Brotherly love: Rob Hamill wants justice for brother killed by Khmer Rouge

SUSAN PEPPERELL
Last updated 05:00 05/04/2009

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LAST WEEK a 66-year-old man stood behind a bulletproof screen in the dock of a Cambodian court and said sorry.

"I would like to apologise to all surviving victims and their families who were mercilessly killed," he said.

"It is my hope that you at least leave the door open for forgiveness."

The man is Kaing Guek Eav, a trusted lieutenant of the infamous Pol Pot, and responsible for the deaths of thousands of people during the bloody Khmer Rouge regime. The international community is watching while he and four other senior figures of Pol Pot's rule finally stand trial for war crimes and crimes against humanity as Cambodia seeks to reconcile its past.

Thirty years ago he was known as Comrade Duch, the prison chief in charge of the Khmer Rouge's main torture centre, Tuol Sleng. In Tuol Sleng prisoners were beaten, electrocuted and suffocated. The policy, Duch admitted, was that no one could leave alive. Up to 17,000 people died there between 1975 and 1979. One of them was New Zealander Kerry Hamill.

His brother, sportsman Rob Hamill, wants to forgive Duch. Needs to forgive him. But somehow, he says, he doesn't think he can. Hamill believes the only possible way to forgive Duch is to look inside his heart and find the remorse he suspects is not there.

"As a people if we can't forgive, we shoulder the burden forever," he says.

Right now Hamill can do neither.

BY ANYONE'S standards, Rob Hamill's list of achievements is impressive. He was an Olympian, representing New Zealand at rowing in Atlanta in 1996. He was a silver medallist at the World Rowing Championships, gold medallist at the Commonwealth Regatta and world indoor rowing record holder.

He is probably best known for setting a world record rowing across the Atlantic in 1997 with the late Phil Stubbs.

On land he topped the polls at last year's Wel Energy Trust elections, established the popular annual Great Race on the Waikato River modelled on the famous Oxford-Cambridge boat race, was part of a team who drove a successful $7 million community fundraising campaign to build a new hospice for Waikato, and who initiated a rematch race between Olympic rowers Mahe Drysdale and Norwegian Olaf Tufte in Wanganui after the Beijing Olympics.

He's completed the tough Coast to Coast race several times and, together with wife Rachel, is raising three boys in chaotic country splendour at Te Pahu, on the outskirts of Hamilton.

But for such a goal-driven man, there is one achievement that eludes him. It is a goal he has considered may be forever beyond his reach and one that this year, now he is 45, will take him the closest he has ever been to attaining it. He wants closure although he despises the word on Kerry's death. For this to have even a small chance of success he must go to Cambodia and face Duch in court while the world watches.

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Sometimes Hamill simply can't talk about the impact of what happened to his brother. For someone in demand on the professional speaking circuit, this is a challenge he has great difficulty putting into words. He lapses into silence, shakes his head, waits a few moments, then starts again somewhere else in the story, only to break off again a short while later.

Hamill was one of five siblings. First came Kerry, then John, Peter, Sue, and Rob, the baby. Twelve years separated oldest and youngest.

Now there are three. Kerry died first, then John about 10 months later.

Miles and Esther Hamill gave their five children an idyllic upbringing. They lived by the beach at the Whakatane Heads. If the surf was up, nothing else mattered.

Kerry and John and a bunch of the other kids in the neighbourhood were part of the Heads Gang. They'd build huts up in the hills behind their house, make rafts to float at the river mouth, or turn their dinghies into sailboats and catch the prevailing wind.

Hamill remembers Kerry, like many people do, as a quiet person who was always reading. But he was also athletic, and strong, really strong.

Kerry won a weightlifting competition in the 5th form and was the school swimming champ in the 7th form. He was also, Hamill says, his father's favourite.

Then Kerry left home for Waikato University to study science. According to Hamill he "shot through early, didn't focus and decided to head off on adventures".

He went first to Sydney, and then, after Cyclone Tracy had obliterated Darwin in 1974, he went up there and started a concreting business with another Kiwi. There was plenty of work rebuilding the place and he did that for about two years.

Hamill says he saw his brother only a couple of times after he went to Australia, but Kerry was good about writing home, sending letters regularly, visiting occasionally. Sister Sue remembers receiving parcels of "wonderful" clothes from him when she was about 12 or 13.

After a while Kerry and Canadian friend Stuart Glass bought a yacht called the Foxy Lady. It was an old Chinese junk, beautiful looking, says Hamill. They ran charters all around South Asia, mostly from Indonesia or Singapore, up the Malaysian coast to Bangkok. It was "just a lifestyle that suited him", Hamill says. Sometimes it was the two men crewing the boat, sometimes it was Kerry and his girlfriend, Gail.

There are a few photos of a bearded Kerry and blonde long-haired Gail aboard the Foxy Lady, framed by exquisite scenery. Hamill has one as the screensaver on his computer.

Their last charter was with Englishman John Dewhirst. He'd been teaching in Japan for a couple of years and was travelling through Asia on his way home. He joined the Foxy Lady, with Stuart and Kerry, in Singapore. They were heading for Bangkok from where Dewhirst planned to fly back to England. It was August and Kerry had written to his family that he planned to be home for Christmas.

What happened next was pieced together long after the events of August 13. Hamill thinks a storm blew the Foxy Lady off course, across what is now known as the Gulf of Thailand, to a small island called Koh Tang in Cambodian waters where they took shelter.

In the early evening a Khmer Rouge patrol boat opened fire. Dewhirst, in a "confession" all prisoners were forced to write in Tuol Sleng, described what happened next.

"Shortly after dark I went below to make some porridge and suddenly a boat began to close in on us very quickly. I was about to go up on deck when the boat opened fire and sent some shot over our mast so I stayed where I was and turned on our navigation light. The gunboat came in closer and lit us with its spotlight.

"Stuart was shot and Kerry helped him out to sea in a lifebuoy... Kerry and I went over the side of the boat for safety and waited until the gunboat came in to pick us up. He told me later that Stuart had died and been buried at sea."

Back in Whakatane letters from Kerry stopped and after three months the family began to think something had happened to him. Their best guess was that he had been shipwrecked and Miles Hamill began writing to harbour masters around the South China Sea area asking if the Foxy Lady had been in port at any stage.

Months passed, then a year.

A newspaper article dated October 9, 1979, bears some early indication of the truth. "Bangkok authorities suspect that missing Whakatane yachtsman Kerry Hamill was the victim of Thai pirates operating off the Malaysian coast," it began.

Then in January, 1980, came a bombshell in the form of another newspaper report: "A Whakatane family yesterday received proof that their son, sailing near Kampuchea (the former name for Cambodia) had been captured and executed by the Khmer Rouge in December 1978."

SAYS HAMILL: "I remember that day we found out very vividly."

The neighbours rang and told the family they'd better get the newspaper. Hamill remembers going with John to the shop and the look on the shopkeeper's face.

Sue says it was worse finding out what had happened than not knowing.

"It was such terrible news. We thought he had been lost at sea but it was so much worse."

Documents discovered later revealed Dewhirst was killed first, about two weeks after being taken to Tuol Sleng. Kerry was executed in October two months after being captured.

The discovery of his fate finally enabled the family to hold a memorial service for their missing son and brother. Eight months later, in August 1980, they also had to farewell John. Badly affected by Kerry's death and suffering mental illness, he took his own life. In one of the last conversations Hamill remembers having with him, John spoke of wanting to go to Cambodia to find out more about what happened to Kerry. It planted the seed of an idea that would take three decades to mature.

Meanwhile, family life went from idyllic and carefree to deeply troubled. Hamill says his father's car dealership was struggling, his mother developed bad back pain and shingles and was virtually bedridden. Sue says her parents turned into hermits.

If a similar thing had happened today, Hamill likes to think his parents, and John, would have got the support they needed. But help was not as readily available 30 years ago and the Hamill family found their own, separate, ways to cope.

Cold War politics that saw the New Zealand government officially recognising the Khmer Rouge regime became a great frustration for Hamill's father, who spent many nights writing letters to then Foreign Minister Brian Talboys.

Then Sue moved to Auckland to train as a dental nurse, Peter got married young and Hamill, at 15, turned to alcohol.

"My parents couldn't do anything, they were struggling to cope themselves. I was going to the pub every night, coming home late very drunk and getting up and going to school the next morning."

He did the bare minimum he needed to pass and "had a hell of a good time".

He was, he says, saved by sport and an intensely competitive nature.

And time moved on, weaving a fragile skin over the loss and the hurt.

In 1997, somewhere on the Atlantic Ocean in a boat, rowing day after day, Hamill began to grieve again. Sleep-deprived and under enormous pressure, his mind kept returning to Kerry and John, mourning their loss, stroke after stroke.

Many times since then he thought of going to Cambodia to trace what had happened to Kerry. Then, in 2005, the UN gave the go-ahead for a tribunal to hear war crimes charges against five senior officials from the Pol Pot era and Hamill began to think seriously of going and telling Kerry's story. The trial is being heard in Phnom Penh by three Cambodian and two foreign judges one former New Zealand governor-general Dame Silvia Cartwright.

At this stage Hamill is listed as a civil party to the tribunal proceedings and is planning to address the court on behalf of his brother. No date has been set for this but Hamill thinks it could be July or August. He is also hoping he will come across friends of Kerry or people who once knew him.

A documentary team will be with him. Some funding is coming from NZ on Air and TV3, but more is needed. It's being made by Annie Goldson and researcher James Bellamy, initially alerted to the story after reading a biography of Pol Pot in which the death of a New Zealander was mentioned.

Goldson describes it as a compelling story that she hopes will shed light on the past. "It's a personal journey set against broader issues of political and social justice."

She admits to some apprehension but says you never know how things will turn out until you confront them.

"I imagine it will be pretty tough for us, but particularly tough for Rob."

Hamill has thought about what he may learn and how it might affect him and he is worried the details may be too much to bear. But he is clear about his motives and realistic about what he thinks will be achieved.

"Hope and expectation are two different things. I hope to see some genuine remorse, but I expect not to. I hope to find out more about where my brother is buried but I expect not to.

"And I hope there will be some kind of ending at least in that someone will be made accountable. There are 2 million people dead and no one has been made accountable. There's been no justice whatsoever."

Sue Hamill has a theory about why her brother feels compelled to address the court in Phnom Penh.

"Rob and Kerry were quite alike. Rob is an adventurer and Kerry was too. There are a lot of similarities and Rob has to complete something for himself. He has to do it or it will hang around forever."

Esther Hamill died six years ago and Miles is now in a home but has given his son his blessing.

Rob Hamill stresses he is not going for revenge. "There's a gap in my life. I think of the difference John and Kerry could have made in our lives especially with our kids. Their Uncle John and Uncle Kerry are missing. What a massive loss.

"But I see an opportunity where things can be made better. For ourselves, for my family and for the Cambodian people."

And then he snorts.

"God, how bloody righteous of me."

- © Fairfax NZ News

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