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War photographer paints picture of starving city

As his testimony drew to a close yesterday at the Khmer Rouge tribunal, war photographer Al Rockoff described the lives of Cambodian refugees seeking safety in Phnom Penh in the waning days of the war as the ring of guerrillas around the capital drew increasingly near.

With food prices climbing, he said, those refugees who re­­mained unaffiliated with the few relief organisations working in Phnom Penh were left to fend for themselves, scouring the city for foodstuffs and whatever rice they could glean from odd jobs unloading boats.

“The ones who were not in the refugee camp system were obviously not fed on a regular basis,” Rockoff said. “They foraged for food as best they could.”  

“The barges would come up the river from Vietnam, loaded with ammunition and rice – thousands and thousands of tons of rice,” he went on, noting that many refugees worked as day labourers at the docks. “They would wear a long-sleeved shirt, and there would be a funnel in their hand that would funnel rice down and it would drip down into their sleeve. I have photos of people with very thick jackets, like a down jacket, that were full of rice.”

The rice, Rockoff continued, was supplemented by everything from wild plants to tree bark. “Anything edible in Phnom Penh disappeared,” he said.

As the Khmer Rouge troops came within range of the city, Rockoff testified, the shelling that so many refugees came to Phnom Penh to escape came as well.

“I saw many refugees living in parks, moving to different parts of the city as the Khmer Rouge were shelling Phnom Penh with 107mm rockets,” he said. “You would have rockets come into a part of Phnom Penh with many refugees, and there would be an exodus.”

When they finally entered the city, Rockoff said, many Khmer Rouge betrayed their provincial roots – regarding Phnom Penh with awe, even in its state of disrepair.  

“I have many photos of the Khmer Krahom on 17 April looking at things in amazement,” he said, using the local term for Khmer Rouge. “At the intersection of Monivong and Sihanouk Boulevard, a truck came by and dropped off ice and sodas, and many of the Khmer Rouge hadn’t seen ice in a very long time, if ever.”

However, his interaction with the incoming victors was limited to mutely hitchhiking on commandeered trucks, Rockoff told the court, recounting a story about a ride past the US Embassy with a Cambodian student who was also catching a ride.  

“He was laughing at me, and saying, ‘Oh, you American, you American,’” he said. “I didn’t want to have that interaction. That was probably the closest personal interaction [with the Khmer Rouge], and it was nerve-wracking.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Stuart White at stuart.white@phnompenhpost.com

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