Residents remember the fall of Phnom Penh on the anniversary of Cambodia’s Year Zero
When the Khmer Rouge entered Phnom Penh 43 years this week, there were still Khmer New Year offerings out in front of many people’s homes.
The sound of guns and bombs, which had been heard for days, had disappeared. The sun was shining brilliantly on the capital, but few seemed to grasp the city, and soon the rest of the country, was about to fall into its darkest period.
On Thursday, April 17, 1975, Khmer Rouge forces overthrew the government of General Lon Nol and took control of Phnom Penh, beginning a forced mass eviction of its residents to the countryside, a march that claimed the lives of many and for survivors led to a life of forced labour and fear under the watchful eye of a ruthless regime.
The ghost city of that day is difficult to imagine now, with Phnom Penh once again a bustling and dynamic urban centre. But for many residents, memories of the Khmer Rouge’s arrival will never fade. To mark the anniversary of the fall of Phnom Penh, Rinith Taing spoke with a collection of people about their experiences that day, which changed the trajectory of their lives in different but devastating ways.
A deadly bike trip
A 21-year-old medical student at that time, I was living with my aunt along with my older sister who was a nurse at Ong Doung Hospital and seven other relatives.
At 8 in the morning I saw Khmer Rouge soldiers entering the neighbourhood (Boeung Keng Kang), and like most of my neighbours I went out to greet them with a white flag in my hand. The soldiers were all dressed in black, dirty clothes, and their expressionless faces were covered with dirt and mud. Most of them were carrying guns, from pistols to rocket launchers, while others were driving military jeeps or tanks.
After a while I was back in my house and turned on the radio, which was the main source of information at that time. On the national station there was a special broadcast, starting with a short speech from Samdech Huot Tat, then the Supreme Patriarch of Cambodia.
He was asking all Cambodians to stop living in fear and unite to rebuild the country. Afterwards, he handed the mic over to a senior military official who gave a similar speech but added that “we are negotiating with brothers and sisters on the other side”. Suddenly, he was cut off by a Khmer Rouge cadre, who shouted: “We won thanks to our weaponry, not negotiation!” At 9am, our neighbours told us that the Khmer Rouge had ordered everyone to get out of their houses.
Curious about the new era and worried about my relatives, I got on my scooter and rode to the houses of my two uncles in TuolKork. I ran into a group of about 50 Khmer Rouge soldiers. They were celebrating their victory by shooting their AK-47s in the air.
Along the way I saw many other shocking sights – soldiers pointing their guns and shouting at people, piles of guns which Khmer Rouge cadres ordered to be handled by residents, and looters taking whatever they wanted. What shocked me most were the piles of discarded riel banknotes at Central Market, which I was too afraid to pick up.
Next morning we were travelling on National Road 6, where we saw dead bodies. We ran into one of my friends who had a gun being pointed at him by Khmer Rouge soldiers because he was wearing a jacket with an American flag on it. We told him to take it off, and they let him go.
I will never forget that trip. I felt the Khmer Rouge were like foreigners, but who spoke the language of guns.
‘Some Khmer Rouge were good people’
On April 16, my fiancee Chin Borin was asking for my mother’s blessing before he went to fight against Khmer Rouge forces in Kandal.
But the next morning Borin ran to my house on Mao Tse Toung Boulevard wearing only his underpants, crying that “the Khmer Rouge took over!” He said Khmer Rouge soldiers had forced him to put down his weapon and stripped him of his uniform.
At around 9am, we saw black-shirted soldiers entering our neighbourhood, looking ferocious with their weapons.
Amid the fear and confusion, my cousin’s son wandered out of the house to play. He was seen by two Khmer Rouge soldiers who were standing guard. One of them shouted, “There are still people in that house!” Then he pointed his gun inside and threatened us to get out or he would shoot. We had to follow his order. When we were out, the other soldier told his comrade to put his gun down and stop threatening us, and spoke to us gently.
He said to my mother, “Auntie, we will have to leave the city for three days. Please bring as much rice and other food as you can.”
We had already prepared emergency packages in our house, and that soldier’s kindness gave us the chance to get them. We did not have much rice or gasoline, but what we had with us helped us a lot in the next few days. I realised that at least some of the Khmer Rouge soldiers were good people, and might not have wanted to harm us.
We were ordered to head east until we reached Kampong Thom, where we stayed until 1979. Anyone who refused was shot in front of us. Even the children selling snacks in the street were shown no mercy.
Although a Khmer Rouge soldier helped me and my family, I detest the Khmer Rouge and their ideology. April 17, 1975 was a day that my family and I literally went to hell alive.
To survive meant following orders
I was only 13 when Khmer Rouge forces entered my neighbourhood. Along the road people were celebrating the end of the war. Many tried to make conversation and shake hands with Khmer Rouge soldiers but it was not successful. They kept their faces stern and did not even show a little friendliness to us. I became a little nervous, so I went back to my house.
At around 5 in the evening I was feeding my pigs at the house my family rented when I heard Khmer Rouge soldiers shouting that we had to leave our houses or we would be shot. This announcement caused confusion, but we did not dare to oppose the order from the soldiers with angry faces. Those who refused to leave really were killed.
Five of us headed north on National Road 5. Having not prepared, my parents only could bring a little rice and few clothes with us. We were always hungry over the next few days, and we could have starved if Khmer Rouge cadres did not give us some rice.
On the crowded road I had to step on and over corpses, some rotten and full of maggots. In a mosquito net on the side of the road, I saw the dead bodies of several Lon Nol soldiers. Although we had been through three years of war, this was the first time I saw something like this.
Those who were identified as soldiers from the old regime were killed at once in front of us, so were those who attempted to go back. We saw the people falling into bloody pools, and we did not want to be the same. We kept our faces down and kept walking, always following orders from Angkar.
‘Why do they need to clean our house?’
I was only five or six on the day that the Khmer Rouge forced us to leave the city. One of things I remember was that they told us, “Leave for three days because we are going to clean the city.”
I was holding my mother’s hand as she, my brother and sister and I set off for Svay Rieng, my mother’s hometown. The sun was very hot, and our trip was very difficult. I was crying, asking to go back to our home in Tuol Tompoung.
I said, “Mum! Why do they need to clean our house for us? We can clean it ourselves.” She covered my mouth with her hand, telling me to stop speaking or they would cut my throat. But I did not stop speaking until I saw the black-shirted soldiers with their guns.
I saw them kill people who opposed them. They showed no mercy even to the smallest children. One of the soldiers grabbed a baby by its leg and slammed it into a palm tree. I can still see that cruel image today. I still don’t understand what they meant by “cleaning the city”, but I am sure that they were not cleaning our houses.