Stepping Into Cambodia's Nightmare

Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.
— George Santayana, "The Life of Reason" (1905)
A view from the inside of Cambodia's Security Prison S-21, where 17,000-20,000 people were held and brutally tortured before being murdered at the Killing Fields.  The S-21 Prison is now the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, documenting the atrocities of the Khmer Rouge era (1975-1979).

A view from the inside of Cambodia's Security Prison S-21, where 17,000-20,000 people were held and brutally tortured before being murdered at the Killing Fields.  The S-21 Prison is now the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, documenting the atrocities of the Khmer Rouge era (1975-1979).

If you've ever watched Schindler's List, you know the sensation.  Amazing movie, right?  Incredibly well done.  There is a sense of duty around watching it.  Because we should not forget the atrocities of the past.  We must never forget.  To learn from history, we need to know it and understand it.  We need to learn how the events of our past impacted real people.  We need to see faces and experience some of the suffering, even if our suffering only occurs vicariously.  I'm glad I saw Schindler's List.  But I needed to be in the right frame of mind to watch it.  And having seen the film once, I very seriously doubt that I will ever watch it again.

Those familiar sensations have resurfaced for us around one of the most famous and tragic places in all of Cambodia -- the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum.  This facility was an ordinary high school before 1975.  But when Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge rolled into Phnom Penh in April of that year, the school was converted into the notorious Security Prison 21 ("S-21") and was thereafter used as a place of brutal torture, horrific suffering, and death.  The museum is just a 10-minute walk from our apartment, and it seems to be on every "must see/must do" list that we have found.  Despite the historical and cultural significance of this place, it has been difficult to muster up the will to go and learn the stories of the people who suffered and died there.

During the Khmer Rouge era (1975-1979), approximately two million people were brutally murdered in Cambodia.  To put it in perspective, that was about a fourth of the population of the entire country, and more than 1,400 murders per day for nearly four years.  Virtually every Cambodian family that lived in the 1970s was devastated in one way or another.  The long-lasting trauma of this period on the people of this nation is difficult to overstate.  For those outside of Cambodia, it is nearly impossible to comprehend.

S-21 is the most famous security prison from the Khmer Rouge era, but it is only one of 150 throughout Cambodia. 

S-21 is the most famous security prison from the Khmer Rouge era, but it is only one of 150 throughout Cambodia. 

I finally made my way to the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum this past Wednesday.  Our office was closed for International Women's Day, but the kids were still in school.  (Yeah, they didn't understand that either.)  Thais and I had talked about using this rare day away from work without kids to tour the museum together.  But that was before we knew the reason for the holiday.  Thais wisely foresaw that visiting a genocide museum might not be the best way to feel celebrated on Women's Day, and she chose to postpone her visit for another time.  We found Thais a cup of coffee, a grilled cheese sandwich, and a well-deserved four-dollar pedicure.  She encouraged me to make a solo trip to scout out the museum if I was ready.  I thought I was. 

As I walked through these haunted corridors, I felt the urge to escape, to turn away.  I saw the on-site burial ground.  I saw the names of a staggering number of victims in the memorial garden.  I saw many of their faces, before and after they were tortured.  The commandant of the S-21 prison, Kaing Guek Eav (a/k/a "Duch") kept meticulous records of all activities there, including photographs of victims, "confessions" given by victims, and detailed interrogation and torture manuals.  Much of this evidence survived the liberation of the prison in 1979, despite attempts to destroy it.  A substantial sampling is available for public viewing, along with written translations and audio tours in multiple languages.  I saw implements of torture.  I walked through dozens of former classrooms carved into tiny, crude cells separated by poorly constructed brick walls.  I touched shackles, chains, and miles of barbed wire, installed to prevent the victims from jumping to end their suffering.  I heard actual testimony (with English translation) from trials at the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (the ECCC, commonly known as the Khmer Rouge Tribunal).  I saw racks filled with human skulls.  The museum is, unfortunately, comprehensive and very well done. 

As I left the exhibit halls, I was overwhelmed with grief -- for the victims and for all that this country has endured.  Tears were right on the surface, and they would have flowed freely had I been in a private place.  I shuddered at the depravity of it all. 

I was desperate for some hope.  I found a small dose of it on my way out of the facility. 

Bou Meng, survivor of genocide and torture.  In the foreground is a photo showing the seven survivors of the S-21 prison.  Mr. Meng is third from the right. 

Bou Meng, survivor of genocide and torture.  In the foreground is a photo showing the seven survivors of the S-21 prison.  Mr. Meng is third from the right. 

Of the 17,000 people who were held and tortured at S-21, only seven survived.  Of those, only three are still alive.  I had the honor and privilege of meeting one of them -- Mr. Bou Meng.  Mr. Meng was there to sign copies of a book written about his life.  I gladly bought a copy, shook his hand, and spoke with him.  He was warm, welcoming, and gracious.  He insisted that I sit with him for a photo.   He wouldn't take no for an answer.


I devoured Mr. Meng's biography.  I learned that the Khmer Rouge murdered his wife at the Killing Fields, and that his children likely died of starvation.  He was tortured with electric wires and bamboo sticks.  He was caged like an animal in a tiny cell, with only a small ammunition can for a toilet.  He lost almost everything and wished desperately for his own death.  But his life was spared because he had a talent for painting.  The Khmer Rouge used him to paint propaganda portraits of Pol Pot and other leaders of the party.  A life saved by art. 

Mr. Meng lived, and he was able to help his nation gain some closure and a dose of justice.  He testified at the Khmer Rouge Tribunal in the trial of Mr. Kaing Guek Eav ("Duch"), the commandant for S-21.  Duch was later sentenced to life imprisonment for crimes against humanity.  Mr. Meng has helped his country remember and honor its past by using his skills as an artist to depict what so many of his countrymen suffered at S-21.  And he helped me walk away from this place with some hope.

Please continue to pray for Cambodia and its people -- for healing and redeeming love, for justice and peace, and for joy and hope.  Please also pray for Mr. Meng, who continues on his own road to restoration.  Thank you, and God bless you all.

- Doug

Time to launch!

The day has finally come!  We depart this morning for our year serving with IJM in Cambodia.  Our flight leaves Austin at 7:00 am, and we should arrive about 27 hours later.

Through the sleep deprivation, anxiety, and uncertainty of it all, we are filled with deep gratitude:

  • We are grateful for our wonderful church community, who commissioned us yesterday morning during worship. 
  • We are grateful for my colleagues at the best law firm in Austin, who have celebrated and embraced this journey as part of our professional calling. 
  • We are grateful for so many of our friends who have helped us in tremendous ways over the last few months.  
  • We are grateful for new friends who immigrated to the U.S. from Cambodia, and who have invited us into their homes and yesterday joined us at our church to help commission us into this work in their former homeland.  (Thank you!)
  • We are grateful for the IJM staff in the Cambodia field office, and we are excited to know them better and support them in the incredible work they are doing
  •  We are grateful for all of you for being on this journey with us. 
  • We are grateful for your notes and messages of encouragement. 
  • We are grateful for your prayers and financial support
  • And most of all, we are so very grateful for this unbelievable opportunity to step into a what can only be described as God's work. 

All of this is deeply humbling.  And exciting.  And terrifying.  All at the same time.  We need your prayers, encouragement, and support.  And you have delivered. 

Thank you, and God bless you!  We will check in and update our blog as we are able.

- Doug


Because of your choice to join in this fight, there are people who are not going to die.
— Gary Haugen

We spent this week with 75 other trainees in an intense, powerful, heartbreaking, and inspiring orientation at IJM headquarters in Washington, D.C.  It’s impossible to put into words all that we experienced, but here are a few nuggets:

1. IJM is doing incredible, transformational work in the world:  rescuing thousands, protecting millions, and proving that justice for the poor is possible. 

2. This organization fills us with hope.  We are so proud to be a part of it, and so grateful to have this opportunity to participate in God’s work.

3. Wonderful to be with Thais’ brother and his wife, who were terrific hosts, chefs, companions, taxi drivers, and all around great people.  I highly recommend the accommodations.  Thank you Lee and Jill!  Also great to see a good friend from Covenant Presbyterian Church who moved to D.C. a couple of years ago.  Thank you Jaco for making time for us!

4. We met people from all corners of the world who were commissioned along with us – people from the U.S., Canada, Brazil, England, Ireland, Scotland, France, The Netherlands, Zambia, Ghana, Uganda, South Africa, Kenya, Kazakhstan, India, Sri Lanka, China, Hong Kong, and Singapore.   

5. Our week of orientation included not only those heading out to serve in IJM’s 17 field offices, but also recent hires for headquarters and IJM’s partner offices.  The new CFO was training with us and the college interns all week long.

6. IJM’s founder, Gary Haugen, is a force of nature, an inspiring leader and speaker, and a modern day William Wilberforce.  He is building a global movement to stop slavery and injustice against the world’s poor.  He is so effective because he has deep credibility.  He has been there.  He goes to the hard places.  God uses him and his organization to make real change.  Check out his Ted Talk to get a taste.

7. Four billion people are living outside the protection of the law.  That means no one will intercede for them if they become a victim of violence, regardless of what the laws might say.  Laws are not helpful when they are ignored and not enforced.  But a few successful prosecutions can have a dramatic effect in changing behavior.  (If you'd like to dig deeper, IJM has published studies that are accessible on its website.) 

8. Our week culminated in a meaningful and emotional commissioning service led by Gary Haugen.  We depart a week from Monday, on Jan. 23.  Please keep us in your prayers as we go!

9. We have become dear friends with some wonderful people who are also about to uproot their families to go and serve those in need.  It has been a great source of encouragement and strength to be in touch with them over the last few months as we all prepare our families and our lives for a move and work in a distant land.  It was wonderful to spend time with them this week in D.C.  If you are so inclined, they are more than worthy of your support.  (Click here and/or here.)

10. On the plane ride home we were surprised to be with two of my law partners, the spouse of another, and the spouse of our newest associate.  It was a Graves, Dougherty reunion.  Also, I had a nice chat with the gentleman sitting next to me on the plane.  We compared notes about planning for our respective upcoming transitions in work and our upcoming moves away from Austin.  (He was recently appointed to a cabinet level post, but I can’t remember which agency – oops.)  He was gracious and kind, and we both wished each other well. 

Thank you for all of your love, encouragement, prayers, and support!  We appreciate you all!

- Doug

'Tis the Season

Whew!  A lot going on these days – here is the latest:

1.  We now have an official countdown to Cambodia!  We depart in 37 days, on Jan. 23, with five one-way tickets.  Our travel takes us through Detroit, Seoul, and then Phnom Penh.  It's roughly 27 hours total, with just three hours in the two connecting airports.

2.  My 22-year career at Graves, Dougherty, Hearon & Moody, P.C. goes on an extended pause as of Jan. 1.  I am grateful for the tremendous support and encouragement of my law partners as we prepare to head on this journey.

3.  Thais and I will travel to Washington, D.C. on Jan. 8 for a week of training with IJM.  We will be with many other IJM fellows who will soon be deploying to fight injustice on a volunteer basis in seventeen different locations around the world.

4.  In January we will have two weeks in Austin for packing up and cleaning the house and packing for our year abroad – one week before D.C., and another after.

5.  In perhaps the best news of the last month or so, the kids have all been admitted to attend a wonderful school in Phnom Penh -- the best and most affordable English-speaking option that was recommended to us by those in the field office where we will be working.  It’s an accredited school that was set up for missionary families, with substantial discounts for those who are serving with a Christian-based NGO.  The kids will have plenty of peers who are there for similar reasons, and the students originate from 30 different nationalities. 

6.  Our house is now on the market for lease.  If you know someone who needs to rent a great family house just 5.5 miles northwest of downtown Austin for 10-11 months starting in late January, please let us know.  Prayers appreciated for a quality tenant, and soon!

7.  Every now and then, intense preparation throws you a curveball.  A recent visit from a plumber resulted in an unwelcome discovery – rotting sub-floor boards under a hallway bathroom.  Our 1950s-era cast iron tub was on the verge of making a most untimely descent through said floor boards.  So, we now have demo work underway on a bathroom, with our house on the rental market and just days before Christmas.  Perfect timing, right?  No place like home for the holidays!  The good news is that our lucky tenants will have a newly remodeled bathroom to enjoy!

8.  Fundraising is going well so far, and we are so very grateful for your support.  We are closing in on the halfway mark for the funds we will need for our volunteer fellowship work with IJM.  Go to our "How to Help" page to make a donation -- the information is toward the bottom of the page.  Thank you so much!

9.  Thais has already gotten her shots -- Japanese encephalitis, typhoid, hepatitis, tetanus -- along with consultation about preventing malaria.  The rest of us will soon follow, once the school calendar gives way to Christmas break. 

10.  Less than two months after it launched, has been visited more than 2,500 times, by more than 1,800 people, and with over 5,300 page views.  (Wow!)  We are so honored to be on this journey with you.  Thank you for being with us, thank you for praying for us, and thank you for being our friends!

11. In addition to the "dialogue sermon" in late October, Thais and I have now given presentations about the fight against slavery and our fellowships with IJM to a number of different groups -- the law firm, our church, the combined children's Sunday school, and a gathering of Austin lawyers. 

12.  After weeks of planning for January while neglecting December, we finally started getting serious about Christmas yesterday.  Tonight we are looking forward to an annual Christmas tradition for our family -- Ballet Austin's production of The Nutcracker.  That should set the stage nicely for Christmas week.   

That's it for now -- we'll stop at twelve.  (And a partridge in a pear tree.)  Have a very Merry Christmas week!

- Doug

The "Austin Lawyer" - An Article and an Invitation

Calling all Austin-area lawyers!  You are invited to a lunch conversation this Friday (Dec. 16) to hear about the global fight against slavery, and how regular folks in the legal profession can get involved to help bring justice to a broken world. 

Thais and I will give a presentation about our plans to spend 2017 working in Cambodia as volunteer fellows with International Justice Mission (IJM).  Then we will answer questions: 

Here are the details.  We will meet at noon this Friday, Dec. 16, at Graves, Dougherty, Hearon & Moody, P.C. -- 401 Congress Avenue, Suite 2200, Austin, Texas 78701.  Please come, and please forward this invitation along to any lawyers you know in the Austin area.  If you do plan to join us, please rsvp to me via email, so we can ensure we will have a right-sized room for the crowd.   

Finally, our dear friend Eric Behrens published a wonderful article for the local bar journal, the Austin Lawyer, about our plans for 2017.  Here is a link to the article, for anyone who may be interested.

Thank you, and we hope to see you on Friday!


A Foot in Both Worlds

Fall is always a wonderfully busy season.  It’s a time for returning to routines and familiar rhythms.  The drudgery of the alarm clock is counter-balanced by the joy of cheerleading, soccer games, and Cub Scout camping trips.  Halloween costumes and gourds quickly make way for turkeys and family gatherings.  Then it all builds to a crescendo of celebration at Christmas.  It is always this way.  The pace can be breathtaking, even exhausting.  But we love it.  Every time. 


It’s safe to say that this particular Fall has been unique.  We have received new and unexpected visitors onto our crowded calendars.  Passport renewal applications.  Closets to clean.  House projects.  Boxes to pack.  School applications and placement tests – for a school on the other side of the world.  And perhaps even more shocking, a new website. 

We are increasingly living in two worlds.  Both demand full attention.  When it starts to seem like more than we can handle (and it does!), we remind ourselves how we got here.  And why we are doing this.  And who we are serving.  We are so grateful we don’t have to rely on ourselves for the strength to stay on track or the peace to keep ourselves together.  

Thanks to so many of you who have helped us, in big and small ways.  And thanks to all of you for your prayers!  For now, please pray for resilience, productivity, and peace as we focus on the present while also planning for the future.  Thank you all! 

- Doug


Thy Kingdom Come...

For the first known blog post in recorded Kilday history, we are sharing the story – what has motivated us to spend 2017 working with International Justice Mission in Cambodia, how we came to this decision, our hopes as we look ahead to next year and beyond, and how this fits with living out "Kingdom values." Many thanks to Thomas Daniel for allowing us to be part of last week’s “dialogue sermon,” and to Whitney Milam for the excellent work making and editing the video. (Unfortunately, Whitney was unable to either put more hair on my head, or make it any less gray.) Thanks as well to all of our dear friends at Covenant Presbyterian Church and elsewhere, for your love and support in this journey. 

Thy Kingdom come, Thy Will be done, on Earth as it is in Heaven!

- Doug

October 23, 2016 Covenant Presbyterian Church Austin, Texas