesus Christ is the only hope of the Cambodian people. He is the only one who can change a life from a killer to a believer.”

This story of the transformation of Duch tells me that God can turn Cambodia, the land of the Killing Fields, to the land of Redemptive Fields. May God work his redemptive grace in our own lives also.

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