For Khmer Rouge guard, it was kill or be killed

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"We were victims, too," said Him Huy, the head of the guard detail at the Tuol Sleng torture house, who took part in the executions of thousands of people at a Khmer Rouge killing field.

As the prisoners knelt at the edges of mass graves, with their hands tied behind them, executioners swung iron bars at the backs of their heads - two times, if necessary - before they toppled forward into the pits.

"I had no choice," said Him Huy, 53. "If I hadn't killed them, I would have been killed myself."

In the severe and paranoid world of the Khmer Rouge prison, guards and torturers themselves worked under threat of death, and Him Huy saw a number of his colleagues kneel at the edges of their graves for that blow to the back of the neck.

Him Huy, guard and executioner at the most prominent Cambodian torture house, personifies the horror of the Khmer Rouge years, from 1975 to 1979, when at least 1.7 million people died of starvation and overwork as well as torture and execution.

As the trials of five senior Khmer Rouge figures get under way in Phnom Penh, they raise questions about the guilt - or victimhood - of lower-ranking cadre, the people who carried out the arrests, killings and torture, and who are unlikely to face trial.

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