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Killing Fields verdict fuels Christian’s forgiveness


PHNOM PENH, Cambodia (BP)–Former Khmer Rouge operative Kaing Guev Eav’s sentence is not severe enough, in the minds of many Cambodians; forgiveness is far from their thoughts.

Silas* is not one of them.

Kaing Guev Eav, known as “Duch,” was sentenced to 35 years in prison July 26 by a U.N.-backed war crimes tribunal — the first of five surviving senior leaders of the notorious Khmer Rouge to be brought to trial. The communist regime’s nearly four-year reign of terror in the 1970s resulted in the death of 1.7 million men, women and children in what has become known as Cambodia’s Killing Fields.

Duch, who now professes to be a Christian, will appeal his sentence. At his trial he pleaded guilty but asked forgiveness for his role in the genocide. He claimed he was only following orders.

Duch was convicted of crimes against humanity, murder and torture for his role as head of the S-21 prison in Phnom Penh. At least 14,000 people died there under his command. Reduction in sentence for time served means Duch, 67, will spend the next 19 years in prison.

Silas was 8 years old in 1975 when communist leader Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge overturned the government of Cambodia. Silas was separated from his family and sent to a re-education camp where the Khmer Rouge trained him as a child soldier.


When the Vietnamese liberated Cambodia in 1979, Silas was reunited with his mother, brother and sister, but not his father. Silas believes the Khmer Rouge executed his father in 1976 in one of the infamous Killing Fields.

Silas understands his countrymen’s frustration and he hopes other leaders of the Khmer Rouge will be brought to justice. But he also says forgiveness must be part of the process.

Silas knows from experience this is not easy. Years ago in a refugee camp in Thailand he became a Christian. He also learned the identity of the man who turned his father over to the Khmer Rouge.

“He was my father’s best friend,” Silas said, recounting that, as boys, he and his brother “decided when we found that man we were going to kill him.”

For years, Silas nursed his hatred. He struggled with the anger and bitterness, and he began to pray that God would help him find the man, kill him and not get caught.

“I knew that I could do the killing but I needed God’s help at not getting caught,” he said.

But Silas’ prayers brought no peace. He sensed God was questioning him.

Why do you want to kill him? God seemed to ask. What about his children? What about his family? Do you want his children to go through what you went through?

Silas couldn’t answer those questions. He came to realize that only God could avenge his father’s death.

After college, seminary and the decision to return to Cambodia as a Christian worker, Silas learned from his mother that the man he once wanted to kill also had become a follower of Christ.

“I said, ‘God, you were supposed to kill him,'” Silas laughed. “Still, I knew that God had spared his life so he could become a child of God…. I could only worship Him for that.”

A few years later Silas’ mother traveled to California to meet the man.

“She sat down next to him in [a church] service and introduced herself,” Silas said. “She told him she had forgiven him.”

The man began to cry.

“For me that was confirmation that Cambodia is where I need to be,” Silas said. “God saved me and sent people to me so I could hear [the Gospel]. I need to be faithful … to share with others.”

Today, Silas is pleased that Duch professes responsibility for his crimes and that Duch, in his darkest moments, seems to have run toward God and that God found him. Silas considers Duch a brother and urges his fellow Cambodians to let go of the past and learn to forgive.

“We [Cambodians] hate the past but we are continuing to live the same way,” Silas said. “For the sake of our children, we need to let go of our grudges.”

Silas understands the power people have to end life. He witnessed it when the Khmer Rouge trained him as a soldier and felt it when he learned of his father’s death at their hands. But he sees forgiveness as being more significant.

By learning to forgive, “It is an even greater power to give life back,” he said.
*Name changed. Tess Rivers is a writer for the International Mission Board living in Southeast Asia.