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On April 17, fear before the fall

On April 17, fear before the fall

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In the 38 years since the Khmer Rouge captured Phnom Penh, many of the city’s then-residents have recalled their short-lived relief on April 17, 1975, that the fighting was finally over.

Youk Chhang, director of the Documentation Center of Cambodia, said yesterday that he felt comforted for “maybe a few hours”, because the Khmer Rouge victory had finally ended the chaos of the civil war.  

“The ending of the war, to hear no sound of the guns, no explosions any longer – it felt very peaceful,” said Chhang, who was 14 at the time, adding that this feeling ended when Khmer Rouge soldiers forced residents to evacuate the city.

Cables from the US embassy in Phnom Penh sent before April 17, published by WikiLeaks last week, show reasons why residents might have felt relief upon the Khmer Rouge victory – soaring food prices, tens of thousands of refugees and heavy fire in and around Phnom Penh.

On March 4, 1975, US Ambassador to Cambodia John Dean telegrammed Washington that the day before “a total of 23 rockets fell in and around the airport and the city.

In the latest attacks a total of 19 persons were killed and 15 wounded. The worst of these was a rocket that impacted directly in front of the Monorom Hotel in Central Phnom Penh.”

On April 10, Dean reported heavy mortar fire to the city’s west and east, and warned: “as of 5 P.M local time, the situation along the northern defenses of the city has become critical.”

US personnel were evacuated less than two days later; many of the Cambodians that stayed through the final battle for the city were happy to receive the Khmer Rouge soldiers, said Pin Yathay, who was 31 at the time.

“I saw the first KR soldiers on the street. We were lining on both sides of the road, clapping our hands to cheer the arrival of the soldiers. Although these people did not crack a smile, we congratulated them warmly,” Yathay told the Khmer Rouge tribunal in February. “We hoped that peace would be brought to us and we would live happily.”

These hopes, of course, were quickly dashed. Although the Khmer Rouge told residents they only had to leave for three days because of food shortages and the threat of American bombing, the evacuation was really a move to control the population, Chhang said, paving the way for four years of starvation and executions.

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